What are actually dyeing plants? Basically, dyes are found in all plants: not only in the colorful flowers, but also in leaves, stems, barks and roots. It is only during cooking and extraction that one can see which dyes can be “extracted” from the plants. Only the so-called dyeing plants can be used for dyeing natural substances. To do this, they have to meet a number of criteria. They must be available, washfast, lightfast, efficient in cultivation, and have certain characteristics when dyed. Here are the best dyeing plants for dyeing fabrics.
How long have dyer plants been around?
Dyeing plants have a long tradition. Even before colors could be produced artificially, people painted and dyed with natural colorants. The oldest preserved findings come from Egypt, where mummy bandages were found that had been dyed with extracts from the petals of safflower around 3,000 BC. Among the Greeks and Romans, dyer’s madder (Rubia tinctorum, red), dyer’s woad (Isatis tinctoria, blue) and saffron crocus (Crocus sativus, orange-yellow) were the most important dyeing plants. Turmeric (Curcuma longa) and walnut (Juglans regia) were also used to dye the natural fibers wool, silk and linen. Dyeing with plants reached a peak as early as the Middle Ages, partly because of book illumination.
The emergence of synthetic dyes in the 19th century caused the importance of dyeing plants to decline sharply. However, a developing environmental awareness, the thematization of sustainability and the turn towards ecologically produced clothing in recent years have led to more attention being paid again to the total of around 150 plant species that have a dyeing effect.
From a chemical point of view, the dyes in dyeing plants consist of organic molecules. They are soluble in water, oil or other liquids – in contrast to the so-called pigments. The molecules in dye plants combine particularly well with natural fibers. Plant dyes can be divided into the following groups:
- Flavonoids: The color spectrum of this group ranges from yellow, orange and red to violet.
- Betalains: These are water-soluble red flower or fruit dyes.
- Anthocyanins and anthocyanidins are responsible for red to blue dyes.
- Quinones are found, for example, in safflower, henna and madder and produce red tones.
- Indigoid dyes are blue dyes contained, for example, in the indigo plant.
Dyeing plants and natural fibers
To dye fabrics with dye plants, wool, linen or other natural fibers must first be pretreated with a mordant so that the dyes adhere to the fibers. The mordant alum, a salt of potassium and aluminum, or tartar is usually used for this purpose.
The fabric is boiled for one to two hours in the respective mixture for mordanting. Likewise, the fresh or dried plant parts are boiled in water and the extracted dyes are then added to the fabric. After further simmering and drawing, the fabric is removed from the decoction and hung to dry. It is necessary to fix freshly dyed fabrics with vinegar and later wash them separately, so that the color that could not be absorbed is rinsed off.
The best dye plants
Plants for red color shades
Madder (Rubia tinctorum) is a herbaceous plant with long tendrils. The elongated leaves have small spines on their underside. They have yellow flowers and bear dark berries in autumn. The undemanding perennial can be cultivated in loose soils. Madder is one of the oldest dyeing plants ever. To obtain the warm red color, you must first crush the madder root and then boil the powder for 30 minutes. Then add an alum solution to extract the dyes.
Beet (Beta vulgaris) mainly contains the dye betanin. To extract the color, you should finely grate the tuber and then put it in a cotton cloth with a few drops of water. Squeeze the whole thing out over a container and only continue to use the juice of the beet for dyeing or painting when it has cooled down completely. The flowers of each geranium variety can be extracted with alum solution. To do this, simmer the flowers in alum for about 15 to 20 minutes and then strain the mixture.
Plants for yellow color shades
You can easily grow the dyer’s chamomile (Anthemis tinctoria) from seeds yourself. The deep golden yellow color is obtained by boiling the fresh or dried flowers in alum solution for about 15 minutes and then straining. The main colorant of dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is yellow flavoxanthin. You get it out of the plants by pickling the fresh flowers as well as the leaves in alum solution or with tartar. Dyer’s broom also yields a yellow dye that was used by the Romans to dye fabrics.
Today, onions (Allium cepa) are generally only used to dye Easter eggs. These are given a light, brownish-yellow color. In the past, it was used to dye numerous fabrics, especially wool and cotton. To do this, collect the outer skins of the onions and simmer them in a water-alum solution for about 30 minutes.
Saffron, turmeric, and henna can be extracted in water and provide gorgeous yellow to yellow-brown hues.
Plants for blue color shades
Woad (Isatis tinctoria) is a traditional dyeing plant for shades of blue. The dye of the yellow-flowered biennial plant, which grows up to 120 centimeters (48 in) high, is contained in the leaves and is dissolved with alcohol and salt. Pickled fabrics initially turn yellow-brown. Only when dried outdoors do they turn blue due to the interaction of sunlight and oxygen.
The indigo plant (Indigofera tinctoria) belongs to the so-called “vat dyes“. This means that it contains dyes that are not water-soluble and cannot be used to dye fabrics directly. In a complex reduction and fermentation process, the dyeing molecules are only formed in the vat. As with woad, the substances are initially yellow and then turn to the typical dark blue “indigo” when exposed to air.
The berries of black elderberry (Sambucus nigra) should be crushed and briefly boiled in water for dyeing. The fruits of blueberry or blackcurrant are just as suitable, they are also prepared in the same way. Blue dyes are also contained in cornflower and dyer’s knotweed, as well as the leaves of red cabbage.
Plants for green color shades
The nettle contains the most dyes between April and May. For extraction, the upper parts of the plant should be cut into small pieces, boiled with alum and then strained. Alternatively, you can use dried leaves. While the flowers of the coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida) yield a harmonious olive green after extraction, the flowers of the iris yield a rather cool blue-green.
The outer shells of walnut, soaked and extracted, yield a dark brown on fabrics; the bark of oak and chestnut provide even slightly darker, almost black browns.