Twenty years of “Wild Colour”

My book “Wild Colour” was first published in 1999, with a revised edition in 2010 so, to my amazement and delight, it has been around for 20 years. It therefore seemed a good time to write about the production of the book and some of the issues which arise when a book of this kind remains available for such a long period of time.

There are many factors which come into play when producing a book commissioned by a publisher, as “Wild Colour” was. I suspect most readers have little idea of what goes on behind the scenes during the production of such a book and some may assume that, as the author, I would have control over the content of the book. However, this is not necessarily the case, as publishers usually have a clear idea where they want a book to fit into the market and the author has to comply with their wishes in most instances. If one is lucky, it may be possible to make compromises but often the author is the one with the least control over what goes into the book. even over the title; in fact the title “Wild Colour” was selected before I was asked to write the book and I had no say in the matter. As it turned out, it has proved an excellent title choice, as it clearly distinguishes it from other natural dyeing books.

This lack of author involvement also applied to the selection of the North American consultant, who was appointed even before I was approached to write the book. The UK publishers made it a condition of publishing the book that a North American edition should be published at the same time as the UK edition. So a consultant was required to supply a name that would be recognised in North America and lend validity to the contents of the book. Without this consultant, “Wild Colour” would probably never have been published, so I am grateful to Karen Casselman for allowing her name to be associated with the book. However, the book is entirely my own work and Karen cannot be held responsible for any of the contents. 

Another area where the author may have little influence is over the design of the book’s cover, although I was shown the cover design for the first edition for my approval and was quite happy with it. For the recent re-issue of “Wild Colour”, I was sent several suggested cover lay-outs, some showing fabrics clearly not dyed with natural dyes, some showing a variety of tie-dyed garments and some showing random plants or flowers, such as rose petals, that bore no relation to the plants featured in the book. I sent the design team some images showing suggested lay-outs but they insisted on producing the cover image themselves. In the end, to avoid wasting more time on explaining why what they had selected just would not do, I posted a box of dyed materials and dried dyestuffs to the design office and they commissioned a photographer to use these to produce a cover. Even then the odd plant part crept in that I am unable to identify!

The commissioning editors of “Wild Colour” knew very little about natural dyeing (indeed, why should they?) and were rather surprised when I informed them about mordants and the difference between true dye plants and any old plant one might come across in the garden or the wild. They seemed to have the idea that they could select some pretty plants at random, preferably familiar ones with flowers that would photograph well, and whatever they chose would produce a dye colour and probably one close to the colour of the flower itself. If only!

Firstly, I selected the traditional dye plants that I felt had to be included and added some more fairly common plants that could give reasonably reliable colours but I kept being asked for more familiar plants that could be grown in the garden or gathered from the wild. In addition, as many plants as possible, preferably all, had to be available or capable of being grown in North America. Also, if one of the editors had read somewhere that a popular and attractive garden plant could give colour, they wanted that plant to be in the book, even if it was not really a useful dye plant. So I had to fight a few battles to maintain some kind of control over what got into the book and, with one exception (see below), I tested every plant for its colour potential.  However, I had to compromise and agree to include some plants that I would personally not use for dyeing.

The majority of plants tend to give yellows but, although yellow is the simplest colour to achieve, it is also a colour that fades quickly unless one chooses the reliable sources of yellow, such as weld, dyer’s broom and buckthorn (Persian) berries.  I rarely use any other sources of yellow, except sometimes dyer’s chamomile or goldenrod, if I have these in abundance in my garden, and then not usually for items that might be offered for sale.

In order to have some colour samples that were not some variation of yellow, I was urged to include colours from berries such as elderberries and blackberries, both of which I would personally never use, and in the text of the book I made sure to mention the unreliable nature of dyes from most red, purple or black berries, especially elderberries, and the tendency of colours from blackberries to fade was also mentioned. Unfortunately, some readers look at the book but don’t study the text closely and assume that, because a particular plant is included, it must therefore be a useful dye plant. Of course, if one is dyeing for one’s own pleasure and not with the aim of producing items for sale or display, colour fastness is less of an issue but an understanding of the variation in degrees of fastness remains crucial.

