Another reason to grow plants: a chance to make fabrics more colorful


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When choosing plants for the garden, you probably aren’t thinking about using them to dye fabric and fiber. That’s a mistake, Chris McLaughlin says in her new book, “A Garden to Dye For” (St. Lynn’s Press, $17.95).

Ms. McLaughlin, an avid gardener, blogger and author of several gardening books, first became interested in using plants in the dye pot when she started spinning wool into yarn.

“About 20 years ago, I ran across an article about natural Easter egg dyes. ... But once I started getting into dyeing fiber for spinning, I started to remember that plants could give us these colors.

“I realized that a lot of my colleagues never even thought about using their plants as a dye. If you look at the craft and fiber world, [dyeing information] wasn’t crossing over into the gardening world,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Northern California.

“I wanted gardeners to have another reason to grow plants.”

The good news is that there is no need to plant a special “dye” garden, as many of us already have lots of things in our gardens that will work in the dye pot. Some of the plants and the colors they provide:

Marigolds (yellow/green-yellow), hollyhocks (plum, purple maroon shades), onions (yellows and golds), and mint (yellows/greens).

Pokeberries (Phytolacca americana), a weed that’s common here, produces lovely shades of red, and common English ivy will render tan, green-yellow, brownish-maroon and gray-browns. Japanese maples, oaks, osage orange and juniper are common shrubs and trees that can be used to dye, too.

Leaves, roots, bark and flowers are all used in the pot, and different parts of the same plant sometimes give different colors. For instance, apple leaves provide beige, gold and gold-browns, while the tree’s bark will result in salmon, gold-burgundy and olive greens.

The colors you end up with in large part depend on what mordant or modifier is used in combination with the plant. A mordant is something such as alum or iron (easily made with rusty nails, wire, bolts, vinegar and water) that helps the color bind to fiber. A modifier is something that will brighten, darken or change the color of a dye bath. Vinegar, lemon juice and baking soda are just a few easily obtainable modifiers. Shade gradations are endless.

“I live in an oak forest. Depending on the time of year you take the leaves, it will change the color. Depending on the species, [I will get] very different colors. These experiments could go on forever,” said Ms. McLaughlin, noting that the acorns and bark also can provide natural dye.

And while all this can become very scientific, her book is not. She gives simple dye “recipes,” a list of materials needed and information on mordants and modifiers. And then she coaxes you onward by providing recipes for Easter egg dye and playdough that can be tinted with natural dyes.

The book also lists common plants that are useful for hand dyers along with a bunch of tips.

“I wanted to keep the book very basic so [readers] wouldn’t be afraid to go try it.”

She has used everything listed in the book in her own dye pots. Her family has learned to ask what’s on the stove when they come home — dinner or dye?

“I literally do not look at a plant the same way,” she said. “I wonder what color will come out. I’m just fascinated. I can’t get my hands on enough things [to try].”


Post-Gazette garden editor Susan Banks: sbanks@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1516.

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