Garden Planning

What do garden plans have to do with fiber? Well, it’s time to get the dyer’s garden started back up. Check out what can happen when you combine fiber and plant material:

naturally dyed locks

(L to R: undyed, Japanese Indigo, Marigold, Weld, Cosmos, Cosmos overdyed with Madder exhaust, Madder)

Is dyeing with plants time consuming? Yes. Is it worth it? I think so:

naturally dyed yarn

If you are unfamiliar with dyeing with plant material, there are three basic steps (after you grow the plants of course!):

  1. The fiber is treated with a metallic compound so the dye sticks to it. This process is called mordanting.
  2. Dye is extracted from the plant material.
  3. The fiber is dyed.*
    * Note: Some dyers do Steps 1 and 3 simultaneously.

Mordanting is a straightforward process, but you need to have a healthy respect for chemicals and know how to use and dispose of them properly. Typical mordants are aluminum, copper, iron, and tin. I use alum (aluminum sulfate). It’s the same compound used to lower soil pH around acidic soil lovers like rhododendrons, blueberries, and hydrangeas. By using alum, the mordant water can be disposed of around plants that are happier with a lower pH (something I would be doing for my plants anyway).

Back to this year’s garden plans.

pic of Coreopsis


I have a few perennials that can be used for dyeing: Coreopsis (Coreopsis grandiflora), Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida), and Hops (Humulus lupulus). The new addition this year is Madder (Rubia tinctorum), a relative of Sweet Woodruff. Because the madder’s roots are used for dyeing, the plants have to be at least 3 years old before the roots can be harvested. This year my madder plants will be ready!

pic of Hops vine and yarn

Cascade Hops and yarn dyed using hops leaves and vines

The annuals in this year’s plans are Cosmos (Cosmos sulfureus), Marigold (Tagetes patula), Weld (Reseda luteola), Japanese Indigo (Polygonum tinctorium), Purple Basil (Ocimum basilicum), Golden Marguerite (Anthemis tinctoria), and Sunflower (Helianthus annus). Japanese indigo has given me great results, but this year I’m also trying Indigo (Indigofera tinctoria).

pic of Sunflower and yarn

Sunflower ‘Moulin Rouge’ and yarn dyed using sunflower petals

I first learned about natural dyeing in Rita Buchanan’s book, A Dyer’s Garden. It’s a tiny tome that’s packed with information!

A Dyer's Garden book cover

In A Dyer’s Garden, Ms. Buchanan covers the process for natural dyeing including how to mordant, and gives basic recipes for dyeing protein (e.g. wool) and cellulose (e.g. cotton) fibers. There’s also a section that covers dyeing with Indigo, which is a process different from that used to dye with most other plant material.

The last section of this book profiles each dye plant. In this section there are descriptions of the plant, how to grow it, and how to dye with it (i.e. which part of the plant can be used). You also get to see the colors obtained from a given plant using different combinations of fibers and mordants.

pic of Japanese Indigo

Japanese Indigo

Are you ready to get your garden started? Here are some places that offer seeds and/or plants for a dyer’s garden.

Botanical Interests, Inc.
Companion Plants
Fedco Seeds
J.W. Jung Seed Company

Thanks for reading! As the growing season commences, look here for more talk about natural dyeing.

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