Using plants as dyes

By Beverley Gray

Article first published in Yukon North of Ordinary

Berry-stained fingers and knees are a colourful side effect of gathering wild, plump boreal fruits. Other than inadvertent stains on my skin, clothing, and well-used cheesecloth after straining berries, I haven’t really explored natural plant dyes.

My curiosity and love of boreal food and medicinal plants has taken me on exciting adventures in foraging, making medicines, and experimenting with different recipes. Now, I’m learning about using these wild plants to dye fabrics.

This past summer, I presented at the Alaskan Plants as Food and Medicine Symposium, hosted by the Alaskan Native Tribal Health Consortium, in Anchorage, Alaska. There I met Jackie Schoppert, a Tlingit Elder from Southeast Alaska, who caught my attention as she spoke about using wild plants to dye silks, cottons, and wools. I was intrigued and wanted to know more.

Jackie and I shared plant teachings, went out gathering plants like two curious girls in the woods, and became fast friends. We gathered spruce pitch from an old tree that hung over the ocean and made ointment with it. We picked the last of the rose petals in a makeshift basket crafted from conference programs and made skin cream with them. We also gathered clay from the seashore and made facial masks.

“From a young age, I was drawn in and had a natural curiosity about using plants for food, medicine, and dying cloth,” Jackie says. Her in-depth knowledge of plant medicines came out of childhood teachings from her grandmother, Annie Jimmie.

Jackie was born in Juneau, Alaska, and grew up in the village of Douglas, in Southeast Alaska. That’s where she received a compre- hensive education on how to deeply respect the natural world, includ- ing using local plants as medicine.


“Grandma didn’t lecture us; she was about going out and expe- riencing it all.” Jackie says. “My grandmother encouraged me to respectfully gather the wild plants. I was right by her side, the way my grandchildren are with me. Grandma was a remarkable woman; she had so much strength, wisdom, and a deep knowledge of the land.”

Jackie says you can read all the books you like and talk to experts, but her early teachings showed her first-hand experience is the best way to learn. And that is how she learned how to use plants as dyes.

“They started us berry picking very young, and I noticed my hands would turn blue from the blueberries,” she says. “I had a lot of curiosity, and that’s when I started to experiment, staining some of grandma’s natural yarns and fabrics. I figured if my hands were blue the fabric could turn blue.”

Jackie made plant-dye test strips to show me how simple it was and how timing, temperature, and patience can be your biggest allies when trying to achieve specific colours from wild plants.

One of the cotton fabric strips she showed me was dyed with high- bush cranberries. It looked so beautiful, with the most vivid hues of red that I’ve ever seen. I wondered how the fabric could hold such a magnificent colour.

Jackie says mordants (like sodium chloride, aluminum, and iodine) can be used to set the colours. Each type of mordant can also influ- ence or change the colour, but Jackie’s goal is making the hue as natural as possible.

“When Grandma taught us in the traditional way, we used urine from babies, as the acid helped to set the colour,” she says. As time went on, Jackie says they had access to other things commonly found in the kitchen and started using items like cream of tartar to set the dye, a substance she still uses today.

“If you want a rich colour, use lots of plant material, purified water, and simmer,” Jackie explains. “Then when the berries start to pop, add the mordant-soaked fabric and that will preserve the colour.”

As we look at the highbush-cranberry-stained cloth, we notice stria- tions forming while the colours begin to separate as they dry. Jackie says it’s important not to put plant-dyed fabrics in direct sunlight because it will cause the hues to fade.

When I returned home to Whitehorse from the symposium, I stopped for a visit with local fibre artist Katy Delau. She’s been busy experimenting with natural dyes, and earlier this summer we harvested

tansy flowers to use on fabrics. I was impressed with the most amazing, buttery-soft yellow dye she developed from the bright yellow flowers.

“There are quite a few plants around us that yield a variety of yellow colours,” Katy says. “The hillsides around my house have a lot of trem- bling aspen, and when the leaves turned yellow in the autumn I decided to try and dye with them. I put the leaves in my dye pot, and what happened was this light yellow colour.”

Of all the yellow dyes Katy experimented with, my favourite was the yarrow flowers—they provide such a rich, spicy, turmeric-like colour. “I gathered the yarrow flowers when they were fresh, full of life-force energy,” she says of the plant. “The sky is the limit. Wild roots, mosses, lichens, mushrooms, leaves, flowers, berries, and bark—I want to try them all!”

Jackie and Katy really enjoy the journey of experimenting with wild plant dyes, and they’ve encouraged me to seek my own results.

“Honestly, the colours have their own stories,” Katy says. “It is satis- fying to experiment. You can go by what everyone tells you, but part of the fun is exploring and being surprised at what colour comes out.”

Wild Boreal Berry Dyes

Many northern folks have wild berries stored in their freezer, so why not pull out a cup and experiment with dyeing small pieces of fabric like silk, cotton, or even natural wool. Blueberries create a purple hue, and cranberries create a deeper red tint.

1- Mash berries; slowly bring to a boil; then reduce heat to a light simmer for an hour. 2- While the berries are cooking, warm up some water in a stainless-steel pot and add your mordant of choice. (See more on mordants below.) 3- Add the fabric of your choice to the mordant water and then bring it to a boil. Let it simmer for about an hour, then remove the fabric. 4 -Add fabric to the warm berries and let simmer for another hour. Let the fibre sit in the dye until cool. Lightly rinse, blot dry with a towel, and hang fabric to dry out of direct sunlight.

FABRIC: Clean natural silk, cotton, or wool.

MORDANT: There are numerous mordant sources that can be found in your kitchen cupboards or around the house, such
as lemon juice, vinegar, cream of tartar, baking soda, copper (pennies), iron (rusty nails), and alum. When artist Katy Delau experimented with wild blueberries and cranberries, she used alum as her mordant. To determine how much mordant to use, calculate approximately 15 percent of the weight of the dry fabric. For example, if the fibre weighs 100 g, you would
use 15 g of mordant.

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