Dirt, Plants, Water, Sunshine … and the People Who Love Them



We thought arriving at 8 am was early, but there they were:  flats and flats and flats of seedlings, waiting for us outside the garden fence. Our partners from the Denver Botanic Gardens at Chatfield Farms had obviously been up with the sun to deliver them from the greenhouse. The mood was one of a particularly good birthday party — friends, fun, and presents!  There was a definite anticipatory buzz, and one new dye gardener admitted to not sleeping the night before for pure excitement.  Planting day at last!

This season’s roster includes:
Japanese indigo, Polygonum tinctorium
Guatemalan indigo, Indigo suffruticosa
Dyer’s chamomile, Anthemis tinctoria
African marigold, Tagetes erecta
French marigold, Tagetes patula
Mexican marigold, Tagetes lucida
Madder, Rubia tinctorum
Black hollyhock, Alcea rosea
Black eyed Susan, Rudbeckia hirta
Dyer’s broom, Genista tinctoria
Yarrow, Achillea millefolium
Dyer’s coreopsis, Coreopsis tinctoria
Red dyer’s coreopsis, Coreopsis tinctoria
Cosmic red cosmos, Cosmos sulphureus
Cosmic orange cosmos, Cosmos sulphureus
Cosmic yellow cosmos, Cosmos sulphureus
Weld or, as our new sign calls it, Dyer’s rocket, Reseda luteola

After a spell of sunshine and heat resulted in droopy plants and equally droopy people, a good watering perked things right up. The forecast called for rain and, sure enough, late morning brought wind, clouds, and a drop in temperature. The plant babies responded well to the increased humidity and looked solid and strong by the time we broke for lunch and a discussion about The Irrigation System and how to install it. Cut it? Wrap it around? Knot it? Really? Well, yes, as it turns out, really.

Planting day 2017 is over, and what a good time we had with each other and our garden. Lots to look forward to this summer! We’ll be tending the plants, harvesting, and dyeing on Thursdays from June to September. If you’re in the neighborhood, stop in and say hello.


Getting Dirty

IMG_3005We’re back outside at last! The Natural Dye Garden Project launched its 4th season on April 20 with a full day at Chatfield Farms.

Larry Vickerman, Director, Denver Botanic Gardens at Chatfield Farms and Molly Hayden, Volunteer Coordinator

We started things off with an interesting – if really disturbing — presentation by Chatfield Director Larry Vickerman titled, Sustainable Soils. Larry outlined the problems inherent in the overuse of inorganic, nitrogen-rich fertilizers and described how the Denver Botanic Gardens is working to create and support healthy soils with organic fertilization, minimal tilling, and use of ground cover.

With much to think about, we headed out to prepare the Janice Ford Memorial Garden for planting in May. Proving yet again that many hands make light work, we trimmed, thinned, weeded, raked, trenched, mounded, spread compost and mulch, caught up on all the news, and pulled up an obsolete irrigation system.  It was great to see familiar faces and welcome new ones!

Some of us took a trip to the Chatfield greenhouse to check on the progress of our seedlings.  Marigolds, hollyhocks, cosmos, coreopsis, cota – all very tiny – but we trust they’ll be ready for planting on May 25. Fingers crossed! We’re looking forward to another good, fun, and — inevitably — surprising growing season. Our new volunteers can anticipate the truly miraculous process of nurturing plants and then producing dyes from them; while our veterans (never immune to miracles!) look forward to sharing our knowledge and experience with them and botanic garden visitors. We even have a research project to look forward to, as our garden is one of several around the country participating in John Marshall’s Japanese indigo study — more on that in future blog posts!

One last thing:  founding members Donna Brown and Jánet Bare have co-authored “Growing a Dye Garden,” an article in the Spring 2017 issue of Shuttle Spindle & DyepotIf you’re a member of the Handweavers Guild of America, check it out! If you’re not, your local public library may have a copy, or be able to get you one via interlibrary loan.