To limit the expense of photography, the publishers decided on colour swatches rather than photos of the dyed samples, so each of my dyed samples had to be carefully matched against a Pantone chart and given the appropriate number. My heart sank when I received the first colour print-out of the plant pages, as many of the colours didn’t look much like the colours I had selected. I asked for these colour samples to be changed but because of the cost I was only allowed to change colours that were impossible, not those that were not “quite right”, so some of the colour swatches don’t really match my dyed samples, although they are colours that could be achieved from the plant in question.

Now I have a confession to make. One plant the publishers finally insisted should be included in the book was hollyhock, which I had never tried for dyeing. However, by the time that had been decided, it was not possible to find hollyhocks in flower anywhere, so I could not produce any dyed samples and had to rely on information from reliable dyers elsewhere. The information I found, including in Dominique Cardon’s wonderful, comprehensive book “Natural Dyes” and in Rita Buchanan’s book “A Dyer’s Garden”, indicated that deep red hollyhock flower petals could give purple and blue-pink shades, so I matched the colour swatches for the hollyhock section from photos of dyed fibres in Rita Buchanan’s book.  After the publication of “Wild Colour” I managed to grow hollyhocks with deep red flowers in my own garden and conducted some experiments. However, despite many attempts, I have never personally succeeded in obtaining pinks and purples from hollyhock flowers, only greens. So I hope other dyers have had greater success and have managed to achieve the promised shades of purple and pink. I offer my sincere apologies to those dyers whose hollyhock dye baths have, like mine, resulted only in greens.

Where I was truly fortunate was in the publisher’s choice of designer for the book. Colin Walton did a superb job and I am sure the success of the book owes a great deal to his design talents. He was meticulous over every detail and his photography is wonderful. He was a delight to work with and nothing was ever too much trouble for him. We have remained in touch and he also manages my blog for me. My only slight niggle would be over the placing of the code for the dye pot symbols that accompany the swatches on the plant pages, as this tends to be discovered only by people who bother to read the whole book and I am regularly contacted by people grumbling that they can’t find out what the dye pots mean. The information is on page 21, by the way, and I suspect this was the only place where there was a gap in the text that could accommodate it.

In the twenty years since the first publication of “Wild Colour” my own dyeing practices have developed and one or two have changed, so some of what appears in “Wild Colour” does not entirely represent my current practices. These are best described in my most recent book, which is the second revised edition of “Colours from Nature” and which I publish myself, thereby retaining complete control over what is included. My blog also contains my latest experiments and is a way of bringing people up-to-date with my practices. However, the information in “Wild Colour” remains accurate to the best of my knowledge and ability. Even though I may not personally use every method described in the book, these methods all remain in practice among experienced dyers and readers can select the methods and recipes most suitable for their own needs and purposes.  For example, I now no longer use alum with cream of tartar when mordanting animal fibres and prefer to mordant using 10% to 15% alum alone. I also personally rarely use rhubarb leaves as an alternative “mordant” or base for other colours, except for about 5 recipes which appear in “Colours from Nature” and which give certain colours on a rhubarb leaf base. Indeed, I doubt if it is really accurate to refer to rhubarb leaf solution as a “mordant” and I prefer to call it a base for other colours.

Although I mordant vegetable fibres with aluminium acetate without first using tannin, I notice that some other dyers seem to use a tannin mordant first, as one would with alum sulphate on vegetable fibres. I have conducted tests using aluminium acetate both with and without a tannin pre-treatment and I can’t honestly say I notice any difference in the quality of the results. To me, the main reason for using aluminium acetate, rather than aluminium sulphate, to mordant vegetable fibres is the fact that it removes the need for tannin first and I am still not convinced that the tannin step is necessary when using aluminium acetate. “Dunging” or using a calcium carbonate after-bath following an aluminium acetate mordant, is also not a practice I follow and perhaps this is something I need to experiment with. I tend to feel that if my methods give good results, and they are also recommended by other experienced dyers, there may be no need to change them but I am always ready to experiment with new ideas or methods and to adjust my methods if necessary.

My knowledge of chemistry is limited and I learn by experience and experimentation, rather than by applying scientific knowledge. I imagine this is how the dyers of the distant past would also have worked, drawing conclusions from their results to help them improve their skills. I often wish I had a deeper understanding of chemistry and I try to learn when possible.

I hope all this helps people to understand a little of what goes on behind the scenes in the production of a book like “Wild Colour”. Although I may have sounded critical in some of my comments, I am very grateful to my publishers, Mitchell Beazley and Octopus Books, for listening to most of my requests and for enabling me to write a book that has proved so successful over such a relatively long period for a book of its type. Above all, I am truly grateful for the wonderful design skills of Colin Walton, whose talent played such a large part in the success of the book.


