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Natural-Dyeng-art - 5/26/13


"An Introduction to Natural Dyeing" by Maistreas Siobhan nic Dhuinnshleibhe, O.L.


NOTE: See also the files: dyeing-msg, dye-list-art, Int-Dyeing-FC-art, Intro-2-Wool-art, mordants-msg, textiles-msg, washing-msg, p-bleach-fab-msg, green-art.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org



You can find more work by this author on her website at: http://webpages.charter.net/siospins/


An Introduction to Natural Dyeing

by Maistreas Siobhan nic Dhuinnshleibhe, O.L.


According to Webster's dictionary, dyeing is "the process of coloring fibers, yarns or fabrics by using a liquid containing coloring matter for imparting a particular hue to a substance." Natural dyes can be broken down into two categories: substantive (direct) dyes become chemically fixed to the fiber without the aid of any other chemicals or additives, such as indigo or certain lichens; and adjective (mordant) dyes require some sort of substance (usually a metal salt, also known as a mordant) which helps the dye attach securely to the fiber to prevent the color from washing or fading out.


There are a wide variety of factors that can affect the color that results from your natural dyeing experiences, but don't let this alarm you! Not all of these are applicable to all dyestuffs, some dyes will be more sensitive to these factors than others, but most of these factors are easily controllable.




   Type of fiber - some fibers will take certain dyes better than others, other fibers require special processes in order to get color to adhere to them at all. Be sure to investigate to see what you need to do to a fiber to have it take the color you want before putting it into the dyepot!


   Cleanliness of fiber - any residue on a fiber, like lanolin on wool or sericin on silk, will affect its' ability to absorb color. In some cases, the dye may bond to the residue instead of to the fiber itself, so when you go to wash your fiber you will wash the dye right out with the oils.


   How the fiber is processed - unspun fiber will take dye differently than spun yarns. Dyeing fibers prior to spinning can lead to some variegation in color of your final yarns if you did not completely scour your fibers and they dye did not absorb fully. For example, when dyeing wool in the lock the tips will often absorb more color that the roots, but carding it prior to spinning can eliminate some of the variegation when you spin the fiber. If you dye roving or yarn you usually get less variegation in color if the fibers are scoured and secured properly prior to dyeing.


   Ratio of fiber to dyestuff in bath - if you use too little dye, you will get weaker colors. If you use too much dye, you will get full dark colors, but you will have excess dye in the bath and should "exhaust" the bath (put more fiber in and dye them to absorb the excess dyestuff) before throwing it out.




     Species and variety of plant - while some plants may share the same name, different varieties may give different colors in the dyepot, and some will give no color at all! Before you harvest or purchase a plant for dyeing, be sure to check to make sure you have the right plant, or else you may get a surprise in your dyepot.


     Purity - is the dye 100% pure dyestuff, or have any "fillers" been added? This was a big problem in the Middle Ages when unscrupulous dye sellers would employ tricks like adding brick dust to madder or dirt to logw000d sawdust to make the buyer pay for more dyestuff than they actually got and thus turn a greater profit. When using fresh dyestuffs, make sure you have only harvested dyestuff and have cleaned them well, as weeds and dirt can contaminate your dyepot.


     Growing conditions of the plant, time of year and age of plant when harvested - the type of soil the plant grows in, the climatology of the region where it grows and any environmental pollutants can dramatically affect the color it produces. Some plants give off a stronger color if harvested in the spring, some are more potent if harvested in the fall. Others will only produce color in the first few years of their growth, others will not produce color until they have reached maturity.


     Dried vs. fresh - Some plants give off better or a different color when dried, others work better when used freshly harvested. (With some dyes you can only purchase them dried so it's not an issue, but with others it can make a world of difference!)


     Preparation - some dyestuffs need to be soaked for a while to release the color, or ground up before being added to a dyebath. Others will release their color as soon as you add them to water and heat them. Some are in liquid or solid extract form that requires no preparation whatsoever.


     Type of mordant used - different chemicals used to fix dyes to fibers can alter color. Traditionally, alum tends to brighten colors, iron saddens colors to blue/gray tones, copper saddens to green/brown tones, and tin brightens colors.


     When you mordant - some dyers choose to mordant their fibers before they dye them, so they can achieve several colors from the same dyebath. Others will mordant in the dyebath itself, so they should only achieve one color from the vat, whereas others prefer to soak the dyed skeins in mordant after dyeing, which can change the color.


     Type of dyepot used - if you are using any type of dyepot made of anything but save stainless steel or glass, or are using an enameled pot, the metal of the dyepot itself can act as a mordant and affect the color you get. Using a copper pot or an iron pot will affect the dyes as if you had added these chemical mordants to your dyebath, so choose your dyepot carefully.




