Man has been using plants to dye cloth and other materials for centuries, possible as early as A.D. 700. But, it was the Native American Navajo that truly perfected the laborious art of dying wool for weaving, as evidenced by their exceptionally beautiful blankets and tapestries.

Fresh plant material is preferred in preparing the "dye bath," since they yield their colors easily, whereas dried plants and roots must be soaked for several hours. Cloth, or skeins of wool are dipped or soaked in the herbal dye bath solution and then hung to dry. Today, "mordants" are often used to deepen and "fix" colors, but they were seldom used by early Native Americans. Usually, cloth or wool would be rinsed in water several times until the material stood colorfast and no longer bled the dye. Later, materials such as juniper tree needles and raw alum were added to the dye bath to hasten this process. Juniper needles were burned to ash and then dissolved in hot water and strained. Alum, a natural element occurring under rock formations that were once under water, was toasted on hot coals before adding to the dye bath. Some popular mordants used today are chrome, tin, iron and cream of tartar.

Often, plants produce a very different dye color than you might expect based on their general appearance. The paintbrush plant, for instance, yields a beige-colored dye in spite of its bright red flowers. Lichen, which ranges in color from white to bright green, produces an orange dye.

The following are some common dyes the early Native Americans used for dying wool. Stainless steel, aluminum or enamel pots make the best vessels, but you can also use earthenware in most cases.

Plant: Wild Celery (Pseudocymopterus montanus)
Harvest: June and July
Parts Used: Flowers, leaves
Vessel: Tin or aluminum
Color Yield: Light Yellow

Boil 1 pound of wild celery in 5 gallons of water for 2 hours. Strain off plant material and add ¼ cup of alum and boil an additional 10 minutes. Add 1 pound of wet yarn and boil for 15 minutes. Rinse wool and hang to dry.

Plant: Sunflower
Harvest: August
Parts Used: Seeds
Vessel: Earthenware or enamel
Color Yield: Deep purple

Boil 3 cups seeds in 8 cups water. When seeds split open, strain off seeds and add wet yarn to liquid. Steep several hours or overnight before rinsing.

Plant: Ground lichen (Parmelia mollusula)
Harvest: Best gathered while still moist after a rain
Parts Used: Fresh or dried
Vessel: Earthenware
Color Yield: Orange

Boil 1 pound of lichen in 4 gallons of water for 1 hour. Strain off plant material and add ¼ cup alum and boil another 15 minutes. Add 1 pound of wet yarn and boil for 30 minutes. May steep to obtain reddish color before rinsing.

Plant: Oregon grape (Berberis aquifolium)
Harvest: September - October
Parts Used: leaves and vines Vessel: granite
Color Yield: Green

Boil 4 pounds of plant material in 5 gallons of water for 2 hours. Stain off plant material and add ¼ cup raw alum. Boil another 10 minutes, then add 1 pound of wet yarn. Steep overnight, then rinse and hang to dry.

Other Colors from a Dyer's Garden

Black: black walnut, alder
Brown: burdock, comfrey, fennel, onion, geranium
Gold: goldenrod, plantain, safflower, agrimony
Blue: indigo, elder, elecampane
Pink: bloodroot, chicory, madder
Green: agrimony, angelica, betony, coltsfoot, foxglove, marjoram, rosemary, tansy, yarrow
Gray: poplar, raspberry
Red: dandelion, St. Johns Wort, sweet woodruff, hops

Author's Bio: 

Karyn Siegel-Maier, owner of The Herbal Muse Press and founder of, is a freelance writer specializing in botanical therapies. She has written for many magazines, including Let's Live, Natural Living Today, Real Woman, The Herb Quarterly, Your Health, American Fitness, Mother Earth News, Delicious!, Better Nutrition, Natural Pharmacy and several web sites. She is also the author of The Naturally Clean Home (1st and 2nd editions, 1999 and 2008), 50 Simple Ways to Pamper Your Baby (2000) and Happy Baby, Happy You (2008). She has been the subject of numerous interviews with national magazines and newspapers and has been a guest on several radio shows, such as Gary Null's Natural Living and The Deborah Ray Show.

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