Many of the plants we grow in our gardens can be used as natural dyes for fabrics like cotton, linen plus wool and silk. This provides a beginner overview along with a sample lavender dye recipe from the book Seasonal Plant Dyes by Alicia Hall.

If you want fabric dyeing instructions for tie-dyeing or bright bold colors, see Fabric Dyeing 101: Simple Instructions for Beautiful Fabrics.

The lavender fabric dyeing recipe and images from the book
Seasonal Plant Dyes by Alicia Hall
are used with permission from the publisher.

How to Dye Fabric With Plants

Have you ever wanted to dye fabric or wool using the plants in your garden?

The new book Seasonal Plant Dyes by Alicia Hall walks us through the process featuring plants to use at their peak in spring, summer, autumn, and winter to create an array of gorgeous colors and textures only natural dyes can achieve.

Seasonal Plant DyesCreate your own beautiful botanical dyes, plus four seasonal projects to makeby Alicia Hall

First, let’s go through some frequently asked questions about natural plant dyeing to provide a good overview of how it works and what to expect.

There is also a sample recipe at the end for dyeing fabric with lavender leaves.

1What supplies do I need to dye fabric with plants?

Examples of lavender leaf dye | Photo Credit: Alicia HallYou will need plants (determined by the color you want), fabric or wool, and some basic kitchen supplies.

Plants

Dyes can be made from flowers, foliage, stems, bulbs, or roots, depending on the plant. You can also use various fruit and vegetable scraps like carrot tops and avocado seeds and countless other items from the natural world.

What you use for dye depends on the color desired, although the color of the plant part does not necessarily correspond to the dye color. For example, blue Buddleja flowers create bright yellow dye.

The recipes in the book provide plant options for a variety of colors.

You may have suitable plants already growing in your garden (see list below) or you might forage for them in the wild—if it is legal and ethical.

PlantColorPart to UseAlder (Alnus glutinosa)Greenish light brownConesBay (Laurus nobilis)Terracotta pinkLeavesBuddleja (Buddleja)Bright yellowFlower headsDahlia (Dahlia)Browns with yellow, orange, red undertonesFlowersDyers alkanet (Alkanna tinctoria)PurpleRootsDyers chamomile (Anthemis tinctoria)YellowFlowersElderberry (Sambucus)Purple / grayBerriesEucalyptus (Eucalyptus)OrangeLeavesForsythia (Forsythia)Golden / mustard yellowFlowersGoldenrod (Solidago)Greenish yellowFlowersIvy (Hedra helix)Greenish grayLeavesLavender (Lavendula)GrayLeavesMadder (Rubia tinctorum)RedRootsMint (Mentha)YellowNew leaves and stemsNettle (Urtica diocia)Bright to olive greenLeavesRosemary (Rosmarinus)Gray / purpleLeavesSt. John’s wort (Hypericum)Terracotta pink / redFlowersWalnut (Juglans regia)Browns from light to very darkShellsWoad (Isatis tinctoria)Indigo blueLeavesYarrow (Achillea millefolium)Greenish yellowFlowersFabric or Wool

Examples of fabrics dyed from plants | Photo Credit: Alicia HallNatural fibers tend to dye best, and the thicker the fabric, the more dye it can take up.

Your fabric choices will depend on your personal preferences, ethics, and environmental concerns.

Animal sources: silk, sheep’s wool, mohair (from angora goats), angora, cashmere. Plant sources: cotton, linen (from flax plants), hemp, raffia (from palm leaves).Semi-synthetics including rayon, modal, bamboo (made from wood or seaweed and chemically-modified) and rayon (made from chemically-treated wood pulp).Synthetics like polyester, nylon, and acrylic (derived from oil or coal) are not recommended.Fabrics from animal sources tend to dye more brilliantly than plant-based fabrics due to the natural proteins in the fabric that bond with the dyes.

TIP: Check thrift shops for inexpensive fabric to dye.

One-of-a-Kind Results

The beauty of dyeing with plants is that results vary depending on the specific plants used, fabric composition and preparation, and the dye process.

The more you experiment, the more you will get familiar with the unique characteristics of each plant. But even then, expect the unexpected: it is an unpredictable art form.

Also, you don’t have to start with white fabric: plant dyes are transparent so they build on the color below. A yellow fabric dyed red will appear orange. If a fabric has a printed pattern, the pattern will still be visible after plant dyeing.

TIP: When selecting fabric to dye, be sure you know the composition. Sometimes blends like poly-cottons are labelled as cotton and will not take dye the way a pure natural fabric will.

