If you can cultivate these three primary color plants, then you can create your own bright, natural dyes.
On my journey to creating natural color, I was deeply inspired by a workshop I attended at Darthia Farm in my hometown of Gouldsboro, which is located on the rural coast of Maine. These artists and farmers were growing the traditional primary-color dye plants of madder, weld, and indigo, and they were saving and sharing seeds. I’m forever grateful to have received my first madder seeds and indigo starts from the very community I grew up in.
This primary inspiration has led to nearly 20 years of my own dye-plant cultivation, and I continue the practice of saving and sharing important dye-plant seeds and starts. Identifying which plants you would like to work with for dyeing and deciding how to integrate them into your own garden is also a satisfying addition to the usual landscaping and gardening. Growing your own ancient primary-color dye plants will also provide you with natural colors that have been staples for thousands of years. In their fresh form, these ancient primary dyes can produce surprising color vitality. This is especially true of weld. When made with dried plant material, the color is still a very vibrant yellow, but when weld is harvested fresh, the color is an even more fluorescent, lemony, clear-golden hue.
Madder (Rubia tinctorum) is a perennial herb native to the eastern Mediterranean and Central Asia. It’s the most important source of “true” red in plant dyeing. Madder root has been used as a natural dye for more than 5,000 years and was cultivated as early as 1500 B.C. Madder was used as a coloring source by the Persians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, and was generally used for all red textiles before it was supplanted by synthetic dyes in the early 20th century. Traces of madder used as dye have been found in King Tutankhamun’s tomb, in burial grounds in Scandinavia, and even in the ruins of Pompeii and ancient Corinth. The first American flags were most likely dyed with madder root or a combination of madder and cochineal — a beetle-sourced red dye originating in South and Central America.
Easy to grow, madder has an excellent germination rate from seed, and it’s especially drought-tolerant; it has done well in my garden with little watering. It takes three or more years for the roots to reach peak maturity and yield their full color potential upon extraction. When I harvest the root, I dry some for long-term use in my studio and use the rest fresh.
Madder is a long-lived perennial of the family Rubiaceae, the same family as coffee. In late autumn, the plant’s long tendrils and leaves begin to wane, the berries dry, and the seeds look like black peppercorns. In cold climates, fall is the opportune time to harvest the roots as well as save the seeds before the ground freezes over, as the plant is already dormant and free of sticky vine leaves. It’s also a good idea to plant your madder in two different beds so you can harvest it in rotation from year to year, as I do, so fresh madder root is always available. Large madder harvests from your garden can be dried and stored indefinitely.
Madder root color is sensitive to temperature and to the mineral content of water. It works best with slightly hard water, and adding a tab of calcium carbonate (chalk) or even an antacid tablet to your dye bath will be enough to achieve clearer reds by making the water more alkaline.
Madder root is a safe, nontoxic red — a claim that’s very difficult for synthetic reds to achieve. Its biochemical components include alizarin, the main chemical compound that produces the red color, and more than 25 other coloring agents. The vitality and vibrancy of madder red far surpass those of synthetic chemical reds. Ironically, the alizarin in processed madder root was the first natural pigment to be synthesized in 1868; by 1871, it was known that alizarin could be extracted from coal tar. The synthesized version of this dye led to the collapse of the long-standing, tried-and-true market for madder red from the Middle East to Europe and the New World.
Weld (Reseda luteola), also known as “dyer’s mignonette” or “dyer’s rocket,” is a biennial that undergoes an interesting transformation — from a large rosette in its first year to a tall spike in its second. After blooming, the foliage of the weld plant may turn the same pale yellow that its flowers had been. Weld is the oldest dye plant used in Europe. It grew in the south of Sweden, and was also in North Africa and West Asia. In early Britain (where it was a staple) and Europe, weld was apparently plentiful as a native plant and was used widely. It has been naturalized in some parts of the United States, including Colorado.
