Garden Colour – Dyeing with Plants in Suburbia

Garden Colour – Dyeing with Plants in Suburbia

I've long been fascinated by plant dyes. It had also been a long time since I've used any until recently. For the first time as an adult, I have space where I can grow the plants I choose, and I've spent this year getting familiar with what will grow where in my garden, and being surprised by unexpected summer blooms. We've grown some veggies, which have turned out wonderfully (with an excellent crop of courgettes!), but otherwise haven't been particularly adventurous.

I did plant some marigolds in the vegetable bed for a bit of colour, and there has been an enthusiastic little patch of calendula by the drive that's lasted since early summer. These fit in with my love of orange, and I've harvested some of the flower heads whilst letting the majority go to seed. 

Also, for the first time ever, I noticed that privet (growing all round my neighbourhood as hedges) produces berries if left alone and not neatly pruned. I'd heard privet could be used as dye, so decided to give it a go! 

Privet berry dyeI carved a nice long dye spoon (rather terribly) out of an old bed slat, and used this to crush up the berries. They're surprisingly crunchy, and not juicy as I'd previously expected.

I had 15g of local alpaca yarn that I had no plans for, which turned out to be the perfect amount for a mini test skein. For mordant, I used a small amount of alum I had left over from experiments a few years ago. I heated the yarn in the mordant while I made the ominous-looking purple-black dye stock. I took the damp, mordanted yarn in the dye when it was ready, and let it simmer away. 

Marigold and Calendula dye potI also decided to use the left-over mordant water to dye a mini skein of my Mendip 4-Ply yarn base with some dried marigold heads and a few freshly picked calendula blooms.

Usually I wouldn't put the yarn straight in with 'bitty' dye stuff like this, but as I was dyeing such a small amount it was quick and easy to shake out any little pieces of petals that clung to the yarn. 


I left the little pots outside to cool fully, then brought them in to rinse off the skeins and reveal their final colour. And what a delight! The marigold/calendula turned out a rich, buttery yellow, and the privet is the most gorgeous sage green. I was expecting something in the blue/green/grey region but wasn't sure exactly. And it just happened to be one of my favourite colours in the world!

Marigold and privet dyed yarns

I've loved experimenting with these foraged colours and am planning my spring planting to include more dye plants. There will be a lot of calendula and marigolds from the seeds I've gathered, and I'm going to try hollyhocks on the recommendation of Julie from Black Isle Yarns

In the meantime I'm collecting tea bags and onion skins in the freezer until I have enough for a couple of dye batches – both of them yield lovely warm colours. And maybe I'll have a few plant-dyed skeins on some familiar bases available in the web shop in the new year!

Have you grown dye plants? I'd love to hear which, and your experience with them, especially if you're in the UK or a similar climate! 

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