Natural Dyeing Workshop in June 2019

Last month I taught a one-day workshop at Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft, with Ross Belton as my assistant.

At the workshop we followed some of Ethel Mairet’s recipes from her book “Vegetable Dyes”. However, we mordanted using 15% alum instead of the 25% alum used by Ethel Mairet. Using such an unneccessarily high percentage of alum can make wool sticky and doesn’t improve the depth of colour or increase fastness. 

 “Although the dye book contains innumerable recipes, the dyes most in use at Gospels were the imported indigo, madder and cochineal, and the British plants weld, bracken and crotal. These were capable of being treated by different mordants or of being overdyed with other colours, but most often the colours were used in their pure hues.”  From “Ethel Mairet – A Weaver’s Life” Margot Coatts 1983 Crafts Study Centre Bath

We dyed with weld, madder, bracken and Saxon blue and used the following recipes: 

MADDER (1924 edition of Vegetable Dyes)

Madder consists of the ground-up dried roots of a plant Rubia tinctorum, cultivated in France, Holland, and other parts of Europe, as well as in India. Madder is one of the best and fastest dyes. It is also used in combination with other dyes to produce compound colours. The gradual raising of the temperature of the dye bath is essential in order to develop the full colouring power of madder; long boiling should be avoided, as it dulls the colour. If the water is deficient in lime, brighter shades are got by adding a little ground chalk to the dye bath, 1 to 2 per cent.

Madder is difficult to dye as it easily rubs off and the following points should be noted.

  1. The baths should be quite clean. Rusty baths must not be used.
  2. Before dyeing, the wool must be thoroughly washed so as to get rid of all superfluous mordant.
  3. A handful of bran to the pound of wool, helps to brighten the colour.
  4. The wool should be entered into a tepid dye bath and raised to boiling in 1 hour and boiled for 10 minutes or less.

Recipe 1 Red (1924 edition of Vegetable Dyes)

Mordant with ¼ lb Alum to the pound of wool. Boil for 1 hour, let cool in mordant, wring out and put away in bag for 3 or 4 days. Wash very thoroughly. Then dye with 5 to 8ozs madder according to depth of colour required, and a handful of bran for every pound of wool. Enter in cool bath and bring slowly to the boil in an hour or more. Boil for a few minutes.

Madder for Brown (1924 edition of Vegetable Dyes)

(1lb wool) Mordant with 1oz copperas and 1oz cream of tartar. Dye with 6ozs madder

 Or: “If used for darkening colours, copperas (iron) is added to the dye bath, and the boiling continued for 15 to 20 minutes.”

Notes written in pencil by Ethel Mairet inside the front cover of her own copy of “Vegetable Dyes”:

Madder must be fresh. Chalk essential for madder dye bath.

Mordant: 4oz alum ½oz cream of tartar Wash after mordant & dye after 24 hours.

Boiling water kills alizarin therefore put madder in cool water and keep under the boil. Dye quickly. Bath 80C. Strong bath for short time (20 mins)

Put in dye bath 5 ½ozs madder, a piece of chalk or lime, teaspoon sodium carbonate.

WELD (1924 edition of Vegetable Dyes)

 Weld, Reseda luteola is an annual plant growing in waste places. The whole plant is used for dyeing except the root. It is the best and fastest of the yellow natural dyes. The plant is gathered in June and July, it is then carefully dried in the shade and tied up in bundles. When needed for dyeing it is broken into pieces or chopped finely, the roots being discarded, and a decoction is made by boiling it up in water for about ¾ hour. It gives a bright yellow with alum and tartar as mordant……………8 percent of alum is often used for mordant for weld. A little chalk added to the dye bath makes the colour more intense; common salt makes the colour richer and deeper.

Recipe 2 Yellow (1924 edition of Vegetable Dyes)

Mordant with alum, and dye with 1 lb of weld for every pound of wool. Common salt deepens the colour. If alum is added to the dye bath, the colour becomes paler and more lively. Sulphate of iron inclines it to brown.

