Ditchling Museum natural dyeing course 2023


I am delighted to announce that application forms are now available for the next Ditchling Museum natural dyeing course, which starts at the end of March. The closing date for applications is March 1st.

For more details and to apply, go to the museum website and click on “Learning”


Natural Dyeing Course with Jenny Dean and Jacqui Symons– 2023

12 sessions over six months from 26th March – 3rd September, with 6 in-person whole day sessions at the Museum on a Sunday and 6 online sessions via Zoom, also on a Sunday, of 2 to 3 hours each.

The aim of this comprehensive course is to teach participants how to prepare and use dyes from natural materials to dye both animal and vegetable fibres. You will learn how to follow best practices to produce a full spectrum of consistent, reliable colours. We will cover a wide range of mordanting and dyeing techniques and the use of colour modifiers; the dyes used will include all the classic traditional dyes, such as madder, weld, cochineal and indigo. Participants will learn how to grow, harvest, prepare and use plants for dyeing, using the Museum’s dye garden as a resource.

Jacqui Symons is a printmaker and will also be tutoring on the course. The course will also feature tuition in surface dyeing techniques from creative artist Ross Belton, who will be teaching and demonstrating contact dyeing.

This will be a hands-on course and the emphasis throughout will be on reliable, safe, environmentally friendly methods. All materials required for the taught components of the course will be provided, including some for personal experiments between sessions. Participants will also be able to bring some of their own materials for small samples.

Reprint of A Heritage of Colour

After much thought, I have decided to reprint my book A Heritage of Colour, which was published by Search Press and has been out of print for a few years.

As the copyright is mine, I am able to reprint it, but at my own expense, so I hope it will be well received. It has a new cover design and I have chosen to have it produced with a spiral binding, so the book will lie flat when in use.

A Heritage of Colour is a book that I really enjoyed writing, as it contains so much that is close to my heart.

It has all the basic natural dyeing information but it differs from my other books in several respects. Firstly, it has a historical slant and one of my starting points was the report on the technical analysis of dyed textile fragments from the Iron Age site at Hallstatt in Austria. The results of this analysis inspired me to carry out a series of experiments which are described in the book. Another feature of this new book is its focus on the use of native and easily-grown or gathered plants. Over 50 plants are featured  and the dyeing methods used in the experiments can be used for any plants, not only those featured in the book. A Heritage of Colour also has sections on contact dyeing on fabric using plant materials, dyeing with frozen flowers and creating multi-coloured skeins and fabrics. In addition, there are sections on using lichen and fungi for dyeing. The book has over 250 colour photographs, including photos of dyed samples for each plant.

Signed copies of this book will be available directly from me and from the shop at Ditchling Museum, which also offers a mail order service.


Contact me if you would like to purchase a copy from me. (Just click on Contact Jenny on the home page)

Online talk and workshops with Lucille Junkere

Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft is offering two online workshops and an online talk with creative artist and indigo expert Lucille Junkere. These are fantastic opportunities to learn from an experienced indigo dyer and workshop leader, with a wealth of knowledge about natural dyeing and indigo in particular.

Below are details of the online events. Closing date for workshop bookings is two weeks before each event, to allow time for workshop materials to be posted to students.

To avoid disappointment, book now.

To book, go to the museum’s website and follow the links. Don’t miss this rare opportunity, which is open to you wherever you live.

More from the Ditchling Museum Dye Garden

During Covid19 the one-year course has been on hold but, with the help of Zoom and WhatsApp and by posting dyes and other materials to the students, we have been able to continue work our work and have managed to very nearly complete the programme.

With luck we hope to be able to meet again for at least one more session at the museum before the course finally finishes for this year.

As the summer turns to autumn, these photos are a reminder of how lovely the dye garden has been and how sad it is that my students and I haven’t been able to enjoy it. But Fiona Eastwood has been collecting seeds and drying dye plants, so at least we will have the potential for more plants and dyes in the future.

As soon as it is possible, I hope to run another one-year course at Ditchling Museum and it will be advertised here, with details of how to apply for a place. So keep your fingers crossed!


Ditchling Museum Dye Garden

Although the one-year natural dyeing course students are still not able to meet at the museum, the museum itself is now open again and the dye garden is flourishing, thanks to the hard work and vision of the head gardener, Liz Pope, and her assistants.

The following photos, taken by Fiona Eastwood, one of the gardeners who is also on the natural dyeing course, show some of the beauties of the garden.

