How to create stunning 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
How to use the leaf’s natural pattern
Carolyn showed me how she keeps the outline of the leaf on the piece of fabric.
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.
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.
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 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.
‘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 home-made dyes 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.
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.
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.
Her dyeing ‘guru’ is India Flint who travels all over the world, giving workshops and who has also written several books on dyeing and caring for cloth. India Flint’s blog and books can be found here.
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.
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.