Botanical Art: An Interview with Leslie Boose

Maintaining a dye garden is a loud and busy business, at least the way we do it is! Once the plants are up and established, there’s weeding, watering, gathering, drying and, eventually, dyeing. There’s also conversation and laughter — we are fortunate to be a group that likes and  cares about each other — and exclamations over the quality of color our plants are producing. We have a good time.  On several occasions over this past summer, our work days included the graceful, quiet presence of Leslie Boose, a student of botanical illustration at the Denver Botanic Gardens. In the midst of activity, Leslie was a still point, silently sitting on the ground, pad in lap, pencil in hand, sketching.  It was a pleasure to stop and peer over her shoulder as we moved between plants and drying racks, watching plants emerge on the page. Another facet of our garden was developing, one we’d not considered. At age three, the Janice Ford Memorial Dye Garden is attracting and bringing together people with interests beyond dyes, gardening, and fiber. As our community grows, we thought it would be fun to profile some of the people who enrich the experience. Allow us, then, to introduce you to Leslie Boose, botanical illustrator.

Leslie Boose, August 2016

The main goal of botanical illustration is not art, but scientific accuracy. It must portray a plant with the precision and level of detail for it to be recognized and distinguished from another species.

Dye Garden: Hi Leslie! We really enjoyed having you with us this past summer, and watching your work develop. Thanks for agreeing to answer a few questions. First off, would you tell us where you grew up and how long you’ve lived in the Denver area?

Leslie: I grew up in Louisiana.  We moved to the Denver area 25 years ago, and we love it here.

Dye Garden: Did you like to draw as a child? If so, what or who influenced your desire to draw?

Leslie: As a child, I always liked to draw and color, and to make things.  My mom was creative and she encouraged all of her three daughters with art supplies and craft projects.  I had a few teachers who also noticed I liked art, and they encouraged me.  I went on to earn bachelor’s degree in art from the University of New Mexico.

Dye Garden: How did your interest in botanical illustration develop? What do you enjoy about it?

Leslie: I first noticed contemporary botanical art when I saw an exhibit at the Denver Botanic Gardens. It was the work of students in the botanical illustration program. I really liked it, and thought I would love to do that someday. About 15 years later, I began to take classes. I love illustrating plants and flowers. I like the combination of discipline and creativity to make beautiful art. I also like learning about the history of botanical illustration, which is centuries old.

The need for exactness differentiates botanical illustration from more general flower painting. Many great artists, from the seventeenth-century Dutch masters to the French Impressionists, such as Monet and Renoir, to modernists like Georgia O’Keeffe, portrayed flowers; but since their goal was aesthetic, accuracy was not always necessary or intended. In the hands of a talented botanical artist, however, the illustration goes beyond its scientific requirements.

Japanese indigo, Polygonum tinctorium, by Leslie Boose.

Dye Garden: Can you tell us more about the botanical illustration program at Denver Botanic Gardens?

Leslie: The School of Botanical Art & Illustration at the Denver Botanic Gardens is really quite wonderful. It offers a curriculum leading to a Foundational Certificate in Botanical Art and Illustration, and a more advanced Diploma in Botanical Illustration. The catalog for Winter/Spring 2017 offers 68 classes with 11 instructors.  Visiting instructors are invited from other states, and from other countries, such as England and Australia. Some of the classes offered are in areas outside of botanical illustration, such as calligraphy, book binding, and iconography. Many classes are open to anyone, not just students in the botanical illustration program. There are also classes for teens. Students are of all ages, though many are retirees. Some of us are artists, some are gardeners, and some are both. Some students have art backgrounds, and others don’t. I enjoy learning a variety of techniques (watercolor, graphite, colored pencil, pen and ink, etc.) from the talented staff of instructors. The camaraderie is wonderful. We all encourage and learn from each other. I have finished the Foundational Certificate and am working towards a Diploma.

Dye Garden:  We really enjoyed your presence at the garden this past summer. How did you hear about us and … well … what do you think of it all?

