Friday, September 22, 2017

Natural Dyes for Fabric: Goldenrod

Goldenrod: The Color of the Fall Meadow

While I should be mowing off crab grass tops, I will instead pour another cup of coffee, and show you some magic tricks. No, that's not my cauldron. Well...yes, kind of. I've been playing with natural or plant-based fabric dyes this week, and they've all had a turn in this pot.

Finding a good source on how to dye fabrics with natural dyes has been on my to-do list for some time. I've scoured books and websites as well as personal notes and insights from my own experience using chemical dyes. I will share what I've learned with you so you can take advantage of the season, too. It's a great time to dye!

Bounty of the Season

This is a nearby meadow blooming with goldenrod. It grows wild in Ohio like so many other plants, full of potential that most of us could not imagine. We call these native, wild plants weeds because their growth is hard to control in our tidy gardens. They seed freely or spread through means underground, and some can be invasive. But without them the landscape would be dull, and we expect their arrival each fall to bring expected color. 

It's the peak time of year to be out and enjoy nature. You say you have allergies? Probably not to goldenrod, but more likely a ragweed that is just past peak here. Put on good shoes, and take a hike with me.

Queen Anne's lace grows alongside golden rod,
but it's getting harder to find by now as it's past peak. 
It's wild carrot, and another good dye source.

Fern or bracken, depending on where you live, also
grow in the rich soil at the edge of the woods. Fern 
fronds make a great imprint when steamed in fabric, 
but also a dye for all over color.

Clematis Growing Wild

Walking through wild areas will give you an idea of the plant material available. Always ask for permission to forage on private property. Written permission is a good idea. And, harvest responsibly. Leave 1/4-1/3 of the plant material still growing so it will be sustainable, and take only the parts you will need.

I was surprised to find this clematis growing high into a tree far away from any homes. Perhaps it was seeded by a bird, or maybe a home had been there generations before. Clematis leaves were a dye substance I wasn't looking for at the time, but it was still notably beautiful.

A kind of wild lobelia in a wet area. Striking color!
It was on my list as good for color, but for the moment
it also stayed put.

I had to have a picture of these gorgeous leaves.
Any ideas what this small, wild plant is?
I left it securely growing where it was happy.

Natural Mordants

I gathered a bread bag of acorns from under some pin oak trees. Acorns contain tannins, and adding tannins to fabric before or after dyeing is one way to help the color bind with the fabric. We say it is a mordant.

You might be familiar with the word in conjunction with coffee and tea. Both drinks will stain your teeth because of high tannic acid levels. Or perhaps with wine, which also stains our teeth, and makes our mouths feel dry when we drink it. Tannin came from an old High German word, tanna, which meant oak or fir tree. Remember singing O'Tannenbaum at Christmas? 

So think of treating your fabric with a mordant as a way to help the dye stay on your fabric, and not wash off.

A Modified (Lazy) Method

I took an old nylon pullover, and dumped a few handfuls of the acorns inside it. Then using an old wooden mallet, I hammered away to crush the nuts. A heavy plastic bag simply tore open, but the repurposed nylon held nicely. I worked my way through the #1.75 of acorns.

The next step to creating a tannin solution called for picking apart the cap and shell, and removing the nut meat. Then processing the nut meat through a food processor or mortar and pestle. That's when I discovered the worms already 'processing' away at them, and decided to improvise with a short cut. I dumped the whole mess into a container, added warm hose water to soak a few minutes, and poured off the tannin solution that was a strong brown color. Repeat the process several times. Problem solved, in my opinion. I got a small pretzel container of solution, and both labeled the top and sealed the container. Tannins can be poisonous to animals. See Acorn Poisoning in Dogs


Another plant for a mordant I might have used more easily was sumac that seems to be everywhere. My only reservation was an extremely painful month this summer spent nursing poison sumac on my inner elbow. Telling these plants apart requires a good eye, and I wasn't taking any chances. Check out Ask a for the nitty gritty.

Alum As a Mordant

One more mordant I have used, and is commonly found in your local grocery store is alum.  I found it cost effect to buy at a local bulk food store. Cream of tartar is commonly used as a brightener along with it, and was also bought in bulk.

Dedicated Cookware

The mason jar above and disposable spoon are in my dyeing supplies. I only used it to mix the alum and cream of tartar--both of which are food grade, but keeping containers used solely for dyeing means eliminating the chance of cross-contamination with potentially poisonous chemicals. Just because it's natural does not mean it's edible.

Some dyeing requires a heat source. Yes, you can do most of it on your kitchen stove if you're willing to heat up the kitchen in the summer, and put up with some not so pleasant aromas of things like cooking wood shavings, etc. Not me. The kids still remember me trying to remove the smell of baked eggshells the summer I had slug problems! I found a turkey cooker/fryer/steamer for under $50, and a propane tank to power it. My back porch is my outdoor kitchen now.

