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Natural Dyeing in Your Backyard

For most fiber enthusiasts, I don’t think it takes very long from the start of our fiber obsessions to begin exploring the world of dyeing. I mean, once you’re hooked on fiber, how can you not want to explore the endless palette of colors available to dye your fiber with?!

An easy (and economical) way to get started experimenting with dyeing is to look to your own backyard or garden, a nearby park, or (here in Montana) to the mountains and forests for plant-based dye sources.

Once you start viewing your surroundings with an eye towards dyeing, plants start to take on a whole new meaning!

My journey in experimenting with plant-based dyes started last summer, as fleeces from our Icelandic, Friesian, and Lincoln Longwool sheep started to pile up. I was becoming comfortable with the scouring process and was also learning to spin, so dyeing seemed a natural next step.

As I began to read more about using plant-sourced dyes, I was absolutely amazed by how many things could be used for dyes: barks, lichens, leaves, roots, flowers. Many of the plants I was already growing in my garden, or that I could find on our land, could be used for dyeing. And those that I couldn’t find any information on, I decided to try anyway.

Prepping plant materials for mason jar small-batch dyeing. From L. to R. Rudbeckia (black-eyed susan); Seashells cosmos; Queen Red Lime zinnia; Hopi Red Dye amaranth; Persian Carpet zinnias; chocolate cosmos

In this post I wanted to share some of my results from last year, and hopefully inspire you to experiment with natural dyeing using plants that are all around you, just waiting to meet up with some fiber!

The post is not a tutorial and does not contain recipes; there are many amazing resources out there to help you get started if you’re interested (see end of this post for some of them).

The following are a few details regarding the methods and materials I used so that my results (in photo form) have some context:

· I used the mason jar method of dyeing in order to be able to experiment with many raw materials in a time- and energy-efficient way. Information on how to set up a mason jar/canning pot system can be found in Journeys in Natural Dyeing, as well as online in multiple locations (for example, I just saw that the Botanical Colors website has a tutorial on mason jar solar dyeing!)

· I used scoured wool from both an Icelandic fleece and a Friesian fleece to compare the ability of both to accept dye

· All wool was mordanted prior to dyeing using aluminum potassium sulfate (alum) at 14% of the weight of the wool (e.g. 100 grams of wool was mordanted with 14 g. of alum)

· I let many of my dye baths sit with the material in them overnight after the heating process. I strained out plant material prior to dyeing wool in most instances, but sometimes I left it in with the wool for effect! I also usually let wool sit overnight in the dye bath before removing and rinsing.

Mason jars in the pot after the dyes are extracted, ready for mordanted fiber to be added

By far, my favorite dyeing experiment outcome was using aronia berries from a very productive bush that we have in our yard. The purple was mind-blowing! I used the berries fresh, but I did freeze quite a few to see how the dyeing went after freezing (that experiment hasn’t happened yet).

Aronia berry-dyed Friesian fleece

Aronia berry-dyed Icelandic fleece

My second favorite outcome was with the Seashells cosmos…a vibrant hot pink flower that (somehow!) produced a lovely chartreuse-colored fiber. This color might not be for everyone, but I sure love it.

Although the yarn looks green in this photo, it is actually still the same shade as the unspun fiber.

Coreopsis is a much-loved dye plant that produces outrageous oranges…my experiment with it did not disappoint!

Canadian thistles are noxious weeds in Montana and the bane of my existence. I thought if I could make a lovely dye out of the flowers, they may have some redeeming value. The color was okay, but not worth keeping them around!

As fall deepened, I turned to trees for dye material.

Yellow larch needles dyed on Friesian fleece.

Birch leaves dyed on Icelandic fleece

Last but not least, two interesting greens out of Rudbeckia hirta (Black-eyed Susan) and chocolate cosmos flowers (from my local nursery).

The fact that these two flowers, one of which is yellow and the other which is a maroon black, both give us green dyes, is what makes experimenting with natural dyes so fascinating and exciting!

Chocolate cosmos-infused Friesian fleece

Black-eyed Susan dyed Friesian

And with that, I wish you happy dyeing this season!


(These two are my go-to references but there are many other fabulous books out there)

Journeys in Natural Dyeing, Kristine Vejar and Adrienne Rodriguez

Harvesting Color, Rebecca Burgess

Amanda Shine and her husband Seth raise Lincoln Longwool, Icelandic and Icelandic-Friesian sheep near the Swan Mountains of NW Montana. More about them and their operation can be found at


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