Category Archives: dyeing

ornamental prunus

You know those purple cherry trees that used to line every street in Melbourne? This is some of the colour held in those purple-black leaves. How strange that red leaves usually yield greens… and that greens are the hardest colours to find in natural dyes!

Prunus on wool

Prunus on wool mordanted with alum and cream of tartar



Recently, our dye group worked with the common New Zealand lichen Sticta coronata; unlike many lichens, this species is relatively quick-growing and widespread and so its harvest poses less of a threat to existing populations. Apparently it yields a wide range of colours from purples, pinks and browns to yellows and gold, depending on the pH of the dyebath. We only made two dyebaths, one with tapwater and the other with tapwater plus a capful of ammonia. I ended up with soft purple and pink.

Mordanted wool with ammonia afterbath and mordanted wool

Mordanted wool with ammonia afterbath and mordanted wool

I’d like to play around with it, lowering the pH with vinegar to see what that produces… I’m guessing it would take the colour towards the golds and greens. Anyone know?


I’ve been keen to try dyeing with this weedy species (there are numerous pokes around the world but I’m pretty sure the one found in southern Australia is Phytolacca octandra) since I saw it growing at Werribee Gorge last year. I’d read about it in Rebecca Burgess’ Harvesting colour and know the genus from my herbalist days (Phytolacca decandra is a great lymphatic and glandular remedy) but didn’t think I’d ever get my hands on it until I stumbled on it on a bushwalk.  I was kicking myself that I couldn’t get back out to the gorge in time to harvest the ripe berries and then one day found a self-seeded plant in a housing estate around the corner from my house!


Phytolacca berries

Apparently dyers have long eyed off the purple-black berries as a dye source (even its names serve to tease- phyto= plant, lacca= red dye, common name Inkplant) but couldn’t get the colour to hold… and then the experiments of natural dyer Carol Lee led to the discovery that the pH of the dyebath must be low (acidic) for the pigment to bond to fibres. Revolutionary!

So, temporarily putting aside my greed for usable quantities of dyed yarn (I tend to jump in instead of testing and sampling!), I picked a small handful of berries and heated them gently while pre-mordanting a small hank of wool/ silk with vinegar according to Rebecca Burgess’ instructions. At first, the dyebath was a lovely dark pink but it slowly got paler and paler until all colour was lost- I added the yarn anyway and simmered it for 45 min… and ended up with a very pale yellow-green, not the dark red I was expecting. It started me thinking about cold-dyeing instead- it seems like lots of berries and fruit yield clearer and longer-lasting colours that way- and then found that Dre of grackle and sun had done just that and had great results! So I followed her wonderful advice and steeped the berries (and racemes) in 100% vinegar in a large jar for a month and then added the yarn and left the whole thing to soak for another 10 days. I then removed the skeins, left them to dry and then rinsed them really well to remove the vinegar. I wasn’t sure how leaving yarn in pure vinegar would affect it but it feels fine.

And the results…


Cold pokeberry on mordanted and unmordanted wool and mordanted wool/ silk


Initial and subsequent experiments

I’m incredibly excited to get such amazing colours from a weed with no input except vinegar and time 🙂  The wool/ silk yarn is much paler because only the wool fibres seem to have picked up the colour, even though silk often dyes more readily than wool- another enigma!

I was also keen to see how different the colour would be with hot-processing so, once I’d removed the yarn from the jar, I put the remains of the dyebath in a pot with enough water to cover, simmered for 1.5 hours and then added some more vinegar-mordanted yarn, holding the dyebath at 70C for 2 hours as per Rebecca Burgess’ instructions. And the result is quite, quite different.


Hot pokeberry on mordanted wool

I now need to test them all for light-fastness. I wonder if I’ll get the same results as Dre for this… her work, as well as that of Carol Lee and Rebecca Burgess, has really inspired me to experiment more, whether that be playing around with pH, different methods of dyeing or plants I haven’t tried before. Thankyou!

purple basil

Once you get a taste for dyeing with plants, you start to question the potential of everything around you: plants in your garden and surrounding landscape, your fridge, your food cupboard and even your medicine cabinet if you’re into herbs! I recently bought a bunch of purple basil to infuse in oil and serve with baked vegetables; rather than leaving the remaining half-bunch to turn to sludge in the fridge, I simmered it in water for 45min, strained the leaves out and added some yarn pre-mordanted in alum and cream of tartar to see if any of the dark red of the dyebath would bond to it.

Purple basil on wool/ silk and wool

Purple basil on wool/ silk and wool

Interestingly, the wool/ silk took up a lot of colour, while the wool just a touch, whereas sometimes the opposite happens. I’m starting to think there must be affinities between certain plant pigments and certain fibres… or perhaps the capacity for bonding is pH-related. It’s an enigmatic art.


Ratanjot is the Hindi name for a number of plants in the borage family (including Alkanna tinctoria or alkannet) traditionally used for colouring textiles, food (such as rogan josh!), vegetable oils, wines, medicines, cosmetics and varnishes. It is currently used as a red food colouring agent (E103 or alkannin).

The species most commonly used in India (where this plant material came from) is Arnebia nobilis, which is imported from Afghanistan. The purple-brown roots, twisted roots are covered in a papery bark from which the dye is extracted. Dark red, purple and browns are the most typical colours achieved.

Two methods were used:

Dyebath 1: powdered ratanjot mixed with alcohol and left for an hour to extract colour.

Dyebath 2: powdered ratanjot mixed with cold water to form paste and left overnight.

Warm water was then added to both preparations and both were brought to the boil and then down to simmer. Pre-mordanted yarn and fibre were introduced into both baths and left at 80c for approx 1 hour.

The yarn and fibre in dyebath 1 with alcohol all came out brown, whereas those in dyebath 2 came out soft shades of purple, mauve and aubergine. Ratanjot seems to be light-sensitive; the colours intensified and moved towards purple when the freshly-dyed skeins were exposed to sunlight. Next time, I’d like to see how pH affects the colours achieved; apparently, using an acidic vinegar afterbath results in pinkish shades, whereas and alkaline ammonia afterbath results in greyish blue.

Ratanjot on wool/ silk yarn: dyebaths 1 and 2

Ratanjot on cotton cloth