Mordanting Cellulose Fibers

Two kinds of fiber are typically referred to with most dyeing processes. Animal protein or plant protein. Animal protein would make you think silk, hair, fur, or feathers. So wool would be animal protein. Fiber coming from plants would be cotton, linen, flax, etc. We call those cellulose fibers, and that's what I was using. I had both a very fine, lightweight cotton, and also a linen blend.

You may use either the alum or tannin mordant with these fibers or even both. Because my first dye batch was using a light dye, goldenrod, I chose to use one fabric in just alum with cream of tartar, and the other in both. I did the alum first, and tannic acid bath second. A fresh water rinse followed both.

I experimented with only the two kinds of cellulose fabrics. Both were commercial PFD (prepared for dyeing). PFD fabrics do not have added sizing or brighteners, and generally do not need pre-washing, also known as scouring.

Alum only on left and Alum+Tannin on right

How much?
How long?

I am always looking for defined amounts and times for dyeing as it is much of a science in reproducing the same results with chemical dyes. Perhaps not so much with natural dyes, I'm finding. A good book I've found is A Garden to Dye For by Chris McLaughlin available on Amazon. She bases her mordant as 20% of the weight of the cellulose fiber. So if my fiber weighed 100 grams, I would add 20 grams of alum. She also has information in the book about percentages for the other mordants and brighteners. It's a worthwhile purchase, and mine is full of sticky notes already.

The water bath took about an hour, and was simply bringing the water and fabric up to a near boil watching my thermometer, and down to a simmer. I repeated the same process with the tannin solution. In that case, my defined amount was a slosh of the solution added to a couple or three gallons of water. Yes, I wrote it all down, but it was far looser in terms of exactness. The timing was the same.

Gathering the Plant Materials

I had to laugh while gathering the acorns as I was competing with the squirrels, but in cutting the goldenrod it was wasps, bees, and other flying insects. They had their own little symphony going, and I'm not one to intrude. I gathered a bag, and took it home to weigh it. 1:1 in terms of weight is good, but a little more for good measure is also good. I was a little over when I weighed in on my gram scale.

I cut the tops off, and put them into the pot filled a little more than halfway. Again, there are no precise measurements. I did know I was going to need enough water so my fabric could be easily stirred. Stirring the fabric would give more even color whereas less movement creates greater variation in mottling. 

I brought the pot to just under a boil, and shut off my burner entirely. Keeping the lid on and watching the pot--good in this case, meant I kept it just around a simmer or about 180 according to my thermometer. Several times I lifted the lid, and gave it a stir with my tongs. The flowers processed just shy of an hour, and the smell was heavenly, I thought.

Immediately Taking On the Dye!

I strained the flower heads out, and allowed the pot to cool a bit. Into it went the fabric which had been kept in water. I fired the propane back up, and started the actual dyeing process finally.

Slowly I raised the temperature back up to just below boiling, shut off my burner, and sat to watch and take notes. You may think all this will be clear when you're done, but it won't. I promise you will thank yourself over and over by taking great notes. Times, temperatures, weights and so on. Pretend you're back in chemistry class.

Removing the Fabrics from the Dye Bath

I pulled out one of the lengths of linen to see how deeply the color had taken. Oh, it had beautiful color! I let the fabric rest on the side, and cool off before introducing it to the rinse bath.

I could already see a difference in the brightness of the alum only fabric vs. the double mordanted fabric in the first photo above. 

The rinse was simply hose water in a bucket, and a couple rinses until it was clear. I did not wash the fabric at this point.

My day was turning to evening as I hung it out to dry on racks. I was exhausted to tell the truth. How different this all was to dyeing with Procion MX dyes! I had spent the whole day outside inside of holed up in the washroom, and that part was so relaxing. Yes, I saw the limitations of time and palette, but I had opened the door of a whole new world to explore. It was a wow-moment.

The glorious smell of the goldenrod still lingered while this amazing walking stick crawled over my arm. More wow-moments to come. Guaranteed!

I'm Julie, and blog more often at Pink Doxies. Find me there along with contact information.

Linking up with~
Crazy Mom Quilts


  1. WOW!!! Love those yellows, a day outside and beautiful to finish it off who could want more.

    I believe the small unidentified plant is an orchid.

  3. wow, that color is gorgeous! I've been thinking of getting into dyeing with natural plant materials, but I want to keep it simple--experiment and accept however it turns out. So far, I've 'dyed' with beet juice, but I knew it wouldn't stay unless I had a mordant. Didn't know the acorns could be used as a mordant. I know a source, will be collecting some soon. Also want to use black walnut shells. Thanks for the info.

  4. The goldenrod produced a gorgeous yellow fabric! Love it!

  5. I am in LOVE with the fabric dyed with the golden rod. I know you left the wild lobelia, but I would be curious to know if it produced a purple/blue as rich as its pedals.