Leslie: I learned about the Janice Ford Memorial Dye Garden from the Denver Botanical Garden website. I was working on a project about cotton, and I was interested in the indigo growing in the dye garden, because indigo is used to dye cotton. I visited the garden to sketch and photograph the indigo plants, and made an illustration (above). The dye garden is a beautiful, peaceful place, and I was drawn to illustrate more dye plants. With the encouragement of the School of Botanical Art & Illustration director, Mervi Hjelmroos-Koski, my diploma project will be about dye plants growing in the Janice Ford Memorial Dye Garden. This past summer, I was fortunate to be able to join the dye garden volunteers several times when they worked in the garden on Thursdays. They are a very friendly, creative, and dedicated group!

Dye Garden: Leslie, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us! We’re delighted that you’ve chosen to do your diploma work on the plants in our garden and cannot wait to see the results. Best of luck to you!

So why can’t this job be done using photography?

Although photography and perhaps particularly microscopic photography, may help inform botanical work, there is certainly still a need for botanical illustration because it can represent clearly what may not easily be seen in a photograph. Outline drawings for example, distinguish elements that cannot easily be made out using reflected light alone. Also, the composition of the image can be manipulated more fully in illustration, and features displayed together which may not easily be shown simultaneously in nature.

Above: Japanese indigo, Polygonum tinctorium, from the summer, 2016 growing season at the Janice Ford Memorial Dye Garden.

Text in green type is from Botanic Gardens Conservation International


Ice-Cold Blues


We love indigo. We are not alone in this. When you consider that indigo blue wasn’t chemically synthesized until the late 19th century, it’s not hard to understand how desirable a plant rendering blue dye would be among textile producers, and indigo certainly has a rich history of innovation and use across time and space.

Happily, we have a bumper crop of Japanese indigo, Polygonum tinctorium, at the Janice Ford Memorial Dye Garden  this summer, and boy do we have plans! John Marshall is coming to visit, talk, and lead a few workshops in September, and we hope to supply his fresh indigo needs. We’ll also get a few vats going for colors resembling blue jeans, ranging from the dark, stiff, right-off-the-rack variety to that holey, comfy, faded pair you can’t bear to part with.

Here though, we’re trying a cold bath method with our fresh leaves that results in a unique turquoise color. Instructions are available in a variety of sources; we referenced Garden to Dye For by Chris McLaughlin and John Marshall’s Dyeing With Fresh-Leaf Indigo.  Guidance is also available online on Wildcolours’ Japanese Indigo Dyeing page.

Our early bird volunteers got to work clipping branches before the day heated up and stripping leaves — about eight pounds in all. Many, many leaves, about four times the weight of goods to be dyed, are needed. The fresh leaves were put in a blender with ice and pulverized. A note on the “why’s” and “how’s” of it all: despite much animated discussion of what makes this process tick, we have no idea. At the end of the day, it comes down to the vague-if-obvious statement that it has to do with a chemical reaction precipitated by low temperature and agitation. (We’re not satisfied either.) Post-pulverization, the icy mixture was strained through a cloth into a container sitting in a bed of ice.

Pre-wet fiber — we used silk and wool — was submerged in the bowl and, with hands increasingly numb from cold, moved around for about ten minutes. The color’s quite green at this point but, once removed from the liquid and exposed to air, the blues arrived. Rinsing in cold water only made it better!

Linda, our extraordinary basket maker, took the opportunity to dye some reeds as well, with good results.

This was our second year of fresh-leaf dyeing with ice water, and the shine hasn’t begun to fade. Dyeing with plants is an adventure, with the dyer’s skill often contributing as much as the climate, soil, water, and genetics that produced them. We have fun and, to celebrate the arrival of our new picnic tables, we also have cake!




Eco-Dyeing with Judy Newland

IMG_1439 edited

Recently, we celebrated the Lavender Festival at Chatfield Farms, a fun and fragrant event featuring garden tours, vendors, some good bands, a kind-of inexplicable Brahma bull, and many, many visitors to the Janice Ford Memorial Dye Garden. We’ve gotten pretty good at chaBrahman_bulltting with people about what we’re up to, conveying the essentials, anticipating questions, and enjoying the back and forth from a very interested and engaged public. It can be an energizing experience! This time, we got to mix it up a bit thanks to Judy Newland and her class on eco-dyeing, which we undertook in the midst of lavender, crowds, and inexplicable Brahma bulls.