INDIGO (1924 edition of Vegetable Dyes)

Indigo is the blue matter extracted from a plant Indigofera tinctoria and other species growing in Asia, South America and Egypt. It reaches the market in a fine powder, which is insoluble in water. There are two ways of dyeing with Indigo. It may be dissolved in sulphuric acid or oil of vitriol, thereby making an indigo extract. This process was discovered in 1740. It gives good blue colours but is not very permanent, darker colours are more so than the paler. It does not dye cotton or linen.                                                        

Indigo extract (4 to 6lbs wool) (1924 edition of “Vegetable Dyes”)

Mordant 25% alum. Stir 2 to 3ozs Indigo extract into the water of dye bath. The amount is determined by the depth of shade required. When warm, enter the wool and bring slowly to boiling point (about ½ an hour) and continue boiling for another ½ hour. By keeping it below boiling point while dyeing, better colours are got, but it is apt to be uneven. Boiling levels the colour but makes the shade greener. This is corrected by adding to the dye bath a little logwood, 10 to 20 per cent which should be boiled up separately, strained and put in bath before the wool is entered; too much logwood dims the colour. Instead of logwood a little madder is sometimes used; also Cudbear or Barwood.

JD Note: Extract of indigo, also called Saxon Blue, is a mixture of oil of vitriol (sulphuric acid), precipitated chalk and finely ground indigo. It can be purchased ready made from Fiery Felts or DTCrafts. At this workshop we used Saxon Blue made by Helen Melvin of Fiery felts.

GREEN (1924 edition of Vegetable Dyes)

Green results from the mixing of blue and yellow in varying proportions according to the shade of colour required. Every dyer has his particular yellow weed with which he greens his blue dyed stuff. But the best greens are undoubtedly got from weld and fustic.                                                                                                                          

The wool is first dyed in the blue vat; then washed and dried; then after mordanting, dyed in the yellow bath. This method is not arbitrary as some dyers consider a better green is got by first dyeing it yellow before the blue. But the first method produces the fastest and brightest greens as the aluming after the blue vat clears the wool of the loose particles of indigo and seems to fix the colour.                                                                   

The wool can be dyed blue for green in three different ways;- 1st in the Indigo vat, 2nd with Indigo Extract with Alum mordant, 3rd with logwood with Chrome mordant. For a good bright green, dye the wool a rather light blue, then wash and dry; Mordant with alum, green it with a good yellow dye, such as weld or fustic, varying the proportion of each according to the shade of green required. Heather tips, dyer’s broom, dock roots, poplar leaves, saw wort are also good yellows for dyeing green. If Indigo Extract is used for the blue, fustic is the best yellow for greening, its colour is less affected by the sulphuric acid than other yellows.

Recipe 2 Indigo extract and weld for wool (1924 edition of “Vegetable Dyes”)

Mordant 1lb wool with 4ozs alum and 1/2oz cream of tartar. Dye blue with sufficiency of indigo extract, wash and dry. Prepare a dye bath with weld which has been previously chopped up and boiled. Enter wool and boil for half an hour or more.

Below are the results on wool skeins

From left: Saxon blue, Saxon blue + weld, weld, weld + iron, madder, madder + iron, bracken. bracken + iron

Results from Saxon Blue on wool, cotton and silk

Photos by Ross Belton










More photos from my students’ exhibition

Deborah Barker’s Cross Box (oak wood box with fabric cross dyed with buckthorn bark)

Handmade books by Helen Gibbs

More books by Helen Gibbs

Dyed papers by Jane Ponsford

Vessels by Jane Ponsford and dyed samples by Susan D’souza

Ceramic vases with naturally-dyed collars by Katalina Caliendo

Vessels by Jane Ponsford, dyed samples by Susan D’souza and handweaving by Lottie Whyman

All photos by Katalina Caliendo

Another one-year course at Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft starts in September

I am pleased to announce that I shall be teaching another one-year natural dyeing course at Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft. 

The course consists of 12 monthly meetings, held on Sundays, and the first session is on Sunday September 29th 2019. Each session runs from 10am to 4.30pm and it is important that students are able to attend every session, especially the first session, which sets the groundwork for the course. 

For further information and details of how to apply, go to the museum website ( and click on Get Involved then click on Current vacancies and opportunities and scroll down until you come to the course information. If you have problems with this, contact Lucy Jenner, the Education Manager. Lucy’s email address is:

There are only 12 places available on the course and last time we had over 80 applications, so I hope those whose applications were unsuccessful last time will consider applying again this time. No previous experience or knowledge of natural dyeing is necessary.