Both of the above photos show dyer’s coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria)

Tagetes tenuifolia

Sunflower (Helianthus annuus)

Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius)



Dyeing with gorse

As the Ditchling course is on hold at the moment and the students are working at home, I have been suggesting plants they might find locally for the dye pot. Fiona Eastwood, one of the students on the course, has been experimenting with gorse Ulex europaeus, which is currently in glorious bloom all around us here in Sussex. The bright yellow flowers produce a delicious coconut aroma when used in the dye pot and they give a beautiful bright yellow. The flowers are best used at about 200% for really strong yellows and I prefer to use them on their own without any stalks or leaves. The plants are quite thorny, so it is advisable to wear gloves when collecting gorse flowers. For best results use an alum mordant.

This shows skeins dyed in gorse flowers at 200% flowers. The fibres are wool and silk. Alum mordant

The photo below shows fleece and wool dyed in gorse twigs and flowers at less than 200%. Alum mordant

Both photos by Fiona Eastwood

Ditchling course update

Sadly, because of the Coronavirus the Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft is closed and the natural dyeing course is on hold until the situation improves. We had reached the halfway mark and we will continue the sessions as soon as we can.

In the meantime I have suggested some “homework” projects and I and all the students will keep in touch via social media and online meetings.

The samples from the last session are not yet available but below are some photos from an ongoing project, led by Fiona Eastwood, one of the course students who also volunteers in the museum dye garden. The photos show some of the dyed fabric for bunting, which will be made to decorate the garden on open days. Some of the pieces will be decorated too. The fabric used is wool from old woollen blankets, which take the dye beautifully and should be fairly robust. So each time we make a dye bath some pieces of fabric for bunting are added to the dye pot.

All the photos were taken by Fiona Eastwood.

Results from logwood and sappanwood

Results from sappanwood

Results from madder

Woad and weld with decorations

Woad and weld and weld overdyed with indigo for green.

More from the Ditchling Museum natural dyeing course

We have now reached the stage in the course when we start on the adjective dyes, for which a mordant is used. The mordant most commonly used is aluminium sulphate (for animal/protein fibres) or aluminium acetate (for vegetable/cellulose fibres). We also dyed some samples using as a mordant symplocos from the dried leaves of trees of the symplocos species. (Full information can be found here in the blog posts Symplocos leaves as a source of aluminium mordant and More about Symplocos leaves as a mordant.) Symplocos trees are aluminium accumulators and absorb aluminium from the ground in which they grow. This means that the dried leaves are a plant alternative to the manufactured aluminium mordants. Symplocos mordant is currently only available in the US (from Botanical Colors) and Canada (from Maiwa Handprints) although it has also been available in France in the past.

The animal fibres (wool and silk) were mordanted using 10% aluminium sulphate and we used 5% aluminium acetate as the mordant for the vegetable fibres (cotton and linen). We didn’t apply a tannin mordant before the aluminium acetate as, although the tannin step is necessary if using aluminium sulphate on vegetable fibres, aluminium acetate can be used without the tannin step.

The fibres for some dyes were also mordanted with symplocos, so we would be able to compare the results from the two mordanting methods.

For all the tests described below we separated the animal and vegetable fibres, using a separate pot for each fibre category. The reasons for this are as follows: animal fibres tend to absorb dye more readily than vegetable fibres so, if both fibre types are in the same pot, the animal fibres may use up too much of the colour before the vegetable fibres have had a chance to absorb their share of the dye. Also, sometimes, depending on the dye, one fibre type may respond better at lower temperatures and using two pots means the heat level can be adjusted according to the needs of the fibre type.

At the first session we used 100% madder root (Rubia tinctorum), 100% weld (Reseda luteola) and 20% cochineal (Dactylopius coccus) in the form of dried beetles which were not ground into powder. (Incidentally, I never use dyes like madder and cochineal in powder form, unless they are powdered extracts which dissolve in water, as it can be very difficult to remove the tiny particles from the fibres. Also, most dyestuffs can be simmered a second time to extract more colour, but this is more difficult with powders.) All the dyes were put into cotton bags so there would be no need to strain off the dye bath, as the bag of dye could just be removed once the colour had been extracted. (To allow the dyestuff to give more colour to the dye bath, the bag of dye could also be left in the dye pot.)

Note: In workshop conditions, time doesn’t always allow for best practice and dyeing times may have to be shortened. However, it is important not to shorten the dyeing time too much, as this may also reduce the colour fastness. If the dyed colour appears deep enough after 5 to 10 minutes in the dye pot, remove the fibres, pour off most of the dye solution, fill the dye pot up with hot water and then return the dyed fibres. Simmer the fibres in this weakened dye solution for a further 20 to 25 minutes before removing them. For maximum colour fastness the fibres should remain in the dye bath for at least 30 minutes and ideally longer. It is also good practice to allow the fibres to cool in the dye bath and I often leave them to steep overnight. Finally, if the colour was deep enough after only 5 to 10 minutes in the dye bath, make a note to reduce the percentage of dyestuff used in future.


