Dyeing with plants


Plant colors are plants or mushrooms that give color pigments which are born as a result of Earth’s natural development. All plants and mushrooms have some color. There are colorants also in fruits and vegetables. Climatic conditions, place of growth, sunlight, soil type and moisture of the soil all has an impact on the depth and the tone of the color. The colorant can be placed only in one part of the plant. For example the madder in which the red colorant is accumulated into plant’s roots. From some plants give multiple colors from different parts of the plant.

The color in the plant is not always the same than the color that fastens into the fiber. For example common yellow lichen gives red and blue color depending from the treatment although the plant is yellow. Some of the plant colorants are oil or alcohol soluble. For example St. John’s wort (hypericum perforatum) flowers which gives with alum mordant yellow color but dyes the material red when dissolved in alcohol.


With natural colors it is dyed mostly animal and protein fibers otherwise wool and silk. Colorants adheres easily to protein fibers, often without any auxiliary substance or with simple mordant. Also cellulose fibers, such as linen or cotton, can be dyed with natural colors but for these fibers must done heavy lye treatment that removes the fiber protecting layer of wax. Also wood, straws and paper can be dyed with natural colors.

The easiest way to dye is boil dyeing but more popular has come so called cold dyeing. Fermentation is produced in the dyeing juice which removes and fastens the color to the material. The process takes from weeks to months and with this method can be dyed both plant and animal fibers. Cold dyeing doesn’t need necessarily chemicals that are harmful for the nature.


When collecting dyeing materials from the nature must keep in mind the public right of access. Some color giving plants and mushrooms are rare or threatened. Good knowledge of plants and mushrooms is part of responsible activity. Nature respecting dyer identifies the species before picking up and collects material without leaving trace.  While collecting plants must concentrate on species which are plenty available and are common.

Cones and acorns can be collected from the ground. Cones can be collected to dyeing pot throughout the whole year. Cones that are rested ovat the winter gives the best color. Polypore can be collected from living and died wood only with a permission from the land owner. Best time for collecting one-year polypore is at the autumn before snow comes. Many years’ polypore can be collected for dyeing and making paper year-round. Good places to collect polypore are few year old logging expanses. Mushrooms can be collected from the ground following the public rights of access.

A permission is needed from the land owner when lichen, moss, beard moss and turf is collected. Lichen is recommend to collect from places where the lichen has come off when the slowly renewable lichen growth is protected. Lichen that are adrift can be found for example after forestry work, side of a forest road and from braches that are fallen from a tree.

Branches and twigs that are fallen from a tree can be collected. Conifer branches, broadleaved tree’s leaves and bark collecting needs a permission from the land owner. Bark must not ever take from a growing tree because the tree will suffer. Bark can be found easily from woodpiles, timber mills or town’s garden works. Bark from a young tree gives more color than old.
Unprotected nature flowers, like tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), can be collected to the dyeing pot respecting the public rights of access. Green plants, such as nettle (Urtica), lupin (Lupinus) and bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) are best to collect before inflorescence. Then there is most colorant.

Fresh herb plants are used for dyeing right away. Flowers are collected freshly blossomed and at sunny and dry weather. When collecting the slowly renewable sprigs, bedstraws and clubmoss land owners permission is needed. Any traces of collecting must not leave to the nature. Collecting time for the roots is late autumn or early spring. The color containing in the root is most strongest when the plant’s overground part is withered.

Common natural dye plants

Aspen (Populus tremulais common throughout Finland. Leaves of Aspen gives yellow color. Dried bark of Aspen gives light brown.

Juniper (Juniperus communis) is common throughout Finland. It grows both conifer and deciduous forests. Juniper twigs gives greyish color and juniper berries can be tried brown tones.

Lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis) grows commonly in South and Middle Finland. It grows on slopes, edges of the forest and bright forests. Lily of the valley is completely toxic. Leaves of the plant are collected to dyeing pot in autumn when the leaves have lost their freshness. The leaves give orange yellow color.

Cow parsley (Anthiriscus sylvestris) grows the whole of Finland on edge of the fields, meadows and edge of the roads. The whole plant gives yellow green color and with iron mordant grey green color.

Birch (Betula-genus) grows commonly throughout whole Finland. Early summer birch leaves gives yellow color. Birch bark gives light brown color and cortex under the bark gives redish brown color. There can be several polypore species suitable for dyeing in old birch trees, such as Tinder polypore and Birch polypore

Nettle (Urtica dioica) is known throughout the whole Finland. I grows on nitrogenous soil, for example on yards, seashores and edge of the forests. Nettles give mossy green color. In addition to dyeing nettle is used as fiber material in textiles and paper and as herbal plant.

Reindeer moss (Cladonia rangiferina) is common  throughout Finland. It grows on dry heath forests, rocks and fjelds. Reindeer moss contains mordant and it gives yellowish brown color.

Red-gilled webcap (Cortinarius sanguinea) grows commonly throughout Finland. The mushroom is small sized, its cap is in diameter less than 3 centimeters. Red-gilled webcap grows on moist spruce forest among the mosses. Red-gilled webcap gives strong red color.

Luonnonvärjäys 2008, Tetri Anna-Karoliina, Multikustannus
Wikikko – koko kansan taitopankki


More information about colors and dyeing and mordant and dyeing instructions:

July 2 - the best time for plant colours

The Sillaotsa Museum organised a study day of colouring with plants on July 2, 2011.

It's the best time for using plant-based colours - the Estonian folk calendar called the 2nd of July "heinamaarjapäev" (to mark the passing of half the haymaking period, and also to honour Virgin Mary). The Sillaotsa Museum wants to provide both theoretical knowledge and practical techniques on that day, so that the participants of the course can later explore the wonderful world of plant colours on their own.

Source: kylauudis.ee