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.

6 replies
  1. Helen Melvin
    Helen Melvin says:

    Another Dyers tale is elecampane root giving blue-have you ever heard of anyone getting blue from it? I have a massive plant of this growing in the garden as you can’t get rid of it but it does look magnificent at this time of the year as it has enormous flowers
    I haven’t tried cleavers but I have dyed with dock root and they gave a lovely terracotta

  2. Alison Daykin
    Alison Daykin says:

    I’ve heard that you can get a “black” dye from Meadow Sweet roots!!! Not tried it, but would be interested if anyone else had. Needless to say, I always think of it when I see a drift of the flowers at this time of the year.

    • Jenny Dean
      Jenny Dean says:

      Su Grierson gives a recipe for black from meadowsweet roots in “The Colour Cauldron”. It involves simmering the roots & then adding the wool, plus iron, so I assume the roots must have a high tannin content. The black would then result from the tannin/iron complex. This must also apply in the case of the roots of yellow flag iris, which are also said to give a black dye when used with iron. I have to say that I haven’t tried either recipe, although I have both yellow flag iris & meadowsweet in my garden. I tend to feel that both are too lovely to pull up by the roots for a colour I can get more easily from other sources.
      I haven’t heard of elecampane as a source of blue, but I suspect that this is a myth. Reliable sources of blue are so rare that, if true, this would surely be more widely known & practised.

  3. Helen Neale
    Helen Neale says:

    Su Grierson in The Colour Cauldron gives a very detailed account of her attempts to get colour from dandelion root. The explanation she gives seems very likely to me. Since reading it I have never trusted any dye book listing dandelion root as a source of red/purple
    Helen (Sheffield)

Comments are closed.