How to create stunning dyes from your garden plants

Posted By: Alexandra Campbell On: March 27th, 2016 In: Garden style & living

Did you know that you can make literally hundreds of dyes from your garden plants?

As you harvest your first rhubarb of the year, don’t throw the leaves into the compost.

Boil them up to dye silk and wool. You’ll get wonderful natural colours. Or use them as a fixative for other plant-based dyes from your garden.

Carrot, parsnip and rhubarb dyes

Carolyn uses rhubarb leaves, both as a dye colour and a fixative for other plants such as parsnip or globe artichoke dyes.

Carolyn, a former lawyer, is ‘mapping her garden’ in natural dyes. She and several friends are working their way round their gardens, trying out each different leaf, root and flower.

Purple carrot dye on

Carolyn keeps a notebook recording the effects of the different plant dyes on different fabrics.

They experiment with boiling and steeping every plant, leaf and flower in water to see how it works as a dye. The results are stunning, natural hues and delicate patterns.

Rhubarb and elderberry dyes on silk and wool

Silk and wool dyed by Carolyn with home dyes made of rhubarb, parsnip and elderberry.

Carolyn and her husband have recently built themselves a corrugated-iron house in a eucalyptus forest in the Central Highlands of Victoria, Australia. The dappled light of the trees casts stripes across their deck, and Carolyn uses the leaves to dye her fabrics.

Eucalyptus as a natural dye

They built their house in a eucalpytus forest.

Kitchen units made of recycled floor boards

Inside, Carolyn has used as much recycled material as possible – these recycled floorboards have been used to make the kitchen units, too.

The eucalyptus forest

The eucalyptus trees tiptoe right up to the deck. Carolyn uses their leaves and bark as a dye. Carolyn and her family accept that one day the forest may catch fire and consume their home. If that day comes, they will get into a car and drive away – too many people in the area have died trying to defend their properties from the intense, fast-travelling forest fires.

Carolyn’s veg beds – for food and dyeing

Carolyn also grows vegetables familiar to British and North American gardeners, such as rhubarb, parsnips, onions, red cabbage and salad.

But growing vegetables isn’t easy in this part of Australia. Each bed is heavily protected by several layers of chicken wire and netting from the possums, wallabies, kangaroos and parrots.

‘There won’t be any middlesized garden here,’ says Carolyn. ‘It would look like a prison camp.’

Rhubarb protected by chicken wire.

The veg beds are isolated islands, protected by chicken wire. Carolyn still manages to grow delicious salads as well as dye ingredients.

Corrugated iron house

The rest of the ‘garden’ is mainly forest floor.

Red cabbage

Red cabbage – for eating and dyeing…

Her favourite trees for dye are cotinus, elderberry, eucalyptus and silver wattle, but she also makes dyes out of parsnip, rhubarb, red onion and other garden plants.

The rest of the land remains as forest, although Carolyn does experiment with planting shrubs and trees, accepting that what the drought doesn’t get, the kangaroos will.

Studio

Carolyn’s studio is another corrugated iron building.

Carolyn’s studio is brightly painted and rich with fabrics and found objects. Shelves are piled up with the fabrics she experiments with. There are huge tables to work at, a stove for cooking up the fabrics and plastic laundry baskets for drying herbs like dyer’s chamomile.

Dyer's chamomile drying out

Dyer’s chamomile drying (not the same as the tea kind)

Inside Carolyn's studio

Carolyn’s studio has a great use of colour

Calm interior

But I couldn’t resist showing you this, too – not everywhere is colourful though. A corner of this bedroom is in peaceful neutrals.

How to use the leaf’s natural pattern

Carolyn showed me how she keeps the outline of the leaf on the piece of fabric.

Leaf patterns dyed straight from the leaf

The leaf patterns come straight from the leaf.

She lays, for example, a cotinus leaf on a piece of wool or silk, wraps both tightly round, a piece of wood and binds it tightly into place.