From the moment we saw her indigo-dyed locks, we knew we were in for a fun (and just possibly wild) ride, and so it proved to be. Judy brings with her an extensive background in natural dyes, anthropology, art, textiles, and museum studies, making her a knowledgeable and fascinating teacher. She has a terrific website where you can read more and view pictures of her creations.

Wendy Feldberg give a good definition of eco printing  on her blog, Threadborne:

Eco printing or eco dyeing is a contemporary application of the traditions of natural dyeing. In eco printing or dyeing, plants are enclosed in textiles or paper,  bundled by winding over rods or stacked in layers and then steamed or immersed in hot water to extract the pigments and produce a print made with plant dyes.  Direct and close contact between the plant and the substrate is essential. Leaves, stems, flowers, buds, seeds and roots may be used; also bark and wood.  At different seasons of the year, different pigments may concentrate in various plant parts so great colour variability is possible – and desirable!  Eco dyeing and printing does not focus on strict replication of results. Many plants that are not considered traditional dye plants will yield colourful prints, and sometimes, traditional dye plants produce different colours when processed as eco prints. Garden plants, kitchen plants and, where allowed, locally foraged plants may be used, fresh and/or dried. Prints with colours and forms both clearly defined and attractively diffused are produced by this process.

Judy offers four additional points in her class handout:
1) Bioregional gathering of plants – work in your own backyard and neighborhood.
2) Ecologically sustainable plant dyes.
3) Serendipity is at play – you must experiment to see if the plants will make an eco print.
4) The materials do make a difference – you will get different results on silk and wool. Cotton does not work unless you treat it with some type of tannin.

As noted, experimentation and unpredictability are part of the fun, and we were encouraged to bring a selection of leaves from home. Among those represented: rose, peony, sumac, and aspen. Judy brought some intriguing examples from southern Arizona, including eucalyptus, creosote, and mesquite. As our dye garden is in full bloom, it was inevitable that we would add some coreopsis, black hollyhock, and Japanese indigo to the mix.

Our substrates included three types of silk (habotai, noil, broadcloth) and wool and, following Judy’s demo on possible ways to fold, roll, and tie our leaf-filled bundles, we had at it. On the first go, most chose to roll their bundles around PVC or copper pipe for immersion in a coreopsis dye pot. Later, we added madder and cutch pots for greater variety. Judy favors a one-pot approach in which the alum mordant is added to the bath; thus eliminating the need for pre-mordanted fabric. Our group took turns eco-dyeing, giving tours of the garden, stirring dye pots, and chatting with visitors. Chatfield Farms estimates that about 5000 people attended the Lavender Festival, many of whom (it seems) peeked in our dye pots and couldn’t resist asking when the hot dogs would be ready … Keep smiling!

After about an hour in the baths, we gleefully untied knots and unrolled or unfolded our bundles to view the results. There were smiles, happy exclamations, and not a few “Oh”s … ah well, that’s the nature of experimentation and serendipity. We learned how to do it, and we will do it again!

Many thanks to Judy Newland for sharing her instruction, expertise, and sense of fun and adventure with us!




Dyer’s Red


Recently, a new dyer asked a veteran of our group what color we’d get from yarrow. Her reply: “If we’re very lucky, yellow.” Smiles all around. It was joke, of course, as practically everything we grow yields yellow — a rich variety of delicious yellows for sure, but yellow just the same. The indigo we’re growing (Polygonum tinctorium) intrigues us to no end with its comparatively intricate color extraction methods, the array of blues it can provide depending on oh so many factors, and the fact that you can combine it with all those yellows to make green. The red in our garden is Rubia tinctorum, or madder. Color resides in the roots, which take two to three years to mature.  We’ve been patiently watching and waiting, tending and watering for two years and the time has come!  Welcome red!

