Foraging for Natural Dyes 

Foraging for Natural Dyes 

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Our farm property is heavily wooded, so foraging for natural dyes was an easy transition for me once I learned the basics of natural dyeing.   Spending time learning about foraging led me on the path to foraged dye plants. There are numerous plant dyes provided by nature. After doing some basic background research, it was fairly easy to get started. 

The key to getting started is knowing how to limit our impact on the environment. It is not hard to gather enough raw material for a few dye baths at a time, while leaving the natural eco system to flourish. Most of my experiments are done on wool because we raise sheep and create yarn from their fleeces. Different procedures may be needed for cotton and other plant fiber cloth.   

Spending time in the wild, knowing when to harvest from the abundance, and when to leave the plants to rest, ensures that your patch of woodlands will continue to thrive and offer you natural dyes for the future. Foraging for natural dyes in the woods allows you time to get to know the plants that grow seasonally.   

When I find a plant growing heavily on our wooded farm, I take a photo or small sample to use for identification. Any number of field guides are available, and I recommend getting one that focuses on plants in your geographical area. Look to see if the guide includes invasive species too, as these are often a fun surprise in the dye pot.  

The Seasons of Foraging for Natural Dyes in the Woods  

Spring offers the first fresh plants for the dye pot. One, in particular, that causes homeowners headaches is the purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum). 

It does not confine itself to the woods and byways. This colorful little plant springs up in yards, flower beds, and pathways. In my area of the east coast, it is definitely invasive. While most people lament its arrival, I grab a five-gallon bucket and begin my first harvest of the year. The process for obtaining yellow dye from green plants is similar for many plants. While purple dead nettle is actually in the mint family, it creates dye much as stinging nettle does, or a large bucket of cultivated mint that overgrows your herb garden.   

My recipe for purple dead nettle:  

  • 2-3 gallons of fresh, raw, purple dead nettle. 
  • Remove the roots that often are picked with the plant.  
  • 1 teaspoon of powdered iron (the iron modifies the yellow color into a light sage green shade)  
  • 100 grams (I skein of mordanted yarn or wool fiber)   

Note: most natural dyes require that the wool be mordanted using a 10% solution of alum and water, simmered for an hour and left to cool in the pot before transferring to the dye pot.  

Creating the Dye   

While the yarn is in the mordant, add the purple dead nettle to a separate stainless steel dye pot. Cover with water, bring to a low boil and continue to simmer for 45 minutes or longer. Strain out the plant material. The liquid will be greenish yellow. Begin to add the iron, half a teaspoon at a time. The color will begin to darken.   

Add the wool to the dye pot. Keeping the dye pot simmering below 200 degrees Fahrenheit, dye the yarn or fiber for 45 minutes to an hour. Cool in the dye pot before removing for rinsing.   

Other Spring Dye plants   

  • Dandelions – light yellow   
  • Yarrow – yellow  
  • Ivy – often available all year. Yields yellow to grays and greens  
  • Bracken – brownish yellow  
  • Dock and Sorrel – greens, yellows, browns  

Summer Foraged Dyes  

Summer foraging leads us to different colors in the dye pot. Another beautiful result of foraged dyes is the progression through the colors in nature.  

Pokeberries from the poke plant are a rich source of dye when handled correctly. These berries are toxic to humans, so don’t snack on them while foraging. Pokeberry gives us a variety of deep burgundy, fuchsia, pinks, and fire engine red, depending on how it is handled.  

I have had great luck with the dye. You do need to be aware of both the 

potential light sensitivity and the effect of too much heat in the dye pot.   

Last year, I began doing long, cold soaks in pokeberry dye, instead of the traditional heated dye. The results were more vibrant and less light sensitive. The wool was still mordanted using an acidic (vinegar and water) soak. After soaking the berries for several days in a bucket of room temperature water, I added the wool yarn or fiber. I allowed the material to soak for two to three additional days. After removing from the dye bath, the wool was dried almost completely before rinsing in an acidic vinegar water rinse.   

Additional dyes to forage in summer:  

  • Mulberries – light violet shades  
  • Elderberry – browns, beige, greens, yellow  
  • St. John’s Wort – a wide range of natural colors when using the flowers or leaves.  

Fall and Winter Foraged Dyes  

Surprisingly, fall is my favorite time to forage for natural dyes. Summer lingers and still gives some summery dye options, while the fall options begin to appear.   

Black walnuts are often first to fall and may even begin to drop in late summer. These large, tough nuts give a deep brown color to wool and textiles. There is no need to break open the nut to release the dye, although many dye artists will do that. You can simply pop the large green balls into the dye pot, cover with water, and add heat or do a cool water soak. The dye is in the green husk and will leach into the water either way.  

The oak trees yield acorns, which give a golden honey brown color to wool. In addition, oak leaves and bark are also fun to experiment with in the dye pot.   

Hickory nuts offer a beautiful brown with gold undertones. I am hoping that the hickory trees have another bountiful year coming up.   

Goldenrod is a favorite of mine. Not only does it grow abundantly, but it also gives the loveliest shades of gold with little work. Goldenrod also dries and stores well, allowing the dyer to create golds during winter.   

A surprising find on our property was a fast-growing member of the mint family.  Perilla frutescensgrows abundantly on our farm from late summer through fall. Although it sprouts up everywhere, I associate it with gorgeous dark green dye and hate to see it fade away with the first heavy frost.   


Additional tips: 

  1. Take only what you need and only from the abundance.  
  2. Wear protective clothing, and shoes, and have gloves available if you aren’t sure what you are handling.  
  3. Watch your step! Snakes often hide in the under story where these dye plants exist.  
  4. Carry large bags or pillowcases to collect your dye materials. Buckets can get heavy and cumbersome on a longer hike.  
  5. As much as possible, avoid disturbing habitat and ecosystems.  

I hope this encourages you to go foraging for more natural dyes beyond your home dye garden. Enjoy the vast pallet of color that nature offers to us.   

JANET GARMAN is a farmer, writer, instructor, and fiber artist living in central Maryland on the family’s farm. She loves all subjects related to small farms and homesteading. Raising chickens, ducks, sheep, and fiber goats led her to write her most recent books, 50 Do-It-Yourself Projects for Keeping Chickens, (Skyhorse Publishing 2018), The Good Living Guide to Raising Sheep and Other Fiber Animals, (Skyhorse Publishing 2019), and 50 Do-It-Yourself Projects for Keeping Goats (Skyhorse Publishing 2020).            

Originally published in the September/October 2022 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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