Sunday 20 January 2013

Why I use natural dyes

When I first started dyeing 12 years ago I couldn't afford chemical dyes, so I used what was in my garden and the local hedgerows.
I became very skilled at dyeing yellow and beige, but there are only so many times you can use yellow and beige, so I saved up and bought a few chemical colours.
I hated them, they didn't have any character and I didn't know what to do with the exhausted dye baths, it seemed wrong to pour something down the drain that I was unsure of. 
Was it harmful? or was it safe?
I didn't know anyone to ask, so went back to my natural dyes.
I still don't know much about chemical dyes, but I do know a lot of chemical dyers who are ethical, responsible and skilled people and that their dyes are tried and tested to be as safe as possible.

In the early day's I used alum and cream of tartar as mordants, they were freely available, alum was used in hospitals to bath bed sores and cream of tartar was used in cooking, so I felt that I was safe to use them without harming the environment.
After a year or so of yellow and beige I discovered a supplier who sold historical plant dyes and mordants.
My world changed, suddenly my colour palette was a lot bigger and I had the option to use lots of different mordants which made the palette possibilities even bigger.

I quickly wrote off using the mordants as most of them are heavy metals and certainly couldn't be poured down the drain.
So I still only use alum and cream of tartar.

The dyes were all the raw materials, which meant lots of boiling and soaking to extract the colours.
It was like making mud pies for adults, I loved it.
I used the raw plants for many years and was very snotty about extracts as I believed it was cheating.
But then NDS grew too big, we needed to cut down on the time it took to prepare a dye bath, so now I use extracts.
Most of our extracts are made by a very ethical company who grow a lot of their own organic plants and are soil association certified.
They are only too happy to give us advice and answer all our dye related questions.
When I first started using extracts I was really happy to discover that they behaved in exactly the same way as the plants.

I find it impossible to obtain the same colour from the same dye using the same recipe each time.
The dyes are effected by the water quality, weather and the time of year.
For example the dyes play up in the winter and the colours lose their intensity, but by the spring we can get a lot deeper, more saturated colour.

For example the first photo below shows Angel lace dyed in the spring and the second shows Angel lace dyed in late autumn.

Last year we moved to Devon from Suffolk, our water type changed from alkaline to acid. 
The water type effects the colour, its been a huge learning curve and challenge not knowing what colour to expect.
The colours seem darker and more intense here, but we have to add chalk to several of the dyes, to get a similar colour.
It will take us several years to know what to expect each season.

You may notice I am using "we" instead of "I", thats because Daisy our number 2 daughter moved with us and has become my apprentice, we have learnt about the new colours and how the dyes react together.
Its been a huge amount of fun, every dye bath is exciting.
She has by-passed the years of stinging nettle dyeing and gone straight to extracts.
But she's already become a skilled dyer, some days she does all the dyeing and creates new colours on her own.

But this year we are faced with a new colour challenge, but I'll tell you more about that another day.


  1. Alum is also regularly used for brushing the back of the tongue to get you to clean the Elephant Glands which soak up gunk overnight and then harbour bacteria. Cream of Tartar was my Grannie's secret for her scones which knocked the socks off the competition every year at the WI Produce Show.

    I am so inspired by your story, how you have evolved through the process and that your daughter is apprenticing. That is really the spirit of the old and the future, only somehow several recent generations forgot this.

  2. I enjoy reading about your personal dye journey with natural dyes, your yarns are beautiful and I hope to add a few more of them to my stash in the not too distant future.
    Yes I too began dyeing (in the 80's) with hedgerow and garden plants, before spending time with more exotic wood chips and bugs. I love working with the extracts too and as you say, they still come up with colour surprises and allow for experimentation and tweaking. Achieving full colour saturation still requires attention to time, temperature and water quality and careful mordanting.

  3. Many thanks for taking the time to write about working with natural dyes. I've been trying out a variety of plant materials and extracts, and it's not easy, and it's definitely more of an art than a craft. (I'm a herbalist but working with plants as dyes rather than remedies is a lot more difficult!) Knowing some of your experiences will help me along my way, and I appreciate your sharing :-)