Making dyes from garden

Are you looking for a fun gardening project to do with your children? Showing them how to grow flowers to make dyes will prove to be a fun and memorable experience this summer, giving them a sense of accomplishment while fostering in them an appreciation for land and nature.

Making colors from plants has several advantages beyond keeping your children entertained. Natural dyes are safe to handle, and the plants they are derived from are easy to grow, sustainable and renewable. In addition, these plants will increase biodiversity, attract pollinators and provide companion planting to your garden.

A plant’s roots, leaves or flowers can be used as a source of dye, and success in making natural dyes begins with a list of plants and the colors they produce. Although natural dyes are not as vibrant as synthetic dyes, you can get good results by choosing to grow plants that yield strong colors. In addition, a limited palette is plenty to create rich combinations of colors.

Photo by Hartono Subagio/Pixabay. Above: Natural dyes can be made from many easy-to-grow garden flowers, including orange marigolds, which produce a lovely orange dye for use in dying both natural and cellulose-based fibers.

Select seeds of fast-growing plants, such as annuals which are ideal for direct sowing. These seeds will grow fast in warm weather and help your children stay interested throughout the process.

Good choices for orange pigments are orange marigolds or cosmos. Blues can be extracted from black hollyhocks or blue cornflowers. For purple, choose purple pincushions. Green can come from various kinds of foliage. For example, sorrel and spinach produce a rich, dark green dye bath.

Choose a sunny spot that ideally receives four to six hours of sunlight. Prepare the soil as you would your vegetable garden with an addition of rich compost and ensure good drainage. Seeds sown in raised beds or directly in the ground will grow better than in pots, which tend to require more maintenance. Follow the directions on the seed packets.

Be sure to grow enough plants to yield many flowers for a decent batch of dye. As a general rule, you can use one part plant material to two parts water (by volume) to yield a strong dye, but feel free to experiment with other proportions.

The process of making dyes involves using the stove, so be sure to always supervise this activity when children are present.

Place the flowers or leaves in a pot of water and simmer for at least one hour. Once you are satisfied with the color, your dye is ready to be used. Next, strain and discard the plant material.

Be aware that natural dyes will only dye natural fibers such as those derived from animal protein, like silk and wool, and those from cellulose-based fibers, like linen, cotton, bamboo and hemp. Natural dyes will not work with synthetic fabrics.

Photo by Kathas Fotos/Pixabay. Right: Black hollyhocks are among the black and deep blue flowers that can be simmered in a pot of water to produce blue dyes.
Photo by Kathas Fotos/Pixabay. Right: Black hollyhocks are among the black and deep blue flowers that can be simmered in a pot of water to produce blue dyes.

You may need to pretreat the fabric with a fixative called a mordant to ensure the pigments bind to the fabric. Although there are several options available, you can use vinegar as a mordant.

Presoak the fabric in a pot of four parts water and one part vinegar, and simmer on the stove for one hour. Then rinse the pretreated fabric with cold water but don’t let it dry. Submerge it in a bath of dye and continue simmering on the stove. Stir the pot to ensure an even color. Remove the fabric when you are satisfied with the color, stretch it to remove wrinkles, and then hang it to dry.

Another creative suggestion is to use your homemade dyes as paint on cold-pressed watercolor paper, which is made from cellulose pulp, or as paint on the fabrics listed above. The resulting paintings should be kept away from sunlight to prevent fading.

Making dyes from your backyard is a perfect way to introduce your children to gardening, nature exploration, concepts of science and experiments as well as a healthy way to enjoy summertime while making keepsake crafts.

(Nadie VanZandt is a University of Vermont Extension master gardener from Panton.)