Dyeing with Damsons

Aylesb prunes 010This now disused orchard near Eaton Bray in Bedfordshire has many old damson trees of a variety known as Aylesbury Prunes.




This area was known for growing damsons, apparently used to dye hats for the Luton straw hat industry. It has also been suggested that damsons may have been used to dye British Royal Air Force uniforms a blue-grey colour during World War II and damsons were reportedly used in the past as a source of dye colour in the wool industry in the North of England.         

                                                                                                                                                                  Aylesb prunes6

This photo shows the damsons ready to be picked.






I am fortunate that my friend Maggie Stearn, handweaver and dyer, lives in Eaton Bray and she suggested harvesting some damsons for a dyeing experiment, to see just how effective they might be as a source of dye colour. Maggie kindly picked about 20 kilos of damsons, so we had ample for dyeing –  and for freezing and jam-making, too!

For our tests we used the damson skins only, as they seemed the most likely source of dye colour and are rich in tannin which would help fix the dye. However, we did test the fruit pulp as well, just to be sure we weren’t missing an important source of colour, but this only resulted in an unpleasant pale beige colour and sticky pulp that was difficult to remove from the fibres. We used equal weights of skins and fibres and we tested the dye extracted from the skins across a range of fibres (wool, silk, cotton and linen), all mordanted with alum, and used four modifers.

The results of our experiments are below. I have to say that they confirm my feeling that damsons, like most red and purple fruits or berries, do not make particularly useful dyes. In general the colours are disappointing, particularly on wool, although with an iron or copper modifier the colours on the other fibres tested, especially the silk, are more attractive. The greens from the washing soda modifier are interesting and I have achieved similar, but deeper, shades from elderberries with an alkaline modifier. In general, I find it surprising that there should apparently be so many references to damsons as a source of useful dye colour. I can understand that the pale lavender shades achieved on some vegetable fibres, including raffia, might be popular with Victorian ladies for their straw hats, but I find it harder to believe that the colours achieved on wool could really be useful at an industrial level, especially bearing in mind the general unreliability of red and purple berry and fruit dyes. However, I do wonder how many of these references are actually based on solid research, backed up by conclusive evidence, rather than merely on hearsay. I can certainly understand that any abundant local source of dye colour would be valued at times when imported dyes were unavailable or too costly, but I remain unconvinced that the use of damsons for dyeing would be worth the effort nowadays, especially when dyers have access to more reliable sources of purple and lavender shades.


This shows the unmodified samples. From top to bottom: cotton, linen, silk, wool







This shows the modified samples on all four fibres.

Clockwise from top right: acid modifier, alkaline modifier, copper modifier, iron modifier




NOTE: Thanks to Maggie Stearn for all the above photos

12 replies
  1. Hugh Mannity
    Hugh Mannity says:

    Dyeing with foodstuffs was relatively uncommon. After all, if you could eat it, it was of more value than if it just made a pretty colour.

    Maybe they used the leaves or stems, or the damson stones. Or perhaps there was another plant that grew in the orchards, under the trees, that was the source of the dye.

    Ot perhaps there’s another plant that at some point was known as a “damson”.

    IIRC, there was a tremendous fuss when people started wearing starched collars and ruffs in the late 16th century, because the starch was made from grain that could have been used for food. One of the reasons for the change to a falling band style of collar — fashionable amongst the Puritans — was to demonstrate that one wasn’t a wastrel.

  2. Marian
    Marian says:

    Interesting post, as always. I had to look up what damsons were and now I know and I also know how much I like them! Delicious. I haven’t seen them around here in NL.
    I was thinking that it takes a whole lot of work to collect and peel damsons, for such pale colors when there might be much easier ways to achieve the same color? Also, during the war when food was scarce, wouldn’t have been a waste to use fresh fruit for dyeing instead of eating? Or is this a fruit that people don’t really eat in UK?
    The colors you achieved are nice. Pale… probably dissapointing after so much work to get from such a dark fruit, such pale colors…
    Here in the wikipedia entry for damsons it mentions the use as a dye…http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Damson

  3. Maggie Stearn
    Maggie Stearn says:

    The above mentioned damsons were carried by the cartload to the nearby stations of Stanbridge and Leighton Buzzard to be sent by train to Covent Garden and there to be sold as a ‘food stuff’. One elderly, Eaton Bray resident making a delivery was told that his particular batches of fruit were ‘only good for dyeing’. Leading me to suppose that fruit past its best and bruised may have been used for dyeing.

