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Natural dyes surround us in the garden

Chopped beets simmered will create a deep red dye for coloring various textiles. (John Zvirovski / The Sun)

How many times have you been in the summer garden dead-heading flowers like irises and daylilies just to find deep stains in your skin of purple and burgundy? Later, when you are weeding those beds, you notice brown stains on your hands from pulling the dandelions or green markings on your knees from the freshly mowed lawn. Further into the season while you are picking the raspberries you acquire deep red spots from the juice or deep brown marks from the gathering of walnuts from the trees. These are all natural dyes that grow in your very own yard.

Gathering plant products to produce natural dyes has been done for more than 5,000 years. Many of these dyes come from ripe berries, fruits and vegetables, mature nuts, roots and bark. Many plant products actually produce a different color than one would expect such as the lilac flowers producing shades of green or green walnut husks that produce a deep hue of brown.

The ancient process of producing natural dyes from plants is an artform in itself. It takes time, energy, and patience to produce just the right colors. Often used for coloring many types of textiles, there is not only a process to create the dyes, but also to allow them to adhere to the fabrics for the long haul without the bleeding of colors.

Dyes are taken from plant products by harvesting the flowers, leaves, stems, bark, berries, nuts or produce in order to process. Products are then cut and chopped into small pieces and placed into a kettle. Add twice as much water as product and bring to a boil. Once at the boiling stage, turn the heat down and allow the mixture to simmer for one hour and then strain out the solid product. The resulting liquid is what will be used to dye the fabrics you intend to make a certain color.

The best materials for dying are silk, wool, cotton and muslin … all natural products. Before the fabrics are placed into the dye mixture, they must be processed with a bonding solution first, called mordants or fixatives, in order to bind the dye to the materials. If you are using dye produced from berries, create a fixative of 1/2 cup salt to 8 cups of water. Add the fabric to the mixture and simmer for an hour. Take the material out, rinse and squeeze out the excess solution to make the material ready for dying.

If you are using dyes from plant products such as leaves, flowers, roots, lichens and bark, treat the materials with a solution of 4 parts cold water to 1 part vinegar. Once again, place the material in the solution and simmer for 1 hour before repeating the process for dying.

Place the wet material into the dye bath and simmer until the desired color has been obtained. The longer the material simmers in the dye, the darker the color. Always remember when the material dries, the color will lighten. Obviously a large container should be used for any materials of size. Wear protective gloves to avoid skin stains while processing the fabrics. Once the fabric is dry, always remember to wash the dyed products separately in cold water to keep the colors from transferring to other materials and clothing.

Common colors for dying are shades of yellow, orange, red, green, blue and purple. Of course, many alterations of these shades in different intensities are obtainable.

Yellow shades can be obtained through plant products such as yarrow, safflowers, saffron and arigolds. Orange hues can be acquired through bloodroot, turmeric, carrots and onion skins. Reds come from products such as raspberries, sumac fruit, beets and rose hips.

For the cooler colors such as blue and purple gather red cabbage, purple grapes, blackberries and indigo leaves. Green hues can be obtained from snapdragon flowers, cornflowers, sorrel roots and peppermint.

Darker colors of brown, gray and black can be produced from plant materials such as walnut hulls and husks, tea bags, sumac leaves, oak bark and acorns. Most of the brown shades are produced from various tannins in the plant material.

Previously replaced with synthetic dyes and colors, natural dye products are becoming more in demand in our environmental age. People are becoming more conscious off the toxins involved in the synthetic dying world, thus becoming bigger supporters of natural dye materials.

Try experimenting with various plant materials from your garden and see what kind of natural shades you can produce. It is a great learning project for kids and adults alike with very satisfying results. Always read up on all materials you gather as some may have natural toxicities you will want to be careful with such as lily of the valley.

Natural dyes surround us every day in the plant world. Appreciate all the natural goodness that we live in unison with and make the most of everything in the garden. Nature — it is the root of everything we have around us.