     Chemical composition - is your water from a well or spring? Does it come from the city where they add certain chemicals to it to purify it or make it potable? Is your water hard or soft? Does your water have a lot of trace minerals in it? Water you buy from the store may give you a different color than the water that comes out of your tap, simply because of the chemicals present in the water, even if you use the same quantity of dyestuff, same pot and same fiber.


     pH - The acidity or alkalinity of the water you use to wash and dye your fibers can affect the results you get. Simply by lowering or raising the pH can change the color of your dyebath, and washing your fibers in a cleaning solution that has a different pH can change the color or your fibers. Even after your dye your fibers, you can put them in a rinse of ammonia or vinegar and get a color change


     Temperature of dyebath - Some dyes give better colors if they are steeped or simmered, others must be boiled in order to release their best colors.


     Alterants - you can "rinse" a color after it has been dyed in an alkaline or acidic rinse to alter the color you got in the dyepot. Simply by changing the pH, or by adding another metal salt as was done in the mordanting process, can give you even more color possibilities.




Once you've decided what you're dyeing, what you're dyeing it with, and what mordants you'll need, you need to have the equipment to do it! Many of these items are listed below. PLEASE don't use good cooking pots and implements - some of the dyes, even though non-poisonous, will stain your good cookware - others are harmful and can really make you sick! If natural dyeing becomes something you really enjoy, consider investing in a set of equipment specifically used for dyeing. Most of these are inexpensive, or can be purchased second-hand at a variety of garage sales and thrift stores.


Plastic (or stainless steel) measuring spoons & cups

to measure out your dyestuffs, mordants, etc.


Small postal scale or cooking scale

to weigh quantities of fiber, dyes, etc


Plastic (or stainless steel) strainer or colander

to strain plant matter from the dyebath


Rubber gloves and apron

to protect your hands and clothes


Wooden chopsticks

to stir your fiber in dyebath


Mild detergent or Orvus paste

to wash your dyed fibers without leaching color


Various paper towels, towels, rags, etc.

for cleaning up during and afterwards


Tags/labels/plastic ties/waterproof marker

            to mark what you've done



            to write down recipes and keep notes


Sink with hot/cold running water

for rinsing/washing/soaking fibers


Plastic buckets/basins

lots of reasons!


Other useful equipment to have can include:


Plastic (or stainless steel) funnel

            to filter, add chemicals or pour into bottles


Cheesecloth, cotton filter bags or old pantyhose

            to put dyestuff in to prevent having to filter the dyebath


Stainless steel tongs

            to lift fiber from dyebath


Knives and/or scissors

            for cutting yarns, dyestuff


Mortar and pestle

            for pulverizing/grinding dyestuffs


Large-mouth glass jars

            for mixing small quantities, pre-soaking dyestuffs


Cooking thermometer

            to monitor dyebath temperature


Pot holders

            to protect your hands


Glass 2 cup measuring cup

            to check color of dyebath and make sure particles dissolve completely before adding to dyebath


And last, but certainly not least, you need your dyepot! The dyepot itself should be of stainless steel, enameled metal, or glass so as not to react with the mordant chemicals and any chemicals present in the water, which will affect the color you get on your fibers. If you use copper, aluminum, tin or iron, the metal cations will interact with the dyebath, no matter what mordant you many have used, and will affect the color you get as if you had added them as a mordant themselves.




   Clear your working area of all food and beverage items to prevent contamination of your dyes, and any accidental ingestion of your dyestuffs!


   Go ahead and lay out all your materials and equipment out beforehand, so you don't have to leave a dyepot unattended or inadvertently knock something over while dying searching for a forgotten item.


   Wash all of your utensils and equipment! If you washed them after you dyes the last time, they just may need a rinsing to remove any accumulated dust - but some dried dyestuffs, especially mordants, can leave residue that can affect a future dye bath if your equipment is not clean.


   Make sure you are using enough fiber to complete your project - it is always better to have some yarn left over than to be short and run the risk of achieving a different color with a subsequent dyeing.


   Make sure your dyepot is big enough for your project! All the fibers in the dyepot should be able to move freely in solution and should not be compressed or packed in tightly. Don't put too little water in a large dyepot or too many fibers in a small dyepot.


   Keep a dyer's journal and document what you did and how you did it. There are so many variables that can affect your color that reproducing additional fiber in the same shade to finish a project can be difficult, depending on which dyestuffs you are using. In the event that you do need to reproduce your results, you have a much better chance of success if you have recorded the proper information. (A sample page of a dyer's journal is included near the end of this handout.)


   Scour your fibers thoroughly before dyeing - any residue on the fibers, like lanolin on wool or sericin on silk, can affect the fiber's uptake of your dyebath.


   Make sure your fibers are completely wetted before immersing in a dyebath, so that they take the dye evenly.


   If you are dyeing roving, place it in a pair of old nylon stockings or in a lingerie bag to avoid felting. Try to use natural-color stockings, as some of the darker shades have dye or tannins that can affect your color results.