Students’ Exhibition at Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft

As the first one-year natural dyeing course at Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft comes to an end, the museum curators have put up an exhibition showing how the students have incorporated natural dyes in their work. 

 The exhibition gives an impression of how talented the students are and how many varied creative disciplines they represent, from weaving to book-binding.

The exhibition is part of the Ditchling Open Studios event and can be viewed every weekend in May for free. At all other times, the museum entrance fee will be charged but this gives entry to the current exhibition of Women’s Work: Pioneering Women in Craft, 1918 – 1939, which is well worth a visit. The exhibition features weavers Ethel Mairet, Elizabeth Peacock, Alice Hindson and Rita Beales; potters Katharine Pleydell-Bouverie, Dora Billington and Denise Wren; silversmith Catherine ‘Casty’ Cobb and hand-block printers Enid Marx, Phyllis Barron and Dorothy Larcher.

The following photos give a flavour of the work exhibited by the one-year natural dyeing course students.

From top left this shows work by Katalina Caliendo, Jane Ponsford and Ross Belton and from lower left work by Jane Ponsford and Lottie Whyman, with dyed samples by Susan D’souza in the foreground (Photo by Helen Gibbs)

This shows weaving by Poppy Fuller Abbott, basketry by Jackie Sweet and handmade books by Helen Gibbs (Photo by Helen Gibbs)

This photo shows weaving by Poppy Fuller Abbott and handmade books by Helen Gibbs (Photo by Ross Belton)

These naturally-dyed skeins by Mollie Barr give an indication of some of the variety of dyes and colours we explored on the course. (Photo by Helen Gibbs)

This photo shows some of the exhibits in the Wunderkammer. Details as below. (Photo by Ross Belton)

This photo shows the whole of the display in the museum’s Wunderkammer. (Photo by Jackie Sweet)

Top row: basketry by Jackie Sweet   

Second row from the top from left to right: work by Susan D’souza and Zuzana Krskova   

Third row from the top from left to right: work by Katalina Caliendo, Jane Ponsford and Ross Belton     

Fourth row from the top from left to right: work by Jane Ponsford, Lottie Whyman and Sarah Newland

In the foreground is the case showing work by Helen Gibbs and Poppy Fuller Abbott. 


Resist dyeing techniques

One of the sessions on the one-year course at Ditchling Museum was devoted to resist dyeing techniques, specifically to cassava paste resist, used traditionally in Nigeria, and Dhabu or mud resist, used in India. For the cassava paste resist the students either applied the paste to the fabric with a brush or used zinc or tin stencils from Nigeria, which I have as part of my textile collection. The mud resist paste was applied to the fabric either with a brush or using carved wooden blocks.

The mud resist paste was bought from Saith Ffynnon Wildlife Plants (link on home page) and came supplied as a dry mixture for combining with water.

The following notes are from the information sheets I prepared for the students.

Resist Pastes

 Resist Paste Clay from India (Dhabu) – use according to instructions supplied with paste. Pastes from rice flour & cassava flour can also be used. (Cassava flour paste is used in Nigerian indigo dyeing.)

Cassava flour resist paste   

 This is traditionally used as a resist in Nigerian Adire  indigo dyeing. The Adire is either produced by free-hand painting of cassava paste, Lafun, onto the cloth or by stencilling the starch on fabric. The stencils are made from corrugated zinc or a perforated tin sheet.

Reference: Cassava flour resist paste

The extract below is from the reference above. My interpretation follows.

“For every 1kg of flour of any type used in the study, 4 litres of water or more was used for the preparation. Some of the flour was prepared under hot condition and stirred on fire for a quarter of an hour as prescribed by Wolff (1985); that long stirring of paste prevents lumps. For the innovation, not all the paste was able to stand long stirring on fire as prescribed. For example, the cassava flour and starch prepared on fire for less than 10 minutes became too elastic and tough to manage. It could not be forced through the mesh for the screen printing application and for the stencil; it was too heavy thereby breaking the linoleum carpet, plastic and even the indigenous metal stencil. For cassava flour and starch, the paste was prepared with hot boiling water but not on fire. The cassava starch powder was melted in ½ a litre of cold water before 3½ litres of boiling water was poured and stirred to form the paste. After stirring, the paste was shared into ¼ kg in different bowls and mordant (caustic soda) which was considered most appropriate in this study was administered. Normally among the young producers today, 2 tablespoons full of caustic soda is the practice for 1 regular plastic measure of flour (Ike ijoba), but in this study for proper documentation and standardized measurement of the chemical for studio practise and general production, the study shared the paste into manageable quantity. In every ¼ kg, the two identified activators were administered. Alum was turned into crystal to carry same texture with caustic soda, one levelled table spoon full of each were administered in different bowl of the prepared paste, while in another, one and half and the final one, two levelled table spoons.”