Dominique Cardon calls madder “the queen of the reds … quite simply because it could be cultivated, meaning that there was always a supply of product that was much cheaper than the luxury reds obtained at huge expense by collecting millions of scale insects … in wild, remote places. But dyer’s madder also owed its success to the astonishing variety of colors that could be obtained from it — either alone or in combination with other dyestuffs.”

madder print
Pages from L. Fuchs flora, printed in Basel in 1545, showing wild and cultivated madder. Reprinted in G. Sandberg, p.73. See references.

The wide geographical distribution of the Rubiaceae family of plants has made this source of red dye accessible to humans across time and space. It enters the literary/archaeological record around 1900 BCE via Akkadian texts from Mesopotamia and shows up on a belt in Tutankhamun’s tomb (c.1350 BCE). Use of an alum mordant with madder is recorded on a 7th century BCE Neo-Babylonian tablet, as well as the 3rd

Our two-year-olds.

century BCE Chinese text, Erya, likely indicative of a much older, established, madder-dyeing tradition. In South America, madder-dyed textiles are associated with the Paracas Culture of Peru (800-100 BCE). The botany and chemistry of madder, as well as its role in human history (cultivation, harvesting, processing, dyeing, trade, intrigue, etc.) makes for fascinating reading and we’ve included a few sources for further exploration in the bibliography.  One more point to conclude: Alizarin, one of the dyestuffs found in madder root, was the first natural pigment to be synthesized in 1868. No wonder madder and the other natural reds were such prized and pivotal factors in human interaction.

The madder harvest.

The harvest from our first madder bed was certainly prized and pivotal, and processing and dyeing with it has proved a unique learning opportunity. Given the lengthy maturation time and our limited cultivation area, it is a very finite crop. We ended up with about 450g in total, which was divided in half for two dyeing opportunities. Having prior experience, two of our members took charge of processing the roots, first washing them, stripping the bark off, and then separating them into yellow and red piles on the assumption that they could produce different hues. The reds went straight into a frighteningly powerful blender for pluverization.

The yellow roots were chopped and set to soak with a chalk additive (1-2% per weight of dyestuff), on the understanding that madder likes hard water and, with it, can produce a stronger red. Among other factors, the calcium content of the soil in which madder grows influences both dye yield and depth of color. The Grand Soak-O-The-Yellow will last two weeks to a month, depending on how long our valiant dyer can bear the smell. The pulverized red roots went home with another dyer for a week-long soak, followed by one-hour of cooking at a temperature not to exceed 175 F; over this, the dyestuff turns brown and ineffective.

This is as good a place as any to say that, as is typical with natural dyes, there are many routes to success and, of course, failure. In the days following our harvest, we read or recalled aspects of madder harvesting, processing, and dyeing that we did not do. Next time.

First use of dye bath. Madder-dyed wool, wet.

Our next dye date coincided with the first Free Day at Chatfield Farms and dye garden volunteers were out in force to provide tours, demonstrate dyeing, and talk with visitors about what we’re up to. In addition to our stalwart African marigold, yarrow, and indigo (extract) pots, we had madder on the stove and enjoyed sharing our new experience with the public. The chopped, cooked, chalked red roots went into a pot with water high enough to cover our fiber and reader, if you wonder whether we mixed, we did. Silk, wool, cotton … fabric, skein — in they went and, remarkably, came out with good color. Following experience and reference sources, we kept the temperature below 160 F. Gösta Sandberg explains, “The roots of the cultivated madder make up to four percent of the plant’s total weight … primarily alizarin, purpurin and pseudo purpurin. The latter is converted to purpurin by the heat produced during the dyeing process. However, the pseudo purpurin is of great importance because it has the most brilliant of the madder dyestuffs, and the instructions often repeated in the literature – that madder must be dyed at a low temperature (below 70 C) – probably has something to do with that,” (Sandberg p. 78, see references).

Second use of dye bath. Madder-dyed cotton, dry.