  4. Ladka
    Ladka says:

    Hi Jenny, thank you so much for posting this interesting dyeing report. It is disappointing – and not really surprising – that such a dark coloured fruit should only yield such pale colours. Although the unmodified silk and the green are lovely, though.
    In Slovenia where I live slivovitz is distilled from fermented damsons /plums ( and I must admit I quite like a sip or two once in a while), I cook jam with them and also dry them for use in winter. I was told that before WW II in the Southern regions of Slovenia they used to PEEL plums and sell the flesh (is it pulp?) in small wood boxes to the Italian market. They might have used the skins for dyeing but I heard nothing of it. In fact, dyeing tradition seems to be rather poor in my country.
    Although Mum grows a plum tree bearing fruits year after year I don’t think I want to repeat your dyeing experiment. The prunings, on the other hand, gave nice pinkish, yellowish and tan-ish colours in March.

  5. Jenny Dean
    Jenny Dean says:

    There seems to be some discussion about the distinction between plums and damsons and I’ve only ever come across damsons being described as sources of dye colour, rather than plums. The Aylesbury Prune is usually described as a damson, but sometimes it’s called a plum & I’ve also seen it referred to as the only true prune grown in England. It does look & taste like a damson & I used it in the tests because local people had told Maggie that the fruits on the trees in question were used for dyeing & this is also mentioned in local literature. However, I wonder if it might be worth repeating some of the tests next year using damsons growing in the hedgerows. We did discover some very small damsons growing in a hedgerow not far from home, so maybe I’ll try & harvest some next year, for purposes of comparison.
    The term “damson” means “from Damascus” in English & apparently refers to the fact that damsons originated from Damascus & were brought to England by the Romans.

  6. Elisabeth Beverley
    Elisabeth Beverley says:

    Thanks Jenny, interesting as always. I’ve done the same, seen the literature but not achieved any worthwhile results with damsons. I looked up Anne Dyer’s ( yes !) book ‘Dyeing from natural sources’ pub 1976. She’s dyed with everything plant though not systematically I think and says
    ‘Damson and Wild Plum ( Prunus damascena ) ……the ripe fruit gives less colour ( less than leaves and bark ) except for a red-purple with tin, and a soft lavender with tin from unripe fruit.
    Plum ( Prunus domestica and varieties ) Most varieties only give pale yellows, khaki and silver from the fruit but the wild plum has soft lavender with tin, and the black plum gives a good pale crimson with tin.’

  7. Sara
    Sara says:

    This is a VERY cool post–thanks for sharing! I am new to dyeing and have been trying things out. My mom has two plum trees (not damsons–a Santa Rosa and a Satsuma) and every year has more plums than she knows what to do with. Now I can take the extras and give dyeing a whirl. Really really useful info, here!

  8. Benita
    Benita says:

    Well, it may have been disappointing only that they gave pale shades, but that green wool and the lavender silk are lovely. In fact, they are all pretty, if just pale. I wonder how light and wash fast they are, though.

    • Jenny Dean
      Jenny Dean says:

      I haven’t actually done any fastness tests but I suspect that, as with most berry & fruit dyes, the colours from damsons will not be very fast to light & washing.

  9. Debbie
    Debbie says:

    Not really relevant to dyeing, but how sad to see what must have been a lovely orchard no longer used, especially in these days of emphasis on local-grown food and the “5-a-day” mantra.

  10. Steve Halton
    Steve Halton says:

    With regards to Debbie’s last comment I am working on developing a ‘Damsons in Distress’ (!) project which will:
    Raise awareness of the local damson/prune orchards.
    Work with landowners to help conserve the remaining orchards.
    Capture people’s memories of the damson industry.
    Produce literature on the management/conservation and history/heritage of the orchards.
    Work with local schools and children on specific projects.
    Set up a new community orchard.
    Produce a book of recipes.
    Etc, etc . . .

    I work for the Countryside Access Service, Central Bedfordshire Council, on developing environmental projects with local people and communities.

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