My interpretation of this:

Use 4 litres of water to 1kg cassava flour. For 125gms flour use 500mls water. Carefully blend the flour first in 100mls cool water. Bring the remaining 400mls of the water to boiling point and then gradually stir it into the flour mixture, stirring constantly to create a smooth paste. If desired, add about a teaspoon of alum sulphate, first dissolved in some of the boiling water. (I’m not sure why this is traditionally added. In some cases copper sulphate (called “blue alum”) is also added, probably as a preservative. I usually omit both alum and copper sulphate.) If necessary, strain the mixture through a sieve to make sure it is free of lumps. Note: I have no idea why the caustic soda would be added; it is certainly not a mordant. When I attended a course with a Nigerian dyer she added alum and “blue alum” (copper sulphate) to the cassava paste solution but was unable to tell me why she did this.


Printing with marigold flowers and gum arabic

Printing with marigold flowers and guar gum

Printing with symplocos paste

Mud resist dyeing

Resist printing in Rajasthan

Cassava resist dyeing

Cassava resist dyeing

Ross Belton applying Dhabu mud resist

Students applying cassava paste resist through metal stencils from Nigeria

Close up of one of the metal stencils

Dhabu resist

Cassava paste resist

All photos by Helen Gibbs

Printing and painting with natural dye extracts

As part of the one-year natural dyeing course at Ditchling Museum I taught an experimental session on using natural dye extracts for fabric printing and painting. This is not an area in which I claim to have much expertise, so I was interested to see what my students would be able to achieve.

The following notes are from the information sheets I prepared and gave the students. I also recommended them to look at Helen Melvin’s useful booklet: Colours of the Rainbow: Painting Fibres and Fabrics with Extract Dyes    This is available from Helen at Fiery Felts, to which there is a link on my home page.

We used only gum tragacanth as a thickener and experimented with different degrees of fluidity, depending on which process we were using. For example, the consistency of the paste required for block printing differs from the consistency required for screen printing. We also found that block printing worked best if the thickened extracts were applied to the block with a paintbrush, rather than pressing the block into the dye solution. Application with a brush enabled students to cover only the areas for printing, whereas we found that dipping the blocks in the dye solution tended to blur the images because the dye spread into the areas between the carved design.


Making up dye extract solutions (NB See also section on Thickeners below) 

Use half a teaspoon extract to 50mls very hot water but use less (¼ tsp) for cochineal & logwood & more (1tsp) for cutch & madder. NB With cutch, madder, myrobalan, quebracho & lac/madder mix to a paste with cold water before adding hot water. If you intend to thicken the extract solution, use 15mls water and 35mls gum tragacanth thickener solution, instead of 50mls water.

For colour changes 

Dissolve 1tsp ferrous sulphate in 100mls very hot water and strain through a coffee filter paper. Then paint this over the dye. To change madder red to orange, logwood purple to grey & cochineal pink to red, dissolve 1tsp of cream of tartar in 50mls hot water & paint this over the dye.


Fabric should be mordanted first or the mordant solution can be brushed onto the fabric. Mix 10gms alum sulphate (animal fibres) or ¼tsp aluminium acetate (veg. fibres) with 100mls hot water. Brush the solution onto the fabric, and steam it for 30 minutes. Note: for deeper colours the mordant solution can be brushed on several times before steaming the fabric. Alternatively, the dissolved aluminium acetate mordant can be mixed with the dye solution, using 1/8 tsp for every 50mls of boiling water. Dissolve the aluminium acetate first in the boiling water then add the extract to it & dissolve completely before applying the mixture to the fabric. If using alum sulphate, dissolve it using 5gms per 50mls of boiling water.


With all the thickeners careful mixing is crucial. With gum arabic use water at room temperature and sprinkle the powder on the surface of the water, whisking as you do so. Continue whisking until the solution is glossy & not lumpy.

