Natural Dyes - Our Approach

by - Monday, January 07, 2013

The Maiwa Guide to Natural Dyes
What they are and how to use them

Our Approach to Dyeing
Some thoughts on fugative colour and colour with conviction.

Dyed yarns and source materials in Peru.

If you go into your backyard and sample every plant growing there, chop them up and prepare a dye-bath, you will find that almost every single plant will produce some kind of colour on cloth. Is every plant, therefore, a dyeplant?

No. First wash the dye samples with water. Many will return to the undyed state immediately. Next leave the dye samples for a period of time. Many others will soon loose their colour even without exposure to sunlight. Wash again with a mild soap or expose your samples to the sunlight for a day and almost all will have left the cloth or faded to pale ghosts.

And so your journey to find beautiful shades and to encourage them to stay on the fibre has begun. A large amount of the knowledge will concern processes for preparing the fibre. You will make the acquaintance of mordants and tannins. You may be surprised to find that the master dyer’s skill is much more than knowing which plant gives which colour. Rather a dyer’s skill is an understanding of what process will change fugitive colour to colour with conviction, for different fibres and under different circumstances. In this light, the work of accomplished dyers is all the more impressive.

And yet, natural dyes suffer from considerable negative press. A person who purchases a naturally dyed garment is quite likely to blame the entire practice of natural dyeing if that garment wears unevenly, fades prematurely or does not live up to expectations.

The historical evidence of museum-quality textile collections from around the world clearly shows that natural dyes can produce vivid, rich colours that last for hundreds if not thousands of years. Dyers often take offence at the popular notion that natural dyes only produce short-lived unhappy shades of dull brown.

Naturally dyed tapestry in the Alcazar, Seville, Spain.
An idea of colour after centuries exposed to sunlight and weather.

Our goal in these instructions will be what we think of as legacy quality dyeing: the professional application of colour that will satisfy the demands of the purchasing public. For this reason we have omitted popular items such as onion skins from our notes. They do indeed give a colour on cloth. However, in our opinion the results are fugitive and so we cannot recommend them as a source of permanent colour. This guide does not attempt to detail every plant that will provide colour – only those that, in our experience, provide lasting, permanent results.

Dyeing to Discover

People work with colour for a variety of reasons. Artists, children, gardeners, craftspeople, natural explorers, all may have different goals from the production dyer.

Any person who has cooked beets has wondered if that blood-red colour in the pot could somehow be transferred onto a shirt. Stains - from mustard to wine - will also lead the curious to contemplate colour on cloth. This is a common starting point for many who are driven by a desire to learn and experiment. It is true that an interest in local or unusual sources can be more important than the permanence of the results.

All levels of chromatic exploration are to be encouraged. The botanical world is vast. For those interested in sampling it we offer ...

A Few Points About Plant Conservation
There are probably plants growing near you that will make interesting dyes. Different parts of the plant - bark, heartwood, sapwood, flowers, pods and seeds - all have potential.

Exercise caution when harvesting. Be aware of your local ecology. Never strip bark from live trees or prune in public areas. Sensitivity is especially important with lichens. Ecologically, windfall is often preferable to harvest, but don’t forget that windfall has its own ecosystem – a variety of insects, birds, animals and other plants depend on it. Often a local botanist or conservation officer can guide you to areas where harvesting is beneficial. Generally these specialists are keen to share knowledge and learn about the potential colorants in plants. Botanical gardens prune on a regular basis and are not usually opposed to distributing the waste. Such gardens can yield some exotic source material.
Keep in mind that, being unable to move, many plants use toxins as a defense mechanism. A common example is the rhubarb leaf. These contain one of the strongest natural acids (oxalic acid - often used by dyers). The deadly nature of the leaves is in sharp contrast to the edible pleasures of the stem. Respect the genius of the plant world and treat any unknown item as if it were potentially dangerous.
Maiwa sells dyes that are cultivated. Our policy is to work directly with farmers where we can visit the farm and observe the conditions of cultivation.

The Attraction of Natural Colour

Before starting to dye keep in mind that dyes are not like paints. They do not coat the fibre with a monochromatic opaque colour. Rather they add a hue to the fibre itself and augment it’s existing qualities. This is one of the facets that makes natural dyeing so exciting. There are the qualities of the fibre and there are the qualities of the dye and they work together to create an effect with character and personality, depth and texture.

Like any art, working with natural dyes rewards skill and experience. The novice may get immediate satisfaction from the application of natural colour – it is immensely pleasurable and the experience will change your world-view. But there is also enough scope and depth in the study of natural dyes to last many lifetimes.

As with fine wines, made from grapes that change each year to reflect the weather, the seasons, the conditions of the soil, and the tastes of the vintner; dyes will give slightly different shade each time they are harvested.

Preparation of morinda roots on the island of Sumba, Indonesia

What is Natural Colour?

Natural colours may include dyestuffs from animal, mineral and vegetable sources. We understand natural colours in opposition to artificial or synthetic colours. Synthetic colour was first discovered by William H. Perkin in 1856 when he synthesized mauve from coal-tar. Today synthetics are produced from petrochemicals.

Dye? Pigment? Or Stain?

A dye is a substance that will join in a molecular bond with a fibre in such a way as to give a colour.

A stain is the presence of a topical colourant on a fiber or cloth. A stain may be annoyingly permanent, yet still not be a dye.

A pigment is a colourant which has been made into an insoluble mineral salt. Typically for fine art, a pigment is suspended in a medium such as oil, acrylic, wax (encaustic) or water (watercolours).

Mineral Pigments

Mineral colours such as ochers, are considered natural. This doesn’t mean that they occur as ready-made products in nature, but, rather the pigment is obtained from the natural rock without any chemical transformation. Metallic copper minerals such as azurite and malachite are simply crushed to a fine powder and used as pigments. Natural materials can still be quite hazardous. This was true for the sumptuous but very poisonous pigments from quicksilver (mercury), arsenic, and lead that have been used in the past.

The Maiwa Guide to Natural Dyes

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  1. Thanks so much for this interesting and educational post. I learn so much from your blog.


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