Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

The Naturalist's Apprentice: Dyeing With Plants

Purchase bleached or natural colored wool (wool felt is good if you can find it), silk, cotton, or linen fabric and cut into pieces for dyeing. If the fabric you choose has a tendency to fray, cut with pinking shears (1 1/2" by 6" is a good size for a bookmark). Prewash the fabric in mild, natural soap. This will remove any chemicals that have been added in the manufacturing process. Artificial fibers (polyester, nylon, etc.) will not take up natural dyes.


If you are using a fabric made of plant fibers (cellulose), pretreating will help it bond with the dye. Soak the cotton or linen for one hour in warm water with 1/4 teaspoon alum added for each pint of water added (alum is available in the spice section of the grocery store). Do not boil the fabric in the solution, and avoid stirring, because this causes fabric to shrink. Transfer fabric to a bath of warm water with 1/16 teaspoon of tannic acid powder per pint of water (available in drug stores) for one hour, then return it to the alum warm water bath for a final hour. Allow the water to cool to room temperature before removing the fabric, and then rinse it well with lukewarm water. This pretreatment is called mordanting, and it helps the fiber take up the dye by breaking chemical bonds on its surface. These bonds will reform with the dye. For animal fibers (protein), alum in the dye bath is adequate. While mordanting is not absolutely necessary for dyeing, it allows more dye to be picked up, so the colors will be more vivid.


Gather several glass pint jars with lids. You can use one for each student or one for each dye treatment. There are several different "treatments" that can be done to the dye to produce different results; you may want to experiment with several of them. Certain metals, such as iron or copper, can alter the color of the dye. Experiment with adding pennies (copper) or rusty nails (iron) to some of the jars. Try mixing more than one type of plant in one jar to get new colors. Results will also vary depending on pH and hardness of the water. Experiment by adding vinegar to make solutions more acidic or ammonia to make them more alkaline.


If you collect your own plant materials, be sure to have permission from the land owner, and do not collect threatened or endangered species. It is also recommended that you never remove more than 1/4 of a plant or group of plants; leave plenty behind to regenerate.

Using the Power of the Sun to Dye Cloth with Natural Plants


All plants contain pigments, often in large enough concentrations that they can be used to dye natural fibers such as wool or cotton. Many North American plants were used by Native Americans to produce a wide range of colors. The immigrants to North America also brought dye plants with them, some of which have escaped cultivation and are now naturalized across the landscape. Also, many plants commonly grown in the home garden can yield colorful pigments. While the process of extracting the pigment from the plant materials was usually done in a pot over a fire, Native Americans would often just chop up plants, put them in a container of water, add the yarn, and let it sit in the sun for a few days. Very good results are also possible by making "sun tea" from chopped or crushed plants.


Collect plant materials to extract the pigment. Check the table below for recommendations of plants that will give good results. Be sure to collect the correct part of the plant, as not all parts contain the same amount of pigment. Fill a clear glass jar (pint or larger) with the chopped leaves, stems, or roots, or with crushed berries, and then add water to within one inch of the top. Place the lid on the jar. If the lid is made of metal, be sure to line it first with plastic wrap or waxed paper because contact with the metal will affect the dye. Set the jar in a warm, sunny place to brew a tea from the chopped plants. After 2 to 4 days, strain out the plant material by pouring the liquid through a plastic strainer into a clean jar. Discard the plant material. Add 1/4 teaspoon of alum for each pint of liquid. Stir with a wood or plastic spoon until it dissolves. This will help the cloth to take up the dye. Now add pre-wetted strips of white cotton, linen, silk, or wool cloth to the liquid, pushing them into the jar and spreading them around evenly with the spoon. Do not stir, as this may cause the fabric to shrink. Also, do not pack them in tightly or the color will be uneven. Now, put the lid on the jar and set it back in the sun. Remove the cloth from the dye solution after 1 to 4 days.


Rinse the strips in clear water (do not scrub) and lay them on paper towels to dry.


Carolyn Nixon, Office of the Chief

Illinois Natural History Survey

1816 South Oak Street, MC 652
Champaign, IL 61820

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