Wrap strips of fabric around wood and bind tightly

Wrap strips of fabric around a piece of wood and bind them tightly.

She then heats it up in water. The vats are either heated on the stove or simply left outside in jars to stew in the hot Australian sun.

Cotinus leaves on paper

Cotinus leaves on paper.

She then leaves the vat or jar to steep. The result is a beautiful leaf shape on the fabric or on paper.

Using the fabric

This method of making dyes from garden plants tends to result in quite small pieces of fabric (although you could brew larger ones). Carolyn stitches the resulting pieces together in a patchwork and has even made the outfit she wore to her son’s wedding last year out of the fabrics.

Hand-stitched, hand-dyed

‘I’ve moved over to hand-sewing and away from using a sewing machine,’ says Carolyn. ‘It’s somehow more satisfactory.’ She dyes the thread with the same natural plant dyes.

How long do dyes from garden plants last?

Handmade dyes like these aren’t as long-lasting as commercial dyes but Carolyn uses fixative (mordant) made of rhubarb leaves,bracken  or tin.

Tin scraps used as fixative

Carolyn gathers up scraps of tin from wherever she finds it, boiling it up to use as fixative.

She gathers up all the scraps of tin she finds in the forests, and also uses tin cans, brewing it all up in the same way.

vintage metal bedheads

Vintage metal bed-heads hung in the car port.

Use old kitchen pots and pans to make dyes from garden plants

Various pots and pans – just ordinary cookware – used in the dyeing process.

Mordants or fixatives are usually used in the preparation process.  Once you have your mordant (of rhubarb leaves, tin or bracken), steep or boil the fabric in it as a first process. Sometimes mordanting can be used to modify the colour afterwards. For instance, mordanting afterwards in an iron solution will make a colour greyer – a process call ‘saddening.’ Or if you want to make it brighter, you might post-mordant it with washing soda. You can research all these processes online – there’s lots of information out there.’

Will the dye last in the wash?

‘If a fabric is properly dyed, it will withstand washing in the usual way for a fabric of that kind,’ says Carolyn. ‘If it doesn’t then it’s not properly dyed! I take my fabric from the dye pot, squeeze it out, dry it naturally. Once dry, I then wash it in soap and water and dry again. It’s only then that you can decide how the dyeing process went.’

Which fabrics to use?

The material you use affects the intensity of the fabric and how long it lasts – ‘Protein-based fibres such as wool and silk take natural dyes much better than cotton or linen,’ says Carolyn.

Elderberry plant dye

Elderberry used in different ways.

Her dyeing ‘guru’ is India Flint who travels all over the world, giving workshops on dyes from garden plants and who has also written several books on dyeing and caring for cloth. India Flint’s blog and books can be found here.

Garden dyes on wool.

Rhubarb, parsnip and elderberry and other garden dyes on wool.

Carolyn keeps careful notebooks of her results, and isn’t afraid to try any plants in her garden. She and her friends don’t do the dyeing to sell but hope to have an exhibition of their work at some point in the future.

A record of the plant-based dyes

Keeping notes of what works and what doesn’t.

Corrugated iron house

One last look at how the house sits in its landscape…

And now we’re back in England, where at least I can grow my rhubarb without having to protect it from kangaroos and wallabies. It’s been a wonderfully inspiring trip – there is lots for a middle-sized gardener to discover in Australia.

For a very different Australian garden – a Victorian wilderness with tree palms, rhododendrons and camellias – plus fascinating and very useful tips from garden expert Stephen Ryan, see here.

And please do spread the word about dyeing from your garden plants by sharing this using the buttons below – thank you! I’d love to hear if anyone in the UK is doing it.

2 Comments

  • Cathie Millar says:

    A wonderful rendition of Carolyn and Tim’s story. These two friends have created a marvelous bush retreat. Their home is one of genuine integrity. Intrinsically beautiful, it is a true inspiration for those who hold natural beauty to their hearts. A joy.

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