   If you are dyeing yarn, skein it before dyeing and tie it in several places so it will not become a tangled mess from being heated and stirred in your dyepot. Tie each skein three or four times with undyed cotton yarn, or 100% acrylic yarn. Some sources recommend taking the yarn and making it a loose figure 8 so that your skein is divided roughly in half, others just recommend tying the ties in a loop around the entire skein width. However you choose to tie your skeins, don't tie them too tight! If the ties are too tight or snag on something in the pot and are pulled taught, the dye will not be able to penetrate the enclosed fibers and you will get streaks of the undyed color on your yarns.


   If using different mordants in the same dyepot, make sure to rinse your fibers thoroughly with water before immersing them in the dyepot to remove any excess mordant. Too much of one mordant might contaminate the other skeins, and you won't get true colors. It helps to have some sort of id system (2 knots in a cord for alum,

three for tin, 4 for copper, etc. or use a different color tie yarn) so you can identify which skeins were mordanted with what chemicals after you dye them.


EXHAUST YOUR DYEBATHS! No, don't take them on a marathon run - use all of the dyestuff out of them that you can before disposing of them. You may get lighter shades, or different colors altogether, and you can use different fibers to help absorb all the excess dye. Not only do you get your money's worth out of them, it's less dyestuff that you are pouring out into the environment!




In order to get the best colors possible on your fibers, it's always a good idea to clean them first! Washing, or scouring, your fibers prior to dyeing will help them take the best color possible, regardless of if your fiber is in unspun, spun or in a fabric form. You can use a color-free dishwashing liquid, (especially if you can find one that is pH neutral), Orvus paste, or a variety of commercially-prepared cleansers to scour your fibers. As a general guideline, one tablespoon of cleanser to two gallons of water is usually a good cleansing solution. When washing and rinsing your fibers, be very careful not to change the temperature too rapidly or you will "shock" the fibers and cause them to mat together or damage them. Protein-based fibers are especially prone to this, so it is always a good idea to put your fibers into warm water and bring them to the appropriate heat setting when dyeing, then allow them to cool before washing or rinsing.




Cotton contains a lot of waxes and oils that need to be removed prior to dyeing. To scour cotton, immerse it in your cleansing solution and simmer the cotton on the stovetop for an hour, or put it in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave it for 10 minutes and allow it to cool. Don't be surprised if your soap solution is dark in color and you need to repeat the process - some cotton is just dirtier than others. Rinse the cotton several times in successively lower temperature water baths to completely cool the fiber. Once the water is soap-free, spread the cotton out to dry, or add it to your mordant or dyepot.




Wool contains a lot of lanolin, and often vegetable & other "trash" matter that should be removed prior to dyeing. To scour wool prior to dyeing, fill your sink with water as hot as you can stand if the wool is greasy, or with warm to hot water if not as greasy or already spun into yarn and add your detergent - just try not to let it get too sudsy. Add the wool, then let it soak for 15 minutes or so. Try not to handle raw wool too much, as it will be prone to felting. (Placing your raw wool in a single layer into mesh laundry bags or old nylon stockings can help them get clean without running the risk of over-agitation.) Rinse your wool several times in water, lowering the temperature a little bit with each one so as not to felt the wool, then spread the wool out to dry or add it to your dyepot. Sometimes scouring with your stock cleansing solution just won't cut the grease, especially for high-lanolin breeds like ramboullet or merino. You may need to add a tablespoon or two of pennyroyal extract to your washing solution, or use a cleanser specifically designed for removing lanolin on wool.




Silk can be scoured in the same manner as wool and can be cleaned in any form, with the luxury of not felting like wool can with rapid changes bath temperature. Scour silk in your washing solution and let it soak for 15 minutes or so, then rinse several times in successively lower temperature water. Once the water is soap-free, spread the wool out to dry or add it to your dyepot. If the silk has a slightly vegetable or fishy-smell, there is a high quantity of sericin present in the silk that can often make it feel very gummy - it may require additional scouring to remove it completely so that the dye will take evenly. Place a pot of water on the stove with detergent, add the silk, and bring the water to a simmer for an 30-45 minutes without letting it boil, then allow it to cool and rinse thoroughly to remove this excess sericin.




Linen, like cotton, contains some plant oils that should be removed prior to dyeing. To scour linen, mix your cleansing solution in a cooking pot and add the linen. Simmer the bath for one hour, then allow to cool. You can


also leave linen to soak in water for an hour or so and then wash in hot cleansing solution as you would any other fiber without cooking it on the stove. Rinse well and add to your dye or mordant pot, or spread out to dry to mordant and dye later.




There are a wide variety of natural dyes available to home dyers in a variety of forms. You can collect them from your own garden, purchase them from health food stores or order them on-line in any form from the fresh plant or bug to a highly concentrated extract form. The type of dyestuff you get and the form you get it in will partially determine how you prepare your dyebath, so a few guidelines and hints are listed below.




