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What is a Dye Plant?

By C. Sadowska
Updated May 16, 2024
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A dye plant is a natural source that can be used to make coloring for fabric, paper, or other materials. Dyes from plants, animals, and minerals were the only dyes available until 1828. The natural color can come from the flowers, leaves, roots, berries, or other parts of the plant. Each dye plant can create a color to be used in place of a chemical dye.

Mulberries, blackberries, and red cedar root can all be used to create a strong purple dye. There are many varieties of leaves and plants that can be used to create green dyes, including snapdragon flowers and red onion skins. Daffodils are a dye plant and the flower heads are one of many options to create yellow dye. Iris roots can be used to create a dark gray.

The root of the madder plant was used as a dye plant to create Turkey red — the color of British soldier’s red coats beginning in the late 17th century. It was once the only source of red pigment and is still used by some home crafters. Some people prize Turkey red as a dark, cool red color that typically doesn’t fade or bleed on fabric.

To create color from dye plants, the plants should be gathered when the flowers are fully in bloom or the berries are ripe. The part of the plant that will be used is chopped into small pieces and placed in a pot of water. This solution is brought to a boil and simmered for about an hour. The plant pieces can then be strained out and set aside.

Before it is dyed, fabric should first be soaked in a dye fixative. This is the solution that helps the fabric to absorb the dye and resist bleeding. One option for a fixative is one part white vinegar to four parts cold water. The fabric should soak in the fixative for an hour and can then be transferred to the dye. Generally, the plant will need to simmer in the dye for 20 minutes to about one hour, depending on the plant and the desired color intensity.

Natural fabrics, such as cotton or wool, will usually take natural dyes better than synthetic fabrics. Freshly-dyed fabrics should be laundered separately from other fabrics to prevent bleeding. When working with a dye plant, a person should always wear gloves to protect the skin. The pot used to simmer the plants typically should not be used to cooking. A dye plant can sometimes be toxic to ingest or irritating to touch.

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