50 shades of May

Over the past few months I have been experimenting with making and using natural dyes. These are some reflections I have on the process.

Harvesting the plants:

I picked daffodils from my garden, as I didn’t really want to go picking them from parks or areas where they had been deliberately planted by someone else. All the info I read online said that it is better to leave the heads to die first, but being impatient, I didn’t heed this advice.

Nettles are a plant to be found in abundance, although when I first started this project, they were still very young and small. I mannged to find a field which had lots if them however, and wore gloves and used scissors to pick them.

Oakmoss lichen is a very slow growing species, and is found growing where the air is pure. I read that you shouldn’t really pick lichens, because they take so long to grow, and are often protected species. Whilst out walking, I found some fallen branches, which were waiting to be cleared by the landowner. They were covered in Oakmoss, and i also found some of it on the ground near to them, which was dead and dried up. This meant that I could use the lichen with a clear conscience, which is important to me ethically.

Dandelions are what some would term as weeds or invasive plants. I actually find them quite beautiful. They can be found in great quantities at country roadsides, which is where I picked mine.

Grape Hyacinth is another plant which I picked from my garden and which spreads quite rapidly. By next year, it will be growing even more thicker, so I’m quite happy to pick it to use for dyeing.

I discovered a beautiful bluebell wood about ten minutes from where I live. Bluebells are endangered species, and must never be dug up from the wild. I picked a few bluebell flower heads from the wood however, as there are literally thousands everywhere.

Mordanting the fabric/ wool:

This was the part of the process which I didn’t really enjoy.Firstly the fabic needs to be scoured (deep cleaned). It is recommended to use a gentle washing powder which does not contain bleach, or alternativeIy soap flakes, which I did. After scouring the fabric, and leaving it to dry, we move on to the chemicals : Alum (potassium aluminium sulphate) and soda crystals. They need to be dissolved and simmered, before the fabric is then added to the pot.  When combined, they give off noxious gases, which can also be harmful. I bought a small camping stove, and did this process outside in the back garden. The fabric was left to dry, before being added to each pot of dye.

The wool is mordanted with alum and cream of tartar, or vinegar can also be used. I tried vinegar first, and the results were poor, with the exception of daffodil which was a bright lemon yellow.

The fabrics/wools etc

I used muslin, as it was fairly cheap, and I bought quite a bit of it for experimenting with. I had some silk thread from a felt making workshop that I had been to, so decided to try this too. I didn’t use any mordant with the silk thread, as it was a bit of an afterthought.

I bought a variety of wools to work with, but this was near the end of the project, so I didn’t have a lot of time to try them as much as I would have liked.

The results

The results were as follows:

Daffodil : Muslin: a bright, lemon yellow; silk thread : pastel lemon; wools: lemon yellow

Dandelion :  Muslin: a pinkish beige; silk thread :bright gold; wools: beige

Oakmoss : Muslin: creamy beige; silk thread: mocha ; wools: pale beige

Nettle :  Muslin: Olive green; silk thread: pastel green ; wools: very pale grey green

Grape hyacinth : Muslin:ice blue; silk thread: pastel ice blue; wools : pale magenta

Bluebell :Muslin:ice blue; silk thread: pastel ice blue : wools : no evidence

What I have learned from this:

  • there is an abundance of vegetation around me just waiting to be explored
  • Many of the plants are poisonous, as are the vapours when they are simmering – researching the toxicity of plants is vital.
  • I need to explore other types of  mordants….vinegar does not work!
  • I need to purchase some stainless steel pots to use as I don’t have any, as chemicals can react with the aluminium pot I was using and cause explosions
  • This is an exciting and unpredictable process!

Presenting my findings

I have begun to make a small notebook of all my results, and this will be something which is ongoing, and I can refer to at any time.


After a few ideas of how to best present my work, I decided to hang it from a tree I made from a branch which i sprayed white, which sits in a white plywood base. This was inspired my a trip to the Fortingall Yew tree, where I saw brightly coloured ribbons tied around some of the branches, as if a ritual had recently taken place. This seems appropriate, as the ritual of dyeing has taken place and the “ribbons” are the product of the process.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s