Weld has a very long history as a yellow dye and is still grown commercially in many parts of Europe, most significantly in Normandy. Its pure, bright yellow color is almost impossible for synthetic dyes to match. The Romans used weld to dye the ancient robes of the vestal virgins, keepers of the hearth of the Roman Empire. Robin Hood’s famed green outfit was dyed in a sequence — first weld, then European woad or “dyer’s woad” (Isatis tinctoria) for blue — to make the distinctive solid green. Weld is also historically significant in many artistic masterpieces throughout the ages. Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring was painted with a background of black and then a mixture of indigo and weld to create the glassy depth that helps make the image so stunning. Because weld as a color has some transparency, it’s also an ideal pigment for glazing.
Using weld’s flowers and seeds produces vibrant yellows, especially in slightly hard mineral water — so I often add a bit of chalk (calcium carbonate) to my water. The dye bath also has a spicy and peppery smell, and the brightness of the yellow the plant creates in the dye bath is mesmerizing. Harvesting weld from your garden can also be extremely rewarding in terms of yield. Once, after harvesting a full armful of fresh weld leaves and flowers, I used the same weld dye bath for more than six weeks straight.
Plant-based indigo is one of the oldest-known natural colors. Indigo has had a major resurgence in recent years, for very good reason. As a natural color, it is nontoxic and medicinal, and the many shades of this intriguing blue color are colorfast and gorgeous.
Indigo has advantages as a natural dye. It works readily on plant-based fibers, such as cotton, hemp, and linen, delivering color that’s resistant to laundering and light. Because indigo naturally covers stains with its deep blues, it’s highly utilitarian. Indigo has traditionally been grown and used in many cultures and areas of the world. The sources of the plant and the methods and recipes to extract the color are diverse, as are the applications. Throughout history, a variety of plants have produced “indigo blues.” The strongest concentration of the color comes from the tropical genus Indigofera. The indigo that I grow in the Dye Garden at California College of the Arts is Japanese indigo (Persicaria tinctoria), which is particularly well-suited to the temperate Mediterranean climate of the Bay Area.
After production of synthetic indigo began during the Industrial Revolution, the use of natural indigo decreased drastically around the world. The manufactured colorant in natural indigo and synthetic indigo was identical, and synthetic indigo was so much cheaper to produce that Europeans began using natural indigo less frequently. As synthetic indigo production increased, cultivation of the natural indigo plants decreased in Africa and Asia as well.
Fortunately, although using natural indigo entails a more expensive process, many cultures around the world appreciated the immeasurable value of keeping farms, recipes, and traditional techniques of working with natural indigo alive. Thanks to this dedication and practice, we can still see vibrant natural indigo in contemporary design applications today, not just in relics of antiquity.
Growing natural indigo is currently a healthy and exciting movement in local regions and economies across the United States as well as in other areas of the world. Textile artist and educator Rowland Ricketts has helped revive indigo in the Midwest, and Rebecca Burgess of the Fibershed movement — which connects farmers, designers, and consumers to local dyes, fiber, and labor — is growing an indigo crop in California. This movement is localizing in other regions throughout the United States and around the globe, and by growing and using your own plant–based dyes, you can become a member of the movement, too!
Rubia tinctorum is an evergreen perennial that’s hardy to minus 5 degrees Fahrenheit. Drought-tolerant madder prefers fast-draining soil and full sun. After sowing seeds, keep soil moist until germination, which can take up to three weeks. This climbing plant will benefit from a trellis. Madder seeds are available at Strictly Medicinal Seeds.
As a biennial, Reseda luteola develops a basal rosette the first year followed by extremely fragrant, yellow flowers the second year. It typically reseeds itself and comes back year after year. To establish weld, directly sow seeds in a prepared bed after the last spring frost has passed. In warmer climates, direct-sow in autumn for spring blooms. Weld appreciates moist to slightly dry alkaline soil and full or partial sunlight. Seeds are available at Fedco Seeds.
A tender annual, Japanese indigo (Persicaria tinctoria) enjoys heat and humidity and thrives in fertile soil with plenty of water. Start seeds indoors six to eight weeks before your last spring frost, and then transplant outdoors when all danger of frost has passed. The leaves are ready to harvest when the plants have reached 1 to 2 feet tall and the bruised leaves turn navy blue.
Sasha Duerr is an artist and textile professor at the California College of the Arts and founder of the Permacouture Institute. She’s also the author of Natural Color: Vibrant Plant Dye Projects for Your Home and Wardrobe. Copyright 2016; published by Watson-Guptill, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
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