For fresh plants, you typically use one pound of fresh plants per pound of fiber to be dyed, but recipes can vary. The time of year, the growing conditions and seasonal weather can all affect the colors a dyestuff will produce, so the same plant will not necessarily give the exact same color from year to year because of growing conditions. Young shoots and leaves should be collected in the springtime, leaves and flowers while blooming and throughout the summer, bark in the summer (Be careful not to harm the tree by removing too much bark from a single tree or from one particular area on the tree. If you are able to find a recently felled tree or branch, collect your dyestuff from there!), berries in the fall when ripe, and roots also in the fall. Collecting from live plants should be done with care, remembering to do as little damage to the plant as possible and leaving enough of the plant(s) behind to thrive and reproduce. Store your freshly-harvested herbs in cardboard boxes or paper bags so that air can circulate and prevent them from rotting. If you're going to use them in the next few days, you can put them in vegetable bags in the refrigerator, once you've rinsed them off well to remove any dirt or bugs. If you won't be using them for quite some time and you need to use them "fresh", you can try freezing them - just know that some dye plants don't freeze as well as others. To dry your plants, you can tie the plants in bundles at the base of the plants and hang them to dry in a cool, dry place away from sunlight.




Many natural dyes are sold in the dried form, or you can harvest and dry fresh plants by hanging in a cool, dry place and stored until you are ready to use them. Just as with fresh plants the time of year, growing conditions and seasonal weather can all affect the colors a dyestuff will produce. Dried dyestuffs may need to be soaked in water anywhere from a few hours to a week for the color to be released from the dyestuff. Increasing the surface area that the water comes in contact with can help speed up this process, so you may want to grind your dyestuffs with a mortar and pestle to break them up prior to soaking. (A coffee grinder that you don't intend to use for coffee anymore also works quite well, especially for the more woody dyestuffs like root and bark stock.) Some dyers prefer to put their dyestuff directly in the water to soak, then use a strainer or filter to remove the dye particulates prior to dyeing. Others prefer to place the dyestuff in a muslin bag, tea ball, nylon stocking or some other device to keep from having to strain the dyebath. This is fine, so long as the container holding the dyestuff is porous enough and large enough to let the dye escape into the water, and you will have to stir the bath more often to distribute the dye throughout the water.




Some dyes, such as logwood, cutch or indigo, will be in a more concentrated powdered or resin form. Just as with dried dyestuffs, you might want to grind them first so they will dissolve in the dyebath more easily. You can also dissolve the dyestuff in a smaller quantity of water before adding it to the dyebath. Dissolve the resin or powder in a glass jar filled with warm water and stir frequently so that you can see when all the dyestuff dissolves, then pour it into the dyebath and stir well before adding your fiber. As always, check the recipe you are using for any specific directions particular to the dyestuff you are using.





Most natural dyes are adjective dyes, and do require the application of a mordant (metal salt) solution to the fibers at some point in the dyeing process. Mordanting prior to dyeing ensures that the colors take better, brighter, and are more colorfast. It does take more time than mordanting in the pot or afterwards, but it allows you to use several different mordants on your fiber and put them all into the same dyepot to get different color results.


If you are not looking for different colors from the same dyepot, you can put the mordant directly into the dyebath with the dye and the fiber. While this does save time, it allows you to only achieve one color from a specific dyepot unless you are dyeing different fibers in the same pot. In order to use the recipes below for this type of dyeing, pre-determine the dry weight of the fiber you are dyeing and add the appropriate amount of chemical to the dyebath.


Keep in mind that using dyes and mordants does require some care, but use common sense.


            Read the labels on the chemicals you use so you know what you are dealing with, and what dangers the chemicals you use may pose to yourself or the environment.


            Wear rubber gloves to protect your hands from chemicals and taking on the color of your dye.


            Work in a well-ventilated area and avoid breathing in dust particles from your dyestuffs or fumes from dyepots.


            Make sure that the equipment that you are using is strictly for dyeing and not equipment that you use for normal cooking - you don't want to inadvertently poison yourself just to have colored yarns!


Here are a few hints and cautions on mordanting and mordant chemicals:


            All of these recipes can be multiplied or reduced to suit the amount of material you have - the ones listed below are all based on one pound of material, be it raw, roving, yarn or cloth, and are intended to be used for mordanting the fibers prior to dyeing them.


            There are two types of alum: potassium alum, which is used as a mordant; and pickling alum, which is ammonium alum. Pickling alum can be used in dyeing but tends to make wool sticky. Potassium alum tends to give brighter colors and facilitates more colorfast colors in the dyepot than pickling alum.