Gum tragacanth – use to thicken dye extracts. This is the most expensive of the thickeners & also the best. Use as follows: Mix 1 tablespoon of gum tragacanth with 250mls of boiling water and liquidise or hand whisk until glossy. The mixed gum tragacanth thickener can be kept for 6 months in the fridge. To thicken dye, add 15mls water to the dye extract & 35mls gum tragacanth solution. To thicken left-over dye solutions, add 1 tablespoon thickener to 2 tablespoons dye. Stir vigorously with a glass rod or whisk until smooth.

Gum Arabic – use with dye extracts & mordants. Use 10 to 12gms per 100mls dye or mordant solution. Mix very carefully & thoroughly. Gum arabic is less expensive than gum tragacanth but does not give such good results. However, it is fine for tests & experiments.                                                                                                                         

For further info:

Mordant printing 

Put 25mls gum tragacanth solution into a pot & add ¼tsp ferrous sulphate or aluminium sulphate. Mix very well & then print or stencil using this solution. Then brush on dye solution using a household paint brush. With iron mordant, black can be achieved if tannin-rich dyes are used, for example walnut, pomegranate & myrobalan.                                                                                                                                                     

Making a surface for printing or stencilling     

Use 2 or more layers of bubble wrap, depending on thickness, & fasten it down with masking tape. Put a layer of clingfilm on top then the fabric and fix down with masking tape. Then fix the stencil over the fabric, again with masking tape, & brush on thickened dye.

Printing or stamping     

Place the thickened dye mixture into a shallow dish. Press the stamp or printing block into the dye solution & press lightly onto kitchen paper to remove surplus dye. Then press firmly onto the mordanted fabric. Alternatively, print on the thickened mordant solution and then print or paint on the dye.

Setting the painted, printed or stencilled natural dye extracts   

Allow the fabric to dry then wrap the fabric in clingfilm making sure no two painted surfaces come into contact with one another. Start by laying the clingfilm under the fabric before you start to paint then cover the first few inches of painted surface with another layer of clingfilm & begin to fold the fabric on top of itself. Then steam the fabric for 30 to 45 minutes and allow the fibres to air cure for a further week before washing. Alternatively, air cure the fabric for one month before washing.

This is one of the prints made by Helen Gibbs

Screen print by Helen Gibbs

Painted and stitched piece by Susan D’souza

Block prints by Susan D’souza

More news from the Ditchling Museum course

I’m afraid I have got rather behind with posts about the one-year natural dyeing course, so here is an update of what we have been doing. Photos will follow as soon as I have some from the students. (I rarely get time to take photos myself during the sessions, so I rely on my students for images.)

We have covered a range of topics since my last post. They include:

Contact Printing using plant materials 


Some of the students’ contact printed scarves

Tests using different percentages of alum mordant         

Dyeing black using tannin and iron and dyeing black using weld, madder and indigo

Overdyeing in indigo     

Setting up fastness tests using samples dyed with avocado stones         

Dyeing yellow and pink with safflower   

Dyeing with sticklac (Recipe from Colours from Nature p61)

Sticklac before extracting the colour

Adding clear vinegar to pH4 to assist colour extraction 

Results from the sticklac dye bath Fabrics from top: silk, cotton, linen Yarns from left: no modifier, + acid, + alkali, + copper, + iron

Using the alkaline extraction method with madder, rhubarb root and buckthorn bark (Recipe from Colours from Nature p36

Testing the pH for the alkaline colour extraction method. 

For an excellent overview of the course, with photos, I would recommend the blog diary kept by Helen Gibbs:

If you click on the above link you can then navigate forwards and backwards to see all the posts from the beginning of the course.

All photos by Helen Gibbs


Re-issue of the UK edition of “Wild Colour” in hardback

I’m delighted to report that the UK edition of my book Wild Colour will be available in hardback from December 6th 2018. It has a new cover but the contents remain the same. Below is an extract from the publisher’s press release.



Jenny Dean

Mitchell Beazley | £16.99 | 6 December 2018

Wild Colour is a celebration of the wealth of natural dyes that can be obtained from plants, from the common marigold to rhubarb.

This practical and inspiring guide to creating and using natural dyes from plants offers information on current environmentally friendly dyeing techniques and more than 65 species of plants and natural dyestuffs.

