Recipes from a Creative Artist

When I wrote the post “What do I actually do?”, I was thinking about my own lack of creative, artistic output when compared with the work of creative artists who use natural dyes in their work. One who comes immediately to mind is Helen Melvin of Fiery Felts ( , who uses natural dyes to such wonderful effect in her felted landscapes, as shown below. (Photos courtesy of Helen)














In addition to her pioneering work in the creation of inks from natural dyes, Helen has also produced three booklets about natural dyeing, which give an insight into her approach and also offer useful hints for those of us who are  interested in learning about how other dyers work. Each of these booklets has a delightful and unique cover handpainted in natural dyes and contains about 20 pages of useful information. The first, “Colours of the Earth”, deals with Helen’s favourite dyes. The second booklet, “The Colour of Sea and Sky”, is devoted to indigo and the third, “Colours of the Rainbow”, covers the use of natural dye extracts in fibre and fabric painting. All of these booklets reflect Helen’s passion for natural dyeing and joy in colour.


In “Colours of the Earth”  Helen describes the methods she uses for dyeing with her favourite dyes, including madder, saffron, dyer’s broom, rhubarb and weld. She also has some useful hints for using cochineal and logwood and I’m pleased she includes dyer’s alkanet, as I love the subtle variations of tone from this dye, which is too often overlooked.

In “The Colour of Sea and Sky” Helen explains the technical aspects of indigo dyeing and analyses various methods for making and using indigo and woad vats, including her preferred methods. Her recipes also cover fermentation vats and I was pleased to find instructions for a vat using yeast and molasses, from which I got reasonable results with powdered woad. (Fermentation vats often require more patience and tender care than I’m able to muster, I’m afraid!) Like many dyers, Helen usually makes her vat using an indigo stock solution, which was my own method in the past. Nowadays I tend to make vats without first making a stock solution, because it is simpler to add all the ingredients directly to the vat. However, simpler is not necessarily better and Helen is quite correct when she points out that one possible disadvantage of my “Quick and Easy Vat” is that some indigo may remain undissolved because indigo dissolves and reduces better in a more  concentrated solution. This means that the vats I make are often better on the second day, once all the indigo has reduced. This situation can be easily avoided, however. I now make the vat in my usual way, but initially on a small scale in a large lidded jar, using only about 500mls – 1 litre water. I leave this solution to stand overnight, which gives the indigo time to dissolve and reduce, and then add it carefully to the water in the vat when I am ready to dye. The only disadvantage of this is that I need to add a reducing agent, such as sodium hydrosulphite, to the water in the vat before I add the indigo solution.

In “Colours of the Rainbow” Helen gives an overview of the various natural dye extracts available from different suppliers and gives detailed and comprehensive instructions for mixing the extracts to make solutions suitable for painting fibres and fabrics and also for stamping and stencilling designs. She also explains how to apply and fix the dyes to make them permanent. Natural dye extracts open up many possibilities for using natural dyes creatively and this booklet should prove invaluable for dyers who wish to use natural dyes to create their own individual patterned fabrics or who wish to produce multi-coloured fleece or rovings for feltmaking or spinning into variegated yarns.

Thes booklets are lovely to look at from the outside and full of useful information inside. I’m looking forward to the next one!

A Red from Goose Grass?

Yesterday I received an email from a lady who had been clearing goose grass or cleavers (Galium aparine) from her garden and had collected three barrow-loads of these plants. She had heard that they give a red dye and wondered if this was true and, if so, how to go about dyeing with them.

I’m afraid my advice to her was to put the goose grass on her compost heap and concentrate on growing a true red dye, such as madder. Goose grass or cleavers is in the madder family and I, too, have read that it should be possible to extract a red dye from the roots. The roots in question are not the thin roots one tends to pull up when weeding but, rather, the thicker roots which are much deeper in the ground. However, I have never managed to extract a red dye from the roots of goose grass, nor have I ever met anyone who has done so and was able to show me the results. Of course, these successful dyers may exist but sadly I am not among them. I suspect that the red dye from goose grass is another of those “facts” found in the natural dyeing literature, which are based on theory rather than on proof by experiment. Another such “fact” is that a purple dye can supposedly be extracted from the roots of the dandelion. I have never achieved this dye colour, nor come across anyone who has. I’d love to hear from anyone who has been successful with either red from goose grass or purple from dandelion root.