            Iron, or iron sulfate, is also known as "copperas." Iron is a harsh mordant, and can cause fibers to deteriorate over time. Iron tends to sadden colors, darkening them with blue and gray tones and making yellow tones greener.


                Copper tends to sadden colors, giving colors a greenish or brownish cast. Copper Sulfate is extremely poisonous and irritating to your skin.


              Tin was a very expensive mordant, and not used until the early to mid 17th century. Tin brightens colors, but tin can be harmful to plant life and septic systems, so use care when disposing of your bath.


              Chrome, or potassium dichromate, is not a period mordant and was not used commonly in dyeing until the beginning of the 20th century. Chrome does help make dyes brighter and faster on wool and mohair and can often impart a soft, silky feel, but it is highly toxic. Several international organizations have considered banning it from use among their members because of its toxicity.


              Tannin is sometimes classified as a mordant, although it is usually considered an assistant chemical in the dyeing process of cotton. Tannin is also used as a dye itself, often producing yellows, grays or blacks. Concentrated Tannin solution is mildly poisonous and irritating to your skin.


              Because of their color, copper sulfate and iron sulfate will sometimes impart a blue tint for copper or orange or beige tint for iron (the same color they turn the solution) onto your fibers that will not wash out with a soap solution. This is perfectly normal for these mordants, especially on protein fibers, so don't be alarmed should you see this.




Alum - Dissolve 4 tablespoons alum (and 1 teaspoon cream of tartar for wool) in enough water to cover your fibers and simmer for one hour on the stove. When finished remove the wool from the bath, rinse it well and allow it to dry or add it directly to your dyepot.


Copper - Dissolve 1 teaspoon of copper sulfate (and 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar for wool) in hot water and stir until all the copper is dissolved. Add enough water to cover your fibers and simmer in this solution for one hour. Rinse well, then allow it to dry or add it to your dyepot.


Iron - Dissolve 1 teaspoon of iron sulfate (and 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar for wool) in enough water to completely cover your fiber. Simmer fiber in this bath for 30 minutes, then wash in a mild detergent and rinse thoroughly. Allow it to dry or add it to your dyepot.


Tin - Dissolve 1 teaspoon of tin (and 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar for wool) in enough water to completely cover your fiber. Simmer fiber in this bath for 30 minutes, squeeze out the excess solution back into the mordant solution, then rinse thoroughly and allow it to dry or add it to your dyepot.




As cotton is a cellulose-based fiber, it requires a slightly different process to get the dyestuffs to adhere to the fibers. Allow cotton and linen fibers, roving or yarn to soak in water for an hour or so until it they are completely wetted throughout, then proceed with mordanting.


Alum - Place fibers in a warm bath of 4 tablespoons alum to enough water to freely cover your fibers and simmer for one hour. Remove them from the alum bath and set it aside for later use. Squeeze the fibers to remove any excess mordant bath, then add them to a warm bath of 2 tbsp. tannic acid powder to enough water to cover your fiber and let it sit for at least three hours. Remove the fibers and squeeze any excess mordant bath from them, then place them back into the original alum bath and let it simmer for an additional hour. After this final mordanting, rinse the fibers in water and allow them to dry.


Copper - Place fibers in a warm bath of 1 teaspoon copper sulfate and enough water to cover your fiber. Simmer in solution one hour, then squeeze out excess liquid. Rinse well, then allow it to dry or add it to your dyepot.


Iron - Dissolve 1 tablespoon iron sulfate in enough water to completely cover your fiber. Simmer fiber in this bath for 30 minutes, then rinse the fiber very thoroughly. Allow it to dry or add it to your dyepot.


Tin - Dissolve 1 teaspoon of tin and in enough water to completely cover your fiber. Simmer fiber in this bath for 30 minutes, squeeze out the excess solution back into the mordant solution, then rinse thoroughly and allow it to dry or add it to your dyepot.




The pH of your water can be a significant source of alteration in your dyebath. pH is defined as the concentration of either hydrogen atoms or hydroxide molecules present in your water, which determines how acidic or basic (alkaline) your water is. Some dyestuffs give their best colors in a dyebath that is more acidic or alkaline, so having some way to measure the pH of your water (pH strips or aquarium pH kits work fine) and your dyebath will allow you to make the necessary changes to get the richest colors possible. Usually, as long as the pH of your dyebath is between 5.5 to 8.5, you should not see a dramatic change in your color.


Acidic - For the purposes of dyeing, "acidic" is usually considered to be a pH range from 1-5. In order to reduce the acidity of your water, you can add washing soda, household ammonia, a commercially prepared pH- up solution (available in pool or aquarium supply stores) or finely ground chalk in small amounts to bring your solution to a neutral or alkaline range. (Caution: adding ammonia to a heated dyebath can be dangerous, as ammonia fumes can be toxic to humans. Ammonia is best used as an after-dye alterant to affect color rather than in an active dyepot.)