This comprehensive book outlines how to:

  • Select fibres and plant parts
  • Choose the right methods for mordanting and dyeing
  • Obtain a range of gorgeous colours from every plant

Wild Colour is the all-in-one resource for fibre enthusiasts, including knitters, sewers and weavers, gardeners who are interested in new uses for traditional dye plants and eco-conscious DIYers who want authoritative information about the natural dyeing process and the plants that are essential for it.

About the Author

Jenny Dean has been working with natural dyes for four decades. She lectures on natural dyeing and has written widely on the subject. Her books include Colours from Nature and A Heritage of Colour.

For more information please contact Ellen Bashford on: or 020 3122 6701 136



Ditchling Museum Natural Dyeing Course (5)

I’m afraid this is rather late as I’ve been seriously ill in hospital again and had to postpone the August session at Ditchling Museum.

This post should catch up on what we did at the last session before my illness, when we used madder, cochineal and weld. We followed the usual methods and prepared fibres with aluminium sulphate for wool and silk and aluminium acetate for cotton and linen. With madder and cochineal, we also used aluminium from Symplocos leaves as a mordant for all fibres. (See earlier posts for Symplocos mordanting details.)

WELD 100%

The colour from weld was extracted in the usual way, simmering it for about 30 minutes. When the dye liquid had been strained off and the fibres added, the temperature of the dye bath was kept just below simmering point to achieve clearer colours. We used both dried weld and fresh weld for comparison purposes.

 Photo by Zuzana Krskova

Weld dye bath

 Photo by Ross Belton

Dried weld results – From left above: linen, cotton, silk From left below: cotton & linen wool & silk, no mod, + acid, + alkali, + copper, + iron (All alum mordant)

 Photo by Ross Belton

Fresh weld results – From left: cotton & linen, wool & silk, no mod, + acid, + alkali, + copper, + iron (All alum mordant)

 Photo by Zuzana Krskova

Close up of some weld results – From left: cotton & linen, wool & silk, no mod, + acid, + alkali, + copper, + iron (All alum mordant)


The colour was extracted from the cochineal using the multiple extraction method described on p59 of Colours from Nature. For this method the same whole (or ground) cochineal is simmered three times and the extracted colour is strained and added to the dye bath after each extraction. The solutions from the three extractions form the dye bath. It is a good idea to strain the final solution through a coffee filter paper to remove any loose particles which might cause blotches on the fibres but we didn’t do this as we didn’t have the necessary equipment. The fibres were added to the dye bath and simmered for 30 to 45 minutes.

 Photo by Zuzana Krskova

Cochineal dye bath

(More cochineal photos to follow)


The chopped madder root was used according to the following recipe: first wash the madder in a sieve under running water for a few seconds. Then pour boiling water over it, leave it to soak for about 30 seconds and then strain off this liquid and put it aside for a second dye bath later. Repeat this process and add the strained-off liquid to the first liquid. Then put the same madder root into a pot and simmer it for about 30 minutes to extract the dye colour. Strain off this liquid which becomes the first dye bath. Allow it to cool a little, then add the fibres and leave them to steep in the dye bath for about 45 minutes. If a deeper colour is required, the dye bath can be heated for 30 to 45 minutes but keep the temperature below simmering point. Then allow the fibres to cool in the dye bath.

The solutions from the first two soakings give a second dye bath, which can be used either cool or heated as above. However, I’m afraid we produced no samples from this second dye bath as it was discarded in error.

This method of dyeing with madder differs from some other methods but usually gives clear corals and reds, depending on the strength of the dye bath and the length of time the fibres are in it. For really deep colours, it is often necessary to use 200% madder to dry weight of fibres, especially if dyeing vegetable fibres.

 Photo by Zuzana Krskova

Madder dye bath

 Photo by Ross Belton

Madder root – Top from left: linen, silk, cotton Below from left: From left below: wool & silk, cotton & linen no mod, + acid, + alkali, + copper, + iron (All alum mordant)

 Photo by Ross Belton

Madder root – Top from left: cotton, linen, silk  Below from left: wool & silk, cotton & linen no mod, + acid, + alkali, + copper, + iron (All Symplocos mordant)

 Photo by Ross Belton

Tannin is not necessary when using aluminium acetate and this was an extra experiment to see if using tannin before applying aluminium acetate improved the colours.  Unsurprisingly, it didn’t. Top: cotton, below: linen