Colour from around the house

This summer I have spent time looking at Brunello’s ‘The Art of Dyeing in The History of Mankind’ (1973). This was one of the first academic studies on historical dyeing practices and has a comprehensive list of dye plants used through the ages.

I began by identifying the ones that I had in and around the garden. To my surprise, I found that the strongest colours came from plants right outside my front door, such as marjoram tops that yield a beautiful golden yellow to olive green, illustrated below on both wool and silk.

Marjoram on silk and wool

I used alum and cream of tartar together as mordants; a combination known to ancient dyers. Alum is found in silicates and the quantities used for mordanting are carefully measured to ensure that there is complete take up into the fiber (Sandberg, 1994). Cream of tartar was known as ‘wine stone’ by ancient dyers and allows more take-up of the dye.

One bright surprise was that the plume poppy oozes with mustard colored sap and stains your hands.

Below is an example of plume poppy leaves and stalks, in the dye bath and on silk (mustard) next to avocado stones (pink).

Now the autumn is here, after making wine and vinegar, I am experimenting with the left over elderberries that yield vivid crimson, together with ivy and hawthorn.

Clockwise below from top left: ivy flowers (green), hawthorn berries (purple), elderberries and elderberries on wool (crimson).

Many of the wild plants used in the past contain tannin, which is a natural defence against disease and is employed as a mordant. Sumac, oak and walnut were widely used but many other plants contain tannin in leaves and bark. Tannin also imparts a colour and darkens the dye bath. I am now experimenting with blackberry leaves and stalks as an example.

Inside the kitchen, pomegranate (also used by the ancients) and artichoke leaves are a good source of tannin too.

Clockwise below from left: pomegranate skin and iron on silk (gold), marjoram (yellow) and artichoke (grey) on silk organza, artichoke leaves and oak bark (from a fallen tree)

I shall be offering workshops that will explore common dye plants in 2020. Details will be found at

Dye records, from top to bottom: ladies mantle, dandelion leaf, dandelion root, marjoram leaves , gentian leaves and gentian root.

Sandberg, G. (1994) The Red Dyes. Tidens Forlag, Stockholm.
Brunello, F. (1973) The Art of Dyeing in the history of mankind. Phoenix Dye Works, Ohio.

Linda Row

One comment

Comments are closed.