Wildflower dyes, hand-crafted from the beauty of simple summer meadows, are a fun way to brighten your day. Like the wildflowers they’re made from, natural dyes are beautiful and gentle. They are not designed to last forever – we are meant to enjoy them while they last!
The Nature of Natural Dyes
A word of caution on expectations: there’s a reason why the textile industry isn’t using natural plant dyes on a mass-manufacturing scale. It takes some serious chemistry to achieve a color that remains unchanged, the way we’ve come to expect, through a textile’s lifetime of wear-and-tear and wash-and-dry.
Dyes made from the flowers of the field are fugitive – a lovely way of saying that they change and fade and ultimately disappear over time. They are fleeting. They are impermanent. But like a bouquet of blossoms, they are no less pleasant to create and no less beautiful in your home for the fact that they won’t last forever. Just choose your projects with that in mind, and you’ll never be disappointed!
Personally, my favorite projects so far have been window-panels and cushion-covers that have cheerfully graced my living room with wildflower-colors all year long. But I also do use wildflower dye for table linens like dinner napkins and tea towels. Even though I wash them constantly and they fade over time, it’s no harm done because I know I’ll just over-dye them periodically to brighten up the table with a splash of color again!
The Nature of Natural Fibers
There’s also a reason why most of the images you’ll find when you’re searching natural plant dyes will be colorful skeins of wool. Protein fibers like wool accept dye much more easily than cellulose fibers like cotton. Cotton has a natural waxy coating on its fibers that makes it resistant to dye. But for me on the homestead, I’m spending a very small amount of time knitting wool hats for the winter and a very great amount of time making various household linens out of muslin. So I really want to dye cotton…what’s a girl to do?
The answer is: Scour. Scouring in hot soapy water with some vigorous scrubbing will start to break down that coating so that your dye has some surface area to hold onto. I like to dye unbleached cotton muslin, so this step is essential. Scour, hang to dry, and then your muslin is ready to mordant.
Mordanting is a chemical process that aids in binding a dye to a fiber. Different mordants are recommended for different dyes and different fibers, and you can easily lose yourself in research on various opinions and recommendations on this topic. But I like to keep things simple, so for me the answer is alum. Alum is a relatively mild mordant that’s easy to buy and easy to use, and it has worked well on my muslin fabric with every plant dye that I have yet had the pleasure to try.
So let’s get started! This is my “dye kit,” a quick collection of kitchen items that I always have around and that I gather up when the flowers are blooming and I’ve felt that urge to dye something before they fade away.
My basic process is the same for all dyes – the only variable is the dye material. I’ve included details about 3 of my favorite wildflower dyes – but be ready to enjoy and experiment with natural materials and amounts of your own, because all that variety is definitely part of the fun!
Note: Batch sizes for my 6 qt pot look like: 5 dinner napkins & 1 tea towel – or 2 window panels 36″ square – or 2 yards of muslin at 44″ width.
Natural Dyes, Step-by-Step
Step 1: Scour. I scour muslin ahead of time for future projects so that it’s ready and waiting to dye. You can scour by hand, scrubbing under hot water, or run your fabric through a hot water wash and dry cycle.
Step 2: Mordant. Place muslin into stainless steel pot and fill with water to cover. Add 1 Tbsp of alum and bring to a boil, using the wooden spatula to periodically dunk and stir the fabric in the bath. Allow to simmer for 1 hour. Transfer fabric from pot to bowl and discard alum bath.
Step 3: Gather. Take the scissors and the pot out into the field. Enjoy the sunshine, listen to the birds, look for butterflies, and gather the material for your dye project directly into the pot. (See below for recommended amounts for my 3 favorite wildflower dyes!)
Step 4: Make Dye. Cover dye material with water and bring to a boil. Simmer for one hour.
Step 5: Dye Bath. Place strainer over mixing bowl containing mordanted fabric. Pour dye bath over fabric. Leave to soak overnight. I use the lid from my pot to cover the bowl.
Step 6: Finish. In the morning, remove the fabric from the dye bath, rinse with cool water, and hang to dry. Enjoy the beauty of wildflower color captured in fiber!
A Few of My Favorite Dyes
Goldenrod: Fill pot loosely with blossoms. Cover with water, bring to a boil with the lid on, and simmer for 1 hour. The first dye will be a strong golden-yellow. You can re-use the dye bath for a softer yellow.
Hopi Black Dye Sunflower: Remove ripe seeds by rubbing. These seeds will stain your fingers – use gloves! 1 c seeds for every 2 qts water makes a strong dye. Bring to a boil with the lid on, and simmer for 15 mins. The first dye will be a deep purple-black. Re-using this dye bath will yield softer shades of lavender and smoky gray.
Sulfur Cosmos: Fill pot loosely with blossoms. Cover with water, bring to a boil with the lid on, and simmer for about 15 minutes until the liquid turns a deep red-orange.
This, of course, is only the beginning! With a few kitchen tools, a simple process, and some sunny summer days, your imagination is the limit. Let me know what you discover!
☀️ shop ways to bring summertime inside ☀️