Easily ten items went into the pot that first day, and we reused the bath the following week. The results were good both times. Some dyers opted to rinse their fiber right out of the pot, others let it dry before rinsing. It will become part of knitting, weaving, and sewing projects, with varying forms and functions. We look forward to some interesting reports back on how this remarkable color holds up. And what about those yellow roots? We shall see.

Below you’ll find a list of titles for further reading about madder. There are many, many sources and perhaps your favorite is missing. If so, please leave a comment with the citation. We’d also like to hear about your experience with madder. Have you grown it? If so, where do you live? Any particular way you harvest or process it for dyeing? With regard to dyeing, have you tried mordants besides alum? How many times have you been able to reuse a bath? Let’s hear it!

Suggestions for Further Reading

Adrosko, Rita J. Natural Dyes and Home Dyeing. New York: Dover, 1971.
Pp 20-25 give a tidy historical overview, with attention on madder use in American history; recipes on pp. 95-96.

Böhmer, Harald. Koekboya: Natural Dyes and Textiles, a Colour Journey from Turkey to India and Beyond. Ganderkesee, Germany: Remhöb, 2002.
Fascinating book that addresses just about every aspect of madder (and other dyes) in Turkish textiles. Kökboya is the Turkish word for madder.

Buchanan, Rita. A Dyer’s Garden: From Plant to Pot, Growing Dyes for Natural Fibers. Loveland, CO: Interweave Press, 1995.
See pp. 52-53 for background and recipe.

Cardon, Dominique. Natural Dyes: Sources, Tradition, Technology and Science.
Chapter 4, pp. 107-166 detail the Rubiaceae family, highlighting specific species with sections on botany, history of use, and techniques.

Dean, Jenny. A Heritage of Colour: Natural Dyes Past and Present. Tunbridge Wells, Kent: Search Press, 2014.
Informative presentation on madder history, cultivation, processing and dyeing on pp. 116-123.

—–  Wild Color: The Complete Guide to Making and Using Natural Dyes. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1999.
Pp. 124-125 ably cover cultivation and harvest and dyeing.

Liles, J.N. The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing: Traditional Recipes for Modern Use. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990.
Chapter 5 looks at the red dyes, with madder and Turkey Red history and recipes on pp.102-127.

Sandberg, Gösta. The Red Dyes: Cochineal, Madder, and Murex Purple, a World Tour of Textile Techniques.  Asheville, NC: Lark Books, 1994.
Pp. 73-174 focus on madder, it’s botany, geographical distribution, history, techniques, and ethnography. Pages 178-181 present a technique for dyeing with madder.

Van Stralen, Trudi. Indigo, Madder & Marigold: a Portfolio of Colors from Natural Dyes. Loveland, CO: Interweave Press, 1993.





Clasping, Pinching, and Biting: A Mordanting Primer

Our gardening and dyeing season has begun in earnest at the Janice Ford Memorial Dye Garden, with  yarrow and indigo filling our inaugural pots. We’ve harvested one of our madder beds, which is really exciting!  Madder root takes three years to mature into a color-producing dynamo, and three years it has been since we planted our bed. Check back for an upcoming post on processing and dyeing … but, before we talk dyes, we need to talk mordants.

You may be able to color fiber with a natural dye but, for the most part, without an intermediary to fix the two together, disappointment looms. Wash it and farewell color. The intermediary is the mordant, a fascinating word which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was first recorded in 12th-century French. Long before obtaining its dye connotation, a mordant was a buckle or clasp, i.e., something that fastened two things together. Later, 19th-century zoologists used the term to describe crab and lobster pincers. Can you see the pattern emerging? In adjective form, the medieval-French mordant(e) meant biting or caustic, referring both to the corrosive properties of the thing described and a type of human wit. For the etymologically curious, the first  use of the word in a written-English-dyeing context occurred in 1791 in W. Hamilton’s translation of Claude-Louis. Berthollet’s Elements of the Art of Dyeing.  We’ll leave Etymology Land now but leave you with a mnemonic for later recall — two common mordants in the dyer’s toolkit (alum and tannin), bracketing one uncommonly mordant human wit.