Supplies

All supplies must be dedicated to crafting and dyeing and never be reused for food preparation.

Saucepan – aluminum in pots can act as a mordantWooden spoons for stirring – one each for yellows, reds, greensSieve or colanderTea towels or muslin fabric to strain dyesSpare bowlProtective gloves, mask, glasses if any noxious plants or powders are used.Get the book here: Seasonal Plant Dyes

2Are plant-dyed fabrics colorfast or washfast?

Will these fabrics run or fade?

This does not have a yes or no answer.

It depends on the dye color (plants), fabric, and dyeing method.

Some plant-dyed colors are much more enduring than others.

In the book, Alicia uses soya milk both as a mordant (to help the dye stick) and a modifier to improve color results. She likes the soya milk because it works without changing the texture of the fabric.

Almond milk also has a protein that works nicely as a mordant but soya milk is less expensive. Either way, the milk can be reused for preparing multiple batches of fabric until it spoils.

If you have followed the instructions carefully, there should not be excess dye in the fabric after the final rinse.

Ultimately, if your plant-dyed fabrics fade over time—from sun or washing—you can always re-dye them.

4How long does it take to dye fabric with plants?

This is not an afternoon project.

There are several basic steps with hands-on tasks and longer waiting periods in between.

Overall, one dye project will likely take place over several weeks but your time spent actively on it is moderate: an hour here and there.

Some time is spent overseeing the dye pot (saucepan, water, plant dye, fabric) gently heating on the stove. Additional time off the stove allows further color absorption.

Fabric Dyeing Steps

Wash fabric before dyeing to remove any finishes.Soak fabric in soya milk for 48 hours for better results.Air-dry fabric for one week to allow milk proteins to cure.Collect plant materials. Some colors use smaller amounts of plant materials, others require a fair volume. The good news is you can store them in the freezer until needed.Dye the fabric. Finally! Depending on the color, your fabric may sit in the dye pot for days or weeks to achieve the desired intensity. The good news is nothing is going to be ruined if you have to leave it for a period of time.
Caring for Plant-Dyed Fabrics

As a general rule, use a gentle soap in cool water. Hang to dry, not in direct sunlight. This will protect the dyed fabrics that are vulnerable to fading.

Sample Recipe

From the book Seasonal Plant Dyes by Alicia Hall

Dyeing With Lavender Leaves

Common name: Lavender (Lavendula)
Type: Evergreen shrub
Dye Color: Grey

You will need: 2 to 3 large handfuls of lavender leaves. Don’t worry too much if the occasional stem gets in the dye pot.

Making the dye

Put the lavender leaves in the dye pot along with enough water to submerge them. Heat the pot and keep it simmering for an hour before turning off the heat. Soak the leaves in the water for a day before removing them.Dyeing the fabric

Place the fabric in the dye, add more water if needed and gently simmer for 30 minutes to an hour before leaving the fabric to soak until you’re happy with the color.Note: because it’s so highly scented, the smell of the lavender when it’s heating up can become quite overpowering, so it’s a good idea to dye in a well- ventilated space with a few extra windows open.

About Lavender Dye

A versatile herb, lavender’s flowers are used in traditional herbal medicine, aromatherapy and essential oils. It’s used to reduce stress and soothe away aching muscles, as well as being great for attracting bees and butterflies. Lavender leaves produce a soft grey dye.

Lavender has grey-green, highly scented foliage and spikes of aromatic flowers in the summer. The flowers are most commonly purple, but they can sometimes be pale pink or white. The plant will produce a grey dye no matter the colour of the flowers.

Found in domestic gardens, lavender likes full sun and well­-drained soil. It should be pruned yearly to keep it in shape, and to prevent it from becoming too leggy, with bare stems at the base.

The ideal time to prune lavender is in the late summer after it has flowered. This will give it plenty of time to put on new growth before the cooler months begin and will help it to flower earlier in the following year.

Remove the flower stalks (these can be composted) and take off about 2.5cm of the current year’s foliage growth, which can be used for dyeing.

Growth that’s harvested during the summer months usually produces a grey dye; leaves collected from early spring growth normally produces beige and light brown dyes.

See How to Grow Lavender for a complete growing guide.

Seasonal Plant DyesCreate your own beautiful botanical dyes, plus four seasonal projects to makeby Alicia Hall

For complete instructions (with lots of gorgeous photos), grab a copy of the book and start exploring all the dye possibilities growing in your garden.

~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