a natural dye

ClareBroommaker's picture

People who use plants to dye fibers already know about this dye, but my personal discovery of it came about in washing my jeans. Cliff hanger: the dye plant is named at the end of a pretty boring story.

After wearing my jeans for several days I noticed they were in need of a wash. I wash them by hand, so I get to see intimately what washes out of them. I first plunged them in cold water to pull out the mineral (soil) element of the dirt and to wash out some of the green stains without setting the protein in hot water. At first I noticed a red tinge in the water and was wondering whether it was from that loess soil I'm newly working with. The more I plunged, the more the water looked like cherry Kool-aid, so the color could not be from the soil. Quite weird.

When I switched to plunging the jeans in hot water with detergent, there was still red coming out of them, but now so was the blue from the denim, so my water was like dilute grape Kool-aid.

Two clear water rinses later and the red was pretty much gone. Thinking back over what plants I'd handled, I suspected the bedstraw (Galium) I'd weeded the previous day. Sure enough, the internet agrees with me. Bedstraw yields a red dye. How in all these years of weeding bedstraw did I never notice this?

Keep your eyes open. There are amusing and useful things to observe.

A friend of mine and I used to do a lot of dying with plant dyes. Woad grows wild here and is considered a noxious weed. Sage brush and rabbit brush give a great yellow, but the only source of red we knew was madder a member of the same family as bedstraw. My friend planted it in a neglected part of my garden and now that this garden are isn't as neglected, the madder is growing robustly and I suspect I will have to start weeding it.

Do you think you will try dying with it?

ClareBroommaker's picture

Maybe I'll dye a small rag just for the novelty. Don't have much bedstraw left to pull, but it's going to seed fast, so I've got to get it soon. Will find out whether the appropriate mordant is something in the household. Do you know what your friend uses with madder?

I think she used alum for the mordant. She also just used the roots so it would be interesting to try the foliage since I would guess that is want you were kneeling in to get red on your jeans. Let us know how it turns out.

Was the color just from the vegetable matter? Usually dyers use the root, but I've been weeding cleavers out of my yard all year and the root is tiny and holding on tight! If the veg matter works, though... I might change my mind.

I recently dyed with onion skins and love how it turned out on my handsewn linen tank top (in reality, the color is a little less golden-olive and a little deeper green).

add photo: 
ClareBroommaker's picture

Yes, it was from the stems and leaves. The roots on my bedstraw are very small, too. I think most times the roots are detaching, staying in the ground. Not sure though.

I still haven't tried any dying, and now what's left in the garden has those annoying stick-to-everything seeds, making me less inclined to work with it.