A Definition for Natural Dyers

Following Alpenglow Yarn:
A mordant is a chemical that becomes part of the molecular bond between the fiber and the dye.  Primarily these are metal salts … You can think of a mordant as a molecular glue.  In general, dyes and fibers have a weak affinity for each other. If you tried to dye yarn without a mordant, the color would be very dull, and it would wash out promptly and fade easily. A mordant sticks to fiber well, and it also sticks to dye well. So you essentially “dye” the yarn first with a mordant, then repeat the process with the dye itself. This results in a strong bond between dye and fiber, which is fast to both washing and light exposure (in varying degrees for various dyes and mordants and combinations thereof). The mordant also affects the final color of the dye.

Of the several mordants available to natural dyers, we will focus on alum (potassium aluminum sulfate) and tannic acid because they are our basic, go-to compounds for mordanting protein (animal) and cellulose (plant) fiber. There are likely as many mordanting methods as there are dyers and, at the end of this post, you’ll find a short bibliography of sources we’ve found useful. We encourage you to think critically about mordanting … about everything really … with the goal of understanding what you’re doing. Catherine Ellis has addressed this topic on her blog and it’s well worth a read. While you can certainly follow a set of instructions and achieve good results, your experience will be enriched by study and experimentation. Keep a record of what you use, what you do, and how it turns out. Strategize about what you might do differently next time. Seek out teachers in person, in books, online … consider it a learning opportunity!

Our Instructions

Our dye project is fortunate to have the leadership and guidance of expert and teacher, Donna Brown, and the guidelines that follow are hers, adapted with permission. A note on mordanting safety: while alum and tannic acid are considered relatively safe, care for yourself by wearing latex gloves and, if particles are likely to become air born, invest in air filter masks or a respirator. If possible, work outdoors for good ventilation. Alpenglow Yarn wrote a well-researched post on mordant safety, which we highly recommend.

Mordant Recipe for Protein Fibers: llamas-97337_960_720

Step 1: Weigh your dry material to be mordanted and record your weight of goods (WOG). We generally use the metric system.

Step 2: To facilitate even dyeing, clean or scour fiber to remove any oils, dirt, or processing chemicals. Soak in hot tap water and with a pH neutral liquid detergent (synthrapol, Dawn Original Blue, etc) at about 20 ml or 2% by volume. Rinse and repeat until water is clear. To avoid felting, do not agitate or shock fiber with sudden temperature changes. Fabric can be washed in a machine per washing instructions. You can air dry your fiber for mordanting another day, or proceed to do it right away. Fiber must be wet before proceeding.

silkworm-931555_960_720Step 3: Weigh alum based on your dry weight of goods. Experts differ, suggesting a range from 7% WOG to 20% WOG for alum on protein fibers.  Donna has had success mordanting sheep wool with 7 – 10% and silk at 20% WOG. Different protein fibers may require an increase in the percentage to achieve dark colors; for example, Donna has had better success dyeing alpaca with 15% alum on the WOG.  It’s a good idea to sample with the fiber and water you are using.

Before mordanting, soak fiber for at least one hour in warm water with a touch of soap (as above). Rinse before adding to mordant pot.

Add mordant to a pot full of warm water and dissolve completely before adding fiber.

Step 4: Slowly bring pot temperature up to simmer (approximately 160 degrees F) for one sheep-275928_960_720hour, then let stand without heat for a minimum of two hours. Stir at least twice after removing pot from heat. Do not boil wool as felting may result!

Step 5: Rinse cooled fiber lightly in warm water to wash off the mordant liquid, squeeze gently (never wring), and proceed with dyeing, painting or surface design. Fiber may  be dried at this time and stored until you are ready to dye. It’s a good idea to label fiber, noting that it has been mordanted.

Mordant Recipe for Cotton and Cellulose Fibers:

Step 1: Weigh your dry material to be mordanted. Record your WOG.


Step 2:  Scour your fiber. Prepare a pot of warm water. For every kilo or 1000g of fiber add :
a) a neutral liquid detergent at 20 ml or 2% WOG; and,
b) soda ash (sodium carbonate) at 80g or 8% WOG.
Simmer one to two hours. Multiple scourings may be necessary to completely clean the fiber. If your water turns brown, repeat this step.

