"Color has taken possession of me." Paul Klee, artist

Take a look at the clothes you are wearing right now. I doubt they are all white. If you are having your early morning coffee, you might still be in your pajamas with flying pigs and fluffy white clouds all over them. Chances are you have a favorite color, and the color you are wearing might tell us something about you. Color is a part of our world, we cheer up with the first greens of spring, we wind down when the leaves turn yellow and red. Songs are written about color: Green, Green Grass of Home, Pink Cadillac, Blue Velvet, Lady in Red, Purple Rain, Orange Crush. See what I mean? We live in a world of color, which brings me to color's natural physical source: Plants.

Color was important to Native Americans. Most of them assigned a color to the four directions of the compass. Among the Cherokee, north was blue, south was white, east was red, and west was black. The first to use native dye plants in the United States were the Native Americans. Their culture was dependent on what the land provided. Plants provided food, medicine, and dyes. Different colors had specific meanings: black meant death, night and male; blue indicated sky, water, female, and often sadness; green meant plants, summer and rain; red was sunset, blood, war; white was winter, death and snow; and yellow meant sunshine and dawn. Color meanings varied from tribe to tribe, but the important point is that often color communicated a message, so dyes were important to our Native Americans.

Gathering and preparing plants to be used as dyes was not always an easy process since some dyes came from the roots and the bark of the plant while other dyes were made from the leaves, the stem and the flower. I grew up learning how to make dyes from plants. Growing up in the mountains provided only plants that would grow in the conditions of that area, so my knowledge is limited in that respect. In any case, I will tell you the process first, and then I will give you a list of plants and the particular color each plant will provide. During the years when I taught a Textile class to juniors and seniors, I found that their interest was drawn to tie dyeing, and that interest didn't fade when I explained to them that they would be making their own dyes.

Preparing the fabric for dye:

Muslin, silk, cotton and wool are the best fabrics for dyeing; white and very light pastel fabrics will accept the dye fairly easily.

1) Wash fabric in gentle detergent to rid it of impurities.

2) Add 3/4 t alum plus 1/4 t of cream of tartar per quart of water to a large pot. Add fabric to the mixture and heat at a simmer for about an hour. If using wool, allow the water to heat slowly and consistently. This process helps the fabric absorb the dyes more readily.

3) Remove fabric from pre dye wash, rinse, and then add it to the already prepared dye.

Dyeing fabric:

1) Chop the plant into small pieces

2) Double the amount of water: if you use one cup of plant material, then use 2 cups of water.

3) Bring to a boil and simmer for at least 2 hours, if you prefer a darker color, you can simmer for a longer period of time, but you must have enough water so that evaporation does not take it all away. I always use a very large enameled pot for dyeing, particularly if I am dyeing large amounts of fabric. You can't add water in order to increase the amount of dye after the dye has already been leached from the plant. Adding more water will only dilute the dye, not make more.

4) When the dye has reached the color you want, then strain the plant parts away. Keep in mind that this will require a second large pot that the dye itself will be strained into.

5) Add fabric. The longer you leave the fabric in the dye, the stronger the color will be. I have often left the fabric in dye for as long as overnight to get the depth of color that I needed.

6) After desired color is reached, remove fabric from dye (you will need rubber gloves here), wring then rinse in cool water until water runs clear.

7) If you are using berry dyes, 1/2 cup of salt to 8 cups of cold water will fix the dye.

8) If you are using plant dyes, then add 4 parts cold water to 1 part vinegar to fix the dye.

9) Choose the proper fixative for your dye, and allow the fabric to rest in the fixative for at least an hour, stirring with a long handled wooden spoon occasionally.

Now that you know the dyeing process, let's take a look at the colors you can derive from plants:


bloodroot, onion skins, sassafras leaves, lichen, giant coreopsis, turmeric


strawberries, cherries, raspberries, roses and lavender, lichens

Blue, Purple

red cabbage, mulberries, grapes, blueberries, cherry roots, blackberry, nearly black iris

Gray, Black

iris roots, sumac leaves (toxic)


artemisia, spinach leaves, black eyed susan, grass, plantain roots, lily of the valley (toxic), red onion skin


oak bark, sumac leaves (toxic), walnut hulls, tea bags, coffee grounds, acorns (boiled), beetroot


sumac fruit (toxic), dandelion root, beets, rosehips, dried hibiscus flowers, old daylily blooms, pokeberries(toxic)


pokeweed berries (toxic), dried red or purple hibiscus, old daylily blooms


broom flower, all parts of Virginia creeper, plum tree roots, wood and bark of weeping willow


saffron, syrian rue, yellow cone flower (flowerhead), onion skins, marigold blossoms, celery leaves, goldenrod flowers, dandelion flower, daffodil flower heads, hickory leaves, tea

Now you definitely know as much as I know about gathering color from plants. I hope you have a great time trying natural dyes. These dyes will also work for dyeing baskets, as well as the reeds and fibers used to make them.

I can assure you, kids love it, too.

Information for this article came in bits and pieces from lesson plans used over the years, and from my own experiences as a child in the mountains. Thank you, Aunt Bett! Be on the lookout for a future article on plant dyes from Dave's Garden writer Melody Rose.