Growing up, we had a wild English garden where huge, rare poppies seeded themselves next to old rose bushes copiously armed with thorns and busting with heavy petals. It seemed effortless, but it was planned, loved, and nurtured by my mother. On the other hand, I was not interested in growing anything. I would run around collecting rose petals, bay leaves, and other things and squish them with water in a poor effort to alchemize them into perfume. For me, It was a very slow, organic transition to gardening many years later when I started growing flowers necessitated by my desire to make color. I grew dye plants before I’d ever grown a vegetable.
Growing a dye plant not only gives you the source of color and a connection with the land, but natural dyes have some inherent advantages over chemical dyes, which have polluted the environment to a great extent. They present no health hazards, are very sustainable, easy to grow as herbs, and renewable. They add biodiversity to your vegetable garden, attracting pollinators and acting as great companion plants to repel insects and improve the wellness of neighboring plants.
Dye plants have been used traditionally as medicinal and culinary herbs for centuries, and many cultures believed that wearing certain robes dyed with specific plants can cure ailments. In Sanskrit, the process of natural fabric dyeing is called “ayurvastra.” The word “ayur” means health, “veda” means wisdom, and “vastra” means cloth/clothing. This roughly translates to “healthy clothing which strives in restoring the body’s natural equilibrium.”
The reason I was originally drawn to using natural dyes was for their uniquely luminous quality; they seem to shimmer with color in the light. Synthetically dyed cloth looks flat in comparison. There is a biochemical reason for this. Each plant or insect has several chromophores or color molecules that make up the color that we see, which gives them a vibrancy, whereas synthetic dyes may only contain one or two color molecules.
When planning a dye garden, choose a sunny site, ideally with 4-6 hours of light a day. Prep the soil as you would a vegetable garden. Dye plants are more productive in rich composted soil with good drainage and plenty of water. Depending on space available, you can plant in beds, in planters and pots, or directly in the ground. Plants are the hardiest and grow larger when planted directly in the ground, but pots work well too as long as they are watered regularly and large enough that the roots can spread.
JAPANESE INDIGO-PERSICARIA TINCTORIA
This is such a magical plant, producing colors ranging from sky blue to dark teal when used as a fresh leaf dye. It is thrilling to watch as the fabric oxidizes from a yellowish green to bright blue in a matter of seconds. Although not a native plant to the US, it is widely grown by natural dyers across the northern hemisphere. Long pointed leaves and thick pink to red stems. The indigo pigment is found and collected from the leaf. If a mature leaf is rubbed between fingers it will stain them with Indigo pigment. There are many ways to extract the pigment, by pounding the leaves into cloth, by macerating the leaves in a blender and directly dyeing the fabric, or by slow extraction in water. Works best with protein fibers like silk and wool.
Seeds are best started indoors in early spring and planted outside after the last frost. They have a high germination rate and seem to thrive when planted together. Seeds can be soaked overnight before planting in rich fertilized soil and will germinate within a week. Putting them in a sunny window or using a grow light is helpful while they get established. The young plants should be organized 10 inches apart in a bed as they can grow up to three feet tall. Once established, about 10 inches tall, the leaves can be pinched back to encourage bushier growth. Leaves can be harvested three times over the summer.
An annual plant, it is important to gather seeds from the pink flowers at the end of the growing season.
PLAINS COREOPSIS OR DYER’S COREOPSIS
This wildflower is a native to the Great Plains and southern United States. Thick plantings of Coreopsis create a cloud of color throughout the summer.
Flowers are yellow with dark red centers, which make an orange to brown dye. You can shift the color of the dye to a rusty red by adding a little washing soda (soda ash) and raising the PH.
A beautiful application of Coreopsis is to pound the flowers, leaves, and stem into cloth. The seeds are best sown directly outdoors in late spring. Lightly cover with dirt.
Another meadow flower, naturalized in North America and Europe. Easy to grow in any region and will bloom summer to fall. Vibrant orange blooms attract butterflies, hummingbirds and pollinators. They make an orange dye bath and, like the coreopsis, can be applied directly onto fabric using the flower pounding method, known as tatakizome.
Seeds can be planted in fall before the ground freezes or in late spring after the last frost.
HOPI BLACK DYE SUNFLOWER- TCEQA’ QU’ SI
An heirloom sunflower variety with yellow rays around beautiful obsidian black seeds. These flowers have been traditionally used by Hopi Native American people for dyeing basketry, wool, and other fibers in a simple dye making process. The seeds yield a deep maroon liquid, coloring fabric greys, blues, to deep purples, depending on what mordant is used. Seeds are also very good for the bundle dyeing application.
Directly sow outdoors in spring after the last frost, or start indoors three weeks before. Sunflowers follow the sun like giant radio receivers, they can grow up to 11 ft tall. Mounding soil at their base and staking them keeps them upright.
Used as a ceremonial flower by the Romans, Greeks, and Christians alike, the marigold is widely used today in Hinduism to adorn deities, while marigolds represent the fragility of life in Mexico and on the Dia de Los Muertos are believed to guide the spirits to their alter using their vibrant color and pungent scent. Medicinally, it has antimicrobial qualities; it is said to soothe skin irritations, and its edible petals can be used in salads or as a natural food coloring. The flowers yield bright yellow, orange, to olive green, if modified with a little iron mordant. All varieties of yellow/orange marigolds produce good dye, but the color is stronger and brighter when pre-mordanted with Tanin and Alum salts which help the color molecules to form a stronger bond with the fiber.
Marigolds have insect repellent properties which make them great companion plants for the health of a vegetable garden. Repelling mosquitos, white flies, and nematodes, they make a lovely protective border for vegetables. Plant directly outdoors in late spring after the last frost. The larger African and Mexican marigold varieties should be planted inside 6 weeks before the last frost. A very hardy plant, they can withstand long hot summers, preferring full sun.
*It is important to note that any dye derived from plant, animal or mineral origin will only dye natural fiber, ie. protein (animal) derived fiber: silk, wool, etc or cellulose (plant-based) fibers: linen, bamboo, cotton, hemp. Synthetic fabrics will not dye.
Seeds available from:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Edie Ure is a born and raised Londoner who, after graduating with a Fashion and Textiles degree from Central St. Martins worked as a designer in Milan and Paris, later moving to New York to work for Ralph Lauren. In New York she co-designed a children’s wear line with Ulla Johnson and created prints for many major fashion brands.
While her children were still little, her family left Brooklyn and moved to Boulder, Colorado, where she now lives with her son, daughter and dog Levon. She works as a sustainable fashion educator, teaching natural dyeing from her home and internationally. Ure also collaborates with eminent designers like Ryan Roche, Brother Vellies, Misha and Puff and Awave Awake, for natural dye development and production. Utilizing the local ecosystem to gather flowers, bark, leaves, roots, vegetables and minerals, she creates color palettes without the use of harmful toxins.
Color is key to her work, believing that it conveys warmth and spirit and taps into something emotionally deeper than trends. Her aim is to make things that have an impact on the user but not the earth.
Edie will be teaching a workshop on the art of botanical dyes and foraging at Zapata Ranch, July 24-31, 2022. Learn more about the workshop here.