Step 3:  Apply tannin. Gallic tannins, i.e., gall nut, sumac, tara, and tannic acid are the best for fixing mordants on cellulose fibers. Tannins block ultraviolet light and therefore increase the light fastness of dyes.


Add tannin at 10% WOG to a vessel with enough warm water to allow fiber to float freely. Soak for one to two hours, then rinse in cold water and dry for later mordanting or proceed to Step 4. If you’re drying your fiber, remember to label it, noting that tannin has been applied.

Step 4: In one container, dissolve alum (potassium aluminum sulfate) in water at 12% WOG. In a second container, dissolve soda ash (sodium carbonate) in water at 1.5% WOG.


Step 5: Mix the two solutions together in a vessel large enough to permit fiber to move freely. Add hot water (90-140 degrees F) to cover your tannin-treated fiber. Remember, the fiber must be thoroughly wet before this stage so plan ahead and soak for a few hours.

Note: the mixture can produce a lot of bubbles; wait until they subside to add fiber. If the solution remains hot (i.e., it’s in a pot on the stove), soak for two hours. If in a bucket and/or not hot, soak for six to nine hours. Stir occasionally for even distribution.

Step 6: Rinse fiber in cool water and dry. Label as desired.

Mordant Reuse and Disposal

If you find your self regularly mordanting a particular protein/animal fiber, you can reseed the pot after a mordant session by adding 50% alum per WOG of the new material to be processed. Add enough water to cover fiber. Donna Brown says you can repeat this re-seeding four to five times before the bath becomes too murky to use.

Regarding cellulose/plant fibers, tannin baths can be stored and reused. When you’re ready to process new material, add additional tannic at the rate of 5% WOG and enough water to cover.

When the time comes to dispose of your mordanting solutions, the US Environmental Protection Agency provides a link to departments in each state and territory that can advise you. Colorado residents, contact the Department of Public Health and Environment. For more information, Jenny Dean provides a handy chart covering disposal and other aspects of several mordants in her excellent book, Wild Color: The Complete Guide to Making and Using Natural Dyes. 

And now, bring on the dyes!

Suggestions for Further Reading

Alpenglow Yarn. “Mordants and Natural Dyeing, the Great Debate.” Blog post. https://alpenglowyarn.wordpress.com/2014/11/11/mordants-and-natural-dyeing-the-great-debate/ November 11, 2014, accessed June 5, 2016

Brown, Donna, Diane de Souza and Catherine Ellis. “Mordanting Cotton and Cellulose — Successful Methods,” Turkey Red Journal 19:1, Fall 2014.
http://www.turkeyredjournal.com/archives/V19_I1/brown.html, accessed June 8, 2016.

Cardon, Dominique. Natural Dyes: Sources, Tradition, Technology and Science. London: Archetype Publications, Ltd., 2007.
Pages 4-5 and 10-15 discuss mordants and describes mordanting processes for wool, silk, and plant fibers.

Dean, Jenny. Wild Color: The Complete Guide to Making and Using Natural Dyes, New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1999.
Pages 36-45 discuss various mordants, provide instructions for protein and cellulose fibers, and address safety and disposal.

Ellis, Catherine. “The Importance of Thinking for Natural Dyers,” Blog post. Natural Dye: Experiments and Results. http://blog.ellistextiles.com/2016/02/05/the-importance-of-thinking-for-a-natural-dyer/ February 5, 2016, accessed June 6, 2016.

MAIWA. “Natural Dyes — Mordants, Part I,” Blog post.
http://maiwahandprints.blogspot.com/2013/01/natural-dyes-mordants-part-1.html January 11, 2013, accessed June 9, 2016.

MAIWA. “Natural Dyes — Mordants, Part II,” Blog post.
January 23, 2013, accessed June 9, 2016.

MAIWA. “Natural Dyes — Mordants, Part III,” Blog post.
June 27, 2013, accessed June 9, 2016.