I’ve always been fascinated by colors, and I love the idea that the beautiful pigments of the plant world can be used to dye a variety of handcrafted items. As a soap maker, I only use natural colorants, and often look to my herb garden for shades of green, red, brown and purple. Not every plant can used for dyeing. Some of the most brilliantly colored flowers and plants don’t transfer their pigments to cloth or soap, even with a fixative, a natural substance used to hold the colors. So how do you know which ones to use, without harvesting your entire garden?
Fortunately, people have been experimenting with and using plant dyes for thousands of years. Some, like indigo, became so valuable, cubes of it were used as money in 18th century America. These age old practices make information about dye plants, fixatives or mordants and processes readily accessible in a number of books and internet sources (some listed below). There are also many sources for purchasing dried and/ or powdered herbs to use in natural dyeing, such as www.botanicalcolors.com.
What could be more fun than dyeing with plant material? For me, both an herbalist and gardener, the answer is growing a garden of dyer’s herbs to use for soap and fabric dyes. There are even a number of plants that are commonly regarded as weeds, and can be readily found growing wild in many areas, including urban settings and foraged responsibly. These include nettles (be careful harvesting these–stinging nettles is a very accurate name!), pokeweed and yarrow.
If you want to grow plants in your own garden for dyeing, start with a few that are easy to grow. Those listed below are readily available as seed or plants in many garden centers. There are many other dye plants you can purchase via online sources, once you become somewhat experienced, and want to pursue natural dyeing in more depth.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis) makes a great orange color in soap, and is one of the few herbs that holds its color in cold process soap. Many herbs, including mint, rose and lavender, turn brown during the saponification process.
Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) Creates a light grey to blue dye on wool.
Coreopsis (Coreopsis grandiflora)-When used with alum as a mordant, coreopsis flowers produce a yellow dye.
Parsley Petroselinum crispum)-Makes a nice green in cp soap, and a bright light yellow on wool with alum as a mordant.
Purple Basil (Ocimum basilicum purpurescens)-Produces a dark brown on fabric when pretreated with alum.
Cosmos-yellow (Cosmos sulphureus)-Orangey color from wheat to burnt orange to brown on fabric. Requires alum.
To look at some soaps that have been naturally colored with herbs and clays, visit: www.bluelotusbotanicals.com
There are many more details and procedures to follow than can be briefly discussed here. Two recommended books that discuss dye plants for fibers are :
A Dyer’s Garden: From Plant to Pot: Growing Dyes for Natural Fibers. by Rita Buchanan. Interweave, 1995
Harvesting Color: How to Find Plants and Making Natural Dyes. by Rebecca Burgess. Artisan, 2010.