Some Interesting Dye Sources

IMG_0593                                                 Sage flowering in my garden, with a welcome bee just visible on the far left.

IMG_0596                                             More sage and another bee.

Every now and then I come across a reference to a dye source from the past that I find surprising. My surprise is usually because the dye in question is often not one in common use today. One such dye source is sage, Salvia officinalis, which was used in mediaeval times. Sage is one of the dyes mentioned in the Plictho de larte de tentori, a collection of dyeing recipes published in Venice in 1548 and compiled by Gioanventura Rosetti, the Master of the Arsenal in Venice.  Although I suspect few natural dyers today would regard culinary sage as a common dye source of choice, the leaves give subtle shades of mustard yellow/ brown and an iron modifier gives attractive tones of deep mossy green. When I cut back my sage bushes, which can grow rampantly if not checked, I dry some of the prunings for culinary purposes and use the rest in the dyepot. (See the post “Anglo-Saxon Dyes part 2 ” for examples of colours from sage leaves.)

A friend phoned me last week to ask whether I had heard of privet, Ligustrum vulgare, being used commercially in the past in Wiltshire as a dark green dye. She had read about this in a novel but I don’t know whether the reference was to privet leaves or berries, so I wonder whether anyone else has more information about this? Privet leaves give a yellow shade, which would become a mossy shade of green if modified with iron, and perhaps they were used instead of a more traditional source of dye because  privet happened to be readily available locally in the wild at the time and was therefore a cheap alternative? As far as privet berries are concerned, according to a reference in Dominique Cardon’s “Natural Dyes”, the juice from the berries was used in the past to dye the red, violet and blue colours on playing cards. There is an illustration in her book of an 18th century cardboard playing card from Nimes, on which privet berry juice has been used as a dye. Red was achieved using Glauber’s Salts (sodium sulphate) and potassium sulphate, urine was added for violet, and lime and potassium sulphate were used for blue.

Another unexpected source of dye colour is the reported use of damsons, Prunus sp., as a dye for a variety of purposes, including dyeing hats for the Luton straw hat industry and dyeing wool for the textile industry in Westmoreland. Apparently, damson trees were planted around Market Drayton in Shropshire, and also in Worcestershire, to meet the demand for dye, and some damson bushes found today in hedgerows or in old orchards are the remains of trees grown for dyeing and not for damsons for eating. In my experience, with the exception of buckthorn berries, berries generally make poor dyes, especially on animal fibres, and the colours from berries tend to fade rapidly. So I am surprised that damsons, which are so good to eat, should have been specifically grown to be used for dyeing, when more reliable, traditional dye plants could have been grown. However, it may be that the colours given by damsons could not be achieved from dyes that could be grown or were readily available at the time. It would also appear that, in the past,  berries containing anthocyanins were frequently used by painters and dyers in those areas where they were abundant. For example: the blue in an early Swiss linen fragment has been attributed to elderberries and several early dye references from Germany, Italy and Sweden include recipes for bilberries. (Ref: Cardon p243 – 250) Of course, it is not surprising that early dyers would make use of what was growing around them. However nowadays, when we have access to so many excellent dyes from all over the world, dyers are able to select the most reliable dyes for their purposes and no longer have to make do with whatever is available locally.

The other reference I came across recently in a magazine was to the use of nettles, Urtica dioica, to dye camouflage military uniforms in the First World War. I know that nettles were used to produce fibres for cloth for military uniforms during the First and Second World Wars, but I had not heard before that they were also used as a khaki dye. Certainly, in wartime when it would have been important to find cheap, local sources of dye colour, the use of nettles sounds perfectly sensible. Nettles give various shades of yellow or brown, depending on the time of year when they are harvested, and the use of iron would give a khaki colour. I suppose it’s also possible that the same nettles could be used for both fibres and dye colour.

