Last updated on October 23rd, 2023 at 08:24 pm
In the age of chemical textile dyes, in which fabrics can be dyed in the washing machine in no time, dyeing with plants is almost a journey back in time to the Middle Ages. The art of plant dyeing has a history that goes back thousands of years. Our ancestors discovered that many plants contain dyes and used these dye plants to dye their fabrics and yarns. Dyeing with plants is of course much more time consuming than with synthetic dyes, but it is a beautiful activity and the results are unique.
Small cultural history of dyeing and dyeing plants
Dyeing with plants was known in ancient Egypt, as well as by Romans, Greeks, Celts and Europeanic tribes. It is amazing that our ancestors were able to discover and develop the sometimes very complex processes by which the plant dyes were broken down, without any knowledge of chemistry.
In the Middle Ages, a distinction must be made between professional dyeing and peasant home dyeing: The professional dyers catered to aristocrats and wealthy citizens. They specialized in certain dye plants and used time-consuming methods (mordant dyeing, vat dyeing). The dye plants used by professional dyers were grown commercially and often imported from distant countries. They were much more expensive than the wild plants used in home dyeing.
The most important dye plants used in professional dyeing were woad (Isatis tinctoria) and indigo bush (Indigofera tinctoria) for blue dyeing, madder (Rubia tinctorum) and redwood (Caesalpinia sappan) for red dyeing, dyer’s woad (Reseda luteola), saffron (Crocus sativus) and dyer’s broom (Genista tinctoria) for yellow dyeing.
In home dyeing, dyeing wild plants from the surrounding area were used. The dyeing result usually did not have good light fastness, because no mordants were used. Dyeing plants used in home dyeing included, for example, the following plants:
Yellow and green: goldenrod, celandine, dyer’s chamomile, tansy, heather, lady’s mantle, birch leaves, buckthorn (fruits), sloth tree (fruits), and barberry (bark, root). By adding iron, a color change to green could be achieved.
Red and orange: Common bedstraw and meadow bedstraw (roots)
Brown and black: walnut (green fruit shell), black alder (bark), alder buckthorn (bark), oak (bark) and larch (bark).
Basic information on plant dyeing
Due to their different chemical structure, animal fibers are better suited for dyeing with vegetable dyes. Animal fibers (wool, silk) are made of protein molecules. Plant fibers (linen, cotton, nettle) are composed of carbohydrates.
The most original dyeing technique is dyeing without mordants, which results in a direct connection between fibers and dyes. In this way, mainly brownish dyeings can be achieved. However, the light fastness without mordant is not so good.
Dyeing with mordants was already discovered in ancient times. With the help of metal salt mordants, it became possible to achieve lightfast and long-lasting dyeings. In addition, the colors are more intense than with direct dyeing. Depending on the metal salt used, the color shades can vary. The most important of these mordants is alum (aluminum potassium sulfate). The fabrics are pickled with it before the actual dyeing. In contrast to direct dyeing, an additional step is therefore necessary.
Dyeing with dyeing plants: This is how it is done
There are essentially four steps: Washing, pickling, dyeing and rinsing. The following recipe applies to 100 g of wool or silk.
Washing and mordanting
First, soak the materials you want to dye in lukewarm water and wash them. Then prepare an alum solution (mordant): Mix 15 g alum in a little hot water and add about 1.5 liters of lukewarm water. Put the still damp wool into this solution and bring everything to a boil, stirring carefully. Simmer gently for one hour and then allow to cool in the water. Now remove the wool from the water and squeeze well.
Dyeing and rinsing
The required dyeing liquor (dyeing liquor) should be prepared the day before, if possible. For the dye liquor you need 100-200 g of dried dye plants (for roots 100 g are sufficient, for leaves take double) or alternatively double the amount of fresh plants (200-400 g). Soak the plants overnight in 5 liters of water, then boil them and let them cool. Then drain the decoction through a muslin cloth.
Add the damp wool to lukewarm dye decoction (max. 40 °C) and bring to a boil. Simmer gently for 1-2 hours and then let cool. Wash in warm soapy water and rinse well. Hang to dry.
Note: When dyeing silk, be careful not to heat it above 80 °C in both the alum solution and the dye liquor. So you should constantly control the temperature. Unlike wool, it is sufficient to leave the silk in the mordant solution and the dye liquor for about 30 minutes.