Why Natural Dyes?

Tactile offers spinning and felting fibers and yarns hand-dyed with high quality natural dyes.  These dyes have a long and rich tradition in many cultures throughout the world.  While the natural dyeing process is more labor intensive, it provides an important connection to the past and produces results that cannot be replicated with synthetic dyes. Each dye is a reflection of its environment and the climate in which it was grown.  Add water chemistry and dyeing temperatures and you get the unique set of influences that causes natural dyes to vary each time you use them.  In addition, each natural dye stuff is a composite of many dye elements.  The result is colors with tremendous richness and depth.  As a dyer, this keeps things exciting and new each time I dye.

I use only high grade alum and cream of tartar when mordanting. The dyes themselves are from a wonderful company called Botanical Colors and are organic (though not always certified organic), fair-trade, and sourced responsibly. Kathy, the owner of Botanical Colors, has gone to great lengths to find dyes that stand up to rigorous standards of wash and light fast ratings.

Have questions about Natural Dyes?  Check the FAQ or email your question to info AT tactilefiberarts DOT com.

Focus on Natural Dyes

Cochineal image courtesy of xxx

Cochineal image courtesy of www.valleynaturecenter.org

Cochineal - Dactylopius

Cochineal is important not just as a source for a strong light and wash fast red color for natural dyers but also in the food and cosmetic industries.  It is traded on the global market as a commodity and it is also the only natural colorant derived from an animal approved by the FDA in the 21st century for use in food, drugs, and cosmetics.

Cochineal is a new world dye-stuff.  It was used in pre-Colombian American civilizations.  Its fame came during the colonial period when in was considered to be the most important export from the new world to Europe behind gold, silver and pearls.  The first shipment arrived in Spain in 1523 and before the end of the 16th century it was being re-exported to Asia.  Today the majority of cochineal is produced in Peru and Chile.

Cochineal grows on the nopal cactus which grows best in the arid marginal areas in Peru and the Central Andean regions.  Only the female bugs are collected for the dye as the males live for just two hours.  It takes approximately 70,000 female bugs to yield one pound of dry dye.  An experienced cochineal collector can harvest about 2kg in a day.  Traditionally three crops of cochineal bugs can be harvested in a year, four in a good year.  The summer crop is considered to give the best color.

Cochineal gives a blue-based red from its carminic acid and is housed in the muscle tissue of the insect.  It is a strong, pernicious dye that will give a range of color from sweet pinks, to deep reds, and light purples depending on the strength and pH of the dye bath.  Cochineal can be over dyed with indigo or modified with a little iron to get a wide range of purples.  For true reds and oranges madder and various yellow dyes can be used in conjunction with the cochineal to extend the range of colors.

Indigo illustration courtesy of www.azerbaijanrugs.com

Indigo illustration courtesy of www.azerbaijanrugs.com

Indigo - Indigofera tinctora

Indigofera tinctora, known as Indian indigo or common indigo, is an annual to perennial, depending on where it is grown, and grows to six feet tall.  It is thought to originate in India.  It is the leaves that contain the dye.  Indigofera is found in the tropics and subtropics of Africa, Asia and the Americas. In Europe woad (Isatis tinctoria) was used to dye textiles blue and dyer’s knotweed (Polygonum tinctorium) was used in China and Japan.

Indigo has been used as a dye since the earliest of times.  In India a text from before the 1st millennium BC references its use as an ointment for skin diseases.  It was used as a textile dye in ancient Egypt and in the ancient the Greco-Roman world as a pigment.  It was not until the trade route discoveries by Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama that large amounts of indigo were imported to Europe.  By the end of the 18th century, dyeing in Europe was done almost exclusively with imported indigo.  This expanded need for indigo was one of the major factors in the organization of the African slave trade.  The end of the demand for natural indigo came with the development of synthetic indigo at the end of the 19th century in Germany.

