DIY Projects

How to Select Locally Available Plants that will Dye Clothes & More

Have you ever taken a walk on a beautiful, sunny day and noticed not just the flowers, but “weeds” as well and then wondered if they had any uses other than creating yard work? In summer along the road there is always an abundance of Queen Ann’s Lace, (parent plant of the domestic carrot, by the way) Dandelions and others. Being a curious hiker, the road that I traveled led to the local library to research natural dyes. Guess what? Queen Ann’s Lace, now classified by the USDA as a noxious weed, was brought to North America by colonists for a source of food, medicine, and dye plants. It will yield a lovely chartreuse lime green dye on wool and silk.

Queen Ann’s Lace

A hobby of mine is to go to resale shops and purchase light colored, natural fabric clothing and dye them using natural plant materials from the yard and kitchen. Everyone has had tea and coffee stains on a shirt or tablecloth so why not take advantage of that fact?

Many of the materials needed to dye natural fibers are also available in your kitchen cabinets: dyes, mixing bowls, and a cooking pot. I do have a separate set for dye pots, however, because some of the plants may be toxic and you wouldn’t want a residue of something bitter or toxic in your oatmeal later.

This is a list of the basic materials needed to dye fiber:

  • Used enamel or stainless-steel pots; old bath canners are best.
  • Glass or plastic measures.
  • Enamel colanders or cheese cloth to strain out plant material.
  • Old wooden spoons, dowel rods or sticks
  • Rubber gloves.

Crafters and artists are always looking for different ideas to make and produce new projects that make a statement. Many “fiber” people dye their own wool in custom colors for sweaters, hats or felting projects. There are some time-tested things to know about fabrics and fibers.

Dye wool, linen, silk, cotton, wood, and hemp fiber, all natural (not man made) fibers are suitable to home dye. Synthetic fabrics will not work as the dyes won’t “stick” to the fabric. In fact, natural non-oil-based dye just runs off polyester and nylon. Rayon is the exception as it is a cellulose by-product, but the fabric must have a pre-mordant soak. New fibers like bamboo and banana, etc., that are natural in origin will work as well but also need the pre-mordant bath and lots of experimentation.

Natural dyes need to be “set” into the fibers using something called a “mordant”. In the old days fiber was dyed and fixed with mordants like copper sulfate that were toxic. The “go-to” mordants considered safe to use are alum (potassium aluminum sulfate), table salt (sodium chloride) or vinegar (acetic acid) to “set” the dye. Alum is the best and the least toxic of the mordents that have traditionally been used in dyeing fibers. Vinegar and salt can also be used according to the recipes. Tea, coffee, and other dye materials that contain tannic acid do not require a mordant as they dye and set in the fabric with the tannic acid only. The colors range from light tans to dark browns. A crafters trick is to boil lace in tea or coffee (or both together) that will give it the “old lace” look; this can also save a white silk blouse or sweater with a stain sometimes.

An interesting side note, iron nails, rusted in vinegar, can also be used as a mordant too. The problem with using iron oxide is that if you want a fabric to be around in 100 years or so, iron molecules will “rust” the fabrics, rendering them brittle. Just ask the folks at a museum trying to save an historic quilt.

You will need a large amount of Queen Ann’s Lace to get started. I start with a half gallon of flower heads, roots, whatever you are using as the pigment source. Dying fiber is a chemistry adventure. Different dyes will yield different colors when different mordants are used and the plants themselves have unexpected pigment colors reacting to different mordants. For example, dandelion root will produce a magenta color with alum mordant and yellow with vinegar. That is the fun part of experimenting with plants and mordants as the unexpected always happens.

Any plant material that is used for a natural dye project will have to be in the 1/2-to-4-gallon quantity. A five-gallon enamel bath canner pot is an ideal size to use when working with natural dyes. All the materials need to be boiled for 20 minutes to an hour to extract the pigments. Some people work outside over campfires and propane camp stoves. This is a good idea in summer or fall because of the heat generated.

In a separate pot, place the fabrics and or fibers into a pre-mordant warm bath. The fibers that you want to dye need to be cleaned and soaked in washing soda, rinsed, and placed in an alum mordant solution bath before the dye bath.

This process will require 3 pots, one for the dye, one for the wash bath, and one to pre mordant. To dye a fabric or fiber, place it in the dye pot after washing and mordant baths. Boil the dye bath (with the materials) for an hour. Deeper shades require more boiling or after the initial boil, remove the pot from the stove then let it cool and soak over night. As you can see this process requires some patience.

Vegetable and Weed Dye Plants List
Item  Color Produced
Purple CabbageBlues and Purples
Onion Skins  Yellows and Browns
Coffee & Tea  Browns and Tans
Turmeric  Yellows
Indigo  Blue
Madder  Reds
Rag WeedYellow/Green  
Queen Anne’s Lace  Chartreuse
Dandelion Leaves, Flowers & RootsGold, Yellow, Green & Magenta

Oak Trees, Zinnias, Solomon’s Seal and Black-Eyed Susan, nuts, barks, berries, mushrooms, lichens, roots, and fruits are just some of the other materials that can be used to dye fibers.

A Discussion of Dyes

Plant dyes or any other dye materials have molecules that reflect light in certain color ranges. As an example, a blue dye over a yellow dye will yield green in the finished fabric. Dying fabrics and other natural materials is acid/base chemistry. Think back to high school chemistry as well. Vinegar is pretty safe, however.

Dye plants are not always non-toxic. I always use a good plant field guide whenharvesting plants. Poison Ivy and Deadly Nightshade are not good dye plants. Plants in the Queen Ann’s Lace family (Carrot family) have plant chemicals that can burn the skin just like lye or acid. I always harvest with gloves and wear rubber gloves when handling fabrics covered with dyes. So have fun but be careful.

Caron Wenzel is the owner of Blazing Star Inc., a native plant nursery in Northern Illinois that sells seed, and soil amendments and is an environmental educator, consultant, and writer. For more information visit


American Household Botany A History of Useful Plans 1620-1900, Timber Press, 2004 Portland, Oregon   Judith Sumner

The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes, Personalize your craft with organic colors. Timber Press, 2010, Portland Oregon Susan Duerr

Related Articles & Free Email Newsletter Sign Up

How to Forage for Tasty Food

Paper Birch Trees Offer Crafts, Beer and More

Purslane is a Tasty Weed That is Loaded with Nutrients

Subscribe to our Free Email Newsletter

Comment here