Botanical Dyeing


The goal of this project is to create a select number of garments that are dyed using only vegetable-based dyes that I have grown in my own yard or which I can easily forage for in NC. Fabrics dyed will be wool, silk, or linen. The current tasks are:

- Read Vegetable Dyes: Being a Book of Recipes and Other Information Useful to the Dyer by Ethel Mairet, and The Dyer's Guide by Thomas Packer, both from Project Gutenberg.

  1. Determine which plants (and therefor which colors) will be planted; where; when, OR
  2. Identify likely foraging locations
  3. Acquire plants or seeds; prepare ground area; plant; tend; harvest
  4. Process bark, roots, seeds, berries, leaves, etc. Store completed dye appropriately.
  5. Select final garments and fabrics; prepare fabric for dyeing.
  6. Dye materials.
  7. Construct garments.
  8. Rake in the accolades.

After reading both Packer and Mairet's texts, I've chosen to rely much more heavily on Mairet's. Hers is more recent (just a touch over 100 years old, compared to nearly 200 years old for Packer). Packer's text is a great example of 19th century chemistry and biology, and just how far we've come. Mairet's text is a more compact and practical view of not only the plants which can be foraged for for dying, but the dye process itself, and the material which can be dyed. Packer's text is more of a fun jaunt through 19th century dyeing and chemistry, so we'll stick with Mairet.


Not even pretending to do a proper citation format:

  • Furry, Margaret S. and Viemont, Bess M. Home Dyeing with Natural Dyes. United States Department of Agricultre Misc. Publications No. 230. 1935. 1)
  • LaBerge, Michelle L.. The Heart of the Madder: An Important Prehistoric Pigment and Its Botanical and Cultural Roots. University of Wisconsin Milwaukee UWM Digital Commons. 2018. 2)
  • Mairet, Ethel. Vegetable Dyes: Being a Book of Recipes and Other Information Useful to the Dyer. Faber and Faber Ltd. 1918.
  • Schwepp, Helmut. Practical Hints on Dyeing with Natural Dyes. Sponsored by the Conservation Analytical Laboratory of the Smithsonian Institution. 1986. 3)
  • Shaffer, Claire. Claire Shaffer's Fabric Sewing Guide. Krause Publications. 2008.

The Plants

Foraging and Growing

I have several wine barrels which are irrigated and can sustain plants that need more consistent watering needs. I also have substantial ground area that can be converted to growing space – both full and sun and partial shade – which would be more appropriate for a native plant that requires less irrigation attention. The goal is to make use of both of these spaces, so I can grow a variety of things.

My guess is that I may be too late in the growing season now (May 2020) to get anything in the ground, but there may be a little time left if I move quickly. Reading through my dyeing texts quickly will yield the most information about what I want to grow, and how well it will grow in NC.

The first step in this process was to examine Mairet's text and choose which plants I could easily grow for their dye purposes. After reading the book, I realized there were many options for plants which I could forage for instead of planting directly (and at least 2 varieties of plants that I could forage for today if I wanted to, from my own backyard - privet and dandelion!)

From Mairet's text, here are the plants (by color) which I have a good chance of either growing or foraging for in NC, with this comprehensive guide used to determine the forage-ability of any given plant:


  • Forage
    • Inner bark of birch, Betula pendula. Avoid this method as it is damaging to the tree. UNLESS you happen to come across a recently felled birch.
    • Roots of common Sorrel, Rumex acetosa. Sorrel thrives in acidic soils and may be a secific nuisance to blueberry farmers. Consider reaching out to local growers for foraging opportunities.
    • Gromwell, Lithospermum arvense. Gromwell is invasive across NC. Learn to identify it and you may be able to forage for it.
  • Grow
    • Roots of bed-straw, Gallium boreale
    • Roots of common Sorrel, Rumex acetosa.
    • Roots of Potentil, Potentilla Tormentilla.


  • Forage
    • Berries of Privet, Ligustrum vulgare. We have huge quantities of Ligustrum sinense – unclear if the berries from sinese would behave the same as vulgare, but because this is so plentiful in our yard, it is very worth experimenting with.
    • Fruit of Sloe, Prunus communis.
    • Berries of Whortleberry or Blaeberry, Vaccinium pallidum. Wild berries,very unlikely these would be found and harvesed in enough quantities before deer, birds, etc, managed to get there first.
    • Roots of Yellow Iris, Iris Pseudacorus. Invasive to NC. Easy to plant.
  • Grow
    • Leaves of Devil's Bit, Scabiosa succisa.
    • Berries of Elder, Sambucus nigra.
    • Roots of Yellow Iris, Iris Pseudacorus.


Mairet provides more examples of plants to extract yellow colorant from than any other color. She also fails to provide instructions for many of the plants (an example of this is that for most plant examples, the listing goes like this: Common name. “Scientific name. Portion of plant which contains colorant.” An example would be “Privet. Ligustrum vulgare. Leaves.” For the sake of brevity, I am skipping those plants that she doesn't list a part of the plant to use for colorant extraction, just to cut down on the amount of extra research I have to do. There are a few exceptions, as some of the plants I know by sight as either ones I can plant in my garden or ones I can forage for locally.

  • Forage
    • Stem and root of Barberry, Berberis eurybracteata.
    • Roots and young tops of Bracken or eagle fern, Pteridium aquilinum.
    • Berries and bark of Buckthorn, Frangula alnus and F. caroliana.
    • Root of Common dock, Rumex.
    • Young shoots and leaves of Dyer's Greenwood, Genista tinctoria.
    • Leaves of Privet, Ligustrum vulgare.
    • Leaves of Way-faring tree, Viburnum lantana.
  • Grow
    • Fresh inner bar of Crabapple, Malus coronaria.
    • Young shoots and leaves of Dyer's Greenwood, Genista tinctoria.