Indigo is unique as a dye because although it is considered a vat dye you cannot dissolve the indigo into a vat of water and begin to dye.  The oxygen must first be removed from the vat.  This changes the vat from blue to a yellow-green, called indigo white.  Then the fiber or yarn is dipped into the vat and left in for a few seconds.  When the item is removed and exposed the air it turns blue almost immediately.  After resting for a little while to ensure the full oxidization of the item, it can be re-dipped to darken the color.  When the desired color is achieved, the items must then rest for a week or more to further set the dye.  After which the item can be washed to rinse it of any excess dye.

Not unlike your new blue jeans, initially indigo dyed items may crock onto your hands or knitting needles while you work with it.  Because it is oxidized, the blue will not permanently stain your hands or clothes.  It will wash off easily with soap and water.  It can stain wood or bamboo needles since you can’t wash them.  Washing your yarn and knitted items after you’ve finished making them will help reduce the crocking and this behavior will disappear over time.

Logwood image courtesy of www.pburch.net

Logwood image courtesy of www.pburch.net

Logwood - Haematoxylum campechianum

Logwood trees are small with only the oldest specimens reaching 30 feet tall. It is in the legume family and has sweet-smelling yellow flowers. These scrubby trees are originally from the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. They have since naturalized in the Caribbean Islands, the Philippines, the Indian Ocean Islands, the Pacific Islands, India, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka.

Logwood joins cochineal and indigo as historically important New World dyestuffs that shaped the world. Logwood was commonly used by the Maya when the Spanish arrived in Mexico and discovered the value of logwood as a dye. Shortly after their arrival, the Spanish began exporting logwood back to Spain. Purple dyestuffs were so rare and desired in Europe that the English begin to raid the Spanish ships and holdings along the shores of Campeche Bay to steal the logwood. These skirmishes over logwood lasted between the English and the Spanish for more than a century. In 1798, after losing the battle of St. George’s Cay, the Spanish were forced to hand over what is now known as Belize. So important is the history of logwood to Belize’s formation, that two logwood cutters are featured on the national emblem of Belize.

Only the heartwood of logwood is used in dyeing. A variety of colors can be obtained from logwood ranging from blue to violet to gray.

Madder image by xxx

Madder image courtesy of www.botanical.com

Madder - Rubia tinctorum

Madder is a perennial herbaceous plant that spreads through an extensive root system.  It is a native of the Middle East and the eastern parts of the Mediterranean but has become naturalized in southern and central Europe.  It has been introduced to China, Japan Malaysia, the west coast of the US, Mexico, South America, and Africa.

Madder is traditionally harvested in the fall of its second year and only the roots are used in dyeing.  It can be harvested earlier but the amount of dye present in the roots is reduced.  Madder has some of the most numerous amounts of dye compounds among dye plants.  Because of this madder can dye a wide variety of colors on its own and even larger quantity when used in combination with other dyes.  Throughout history madder has been most prized for its red hues but it was also used to mimic the purples from shellfish by over dyeing with blue obtained by woad, and oranges and golds when dyed in combination with a yellow.

Perhaps most famously, madder was used to dye Turkey red.  This is a dye recipe was used to dye cotton yarns in India and was originally known as India red.  It spread west to Europe during the 17th century when calicos and chintzes were fashionable.  Originally it took a month to dye cotton yarn Turkey red and included in the recipe ox or sheep’s blood, rancid oils or fats, and sheep droppings or cow dung. In 1810 a man by the name of Daniel Koechlin invented procedures that first allowed cotton cloth to be dyed with Turkey red, then for printing black on cloth that was dyed with Turkey red, and finally the ability to discharge the Turkey red from the cloth leaving white areas.  These procedures revolutionized the printing of calico cloth and were quickly adopted throughout Europe and even exported back to the East where Turkey red dyeing had originated.

In Europe, madder was able to withstand the introduction of cochineal because by comparison it was a relatively cheap and plentiful dye.  The downfall of madder came in the late 1800’s when synthetic dyes were created.