Alkaline - "Alkaline" is usually considered to be a pH range from 9-14. In order to reduce the alkalinity of your water, you can add white vinegar, lemon juice, crystalline citric acid or commercially prepared pH down chemicals to bring your water to a neutral or acidic range.


Sometimes, a change in color is precisely what you're looking for. Alterants (or rinses), are usually defined as a chemical solution used to purposefully change the color of a fiber once it has completed its initial dyeing in the dyebath. Rinses can deepen or lighten shades of color from the dyebath, or can change them completely depending on the chemical you use.


Ammonia - Rinsing with ammonia to increase alkalinity usually intensifies or deepens colors, although with some dyestuffs it can lighten colors or change the colors completely - a lot depends on the original shade that the fiber was dyed, the strength of the ammonia rinse, and how long the dyed fibers stay in contact with the ammonia. Use caution with ammonia not to let the fibers soak for an extended period, as alkalis can be harsh to protein-based fibers like wool and silk.


Washing Soda - Washing soda, known as sodium carbonate (borax) can be used to make a dyebath more alkaline, and can often be used prior to dyeing to assist in scouring the fibers clean of any dirt. Washing soda often brings out blue tones in some dyes like alkanet.


Vinegar - Vinegar, or acetic acid, will increase the acidity of a solution, and often yellows fibers. It is occasionally added directly to dyebaths in order to neutralize very alkaline water so as not to affect the color. Acids often yellow the shades of colors from the dyebath, but they can be harsh to cellulose- based plant fibers, so try not to leave them in a vinegar rinse for more than 5-10 minutes. As soon as you see the color you want, go ahead and remove it from the rinse and wash them thoroughly.


Just as using alterants or after-bath rinses can change the colors you get from the dyepot, so can merely washing your fibers after you've dyed them if you're not careful! It sounds odd, but it's true - and it can be a very disappointing experience to see the beautiful color you got out of the dyepot change before your eyes in the space of a few short seconds. If your rinse water is too acidic, merely rinsing the excess dye will change your color - so will washing your dyed fiber in soapy water that is too alkaline! Before you rinse your fibers or plunge them into soapy water, check the pH and make sure that you won't lose your beautiful colors by trying to lose your excess dye.




The actual method of dyeing depends on the dyestuff being used. In general, most dyestuffs are added to sufficient water to cover the fiber and simmered on the stove for an hour or so. The clean, prepared fiber is soaked in plain water, squeezed to remove any excess, and added to the dyepot to simmer for an hour or so. When the desired depth of color is reached the fiber is removed from heat and allowed to cool, then rinsed and washed with a mild detergent to remove excess dye, and allowed to dry.


Below are listed some more in-depth steps to get you started. Be sure to check your recipe first to make sure which of these steps are necessary for each particular dyeing session.


1)    Before you dye, tie your yarn into skeins to keep them from tangling, or place roving and fleece into mesh bags to keep them from felting during the cleaning and dyeing process. If you are going to use several different mordants in one dyepot, make sure you have marked your fibers so that they can be identified by their mordants. Some dyer use knotted cords to indicate which mordants were used - one knot for alum, 2 knots for copper, three knots for iron, etc. You can also use plastic plant tags with the special markers that are waterproof sold in garden shops, different colors of plastic twist-ties, different colors of yarn - use your imagination, and write down how you marked them so you can identify them later.


2)    Clean your fibers to remove any excess dirt, grease or oil that might interfere with the dye's ability to take up color. This process is called scouring. Dissolve some mild detergent in warm water and let your fiber soak. Moving them around to allow the surfactants in your soap to get maximum coverage. Do not handle the fiber too much, or else they might felt or mat together, especially if you are using unspun or woolen fibers. Rinse your fibers well in the same temperature water, and repeat this washing as often as necessary until they are clean.


3)  Mordant your fibers if you are going to pre-mordant them before dyeing, according to the type and weight of fiber you are dyeing and the color/chemical combination you are looking for.


4)  Prepare your dyebath from the dyestuffs selected, depending on the weight of the fiber being dyed and the type of dyestuff you are using:


              If the dye is in powder or extract form, the fiber can be added directly to the dyebath as soon as the dyestuff particles dissolve into solution. (Any particulates that did not dissolve in the initial preparation of the dyebath can be rinsed from the fiber after the dyeing is completed, or you can strain the bath to remove them before you put the fiber in the dyepot.)


              If the dyestuff consists of plant matter, the dyestuff can be ground, chopped, pulverized or crumbled and steeped or soaked in hot water to extract the dye (depending on what your recipe calls for), or placed in a mesh bag (nylon, cotton, etc.) and left to soak in the water so you won't have to filter out the dyestuff.


              If the plant matter consists of woody stems or roots, they may need to be soaked overnight in water. When you are ready to dye, add more water to this mixture if necessary to allow your fiber to move freely - you are not diluting the dyebath, since the amount of dyestuff is proportional to the fiber being dyed and not the quantity of water in the dyebath.


