Grow a Botanical Dye Garden

For millennia and across cultures, people have used plants and fungi for creating beautiful natural dyes. Berries, roots, wood, bark, mushrooms, and lichen together produce a wide spectrum of both vibrant and muted tones. Even common kitchen scraps–such as onion skins, cabbage leaves, coffee, tea, and spent bouquets–can be repurposed for dyes before composting.

Those new to botanical dyeing will find several techniques suitable for beginners. Home gardeners are especially well-positioned to try techniques like bundle dyeing and extractions using common garden plants: Flowers like marigolds and sunflowers, for example, can be harvested for soft, buttery yellows. Vegetables like spinach and sorrel yield green tones. Red cabbage makes green, blue, and purple–depending on the fiber and dye technique. But some plants produce bolder hues with more colorfastness, and these are the varieties to select for a botanical dye garden.

Japanese Indigo in flower.

Not only are dye plants an eco-friendly alternative to chemical dyes, they also support pollinators and blend seamlessly into annual and perennial borders. Most dye plants will prefer at least 6 hours of full sun per day and rich, moist soil. Pro-tip: Dye projects require considerable harvesting; so, if you plan to do lots of experimenting, grow plenty of plants!

Before diving straight into natural dyeing, you’ll need at least one pot and some tools dedicated to dye use only: do not re-use the same tools for cooking and eating.

A Japanese Indigo dye made from fresh leaves.

Basic Supplies

  • A non-reactive stainless steel or enameled pot
  • A plastic bucket to rinse and rest fabric/yarn between dye soaks
  • A pair of tongs
  • A set of wooden spoons
  • Rubber gloves (and possibly a mask)
  • Ingredients for scouring and mordanting (more details below)
  • Fabric or yarn to be dyed
  • A notebook for tracking timings and measurements 
  • A steamer basket for bundle dyeing
  • A wooden dowel for eco-prints

Cellulose fibers dyed with fresh Japanese Indigo.

Fibers for Natural Dyeing

For colorfastness, avoid synthetically produced fibers. Instead, choose either a plant-derived, “cellulose” fiber, or, an animal-derived “protein” fiber. Cellulose fibers include cotton, linen, hemp, and bamboo. Wool, alpaca, and silk are protein fibers. For best results, you will need to pre-treat both cellulose and protein fibers ahead of dyeing. Protein fibers more readily bind with color than cellulose fibers, but any natural fiber can yield stunningly beautiful results.

Pre-Treating Fibers

Scouring and mordanting will prepare your fabrics to accept color. Scouring is a kind of deep cleaning using soap or soda ash, plus boiling water. Mordanting helps dye particles to chemically or physically bond to the fiber. Soaking cellulose fibers with soy milk helps to bind color. Visit botanicalcolors.com for step-by-step instructions for both scouring and mordanting.

Botanical Dyeing for Beginners

For a quick, beginner-level dye extraction try the following 3:1 formula: Add three parts water to one part raw plant material and simmer on the stove for 15-20 minutes. Depending on the plant, simmering longer can result in a stronger concentration of color–but avoid boiling, as higher temperatures can make colors less vibrant. Strain and use this extraction to soak (non-synthetic) fabric or yarn, experimenting with different soaking times. Soaking time will depend on the type of fabric, whether it is made from animal or plant fibers, and whether it has been pre-treated. When you’ve achieved a color you like, rinse your fabric with cool water until it runs clear and hang to dry.

Bundle dyeing with kitchen waste and flowers.

Eco-Printing and Bundle Dyeing are great for beginners. For bundle dyeing:  Wring out your pre-treated fabric and spray it down with white vinegar, then arrange or sprinkle fresh and dried dye materials according to your taste. This is a great way to make use of kitchen scraps: Brown and red onion skins, red cabbage, coffee grinds, tea, and turmeric all work great. Go outside and pluck some dandelions, lilacs, or anything that looks like it might yield color–experiment! Dyer’s CoreopsisTorch Tithonia, and Sulphur Cosmos make particularly effective eco-prints. 

Once you have your botanicals arranged the way you like, spray everything down with white vinegar and tightly roll the fabric around the dyestuff. Fold or curl the fabric into a bundle and wrap with butchers twine or rubber bands and steam for 1-2 hours, turning your bundles every 15-20 minutes. For an overview of bundle dyeing with kitchen waste, watch this lovely, relaxing tutorial by dyer BillyNou. Learn more about eco-printing and bundle dying using coreopsis in this video by The Barefoot Dyer.  

Dyer's Coreopsis in bloom.

Varieties for the Botanical Dye Garden

Below is a list of some of our favorite plants to include in a botanical dye garden. Depending on the dye process used, these plants will yield a range of colors: 

Once you start dyeing with natural botanicals, you'll begin to see plants (and kitchen scraps) in a whole new light! Natural dyeing can also be a fun way to introduce kids to gardening, plant uses, and chemistry. So, start saving those coffee grounds and onion skins–and plant a dye plant or two in the garden this year!

More Resources

Botanical Colors - Find helpful explainers in their how-to guides.

Rebecca Desnos - This UK-based natural dyer hosts lots of great information on her blog.

Wild Colours - A comprehensive web resource on dyeing and dye plants. Visit their beginner guide here.