Natural Dye Extracts

Although nothing can quite compare with growing one’s own dye plants & being able to complete the dyeing process from start to finish using home-grown materials, I am very enthusiastic about the natural dye extracts now readily available on the market. These extracts are extremely versatile & easy to use & all the classic, traditional dyes are now available in extract form.They dissolve in water, so there is no need to simmer the dye materials to extract the colour, and 2 or more extracts can be mixed together to create further shades. Although they may appear expensive at first glance, in fact they are good value as very little is needed for full colours.  I have written about extract dyes in “Colours from Nature”, my latest book, which gives full details for their use. More recently I have been trying out some new extracts.

In the photo above, the upper 2 samples have been dyed with “Sorghum” extract (the lower of these 2 samples is from the exhaust dyebath) & the lowest sample with “Teal” extract. These are both available from DT Craft & Design.

Sorghum, or Guinea Corn, Sorghum vulgare, is an interesting source of dye colour, as well as being a foodstuff. Native to parts of Africa & Asia, Guinea corn was also introduced elsewhere, including Europe & America. Although it is not well-known in Europe as a dyestuff, it was used to dye wool in Egypt & in Sudan to dye reeds & grasses for matting. It was an important dyestuff for both textiles & leather in other parts of Africa & was also used in Japan & China. Sorghum has good fastness properties. The parts used are the stalks, leaf sheaths & corn husks. On wool, sorghum extract gives colours similar to the rust shades from madder. I tried it both without a mordant & with an alum mordant & found the colours were virtually identical, so a mordant may not be necessary.

“Teal” extract is intriguing, especially as so far I have not managed to discover the plant sources from which the colour is made. I expect this is a trade secret. But it gives a beautiful green/blue/turquoise shade, which is a rare colour from natural dyes &, in my experience, only possible when indigo is used in combination with at least 1 other dye.

More about extract dyes later.


During my recent woad-dyeing session, I happened to dye a skein that had been mordanted with alum. I was interested to observe that this alum-mordanted skein dyed a greener, more turquoise shade of blue than the unmordanted skeins. I wondered how I had failed to notice this shade difference before. I can only explain it as follows: Usually, I use unmordanted skeins for indigo & woad dyeing, unless I am using indigo to over-dye a skein already dyed in a dye that requires a mordant. As I always use indigo as the last dye in a 2 or 3-dye sequence, I suppose this was the first time I had used an alum-mordanted skein that had not already been dyed. As to why I always use indigo as the last dye in a sequence – I think this is because the depth of colour from indigo is easier to control than the depth of colour from other dyes. So by using indigo as the last dye, I can dip for a short time initially & then build up the colour gradually. I usually also reserve the other dyebath, in case I need to add some more of the first dye after the indigo (or woad) dyeing process.


Just as I’d finished writing about my latest woad-dyeing session, I received 2 emails with queries about woad. A lady wanted to know how to use the woad balls she’d purchased & a gentleman wanted to know more about Watchet blue.

As far as using woad balls is concerned, I think the best way to do this would be to follow the method I gave in my entry on Woad Dyeing in November. But before pouring hot water on the woad balls, crumble them into small pieces. Then pour on the hot water & continue as for fresh leaves, perhaps returning the leaves to the vat after the whisking process & leaving them in during dyeing. If you don’t add the leaves to the vat, don’t throw them away, however, as it may be possible to re-use them for paler shades. This is the method I used when dyeing with indigo balls from Nigeria & it seemed to work well.

Watchet blue would seem to be connected with Watchet in Somerset, where cloth was manufactured in mediaeval times. Woad was grown in Somerset, particularly around Glastonbury, but I don’t know whether Watchet had a connection with woad dyeing.  From the 12th century, “watchet” was used to describe a particular shade of blue from woad, probably a mid to light shade. Watchet blue is mentioned by Chaucer & Shakespeare & apparently both Mary Queen of Scots & Charles 1st wore items of Watchet blue for their executions. (Mary wore blue stockings & Charles wore a blue knitted waistcoat.) The name might also be connected with the fact that small boats called “Watchet flatties” were traditionally painted Watchet blue. John Edmonds, in his book on Medieval Textile Dyeing, devotes a paragraph to Watchet Blue.

