How To Make Vegetable Dye

updated Jun 29, 2019
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I found a page from an old book all about creating vegetable dyes! The author and source are unknown, but the dyes are absolutely gorgeous! These are not just beet juice dyes, they are made to last and come from plants you might find in your own backyard or out on a nature walk. Let’s start with dyeing wool, since according to this vegetable dye elder, that is the easiest material to work with, before graduating to silk, linens, and cottons.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

What You Need

Wool (to be dyed)
Alum (potassium aluminum sulphate)
Cream of Tartar
Large saucepan or tall pot
Container to store treated wool
*Pick a color from the list below to find the herb, plant, or bark you will need.

Wooden sticks, dowels, or knitting needles
Rubber gloves


*Please read any special instructions for your specific color before starting this process.

1. Treat the Wool For the majority of vegetables dyes, it is important to first treat the wool with a mordant aka a solution to fix dye on the fabric. We recommend mixing Alum (potassium aluminum sulphate) and cream of tartar. For 500 grams (about 1 pound) of wool, mix 100 grams of alum and 25 grams of cream of tartar together until dissolved in a large saucepan of cold water. Start to boil the water, adding the wool once the water is warm. Then bring to a boil and then let it simmer for an hour. Squeeze the warm water out of the wool gently, and then place it in a container for safekeeping until dye time! One to two days is ideal for the solution to cure, but you can dye the wool immediately after as well.

2. Decide on a Color One of the beautiful things about vegetable dyes are the vibrant natural colors you can create! Here are some possible colors: Yellow, Gold, Yellow-Green, Olive Yellow, Bluish-grey, Bluish-green, Lilac, Violet, Green, Reddish-yellow, Brown, Rose-pink

3.Prepare the Plant Once you choose a color, put the plant in cold water and bring it to a slow boil. Once it has boiled, simmer the plant for awhile to let the plant fully disperse into the water. Stir regularly.

4. Add the Wool Next, add the wool and stop stirring. Use a smooth stick to turn the wool every now and then. Leave the wool in the mixture until it has acquired the color you desire, just keep in mind wet wool is darker than dry wool. Once you are satisfied with the color, turn the heat off and leave the wool in the mixture until the water is cold. Remove with smooth sticks, squeeze out the excess dye, and then wash the wool thoroughly.

5. Color Recipes Each color may require slight alterations to the above recipe.

  • Fresh birch leaves = Yellow Use 2.2 pounds or 1 kilogram of birch leaves.
  • Birch Bark = Dull yellow to deep gold First, use 50 grams of cream of tartar for the mordant process. Next, boil about 500 grams of birch bark for 2 hours before adding the wool.
  • Blackberries = Bluish-grey First, add an extra 25 grams of cream of tartar and 25 grams of salt to the mordant. Then follow the above recipe, adding 500 grams of blackberries for the dye.
  • Young bracken shoots = Yellowish green Simmer 500 grams of young bracken shoots for 2 hours before adding the wool.
  • Elderberries = Lilac to violet If you want a lilac color, add some salt to the mordant. Then add 500 grams of elderberries for lilac or violet coloration.
  • Elder leaves = Green Use 500 grams of elder leaves.
  • Dog’s mercury = Yellow to blue Use 1 kilogram of chopped dog’s mercury to produce a yellow color, that turns blue after boiling it for a long time.
  • Privet berries = Bluish-green Use 750 grams of well-bruised privet berries.
  • Heather flower shoots = Olive yellow First, make sure the mordant has 50 grams of cream of tartar. Next simmer the young ling/heather flower shoots for several hours, then cool and strain the liquid before adding the wool and boiling again. This prevents the flower buds from becoming encrusted in the wool.
  • Walnut husks and shells = Dark brown If you want a dark brown, apply the coloration process to unmordanted wool, for a paler color, work with mordanted wool.
  • Oak bark = Deep brown Use 500 grams of oak bark.
  • Pine cones = Reddish-yellow Break up and boil 750 grams of pine cones for several hours.
  • Dried madder (Rubia peregrina) roots = Rose-pink Use the dried roots for this color.

Additional Notes:
For lichens, you do not need to use mordant. Lichens are those bright fungus-like plants that grow on old walls and roofs as well as dead trees, typically in a bright yellow or pastel green color. Collect 1 pound of lichen for ever 1 pound of wool. Then boil the lichen in a large bowl of water for 2-3 hours. Let it cool, and then add thoroughly wetted wool. Boil the two together until you get your desired color and then turn off the burners. Once the water is cold, remove the wool and wash it thoroughly in cold water.

Any other great veggie and plant dye tips out there?

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