Natural Dyes: Dandelions and Blueberries

I am an avid gardener. I grow much of the produce Mike and I eat year-round, and I’ve been collecting and spreading wildflower seeds and transplanting wildflowers for many years in an effort to develop pretty, wild flower beds. Progress on the latter has been painfully slow, but there is progress every year. It can hardly come as a surprise that I’m interested in natural dyes for embroidery fabrics.

Basket of dandelion heads.

Dandelions collected for dyeing embroidery fabric.

I started with dandelions. I admit it: I think dandelions, those villains of manicured grass lawns and tidy flower beds, are pretty. That brilliant yellow color and the lion-toothed leaves (dent-de-lion . . . dandelion . . . get it?) are lovely if you look beyond the insidious pest aspect of the plant. Then I tried blueberries.

Here’s the process I used, which comes from a number of books and websites that I’ve perused.

  • Boiling dandelions for dye bath.

    Make the Dye Bath

    After collecting dandelion heads, I boiled them for an hour in a large stainless steel pot using about twice as much water as blossoms. I did the same with the blueberries.

  • Salt, vinegar, pot, fabric

    Prepare Fabric for Dyeing

    While the dandelions and berries simmered, I prepared the fabric by boiling it in a color fixative. This helps the color set in the fabric. Fixatives for plant dyes are different from fixatives for berry dyes.

    For the plant dyes, I used 4 parts water to 1 part white vinegar.
    For the berry dye, I used 1/2 cup of salt to 8 cups of cold water.

    I simmered squares of cotton and linen fabric in the fixative for the hour that the dandelions and blueberries simmered. (Yes, I keep my vinegar in a gin bottle because I buy it by the gallon. I don’t like gin, but I do like that bottle.)

  • Fabric soaking in blueberry dye bath.

    Add Fabric to Dye Bath

    Strain the plant material from the dye bath and return the liquid to the pot.

    Rinse the fabric in cool water, squeeze out excess water, and then place the wet fabric in the dye bath. Simmer again for another hour or so, and for a stronger color, let the fabric sit in the dye bath overnight. Note that the color of the fabric will be significantly lighter when it dries.

  • Blueberry-dyed fabric, drying.

    Allow Dyed Fabric to Dry

    I don’t have a clothes line, so I fabricated one with deck chairs, a work light, and large paperclips, and hung my dyed, wet fabrics outside to dry. They’re hard to see in such a tiny image, but there are three blueberry-dyed bits of fabric on the line. They’re much darker here than they are now.

  • Blueberry- and dandelion-dyed embroidery fabrics.

    Results

    The end results were gray- and butter-colored fabrics, much different (duller) from the colors of the starting materials and the colors of the wet fabric. They are not, however, unlike some commercially available chemically-dyed fabrics.

    On one hand, you know I prefer screaming colors, so the colors are less than thrilling to me. On the other hand, you know how much I like doing things myself, and these are kind of cool. There are times when bland muted colors are appropriate for a background. And besides, a dull subtle background can be the base for screaming fibers.

    While these aren’t exactly the results I hoped for, the process was fun, and I’m ready to have another go with a different approach and/or different materials. Maybe a different fixative would work better. Maybe different plant materials (beets!) would yield brighter colors.

    In the meantime, I’ve got some stitching to do!

Have any of you tried natural dyes? Do you have tips or advice? What were your results?

Update: Ellen provides this link to a plant dye color list in the comments. She points out that we don’t always get what we expect from a dye, and I confess I’m curious about this and want to be surprised by some result. The list says that blueberries may yield a blue-gray color. Yep, that’s what I got!

3 Responses to “Natural Dyes: Dandelions and Blueberries”

  1. Ellen Lindow

    I’m not much of a dyer, it’s too much like cooking for me. And honestly I’m not much of a gardener either. But I would happily take fiber you have dyed, spin it into yarn, weave or knit it and sew it into something useful. It’s my passion. But I have taken a dying class because it was included with other fiber prep that I really wanted to learn. I also have a little piece of Navaho weaving hanging on the wall framed with all the different dyes they used.

    You might want to try red onions, which gives a dark green that might satisfy your need for bright. And the orange in my tiny (all I could afford of real Navaho) weaving) is Alder bark. Not a tree we have in Florida. Do you have it in AK?

    Things don’t always give the color you think it will. You might also try acorns and nuts or raspberries or mushrooms. Take a look at this chart: http://www.prairiefibers.com/Plant%20Color%20List.htm Again, a lot of the things on that list are not found naturally in Florida. But we do have dandelions, which are my favorite flower. I have been known to prevent my yard from being mowed until the dandelions go to seed. But the llamas and alpacas that live with me now take care of them and I have to look at my neighbor’s field for my dandelion fix. 🙂

    July 15, 2013 @ 2:48 am
  2. Jen

    Crack me up, Ellen! It *is* a lot like cooking!

    red onions = dark green

    Who’dda thunk?! A neighbor (who wondered what the heck I was doing collecting dandelions along the highway!) says dandelion roots will give a bright-ish pink/red. Roots would be substantially harder to harvest and would potentially kill the plant, but I might be game.

    Yes, we have alder. They’re sometimes considered bothersome, shrub-like trees here, popping up wherever soil has been disturbed. I wonder how one harvests bark and if there’s a way to do it without killing the plant. I don’t love alders, and, like dandelions, they are abundant, but I sometimes have issues with killing–even pesky plants. I’m known to transplant beet thinnings because I hate destroying hopeful little seedlings, or at least seedlings with potential to grow healthy and strong, with or without hope.

    I need to prune some willows that are so tall they block sun for the garden. I will consider peeling the prunings.

    I’m wondering now about over-dyeing, too. Starting with a base color instead of white and letting the plant dyes alter it.

    I didn’t have a mind to try to do this on a large scale, but I know better than to say “never”!

    I love that you think dandelions are pretty, too. I have another friend in NY who agrees.

    July 15, 2013 @ 6:52 am
  3. Becca

    Well, Ellen beat me to telling you about the Navajo dye guides. I actually don’t own one- I want one of the big ones, and they are expensive. Okay, something they don’t tell you on the pretty hangings- some of the dyes use urine as a fixative/stabilizer. How adventurous are you feeling?

    I agree that dandelions are pretty and the greens are good in a salad. I like the color you got from the dandelions (I didn’t know about dent-de-lion- I’m always learning something from you.)

    My only concern in this endeavor is using blueberries- if you have too many you can send some to me!

    July 15, 2013 @ 12:44 pm

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