Now, these homemade pigments are being rediscovered in kitchens and studios around the world.
“There’s been a huge rise in interest over the last two or three years,” said Sasha Duerr, author of “The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes.”
The soft, welcoming blues of painted shutters in the south of France are from indigo. The golden yellows of Provence are of ochre. And from the American desert Southwest, those dazzling reds and fuchsias are made from cochineal, a parasite that lives on cacti.
Onion skins (yellows), walnut hulls (browns), avocado peels and pits (pale pink), marigolds (yellows), sumac leaves (brown), mushrooms and lichens (with their rainbow of possibilities) and madder root (oranges and reds) are traditional favorites.
Coffee grounds and old tea bags also are great for shades of tan and brown. Nettle yields greenish tints.
Even succulent plants can be used to make dyes, said Duerr, who recommended aloe for pinks and yellows and jade plants for purples and black.
Wild fennel yields fluorescent yellows if harvested while in bloom.
Any plants containing sufficient tannins can be used to achieve colorfast fabrics without additives, known as mordants.
But there are also natural mordants, such as rhubarb, sumac, pomegranate rinds, lemon juice or vinegar, according to Sonia Uyterhoeven of the New York Botanical Garden. Cream of tartar can be used to brighten colors, and salt to intensify them.
Some plants should be avoided, Uyterhoeven warned.Lily of the Valley is toxic and could harm the water supply if you dump it down the drain, she said. Beautiful purple pokeweed berries are poisonous.
Designate a pot specifically for dyeing projects. Any pot will work, but aluminum pots make the brightest colors.
Use gloves to protect your skin and avoid surfaces used for preparing foods.
Leaves should be chopped (the more finely chopped, the more colorful the pigment); berries should be mashed with a potato masher; and bark and roots can be shredded or ground.
Wrap natural materials in muslin or put them in pantyhose.
With berries, sometimes the longer they are boiled, the lighter the pigment, so for darker shades either add more berries or let the water cool slowly.
Dye with onions
Peel enough red or yellow onion skins to fill your biggest pot. Cover the skins with water and bring to a boil. Then simmer for at least an hour.
In a separate pot, soak the natural fabric or yarn you’d like to dye in hot water for at least 15 minutes. Wet fabric absorbs dye much better than dry fabric does. For tie-dyed fabrics, just fold and then wrap rubber bands around the still-dry fabric first.
Strain the onion skins and discard them, then bring the pigmented water to a boil again, and place your wet fabric or yarn in the pot.
Simmer for at least an hour, stirring as needed to keep the fabric submerged. Let the fabric cool in the dye bath or soak for a night or two.
Rinse the fabric in cool running water until the water runs clear. Hang to dry.
All dyed fabrics should be washed before use.
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