5)    Simmer the dyebath on the stove for an hour or so - check the specifics with the dye recipe you are using to see if it will take more or less time. If you did not use a filter bag, strain the bath to remove any dyestuff and rinse out the dyepot to remove any remaining particulates, then return the dyebath to the pot. If you did use a bag or strainer to hold your dyestuff, remove it and skim the surface of the water to remove any particulates that may have escaped.


6)    If you are not pre-mordanting your fibers and intend to add the mordant directly to the dyebath along with the fibers, remove a small quantity of the dyebath into a cup or jar and add your mordant, stirring until it dissolves completely. Add the mordant mixture to your dyebath and stir it well to let the mordant dissolve throughout the solution.


7)    Let the dyebath cool for a few minutes, then add your wetted fibers and submerge them in the dyebath. Stir the dyebath gently so that all fibers have a chance to absorb the dye, but be careful not to agitate the fibers too much to prevent felting.


8)    Slowly bring the bath and fiber up to a simmer, but don't let it boil unless the recipe calls for it in order to prevent damaging the fibers and color. Continue to stir your dyebath occasionally in order to prevent uneven dyeing or streaking, and simmer the dyepot until the depth of color you want is reached. Remember that your dyeing time can be as short as 15 minutes or as long as several hours, depending on the shade of color you want - be sure to pull your fiber and check it often. You can always pull a few locks of fiber or sample strands of yarn out of the bath and rinse them to make sure you get the color you want, as the color will appear darker in the dyebath than it will after it's rinsed and dried.


9)    Use either stainless steel tongs or chopsticks to remove your fiber from the bath and let it drip over the pot for a few moments, then transfer it into your sink or put it in a strainer/colander to let more of the dyebath drain from the fiber.


10) Rinse your fiber thoroughly. You can reduce your cooling time by rinsing in hot water then slowly lowering the temperature of your rinse water, or let the fibers dry on a rack or in the pot. (If you let the fibers cool in the dyebath your fibers may get darker the longer they're in the dye.)


11) Once your rinse water is mostly clear, go ahead and wash your fibers in a mild detergent, then rinse again and allow to dry away from sunlight on a rack or pole, or in the sink or shower. Some dyers prefer to block their fibers by adding weights, others prefer to let them hang free - either method is fine.


12) If you have multiple mordants in the same dyepot, make sure you re-label which skeins are which, or at least note their position on the drying rack so as to prevent confusion later!


13) Most importantly, TAKE NOTES OF WHAT YOU DID! Pictures never hurt either, and are very pleasing to look at in documentation. Here are some sample things that you might want to include in your notes for later reference:


     Name of dyestuff used

              Form of dyestuff used (resin, fresh plant, dried wood, liquid extract) If plant, what part of the plant used, and if personally harvested, where from

              Preparation of your dyestuff - soaked, simmered in bag, added to dyebath, and how long

              Mordant(s) used, and when mordanted (before, during, after)

              How long fiber in dyebath

              Colors obtained (it never hurts to include a small sample of your results - you never know when you'll want to try and re-create that color again!


Some dyestuffs (indigo, for example) require preparation methods that differ from the ones mentioned above - it never hurts to do research and compare dye recipes to see which ones you would prefer to use. Experimentation never hurts either and can be quite fun - I have found that some recipes will give better colors on some fibers than others, or certain quantities work better than others.



This is an example of the type of entries I have in my dyer's journal, as mentioned in step 13 above. Feel free to use this type of form, or modify any way you wish to suit your own style of record keeping!



(Sample entry page)


Date:   October 11, 2001


Dyestuff:        Cochineal


Source:            Earth Guild - purchased February 2001


Preparation of dyestuff:         Ground 2 ounces of cochineal bugs in coffee grinder, then added to dyepot and simmered on the stove for one hour. Strained dyebath to remove cochineal bug bits, then placed dyebath back into pot.


Fiber being dyed:        One pound of merino wool


Source of Fiber:           Purchased from Jane's Fiber & Beads at SAFF 2000.


Preparation of Fiber:   Handspun 2 ply merino skeined into four 1/4 pound skeins. Fiber scoured in warm water with liquid Ivory soap, then rinsed and allowed to dry.


Mordant used (if any):           Alum on two skeins, Iron on two skeins - both pre-mordanted prior to dyeing.


Additive used (if any):            None


Recipe:            Water added to previously prepared cochineal dyebath to bring quantity of dyebath up to five gallons of dye. Placed on stove and brought to a simmer. Wool thoroughly rinsed in warm water and added to dyebath, allowed to simmer for one hour. Wool allowed to cool in dyebath for 30 minutes, then strained to remove excess dye.


