Many of the plants we grow like lavender, nettles, goldenrod, and elderberries can be used as natural dyes for fabrics like cotton, linen plus wool and silk. Use this starter guide to begin creating botanical dyes from your garden.
For a sample recipe also see the lavender dye recipe here.
The lavender fabric dyeing recipe and images from the book
Seasonal Plant Dyes by Alicia Hall
are used with permission from the publisher.
How to Dye Fabric With Plants
Have you ever wanted to dye fabric or wool using the plants in your garden?
The new book Seasonal Plant Dyes by Alicia Hall walks us through the process featuring plants to use at their peak in spring, summer, autumn, and winter to create an array of gorgeous colors and textures only natural dyes can achieve.
First, let’s go through some frequently asked questions about natural plant dyeing to provide a good overview of how it works and what to expect.
There is also a sample recipe for dyeing with lavender leaves here.
If you want fabric dyeing instructions for tie-dyeing or bright bold colors, see Fabric Dyeing 101: Simple Instructions for Beautiful Fabrics.
1What supplies do I need to dye fabric with plants?
Dyes can be made from flowers, foliage, stems, bulbs, or roots, depending on the plant. You can also use various fruit and vegetable scraps like carrot tops and avocado seeds and countless other items from the natural world.
What you use for dye depends on the color desired, although the color of the plant part does not necessarily correspond to the dye color. For example, blue Buddleja flowers create bright yellow dye.
The recipes in the book provide plant options for a variety of colors.
You may have suitable plants already growing in your garden (see list below) or you might forage for them in the wild—if it is legal and ethical.
|Plant||Color||Part to Use|
|Alder (Alnus glutinosa)||Greenish light brown||Cones|
|Bay (Laurus nobilis)||Terracotta pink||Leaves|
|Buddleja (Buddleja)||Bright yellow||Flower heads|
|Dahlia (Dahlia)||Browns with yellow, orange, red undertones||Flowers|
|Dyers alkanet (Alkanna tinctoria)||Purple||Roots|
|Dyers chamomile (Anthemis tinctoria)||Yellow||Flowers|
|Elderberry (Sambucus)||Purple / gray||Berries|
|Forsythia (Forsythia)||Golden / mustard yellow||Flowers|
|Goldenrod (Solidago)||Greenish yellow||Flowers|
|Ivy (Hedra helix)||Greenish gray||Leaves|
|Madder (Rubia tinctorum)||Red||Roots|
|Mint (Mentha)||Yellow||New leaves and stems|
|Nettle (Urtica diocia)||Bright to olive green||Leaves|
|Rosemary (Rosmarinus)||Gray / purple||Leaves|
|St. John’s wort (Hypericum)||Terracotta pink / red||Flowers|
|Walnut (Juglans regia)||Browns from light to very dark||Shells|
|Woad (Isatis tinctoria)||Indigo blue||Leaves|
|Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)||Greenish yellow||Flowers|
Love nature-based crafts? You might also enjoy Naturally Crafty—see it here.
Fabric or Wool
Natural fibers tend to dye best, and the thicker the fabric, the more dye it can take up.
Your fabric choices will depend on your personal preferences, ethics, and environmental concerns.
- Animal sources: silk, sheep’s wool, mohair (from angora goats), angora, cashmere.
- Plant sources: cotton, linen (from flax plants), hemp, raffia (from palm leaves).
- Semi-synthetics including rayon, modal, bamboo (made from wood or seaweed and chemically-modified) and rayon (made from chemically-treated wood pulp).
- Synthetics like polyester, nylon, and acrylic (derived from oil or coal) are not recommended.
Fabrics from animal sources tend to dye more brilliantly than plant-based fabrics due to the natural proteins in the fabric that bond with the dyes.
TIP: Check thrift shops for inexpensive fabric to dye.
The beauty of dyeing with plants is that results vary depending on the specific plants used, fabric composition and preparation, and the dye process.
The more you experiment, the more you will get familiar with the unique characteristics of each plant. But even then, expect the unexpected: it is an unpredictable art form.
Also, you don’t have to start with white fabric: plant dyes are transparent so they build on the color below. A yellow fabric dyed red will appear orange. If a fabric has a printed pattern, the pattern will still be visible after plant dyeing.
TIP: When selecting fabric to dye, be sure you know the composition. Sometimes blends like poly-cottons are labelled as cotton and will not take dye the way a pure natural fabric will.
All supplies must be dedicated to crafting and dyeing and never be reused for food preparation.
- Saucepan – aluminum in pots can act as a mordant
- Wooden spoons for stirring – one each for yellows, reds, greens
- Sieve or colander
- Tea towels or muslin fabric to strain dyes
- Spare bowl
- Protective gloves, mask, glasses if any noxious plants or powders are used.
Get the book here: Seasonal Plant Dyes
2Are plant-dyed fabrics colorfast or washfast?
Will these fabrics run or fade?
This does not have a yes or no answer.
It depends on the dye color (plants), fabric, and dyeing method.
Some plant-dyed colors are much more enduring than others.
In the book, Alicia uses soya milk both as a mordant (to help the dye stick) and a modifier to improve color results. She likes the soya milk because it works without changing the texture of the fabric.
Almond milk also has a protein that works nicely as a mordant but soya milk is less expensive. Either way, the milk can be reused for preparing multiple batches of fabric until it spoils.
If you have followed the instructions carefully, there should not be excess dye in the fabric after the final rinse.
Ultimately, if your plant-dyed fabrics fade over time—from sun or washing—you can always re-dye them.
4How long does it take to dye fabric with plants?
This is not an afternoon project.
There are several basic steps with hands-on tasks and longer waiting periods in between.
Overall, one dye project will likely take place over several weeks but your time spent actively on it is moderate: an hour here and there.
Some time is spent overseeing the dye pot (saucepan, water, plant dye, fabric) gently heating on the stove. Additional time off the stove allows further color absorption.
Fabric Dyeing Steps
- Wash fabric before dyeing to remove any finishes.
- Soak fabric in soya milk for 48 hours for better results.
- Air-dry fabric for one week to allow milk proteins to cure.
- Collect plant materials. Some colors use smaller amounts of plant materials, others require a fair volume. The good news is you can store them in the freezer until needed.
- Dye the fabric. Finally! Depending on the color, your fabric may sit in the dye pot for days or weeks to achieve the desired intensity. The good news is nothing is going to be ruined if you have to leave it for a period of time.
Caring for Plant-Dyed Fabrics
- As a general rule, use a gentle soap in cool water.
- Hang to dry, not in direct sunlight. This will protect the dyed fabrics that are vulnerable to fading.
See How to Grow Lavender for a complete growing guide.
For complete instructions (with lots of gorgeous photos), grab a copy of the book and start exploring all the dye possibilities growing in your garden.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