There are several ways of using madder and I am still undecided as to which method gives the best results. In the past I washed the madder first then poured boiling water over it, left it to steep for about a minute, then poured this solution off. I repeated this once more, added the second pour-off to the first and left the solution on one side to make a dye bath later. I then simmered the same madder pieces for about 30 minutes to extract the colour for the dye bath. However, for the experiments described here the madder root was first rinsed well under the cold tap to remove some of the brown and yellow pigments, then it was simmered for about 30 minutes to extract the colour. We also added 2 teaspoons of chalk (calcium carbonate) to brighten the colour. We allowed the dye bath to cool slightly and then the fibres were added and left to steep for about 45 minutes. As madder tends to continue releasing colour over a period of time, we left the bag of madder dyestuff in the pot during dyeing.

In my experience, madder can safely be simmered to extract the colour but it may be advisable to keep the heat below a simmer during dyeing, especially when dyeing wool or silk on an alum mordant. Maintaining this lower temperature seems less important for vegetable fibres and I have sometimes found that even simmering wool and silk fibres can give good reds. I also add a couple of teaspoons of chalk (calcium carbonate) to brighten the colour and I have read that adding cream of tartar to madder dye baths when dyeing silk can make the colour redder and less orange. However, I have not yet tried the latter. Some dyers add bran to the dye bath and although I have done this on occasion, I am not entirely sure why this is done. If bran is added, it must be tied into a bag, as it can be extremely difficult to remove from the fibres. On the whole, much seems to depend on the quality of the madder root and I have generally found that the browner the colour of the root before use, the less red the dyed colour may be. However, having said that, browner madder root can sometimes give equally good reds, so much is probably also luck.

Madder on cotton and linen fabrics

Madder on different types of paper

Madder samples dyed by Jacqui Symons From left to right: no modifier, +acid, +alkali, +copper, +iron

(Photos of full madder samples on four fibres available later)


The weld was simmered for about 30 minutes to extract the colour. Then the fibres were added and simmered gently for about 30 minutes. The temperature was kept a little below boiling point, as a slightly lower temperature often makes the colours from weld brighter and clearer.

  Left to right: no modifier, +acid, +alkali, +copper, +iron                                                                                                               Fabrics from left: linen, cotton, silk

Close-up of above image


The colour was extracted from the cochineal following the multiple extraction method. This means the cochineal was simmered three times and after each simmering the dye liquid was poured off into the dye pot. The three pour-offs formed the dye bath.The fibres were added and simmered for about 30 minutes.

Samples as above for weld (Fabrics from left: linen, cotton, silk)

  Samples as above for weld


Further samples were produced by individual students, some to be shared between all the students.

Ivy (Hedera helix) leaves (top) and ivy berries (below) Dyed by Lizzie Kimbley                                                                        Alum mordant and the usual modifiers in the usual (alphabetical) order


Fustic (Morus tinctoria), alum mordant  Samples (as for weld) Dyed for the group by Claire Bessel

Note: The results from the fustic were more mustard in tone than I had expected and Claire also asked about this, as she had followed the usual methods for dyeing. When I gave her the dyestuff I noticed it looked rather more brown than is usual with fustic and I think this probably influenced the colour. Also, we used 100% dyestuff and a lower percentage might have resulted in more yellow tones.

All photos by Zuzana Krskova

More from the natural dyeing course at Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft

This session was the last for substantive dyes and we used alkanet root, pomegranate peel and cutch (all without a mordant), with the usual four modifiers.

Although substantive dyes will fix without a mordant, the use of an aluminium mordant often gives different results because the alum attracts other pigments which may be present, particularly the flavonoids or yellow pigments. So cutch used with an alum mordant tends to give yellower shades than cutch used without a mordant and with an alum mordant walnut leaves often give yellows but they give tans and browns if used without a mordant. Be aware, too, that using an alum mordant will not necessarily improve fastness. In tests conducted by Gill Dalby, walnut leaves used on an alum mordant had lower fastness than walnut leaves used without a mordant.

