You can grow natural dyes for wool in your back yard garden. As farm folks at heart, it’s natural for us to prefer do it yourself projects. The winter often finds us leafing through seed catalogs, planning our gardens for spring and summer. If you also love wool, consider adding some seeds for dye plants to this year’s garden plots. While this article will concentrate on how to choose plants that grow natural dyes for wool, quick searches will yield more information regarding dyes for other fibers, such as cotton and linen.
You may be familiar with some of the following plants that grow natural dyes, and not realize that they had this potential use. Other’s will be new to your garden choices. Surprisingly, some are often considered invasive weeds, that is until you see the beautiful color the plant yields for your yarn.
How to Select the Right Seeds for Dye Gardens
When choosing seeds for any garden project, check your gardening zone for compatibility. The plants will thrive if given the right environment and care. Most of these are easy cultivars, meaning they thrive even if you think you have a black gardening thumb.
When growing a plant that has a tendency to “take over the garden, such as mint or madder, plant in a large container to restrict spread. Consider the variety of colors that you are planting. Having some that produce primary colors will eventually yield a rainbow of colors by over dyeing and combining dyes.
Easy Growers for the Dye Garden
Marigolds walked me through my very first natural dye experiment. The color from marigolds is potent and growing these beauties is easy in most areas. I collect the flowers as they begin to wither and let them dry on a screen. When completely dried, I store the flowers in a bag until I have enough to create a dye pot of golden yellow color. All of the species of marigold will yield dye color. The result will vary depending on the amount of yellow or orange flowers you collect.
Growing marigolds helps repel annoying garden pests. As a companion plant they often keep pests from eating your produce. The bees and butterflies love gardens full of marigold blooms. Marigolds don’t require much of a green thumb to grow. Sun is preferred and not too much fertilizer please.
Hibiscus or Rose Mallow is easy to grow. I found plants growing wild on the edges of our property, so I am guessing it is also spread by birds. The plant adds a lot of blossoms to your garden, and grows into a tall bush.
The link below opens to a printable version of my hibiscus dye recipe for dyeing wool yarn.
Gather the flowers and use fresh or dried for later. I usually gather flowers from my dye plants as they begin to dry or wither on the plant. I enjoy planting flowering species for both dyes and to give the pollinators a reason to stop by my garden.
Dried Hibiscus can also be purchased, as it is sold as a tea. Make sure you are purchasing only dried hibiscus petals. The color from hibiscus is a wide range of pinks and lilacs. Mordant your wool fiber first for best color staying power.
Solar Dyeing with Hibiscus Petal Dye
My favorite way to process wool yarn with hibiscus petal dye is the solar dye method. Using very warm water to start, and keeping the dye bath in the sun for a few days prevents over heating the dye. Reds and pink natural dyes are susceptible to turning brown if over heated.
Zinnias yield soft yellows, tans and lighter browns. It’s funny to think that all the vibrant color of the zinnia in the garden creates such a soft dye pot of color. Zinnia dye requires twice as much flower material as weight of goods to be dyed, 2:1, so be sure and plant a large patch of zinnias!
Once you grow natural dyes from the garden, you will want to expand! At least that’s how it worked for me. Birds and pollinators love the flowers. Save the blooms as you dead-head as you can use these dye flowers fresh or dried. Both the annual C. tinctoria and the perennial versions can be used to grow natural dyes. The plants aren’t too particular but they do appreciate a sunny location and well drained soil.
Rudbeckia -AKA Black-eyed Susan
This is one I am still collecting flowers in order to try. Other dyers report that the black eyed susans will yield a celery or light green color on wool. You will need a good crop of flowers though as it is recommended that you use 1:1 ratio of weight of flowers to dry weight of yarn. Gage Hill Crafts has a good tutorial about the process.
Plum, purple and dark red dyes can be found in dark hollyhock blossoms. Plants are biennial, so don’t expect blossoms the first year. Hollyhock dye can also be processed in a cold dye bath overnight.
Grow Natural Dyes from Herbs
You see green, but the primary color derived from a pot of mint will be yellow. Since mint is so prolific, it’s easy to harvest a pot of mint for a dye bath. To change the yellow to green, add a teaspoon of iron, (ferrous sulfate) to the dye bath after straining out the plant material.
Other forms of mints often grow wild as invasive weeds. Purple Dead Nettle is a variety of mint that can often take over your yard. Instead of composting the weeds, make a dye bath for wool yarn. For best results when dyeing with mint, leave the yarn or wool in the dye pot overnight.
Two large bunches of rosemary branches will create a large dye pot with plenty of color for wool yarn, when simmered for a couple of hours. This was a beautiful soft yellow color on wool.
Other Grow Natural Dye Options
Weld and Japanese Indigo are easy to grow additions to your dye garden. Learn how to harvest and process Indigo before cutting the plant because it needs a fermentation process in order to obtain the beautiful dark blue dye.
Weld, Reseda luteola , produces a clear yellow dye from the leaves and flowers of the plant. It does best in a sunny location but will tolerate partly sunny spots. Growing your own source of primary yellow supplies you with options when over dyeing with indigo or possibly woad. I found good suggestions on growing weld, harvesting, and saving seeds in this article.
Japanese Indigo, Persicaria tinctoria, grew very successfully in my garden. I ended up with quite a lot of material. The first process I experimented with was the Ice Water Bath process. This method does not produce the deep indigo shade you might expect. The color is more of a sea green or pale mint. In order to harness the expected indigo blue, read up on the harvesting and fermentation vat method of creating indigo dye.
While it is time consuming to grow indigo, harvest correctly and process the leaves, the beautiful blue dye is worth the effort. The pretty pink flowers of the indigo plant are a great addition to your cottage garden. Indigo spreads so consider planting it in a large container.
Nature Works Together when You Grow Natural Dyes in Your Garden
Once you have your dye garden your journey with natural dyes is just beginning. The possibilities are limitless, with mordants, modifiers, and even the different seasons bring to the artist. (if you want to learn the basics of natural dyeing, read this post) The beautiful colors from your garden grown dyes will complement each other, just as nature works together. Growing your own dye plants will bring beauty to your garden and then to your wool crafts.