Osage Orange illustration by

Osage Orange illustration by

Osage Orange - Maclura pomifera

The Osage Orange tree is native to Okalahoma, Texas, and Arkansas.  It is a mulberry family not a citrus plant though the fruits do have a pleasant citrus scent.  It was named after the Osage Indians that lived in these same areas.  Originally it was planted in hedgerows to protect the neighboring fields from the prairie winds but because of its vigorous nature it has overgrown many of its locations and is considered a pest plant.

Osage Orange was not used extensively as a dye until the beginning of the 20th century when the United States Forest Service investigated the use of the Osage Orange mill waste.  It was primarily used to dye leather.  During World War One Osage Orange regained popularity as a dye because supplies of synthetic dyes from Germany were cut off.

The wood, bark and roots can all be used to dye.  The clearest yellow comes from the heartwood.  Our Osage Orange comes from Texas where it is produced from downed trees using solar power.

Osage orange is also a traditional wood used by native Americans for bows due to its flexible nature.  Today, many spindle makers use osage orange because the natural and beautiful color of the heartwood.

Pomegranate image by

Pomegranate Illustration by Otto Wilkhelm Thome

Pomegranate - Punica granatum

The pomegranate is native to an area that ranges from southeastern Europe and the Mediterranean to the Himalayas.  It is hardy and drought tolerant and will thrive in most hot semi-arid climates.  Plants can live up to 200 years though the fruit production diminishes after just 15 years.

It is the rind that is used in dyeing and one tree can produce 1kg of dried pomegranate rind a year.  The rind gives yellows and when used in combination with iron it gives mossy greens, grays, and blacks.  The younger the fruit the greener the resulting yellow color.  The rind also contains tannins (up to 26%) making it a suitable mordant and dye for cellulosic fibers.  The rind is a by product of the pomegranate juice and seed industry.

Pomegranates have been used as a dye since ancient time.  There is a tablet housed at the British Museum that dates from the neo-Babylonian period that has dye recipes written on it that include pomegranate.  Pomegranate is one of the oldest fruits in cultivation and is still prized for its flavor and high levels of vitamins, minerals, and anti-oxidants.

Quebracho Red image by

Quebracho Red image by Jorge Vallmitjana Normal 0 0 1 2 17 1 1 20 11.1282 0 0 0

Quebracho Red - Schinopsis lorentzii

Quebracho is a hard wood tree native to the Gran Chaco, an area along the banks of the Paraguay River in Argentina, Paraguay, and Bolivia.  The wood is extremely hard and heavy.  Thus it gets the nickname ax-breaker or ironwood tree.  It gets its common name from the Spanish quebrar, meaning to break and hacha, the ax.

The entire tree, from bark to heartwood, has a distinctive red coloring.  The wood contains 25-35% tannic acid.  Because of the high amount of tannic acid, Quebracho has traditionally been used for tanning.  The wine industry also uses Quebracho to enhance the flavor and aroma of wine.  Other common uses are for cabinetry and as railroad ties, due to its natural decay resistance.

The quebracho tree is very slow growing.  It is now sustainably harvested under strict forestry regulations in the Chaco region with new seedlings planted each year.

Despite its name quebracho red yields coral and peachy pinks.  Due to the high amount of tannin it contains, it is well suited to dyeing cellulose fibers in addition to protein fibers like alpaca, wool, and silk.  Other species yield yellow, green, and brown dyes.

Weld image by Tigerente

Weld image by Tigerente

Weld - Reseda luteola

The world of natural dyes is rife with sources for yellow dye but weld is the most lightfast of them all.  Many ancient textiles no longer contain green colors because the yellow dye has faded leaving only the indigo over-dye behind.  When green is found it is usually weld.

Weld is also known as dyer’s rocket or dyer’s mignonette.  The dye comes from the pigment luteolin found in the all parts of the plant except the roots and is very concentrated particularly in the leaves, inflorescences (false flowers) and fruit.  Originally from the Middle East this plant spread and was used extensively throughout Europe.  Except in colder climates, this plant is a biannual flowering the second year and can be grown easily from seed.

Weld has a long history of use from the Romans who used it to dye the robes of vestal virgins to Vermeer’s use of weld in the green background in his painting ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’.

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