This time I tried a different method with the alkanet root, which I soaked in vodka for 3 days before the workshop. This is because the red pigment in alkanet root is not soluble in water but should be soluble in neat alcohol. I have tried rubbing alcohol but I found that the slight improvement in colour in no way compensated for the unpleasant fumes of the dye bath. I had read that vodka might be a useful alternative, so I decided to try that.The vodka was then used as part of the dye bath, with water added. This might seem like a rather unsuitable use of vodka but it was the best alternative I could find.  In fact, I wouldn’t waste good vodka again, as the difference in colour, compared with the results without vodka, was negligible.

Alkanet root (Photo by Zuzana Krskova)

Fabrics from top: cotton, linen, silk Yarns from top: no modifier, +acid, +alkali, +copper, +iron

Pomegranate peel (Photo by Zuzana Krskova)

Details as above for alkanet

Cutch (Photo by Zuzana Krskova)

Details as above for alkanet

Alder cones and twigs dyed by Lizzie Kimbley  (Photo by Zuzana Krskova)

Details as above for alkanet

Some results laid out on the table  (Photo by Lizzie Kimbley)

Focus on Tannin

In the third session of the one-year course at Ditchling Museum we concentrated on tannin-rich materials and their use as dyes and mordants and to create black with iron.

The three tannin-rich dyes we chose were all barks: elm bark, birch bark and cherry bark. For the tannin mordant we used oak galls and we tried two methods of creating black with ferrous sulphate and tannin from plants. We also sampled oak galls as a dye.

A tannin mordant is most commonly used on vegetable fibres, either alone or as part of the alum mordanting process when using alum sulphate or aluminium from symplocos leaves. Tannin is also used as a component in a dyeing method for animal fibres with some dyes and this method will feature in a later session.

Black can be achieved by a combination of tannin and iron but over time this method can damage fibres, especially wool, as it requires 25% iron (ferrous sulphate). There are many sources of tannin that can be used with iron to create black and we used oak galls in one method and alder bark and twigs in the other. When dyeing black using the tannin/iron complex the fibres must be alternately dyed then aired, in order for the depth of colour to develop. Exposure to the air is an important part of the process.

As I had anticipated, the barks gave very little colour on the vegetable fibres. We might have achieved stronger colours on all the fibres if we had been able to test the barks over a longer period of time. However, as we decided to to complete the processes within the time available on the day of the session, we followed the usual method of simmering the barks to extract the colour. The only difference from the usual method was that we added the wetted fibres and the bark to the dye pot at the same time, rather than simmering the barks first to extract the colour. This meant that the fibres were in the dye pot for longer than is the case if the colour is extracted first.

My preferred method of dyeing with tree barks is as follows: pour very hot water over the bark pieces and leave to soak for at least 24 hours – the longer the soak, the better. Then start to apply heat and simmer the bark for about an hour. Leave to cool and soak for a further 12 to 24 hours, simmer again for about 30 minutes then strain off the dye solution and add the fibres. Simmer the fibres in the dye bath for about one hour then leave to cool. In the meantime, the bark can be simmered again to extract more dye colour, which can be added to the first dye bath or used to make a second dye bath.

Barks can also be used following the alkaline extraction method described in an earlier post: More experiments with the alkaline extraction method. 

Alder cones (top) and Knopper oak galls (Photo by Liz Miller)

Knopper galls develop as a chemically induced distortion of growing acorns on pedunculate oak trees (Quercus robur), caused by the Andricus quercuscalicis gall wasp, which lays eggs in buds. (The name Knopper comes from the German word Knoppe, which is the name of a kind of helmet, and indeed it is as though the acorn has had a kind of helmet put on it.) 

Airing the dyed fibres from the tannin/iron dye bath (Photo by Ali Rabjohns)

Tannin/iron complex on cotton fabric and yarn Left: oak galls+iron Right: alder bark & twigs+iron (Photo by Ali Rabjohns)

The lavender shade is oak galls+iron on cotton fabric. The black colour is from alder bark and twigs+iron on cotton.

Left: Alder bark & twigs+iron on wool Right: oak galls+iron on wool (Photo by Fiona Eastwood)

Note: further simmering and airing should eventually give blacks with these tannin/iron recipes. 

Bark dye samples in the modifier pots (Photo by Fiona Eastwood)

Birch bark samples – Left to right: no modifier, +acid, +alkali, +copper, +iron Fabrics from top: linen, cotton, silk + some modifiers (no mordant) Below: alum mordant (Photo by Zuzana Krskova)

Cherry bark samples – As above but without the sample +alkali (Photo by Zuzana Krskova)

Elm bark samples – Details as above for birch bark (Photo by Zuzana Krskova)

Alder bark and twigs +iron (Photo by Zuzana Krskova)

Oak galls +iron (Photo by Zuzana Krskova)