Does anyone else know of similar unexpected dye sources from the past?

More of my Summer Garden




Before the roses and other early Summer flowers begin to fade, I couldn’t resist the temptation to post a few more photos of my garden at its best. The white rose “Bobbie James” is a rampant climber with the most wonderful fragrance that fills the garden. And the lilies, a Mother’s Day gift from my son, are also heavily scented, so sitting close to these perfumed flowers is is a real delight.

At this time of year, especially when the weather is as hot as it has been recently, I tend to concentrate more on spinning than dyeing. But I do keep an eye on the progress of all my dye plants, so I can harvest them when they are ready. Then the dyepots come out again, so I shall soon be writing some posts about dyes from the garden.

“Wild Colour” Facebook Page

Mary Walker of  Weaving in Beauty ( has very kindly arranged a Facebook page for “Wild Colour”. Her idea is that, if enough people express an interest through the Facebook page in a reprinting of the book, this may help to persuade the publishers that there is sufficient interest to make a reprint viable. The link to the page is:

I am extremely grateful to Mary for not only coming up with this idea, but also for organising the page. I could never have done it for myself, as I’ve had no experience of Facebook whatsoever. I really had no idea when I started this blog that I would be learning about so many new skill areas! I have been quite overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of people in supporting me in so many ways and I really do appreciate it.


My most recent use of cochineal was to dye some handspun Blue-faced Leicester fleece in readiness for my granddaughter’s winter coat. My daughter asked for a strong pink colour because she wants to make it clear that Milly is a girl and not a boy! Apparently too many kindly old ladies look at her and admire “such a sweet little boy” and this is beginning to cause my daughter, Jessica, stress. I keep telling her that babies and toddlers all tend to look like boys until they have enough hair to display their sex through a suitable hairstyle, but in the meantime my task is to produce garments that have a decidedly feminine bias!


These colours should be feminine enough, I hope!  All the skeins were alum-mordanted and the first three were dyed using a cochineal extract from France. The next skein was from the first exhaust dyebath. For the last skein, I added a teaspoon of madder extract to the remaining exhaust dyebath and this livened up the shade a little.

To be honest, I shall be quite relieved when this desire for pink wanes because, as a vegetarian and supporter of female equality, I have to confess to a certain reluctance to use cochineal, unless I need a colour that can’t be achieved from any other dye. This reluctance is because the dye colour in cochineal is contained in the bodies of female scale insects of the Dactylopius species, which live on species of Opuntia or prickly-pear cactus, and many thousands of insects are required to make a relatively small amount of dye colour.

More about cochineal

The cochineal insect is probably native to Mexico but spread elsewhere in Central and South America. Today, Peru is the main producer of the dye and cochineal is also farmed in the Canary Islands, where it was introduced as a commercial crop in the 19th century.

Cochineal is a precious commodity and correspondingly expensive. However, a little goes a long way and full colours can be achieved using as little as 10% cochineal per weight of materials to be dyed, although the depth of colour may also depend on the chemical composition of the water used.

The shade of red for which cochineal probably became most famous is a brilliant scarlet, the colour of English huntsmen’s jackets. This colour was found, possibly by accident, in the early 17th century by a Dutch engineer and alchemist, Cornelius Drebbel, who discovered that the addition of tin to cochineal resulted in a brilliant red colour. Once dyers had mastered the use of tin in cochineal dyeing, this red colour was much in demand. It was used for British army officers’ uniforms and Gloucestershire became famous for scarlet woollens dyed with cochineal and tin.

