Home. It’s the place where we have spent more time than usual so injecting some extra joy feels extremely important. If you want to ring the changes and add some fresh natural touches to your decorating schemes, then consider making your own plant dyes. It’s simple, satisfying and inexpensive but will bring you a huge sense of achievement.
Historically, plants and vegetables have always been employed to create pigments and colorants for textiles and the way of doing this has changed very little over time. Plant materials such as leaves, flowers, berries, bark or roots need to be heated in a pot of water in order to release the colour compound and make a dye solution. Once strained you can add fabric and keep the pot on a gentle heat until it has taken on the right shade of colour. Traditionally, natural fibres such as wool or cotton would be dyed this way before spinning or weaving. Artificial colourants were only properly introduced in the 19th century for commercial reasons and in the 21st century an interest in natural dyeing is on the increase as we become more aware of the polluting impact of synthetic dyes. The history of dyeing and the procuring of certain rare plants to create specific colour ways is fascinating and worth researching if you want to find out more.
It’s important to note that in order to make colourfast dyes from a natural source you need to prepare any textiles by scouring them and then add a mordant or metal salt such as alum (potassium aluminium sulphate) to the dyeing process. This binds the dye colour to the textile fibres. If you want to make natural dyes for large pieces of fabric such as tablecloths or napkins that will withstand washing in a machine check how to do this correctly to avoid any mistakes. You can find lots of information online, there are books on the subject and any specialist retailer will be able to give you advice. However, for the purposes of temporary decorating and for home-made gift-wrapping ideas then making so called ‘fugitive’ dyes or colorants is easy and requires no specialist techniques. These colours gradually fade over time and will wash out so that’s why ribbons and lengths of string are perfect for this method. They can also be recycled, refreshed and reused many times.
You can buy pre-prepared natural plant dyes such as woad, indigo, saffron or madder if you want to experiment with a deep, rich range of hues but the most fun can be had from everyday sources – vegetables and spices from your kitchen cupboards and fridge, plants and flowers from the garden or foraged wild berries from country hedgerows all make excellent natural colourants. You can make fugitive dye solutions from red cabbage, carrots, onions and their skins, beetroot, spinach, tea and coffee. Dried dark flower heads such as dahlias, scabious and cornflowers produce beautiful results as do a variety of spices including turmeric, paprika, harissa and pre-packaged curry powders. Powdered forms can be dissolved in a small amount of boiling water and then topped up with more water. Experimenting is all part of the fun but for quick fail safe colouring then use beetroot for shades of pink, turmeric root or powder for shades of yellow, tea for shades of brown and blackberries or blueberries for shades of purple. Adding more or less water to your solutions will automatically produce different shades and intensity of hue.
To make your own coloured ribbons you need to use natural fabrics – anything with synthetic additions such as nylon, acrylic or polyester will not be fully absorbent. Cut or rip lengths of unbleached and uncoloured natural fabrics such as linen, raw silk or cotton – an old white cotton pillowcase is perfect for this purpose. Simply immerse your lengths of fabric in your colour solution for as long as necessary. Once you are happy with the colour remove and leave to drip dry. Basic kitchen string or butcher’s twine is made from cotton – it’s used for cooking so is unbleached and chemical free and it takes up colour almost instantaneously from solutions that have gone cold so it’s very quick and easy to do with small children.
If you want to use your dye solutions for further purposes, then you can use them for tinting dried seed heads and grasses. Although it may seem counterintuitive to make these dried materials wet it works if they are sturdy enough to resist being submerged in water. Teasels and thistles or honesty seed heads, and grasses such as oats, wheat and barley, miscanthus and quaking grass all work with this treatment. If they are on long stems then submerge them upside down so the heads take on the colour, blot dry on kitchen paper and when all the excess moisture has been removed hang upside down to allow everything to dry completely. Create small bunches mixed with dried flowers for tying onto the tree, or add wreaths, swags and garlands using your home-dyed ribbons to create an effect of natural beauty.