Woad Dyeing in November

Unfortunately my woad plants were ravaged by caterpillars this year, so I wasn’t able to harvest my usual heavy crop of woad leaves for the dyepot. The best time of year for harvesting & using the leaves is from late August/early September to the end of October. This gives the leaves time to develop their blue pigment. However, I have successfully used leaves for the dye vat at most times of the year, so it’s always worth using any leaves you can find, no matter the time of year. Also, although first-year leaves are generally recommended for the strongest blues, I have managed to obtain good blues from second-year leaves.  Some of this year’s leaves were picked for a demonstration of woad dyeing in September at Denny Abbey in Cambridgeshire, where I regularly tutor natural dyeing courses. The last few remaining leaves were harvested this week in the pouring rain, ready for a woad-dyeing session with Chris Dobson, friend, fellow-dyer & plant expert. Fortunately, Chris brought with her some really large, “meaty” leaves to add to my rather pathetic specimens.

The blues Chris & I obtained from our dyeing session were as good as any from other sessions, so we were pleased with the results of our efforts. This is the method we used:

Collect about a bucketful of leaves, tear or cut them into small pieces, pour boiling water over them to cover them & leave them to soak for about an hour.  Then strain off this liquid into another bucket & squeeze the leaves well to collect all the possible colour potential. Next, add enough washing soda crystals to turn the liquid from brown to green. To incorporate oxygen into the liquid in order to “activate” the blue, the liquid must then be poured from one bucket into another until the froth turns blue. Alternatively, the liquid can be whisked well. The process must be continued until the froth no longer turns blue & this can take quite some time. But persevere, no matter how much your arms ache, otherwise much dye potential may be wasted. After this pouring process, leave the liquid to stand for a while to allow the froth to subside. Then pour the liquid into a stainless steel dye pot & heat until the liquid is so hot that the heat is only just bearable to the hand. (Approximately 50C) Then add 2 to 3 teaspoons of sodium hydrosulphite to remove the oxygen & leave the vat to rest for about 20 minutes. By this time the liquid below the surface should be greeny-yellow & the vat is ready to use. Remember it is important not to introduce any oxygen into the vat, so add the materials to be dyed very gently so as not to cause bubbles. Leave the materials to soak for 5 to 20 minutes, depending on the depth of colour required, then hang them in the air to allow the blue to develop.

NOTE: More information on indigo & woad dyeing can be found in my latest book “Colours from Nature”. For further details about this book & how to order it, look under “My Publications” or  email

Yew Tree Wood Shavings

While visiting The Manor at Hemingford Grey (see entry on Bracket Fungus for more details) I saw a wonderful spreading yew tree (Taxus baccata) in the secret garden. This reminded me that yew wood shavings can give lovely orange & rust colours in the dyepot. So if you know a woodcarver, or have some other source of yew wood shavings, collect about the same weight of wood shavings to fibres you wish to dye & start off by pouring boiling water over the shavings & leave them to soak overnight.

Then simmer the shavings for about 1 hour & pour off the liquid to make the dyebath. Use wool mordanted in alum – I usually use 10% alum i.e. 10gms alum to 100gms wool – & simmer the wool in the dye solution for about 30 to 45 minutes. Leave to cool before rinsing. You can also experiment with colour modifiers for variations in shade. (See entry on Dahlias for further details).

Bracket Fungus

Last week I took my husband & a friend to visit The Manor at Hemingford Grey, near St. Ives in Cambridgeshire. This remarkable house, parts of which date back to 1130, is probably the oldest constantly inhabited house in England & was the home of the author Lucy M. Boston until her death in 1990. The Manor is now the home of Lucy Boston’s daughter-in-law, Diana Boston, & can be visited by appointment. It is difficult to describe the magic & atmosphere of the house & its gardens. The house is full of memories of Lucy Boston’s fascinating life & personality & also contains many of the items Lucy wrote about in her Green Knowe series of books for children.

The garden is a wonderful, magical environment. The more formal areas include collections of beautiful & rare roses & bearded irises & some fantastic examples of topiary. But it is the secret garden which particularly attracts me, with its moat & trees providing shade & mystery.

