Synthetic dyes were first discovered in 1856. Before then all dyes were made from natural sources such as flowers, vegetables, berries, bark, roots, lichens, insects, and shellfish. Preferring the softer tones of the natural dyes over the harsher colours of the new aniline dyes, William Morris first started experimenting with vegetable dyeing of embroidery silks in 1865. In 1881 he bought Merton Abbey in South London, a former calico printing works, as he found that the water in the nearby River Wandle was ideal for dyeing. He installed 8 large sunken vats for fabric dyeing and smaller vats for silk and wool. He is known to have used Weld for yellows, Madder for reds and Indigo dyes for blues, and sometimes ended up with his arms dyed blue to the elbows!

Sheep's fleece and cotton naturally dyed yellow and orange shades with Coreopsis flowers
Coreopsis flowers

Trudie and I are continuing to experiment with this traditional craft using many of the dye plants growing in the Kitchen Garden, such as Safflower, Coreopsis, St. John’s Wort, Dyer’s Chamomile, Madder, Weld, Dahlia, Hollyhock, Buddleia and Goldenrod. We have been knitting and crocheting hats, gloves, flower brooches and other items to sell for FOSE but are considering selling dyed spun wool and fleece in the future for people to use for their own craft projects.

Sheep's fleece naturally dyed pale orange with dahlia flowers
Dahlia flowers

The process of dyeing is fairly straightforward. Add the dye material (flowers, leaves, roots etc) to a pot of water and heat for about 45 minutes to extract the dye, strain the liquid off once cooled then add your wet pre-mordanted (to fix the colour) wool or cotton and gently heat again. Modifiers, such as vinegar, ammonia, copper and iron, can also be used to change the colour after dyeing. This works best with the red and purple colours.

Sheep's fleece and cotton thread naturally dyed orange with onion skins
Onion skins

We are learning that the weather, the water used (rainwater or tap), and even when you pick the dye material can all make a difference to the final colour. Some plants, such as Woad and Safflower, need a good long summer to concentrate the dye colour. We recently discovered that St. John’s Wort needs to be picked around St. John’s Day on June 24th when the flowers are newly opened, rather than a month or two later when the flowers are going over, to get the full range of colours. Picked at the right time the dye bath can give greens, yellows and reds but will only give red later in the season. Some, such as Safflower and Hollyhock, will give different colours on wool and cotton.

Sheep's fleece and cotton naturally dyed green and purple shades with Black Hollyhock flowers
Black Hollyhock flowers


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