Dyebath temperature: 120 degrees F


Post-dye processing:  Wool rinsed in warm water, then washed with Orvus paste and rinsed. Wool yarn allowed to soak for 20 minutes in a warm water bath with 2 tablespoons of Suave lavender hair conditioner added to moisturize wool, then rinsed and allowed to dry.

Results:           with Alum                    with Iron:


                                    (attach alum sample yarn)                  (attach iron sample of yarn)






Use three ounces (7 tablespoons) of brazilwood sawdust for each pound of fiber to be dyed. Bring the wood and dyebath to a strong boil for one hour. Strain out the sawdust and add any water to give you a sufficient quantity of dyebath. Add your fiber and simmer gently for one hour, then allow to cool and rinse thoroughly.



Use two ounces of cochineal bugs (1/2 cup) for every pound of fiber to be dyed and allow them to soak in water overnight, or chop them in a coffee grinder for immediate use. Add enough water to cover your fiber and bring the dyepot to a strong boil for 30 minutes, then let the dyebath cool. Strain the dyebath to remove the bug bodies, add your fiber and simmer for one hour, then allow the fiber to cool before rinsing.



Use six ounces (one cup) of henna powder per pound of fiber and simmered it for at least an hour. Let the dyebath cool slightly and filter the dyebath to remove any particles of henna powder to prevent uneven dyeing. Add your fiber and simmer an additional hour, then allow to cool.



Use 1/2 ounce (two tablespoons) of powdered extract per pound. Add the powdered extract d simmer in enough water to cover your fiber for one hour. Add fiber and simmer an additional hour, then allow to cool.



Soak 2/3 the weight of madder roots as fibers to be dyed overnight in water. Simmer the dyebath gently for one hour to extract the color and allow the bath to cool a bit. Strain the bath to remove the roots, then add your fiber and heat gently - stay below a simmer for reds, as heating too much will dull the color or turn them brown - for an additional hour then remove from heat and allow to cool. You can also let the fiber steep in the strained bath overnight, or until a desired color is reached, without further heating on a stove.



Use four ounces (one cup) of turmeric powder for each pound of fiber to be dyed. Simmer the powder in enough water to cover your fibers for one hour, the allow the solution to cool. Filter the solution though a coffee filter to remove the turmeric particles, then add your fiber and simmer an additional hour, then cool and wash in a pH- neutral soap solution. No mordant is necessary, and this can be used on all protein and vegetable-based fibers, although mordanting the vegetable fibers with tannin will help the color stay a bit longer.





This name is perhaps a misnomer, for most of these dyes were used throughout history but not to near the extent that the dyes in the previous section were. The recipes for these dyes will be in a different form than those in the previous section, as these will be dealing with weight ratios of fiber to dyestuff instead of being measured by cups and tablespoons. I chose to list these recipes in weight ratios so that, no matter what form your dyestuff is in, you can adapt these recipes to the quantity of fiber you're dyeing and still get good results.









Use equal weights of chamomile to fiber (or more for stronger colors) and simmer them in water for at least an hour. Strain the dyebath to remove the flower particulates, then add the fiber and simmer an additional hour. Remove the dyebath from heat and allow the fiber to cool in the dyebath for best color.



Use equal weights of fresh flower heads for the quantity of fiber to be dyed. (You can also use the leaves and flowers together for slightly greener shades of yellow.) Boil the heads in enough water to cover your fiber for an hour, then allow the bath to cool. Strain out the heads and add your fiber, then re-heat the solution to just below a simmer for one hour. Let the fibers cool in the dyebath for deeper shades.



For more yellow shades, use equal weights of the flowers only to fiber to be dyed. Heat the flowers in your dyepot on a stove for an hour, but don't bring the dyebath above a simmer. For greener shades, use equal weights of the entire top of the plant to weight of fiber and simmer for one hour. Remove the flowers/leaves and steep the fibers in this dyebath until the desired color is reached.



Use a quantity of onion skins equal to 1/2 the weight of the fiber to be dyed. Yellow, white and red onion skins give almost the same color (unfortunately!) so you can use them individually or mix them together, whichever you prefer. Simmer them in enough water to cover your fibers for one hour, then add your fiber and simmer an additional hour, then let the fibers cool in the dyebath.



Gather pokeberries when they are fully ripe - it will take a gallon of pokeberries to dye four ounces of wool. Mash the berries and immerse them in a solution of one part vinegar to four parts water and leave them for at least 24-48 hours to ferment. After fermenting, pour off the liquid and add one more part vinegar to the solution, then heat the dyebath to no more than a simmer for at least an hour. Allow the fibers to cool in the dyebath, then squeeze out the excess solution and allow the fibers to dry overnight without washing or rinsing them. The next day, rinse the fiber well, then wash them in a mild detergent and allow them to dry.




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Copyright 2013 by Heather McCloy <siospins at charter.net>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited. Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, please place a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


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