How to Dye Fabric Using Native Plants

Overview

Although most dyes today are made from chemicals, this hasn't always been the case. Native Americans and early settlers used plants to make dyes for clothing in North America. Most early settlers imported their own dyes from Europe. What we know about Native American dyes comes from oral tradition. Native Americans used native plants, such as blackberries and blackberry shoots or oak bark to make dye. Organic materials such as these can all yield dyes for coloring fabric.

Step 1

Chop your plant material into 1-inch pieces.

Step 2

Place 1 quart of native plant material, such as blackberries or oak bark, and 2 gallons of water into the canning pot. Add alum, found in the spice section of your local grocery store, for a mordant to make the dyes color fast. To calculate the amount of alum you will use, divide the weight of your cloth in ounces by four, and add an equivalent weight of alum to the water.

Step 3

Simmer from 20 minutes to 1 hour until the native plant material releases the plant dyes into the water. Add more water or more plant material to change the color intensity of the dye.

Step 4

Soak your cloth or yarn in water before adding to the dye material. This will help the fabric to absorb dye more evenly.

Step 5

Skim off large plant pieces with a spoon, and pour the dye through a jelly strainer to catch smaller pieces.

Step 6

Pour the dye back into the pot, and add wet fabric. Allow the cloth to simmer for 30 minutes in the container. Never crowd the cloth or squeeze it.

Step 7

Pinch a corner of the cloth to squeeze out dye. The resulting color of the cloth will approximate the color of the cloth once it dries.

Step 8

Rinse the cloth in water until the water runs clear from the cloth. Hang the cloth to dry out of direct sunlight.

Tips and Warnings

  • Be aware of the properties of the plants that you are using to create dyes. Some plants have toxic properties. If you dye your fabric indoors, be aware of noxious odors and work in a well-ventilated area.

Things You'll Need

  • 2 oz. of cotton fabric or cotton yarn
  • Alum
  • Cream of tartar
  • Enameled canning pot
  • Plastic or silicone tongs
  • 1 quart of native plant material for dye (leaves, berries, bark, roots, etc.)
  • 2 gallons water
  • Jelly canning strainer
  • Wooden spoon

References

  • Aurora Silk: Principles of Natural Dyeing
  • Hernando Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society: Dyeing Fabric with Plant Materials
  • The Florida Native Plant Society: Natural Dyes from Florida Native Plants
Keywords: making dye, using plant dye, dying cloth

About this Author

Tracy S. Morris has been a freelance writer since 2000. She has published two novels and numerous online articles. Her work has appeared in national magazines and newspapers, including "Ferrets," "CatFancy," "Lexington Herald Leader" and "The Tulsa World."