This red can be re-created by the addition of 7% tin (stannous chloride) and 8% oxalic acid to the prepared cochineal dye bath and in the past I have successfully used it on unmordanted wool fibres. (See photo below.) Nowadays I prefer to avoid tin and the chemical oxalic acid, as they are among the more toxic chemicals and not really necessary for my purposes. But Drebbel’s Scarlet is certainly an amazingly brilliant shade of red.


Drebbels’s Scarlet

Dyeing with cochineal

Cochineal is a versatile dye and gives light- and wash-fast shades of pink, red, orange, purple and purple-brown. Cochineal also reacts well to colour modifiers. An acidic modifier makes the colour more orange in tone, alkaline and copper modifiers shift the shades towards purple, and an iron modifier makes the colours purple-brown.

Dyers living in areas where the tap water is hard, rather than soft, sometimes report that they find it difficult to obtain strong colours from cochineal. One possible solution would be to use distilled water or rain water. Alternatively, water for the dyebath can be boiled and left to stand to allow any sediment to sink to the bottom. The water can then be carefully poured or siphoned off, without adding the sediment to the dyebath. The tap water in my area is hard, with a pH value of  7, which is neutral, so hardness may be more of a problem in areas where the pH value of the water is too alkaline (ie above pH8). If this is the case, reducing the pH of the water by adding a teaspoon or two of citric acid or cream of tartar might help. I sometimes add citric acid to the cochineal dyebath if the dyed colour appears too purple in tone and this shifts the colour towards red.

Many dyers use cochineal in powdered form – either purchased as a powder or ground in a mortar and pestle or a coffee-grinding machine. However, in my experience the powder particles can sometimes be very difficult to remove from the dyed fibres, unless the dye bath is strained through a coffee filter paper before use. The cochineal insects can also be used whole or partially ground and, if I am using whole insects rather than the extract form of cochineal, I use the multiple extraction method to extract the colour. This means that the cochineal dyestuff is simmered two or three times for about 15 to 20 minutes and each time the dye liquid is strained off into the dye pot. The combined liquids form the dye bath.

To start with, pour boiling water over the cochineal and leave it to steep for 20 to 30 minutes. Then add more water if necessary to ensure the liquid doesn’t boil dry and simmer the cochineal for 15 to 20 minutes. Then strain off the liquid through muslin or a fine-meshed sieve into the dye pot. Repeat this process twice more, using the same cochineal dyestuff. If you are using powdered cochineal, strain the dye liquid through a coffee filter paper each time and strain again before use. If any scum has formed on the surface, remove this with kitchen paper before using the dye bath.

Then add the fibres, plus more water if necessary to enable them to move freely in the liquid, raise the temperature gradually and simmer for 30 to 45 minutes. Leave to cool, preferably overnight, then rinse well and wash the fibres in a pH neutral washing medium. I usually use dishwashing liquid, which is ideal for washing dyed materials.

Cochineal is also readily available as an extract and in this form it can simply be dissolved in hot water and then added to the dyebath. Half a teaspoon of dye extract will usually dye 100gms of fibre a rich shade. The fibres are then added and dyeing proceeds as described above.

Pinks and reds

An alum mordant produces shades of pink and pinkish red on all fibres. For pale pinks use 5% cochineal (i.e. 5gms cochineal per 100gms dry weight of fibres) and for deeper shades increase the amount to between 15% and 30%, depending on the depth of colour required. Prepare and use the dye bath as described above.

In Peru, where chemical mordants may be difficult to obtain, cochineal is sometimes used without a mordant on animal fibres. The following method will give a rich tomato-red if the right amount of acid is added. Use 20% to 30% cochineal and prepare the dye bath as described above. Then gradually add drops of either clear vinegar or lemon or lime juice, stirring well as you proceed, until the liquid is a bright red-orange in colour. Be careful not to add too much acid, or you will miss the red and end up with orange. If you add too little, the fibres will be too brown in tone. Stir well again, then add the unmordanted fibres and continue as described above. If necessary, soak the fibres after dyeing for 15 to 30 minutes in a weak solution of water and clear vinegar to brighten the colour.


This photo shows a range of shades from cochineal