One majestic tree which features in Lucy’s stories sadly had to be felled a little while ago & its trunk now lies on the ground, providing a home for a beautiful collection of bracket fungi & lichen. This reminded me of a student at one of my summer school courses, who brought with her a selection of woollen samples dyed using bracket fungi. The colours ranged from lemon yellow to rusts & browns & this was the first time I had come across the use of bracket fungi as dyes. I have to confess that, to me, the bracket fungi are too beautiful to collect to produce colours which can be so readily obtained from other sources. I prefer to leave them alone. But if you have bracket fungi in your garden & need to remove them from their hosts, or if they are on branches waiting to to be chopped for firewood, it may be worth experimenting with them in the dyepot. Use an alum mordant & try out some of the colour modifers to vary the shades. (See the section on Dahlias for details of using colour modifiers.)

Autumn Leaves

As I rustle through the autumn leaves as I walk through my garden, I am reminded of one way of using these leaves for a dyebath. Don’t expect vivid reds, but fallen leaves will often give attractive, rich brown shades that are useful as a contrast to more brilliant colours. I usually pack a bucket full of fallen leaves, fill the bucket up with water (or wait & let the rain do the job), then leave the bucket in a corner of the garden until I’m ready to make the dyebath. (This soaking will extract some of the colour potential from the leaves.) Then I just transfer the contents of the bucket to a dyepot, simmer the leaves for about 45 minutes, then strain off the liquid to make the dyebath. Use an alum mordant for the strongest colours or, if you prefer not to use a pre-mordant, use an iron after-bath to intensify & fix the colour. (The entry for Dahlias gives more details of using an iron after-bath.)

Autumn Colours

All around, as I walk in my garden, I marvel at the glorious colours & scents of Autumn. Somehow this is the time of year when I feel the colours of the natural world seem most closely to resemble the colours produced by natural dyes. Madder reds & corals, logwood purples, the russets of onion skins, the golds & browns of buckthorn bark & rhubarb root – all these are here in my garden, inspiring me to return to my dyepots.

Spinning at the RSPB

Yesterday I joined with fellow members of the Bedfordshire Guild of Weavers, Spinners & Dyers to demonstrate handspinning at the RSPB (The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds). The guild, of which I was a founder member, is currently celebrating its 30th anniversary. We usually demonstrate at the RSPB twice a year, in August & at their Feed the Birds Day in October. The RSPB centre at Sandy, Bedfordshire, has a flock of Manx Loghtan sheep & members of our guild spin some of the fleece from these sheep & then make items for sale in the shop in aid of RSPB funds. The photo shows our display, including naturally dyed samples, some dyed by me & some by my friend, Chris, with whom I have been sharing dyeing experiences for many years. Chris is also a plant expert from whom I have learned many useful tips & information.

Demonstrating spinning & talking to the public about dyeing are always interesting. This time I was surprised & delighted by the level of interest, especially in natural dyeing, shown by some of the children. One little girl in particular, probably about 10, asked quite detailed questions & seemed really attentive to the answers. One always wonders how much information to give, especially where mordants are concerned. I try to answer as fully as possible but without making the matter so complicated that it puts people off. At times like these I realise just how complex natural dyeing actually is.

Without wishing to appear sexist or guilty of gender stereotyping, it is also interesting to note that there is often a difference between male & female areas of interest. Men usually want to know the technicalities of spinning & spinning wheels, while women tend to enthuse more about the fleece & the spun yarns & what they might be used for. However, when with children, both men & women want the children to appreciate & understand that what we are demonstrating is closely linked to the clothing people are wearing & how it is produced. Most children don’t realise that cotton comes from a plant (indeed, why should they if they haven’t been told?) but tend to know that wool comes from sheep. Yesterday one of our members was spinning alpaca fleece from her son’s alpacas & one child actually knew that alpacas were related to llamas! Such contact with the younger generation fills one with optimism.

Musings 1

If anyone had told me two weeks ago that I would be writing a blog, I’d have thought they were crazy! I’m still not sure that it’s a good idea but my husband has encouraged me so I’m giving it a go. I just can’t help wondering who on earth would want to read what I have to say. I have to confess that I’ve only ever glanced briefly at about 3 blogs so I suppose I don’t know enough about them to be able to judge. However, I can see this might be a useful way of recording my activities & thoughts, for myself if for no-one else. And of course I shall be learning more computing skills at the same time – at least I hope so. I’ve now mastered the art of adding photos, so I feel pretty pleased with myself!