Natural dyeing with herbs is a fun and festive activity for the whole family! Nature is full of color, from dashing crimson cranberries to soft green grasses to mellow, yellow roots, fruit and vegetable skins, and leaves. Nearly every color combination is possible to construct from nature, and transferring it to clothing is a cinch! Just please bear in mind that natural dyes produce a softer, subtler color than industrial paint dye.
As busy homeschooling mothers to large families (ranging from 6 to 8 children a piece!) we know kid energy! Giving children the opportunity to express themselves with natural materials can get a bit messy, so be prepared with a positive attitude and appropriate clothing.
We love to do natural dyeing with our children outside, under the trees and in sunlight, so that we can use all of our senses to connect to the natural art inherent in the earth. Our goal is to get to know the plants and how they interact with cloth.
This makes a great science experiment… but doesn’t always create a perfectly composed art piece. As you and your children get to know the plants and their natural dyes, you can move towards more tailored compositions.
How to Get Started with Natural Dyeing
To begin, you’ll need to prepare your fabric so that it can hold the dye. To do this you’ll use a mordant (a substance that helps the dye adhere to the cloth) before dyeing. (We explain how to do this in step 1 below.)
What Kind of Fabric Can I Dye?
For the natural dyeing process, you can dye cloth made from natural materials, such as cotton, linen, wool, or silk. Synthetic fibers won’t be colorfast, and the dye will run off. You can dye almost anything, including socks, knitted hats/scarves, hand kercheifs, napkins, pillow cases/sheets or yarn.
Selecting Herbs and Foods for Dyeing
After you’ve finished the mordant process, take a family plant walk to find your dye plants. We’ve offered suggestions below on plants to dye with. Having a garden or nearby forest is great, but even city dwellers can find a plethora of plants in abandoned yards and sidewalk cracks. Ask your children to help you hunt and gather fun and colorful child-safe plants with a range of colors (Note: If you are unsure of the identity of a plant, use at least 3 sources to cross-identify. Children tend to put plant material into their mouths during this activity, and we want to be certain that the plants are safe for them to ingest.)
If you want to go the extra mile, be on the hunt for medicinal plants tailored to your family’s needs. You can use them medicinally and also produce a keepsake of your new allies with your dyed product. Once you have collected your plants, it’s time to get your cloth materials ready! After our basic dyeing directions below, we’ve offered some suggestions of plants to dye with.
How to Do Natural Dyeing with Herbs and Foods
The natural dyeing practice is a beautiful way to share the gifts of nourishing herbs and foods with your whole family and to gain a deeper understanding of the plants you love. Here’s how to do it…
Supplies you’ll need…
- Cloth made from natural materials
- A large pot
- Salt, vinegar, or baking soda (choose one)
- Rubber bands
- Foods and herbs to dye with and a few pots to prepare them with, if you need to soften them first (see below)
Preparing your Fabric
- To make your dye colorfast, you will need to simmer your clothes in a mordant mixture before dyeing. To do this, fill your large, empty pot with either:
- 4 parts water to 1 part salt or
- 4 parts water to 1 part vinegar or
- 2 cups baking soda to 1 gallon of water
- Choose only one of the above options. Now add in all of the natural cloth you wish to dye.
- Simmer together for about an hour. Turn off the heat and allow the cloth to continue to soak overnight.
- Ring out the material in the morning… and it’s ready to color! You can do this in one of two ways (or a combination of both).
Adding color by tie-dyeing
- Place your chosen plant material in a pot with just enough water to cover and let it simmer with a lid on, until the water has taken on some of the plant color. Keep an eye on the water to make sure it does not evaporate completely. If it is looking a little low, add a small amount of water.
- Strain and reserve both the plant and the liquid.
- Tie pieces of your cloth with a rubber band around areas of your fabric and then dip it into the liquid. This will create a two-tone effect (the cloth under the rubber band will remain white, while the parts around it will absorb the color. Try twisting and folding the cloth before securing with a rubber band for more interesting effects.
- You can also paint on the liquid with your fingers, paintbrush or twig.
- Allow the fabric to dry and then remove the rubber bands and admire your design!
Adding color by pounding it into the cloth
- Lay out the wet, pre-treated material onto a table covered with plastic. (If you plan on doing two sides of your material, such as a t-shirt, be sure to slip a piece of cardboard between the layers, so that the dye won’t seep through to the other side while you are working on the first. Flip the shirt over to dye the second side.)
- Line up all of your flowers, leaves, and powdered herbs. Roots, barks, and other tough plant material will need to be pre-cooked by simmering in boiling water until they soften (see directions for preparing plant material for tie-dyeing).
- Apply one or even a combination of herbs to the cloth material.
- Now use your hands, hammers, smooth stones, smooth branches or even feet to crush the plant material into the cloth. Repeat the process with each of your herbs.
- You want to really work the plant matter deep into the fibers. Smear it, pound it, chop it, juice it, crush it, and splash it! Use your creativity to get the plant to release its pigment.
- That’s it! You’ve done it! Now just allow the dyed material to air dry right on the table.
- When dry, rinse in warm water to remove any plant material and then air dry again. Your herbal creations are now ready to wear!