  • Forage
    • Flowers of Flowering reed, Phragmites communis. Other Phragmites do grow in NC (australis). Appears to have flowering head, but unsure if this is the same flower that is referenced in text.
    • Berries and leaves of Privet, Ligustrum vulgare.
  • Grow
    • Leaves of Elder, Sambucus nigra. Again, something which I am already growing in my yard.


  • Forage
    • Leaves of Nettle, Urtica dioica and U. Urens.
    • Husk of Walnut, Juglans nigra.
    • Shoots of Whortleberry, Vaccinium Myrtillus.
  • Grow
    • Stalk of Hop, Humulus lupulus.


  • Forage
    • Berries from Pokeberry, Phytolacca. We have 2 pokeberry plants in the yard. This recommendation does not come from Mairet, potentially because pokeberry was not available in England in the early 19th century. More research would be needed to know for sure. Use Carol Leigh's guide
    • Fruit of Damson, Prunus domestica.
    • Root of Dandelion, Taraxacum dens-leonis.
    • Berries of Elder, Sambucus nigra.
    • Berries of Whortleberry or blaeberry, Vaccinium myrtillus.
  • Grow
    • Berries of Elder, Sambucus nigra.
    • Corms of Sundew. Drosera


  • Forage
    • Shoots of Blackberry, Rubus fruticosus.
    • Bark of Elder, Sambucus nigra.
    • Acorns of Oak, Quercus
  • Grow
    • Shoots of Blackberry, Rubus fruticosus.
    • Root of Buckwheat, Rumex.


This project has started in May of 2020.

According to Osborn Fiber Studio, you generally want 3-4x the amount of plant matter : your fabric/yarn weight. A 1 pound piece of fabric would require 3-4pounds of fabric. The author does note that 1 full Ziploc gallon bag of berries generally weighs around 5 pounds, a good metric to keep in mind for berries. Leaves, roots, and bark will be a different measurement to figure out.

Spring 2020

I should be able to forage for privet berries and poke berries in the next few months, giving me an opportunity to try a blue dye and a purple dye.

A second privet harvest of the leaves will also give me an opportunity at a yellow dye. Assuming I harvest enough berries, I can additionally combine leaves and berries to get a green dye.

It'll involve a bit of scrounging, but I can also likely forage for dandelion roots in the next month or so. This will be an attempt at another shade of purple. For dandelions, I have several in my yard that I feel comfortable digging up. This profile of dandelions from Columbia University tells us that :

Dandelions… grow best in moist, sunny areas found in all parts of the northern temperate zone. The plant grows year round but goes dormant in areas that experience a cold winter. Dandelions can grow just about anywhere, namely fields, lawns, forests, gardens or even wastelands. They tend to grow more in areas laden with sunlight rather than under trees or shady spots. The plant can be found more commonly in disturbed areas such as an avalanche site, a burned forest and marshlands to name a few and anywhere from sea level to high alpine elevations.

If I can find yellow iris, the bulbs will be an opportunity for black or blue dye. I'm not sure where iris grows wild nearby. According to the NC Invasive Plant Council:

Yellow flag iris is found in wet soils, usually forming large colonies along streams, ponds, and marshes… The showy, typically yellow flowers bloom from April to June.

Summer 2020

Fall 2020

Winter 2020

Processing and Storing

While there are several different blogs I've come across that suggest you can bottle up leftover dye and refrigerate it for later use, the most comprehensive guide I have seen on properly storing dye comes from this post at Dyeing for Color. The author, L. C. Cariou, right off the bat notes that most dye books completely overlook this aspect of dyeing, and that for the most part, guides assume that you will harvest and dye in the same day.

Cariou stores the actual plant itself, rather than the processed dye. She has 2 main methods of doing this, freezing and drying the plant matter. She notes that for freezing, no heating should be attempted as it will immediately brown the plant matter you are working with and distort the color you are going for. For frozen plant matter, a cold water bath would be the only dye option. With dried, it seems like most plant matter needs some time to rehydrate before it becomes fully “active”

My plan is to try splitting my foraging harvests into 2 preservation groups: one for freezing and one for drying.

Using Dried Botanicals


Test Skeins

5 wursted Peruvian Highland Wool skeins were purchased for color testing.

Fabric Selection

Claire Shaffer's Fabric Sewing Guide is used as a reference for exploring wool types and the best weights and types of wool to use for different garments. Mairet's text recommends silk and wool as the best garments for dying, but mentions linen and cotton as two additional dyeing materials. Wool is Mairet's choice, simply because it has been shown to both take and hold botanical dyes better than just about any fabric. In The Heart of the Madder, LaBerge writes

With few exceptions, dyed textiles were limited to animal fibers, especially wool… The vast majority of dyed textiles found in prehistoric Europe are of wool. There are exceptions to this, but very few. This is in large part because silk was rare, and plant fibers do not dye readily. Wool, however, takes dyes very well, and a wide spectrum of satisfyingly vivid colors can be made from vegetable dyes and wool yarns.

Sourcing Fabric

Potential fabric sources, saved here for posterity:

Garment Construction

The number of garments I complete will be based on the number of dye colors I choose. I may also add a batik into the project, depending on what colors I can most easily grow. This will give me more garment options.