Below are some suggestions for herbs to dye with…
Sumac Berries (Rhus glabra)
These berries are red and have a tart flavor! When used for dyeing, the create a beige to pale brown color. Like all berries they have high amounts of vitamin C and flavonoids. Sumac is astringent and cooling for inflamed tissue. It makes a refreshing drink, sweetened with honey, and a cooling soothing drink for high fevers.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
With its bright yellow or orange flowers, Calendula is a ray of sunshine from the marigold family that is both edible and medicinal. They yield a light-yellow color in the dyeing process. The petals, called poor man’s saffron, can be added to dishes in rice, eggs, desserts and salads. Calendula is known and loved throughout the ages as a wound healer, internally and externally.
St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum)
These cheerful, yellow flowers produce a red juice when crushed or infused, which make it an ideal choice for natural dyeing. The dye color ranges from pinks to red to deep maroon. This nervine is well known in the treatment of depression and inflamed injuries and pain, specifically nerve pain like sciatica. We love St. John’s Wort infused oil in the treatment of mild burns, especially sunburn!
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
Chamomile creates light golden to deep warm yellow dye colors. With its it’s pretty daisy-like flowers and apples and honey flavor, Chamomile is well known as a calming bedtime tea. It reduces restlessness, aches, and insomnia. It is a mother’s top pick to use with children with digestive issues.
Acorn (Quercus sp.)
Acorns are fruit of the Oak tree and have a surprising yellow color when crushed (don’t forget that seeds, roots, barks and skins should be boiled in water prior to crushing, to help release their natural dyes. Acorn will create yellow to light brown colors. When leached of their bitter tannins and cooked, acorns are a very nourishing food high in fiber and prebiotics. Note: acorns must be leached before they are safe to consume.
More Medicinal Plants to Dye With
Other options to consider include flowering trees, berries, echinacea, Black Eyed Susans, nettle, wild grasses, cornflower, indigo and more. Pick favorite plants or abundant weeds from your yard.
Dyeing with Your Kitchen Pantry Ingredients
Next… raid your pantry! Onion skins, turmeric root, cooked black beans, colorful vegetables and fruit (including tomatoes, watermelon, pumpkin, and beets), mushrooms, spinach and mint are all excellent choices for making natural dyes. Note: roots, nuts, barks, and skins should be boiled before you begin, to soften them up so that they can properly release their colors.
Other pantry suggestions include the following…
Black Olive (Olea europaea )
When smooshed and hammered olives create a light yellow to light brown dye. When cooked they produce a brownish purple color. With feel-good fats and minerals, like iron and copper, and a savory mild flavor, black olives are a hit with children. They are are also high in vitamin E, polyphenols and flavonoids, which contribute to their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Beets/Beetroot (Beta vulgaris)
Beets will create light to bright shades of pink on fabric. Bursting with vibrant crimson color and abundant nutrients, including the power duo of iron and vitamin C, beets have long been associated with the blood health. They have a sweet flavor and are typically boiled, but can also be sliced very thinly and served crisp, sprinkled with a bit of apple cider vinegar.
Pomegranate (Punica granatum)
Pomegranate will produce muted yellow colors with green undertones. Known for its amazing properties as both food as medicine, tart, tangy pomegranate is an excellent choice for natural dyeing. Pomegranates are known for their immune benefits, anti-inflammatory actions, and blood pressure regulation capabilities.
Cinnamon (Cinnamonium aromaticum, C. cassia)
Cinnamon creates a warm, light brown color. Aromatic and sweet, cinnamon stimulates the senses and calms the nerves! Known as a warming spice, cinnamon improves digestion and circulation, and can be used as a steam inhalation for colds, coughs and sore throat.
Here are some frequently asked questions about botanical dyeing……
Oh no! Some of the plants made a different color on the cloth than how they appeared in real life! What went wrong?
Absolutely nothing! Part of the excitement of plant dyeing is not really knowing what the result will be. If you crush a flower or a leaf, it might produce a completely different color than the one you were expecting! Herbal dyeing is an opportunity to get to know your plants intimately, including surprises that you cannot see until you crush them on your cloth. Make notes about which plants produced which colors. You can use it for reference the next time you dye.
My child has sensory issues. How can we optimize this activity for them?
Herbal dyeing is perfect for children with sensory issues or who are not neurotypical. Choose aromatic plants such as mint, cinnamon, rosemary and lavender to provide your child a feast for the senses! You know your child best. What types of textures and scents does your child enjoy? Soothing? Invigorating? The beauty of herbal dyeing is that you can tailor the plant to the person and finish with a treasured keepsake.
How can I emphasize botany and the sciences in this activity? We’d like to use it for our homeschooling curriculum?
This project can cover many different homeschooling subjects in the arts and sciences. Encourage your children to look very closely at the plants you are using. Notice the veins on their leaves and the smell they release when you gently rub them. How does the plant feel? Is it cool? Slimy? Sticky?
Use a field guide or the Plant ID feature on the HerbMentor app to identify the plants you use. You can try out HerbMentor for just $1 and learn more about so many of the wonderful plants we’ve included in this natural dyeing guide.
Once you’ve properly identified your plants, remember: child-safe plants are edible plants, so go ahead and taste it. Is it bitter? Sweet? Share your knowledge. If you know about the medicinal qualities of the plants, don’t forget to share them with your children.