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Making dyes, inks and paints from plants

FireFire LondonPosts: 13,920
I've been experimenting with extracting pigments from plants, for the last few years. I'm especially interested in using plants I grow or that I can find growing nearby. I have made simple paint washes in the past, simmering berries in water, for example, sieving and reducing the solution down to a usable concentrate with an interesting colour.  This is fun, easy, kids love it and it's quite a fascinating process. You can make a simple cloth dye in a similar way. Easy plants to first try from the garden, might include strawberries, blackberries, sloes, elderberries; dahlia, goldenrod, pelargonium, calendula, buddleja petals, or nettle leaves.



The next step on might be to help the colour stick and stay longer. Adding gum Arabic (edible) can make pigment last as a ink or a paint. Mordanting cloth with something like alum can make it become more colour fast, so the colours don't run and stay how and where you want them.

My current experiments with dye, paint and ink are using gum and alum, in an attempt to get a more professional and usable end result that doesn't fade or wash out. I am also working with my garden clay to this end.


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Dalhia paint



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Alum mordanted cloth in dark dahlia petal dye (Rip City). I'm learning as I go.


A remarkable number of plants will yield up their strong pigment. From the kitchen, ones to look out for might be beetroot, onion skins and turmeric. Ingredients to buy in might be indigo, woad or madder bark (woad is not so hard to grow).





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  • LynLyn DevonPosts: 19,865
    That’s a lovely hobby @Fire,  I was plaiting my onions earlier and peeling skins,  was thinking about the natural dyes.  I’ll be very interested in this thread. 
    Gardening on the wild, windy west side of Dartmoor. 

  • Blue OnionBlue Onion Posts: 2,898
    edited October 2021
    How beautiful Fire!  I've used blueberries to make paint before.. but haven't tied the others suggested. 

    Have you tried hammered flowers and/or leaves?  That would be fun with your tree painting.  Find some small green leaves and hammer them on.  I love that you can see the veins and other fine details with that technique.  
    Utah, USA.
  • Blue OnionBlue Onion Posts: 2,898

    Also, check out bundle dyeing.  A bit easier, if you want to skip the straining and boiling down type activities.  
    Utah, USA.
  • FireFire LondonPosts: 13,920
    edited October 2021
    @Blue Onion  ooo, no, I have not come across hammering, though ironed flowers are on my list. Also 'bundle dyeing'. I'm aware that all my various craft experiments make for piles of stuff I don't know what to do with, so I now like to have a final project in mind. Tie dyeing with petals is interesting, but not really my style of cloth.

    Plants I am itching to try are fresh walnuts, woodruff root and oak galls.  Woodruff roots are supposed to make a good pink and yellow dahlias one of the best yellows to achieve. I might go hunting for sloes in the park. Elderberry is fun but the smell is very strong and not pleasant to my nose, lingering in the house for days. Red pelargonium petals are surprisingly forthcoming. For those people with eucalypts in the garden, I really recommend messing about with the loose or fallen bark. I have tried avocado stones but haven't got a decent purple as yet. I added a splash of vinegar which I suspect was a mistake. It made something akin to odd, pink, thick and starchy potato soup.

    'Mud resist' (a bit like wax resist) is entirely fascinating and I hope to come on to that project this autumn, making mordanted patterned cloth.

    Inks and paints are easier to experiment with as you need only a little active dye ingredient to get a good result. For cloth you generally need to forage quite a bit. The mordanting takes time too. Keep made up pigments in the fridge in a sealed jar, so they don't rot. Label and date.

    My small, white kitchen struggles to cope as a dyeing studio and potting shed.  But hey ho :D



  • Many years I worked with a group of youngsters on a project just like this. They entered the regional school event and made it to the finals in York.
    We had so much fun trying out different flowers and vegetables.
    Onion skins, American poke weed, dyers green, woad, avocado skins, rose petals, tumeric roots, nettles, cold tea, wild madder were just some of the ones we used.
    It was a fascinating project and the youngsters (and me) got so much out of the project.
  • WoodgreenWoodgreen Posts: 611
    @Fire I am currently tip-toeing carefully around my very multi-coloured kitchen because there's a tortoiseshell butterfly in here somewhere and I don't want to tread or sit on it!
  • FireFire LondonPosts: 13,920
    This an interesting cardigan dyed with ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria), leaf and stem. It might be a good use for a pesky plant.




  • SherwoodArrowSherwoodArrow Nottinghamshire Posts: 150
    edited October 2021
    Have you tried oak galls (oak apples)?

    I remember watching it on some programme that monks would grind the galls up then use what ever was inside as ink, they would write books with it. 

    I don’t know all the in’s and out’s of how you do it but just a thought. 🙂
  • LynLyn DevonPosts: 19,865
    @Fire. Thank you for that link, how fascinating,  ground elder is something I have in abundance 😀
    I have heard about the Oak Galls. 
    Gardening on the wild, windy west side of Dartmoor. 

  • FireFire LondonPosts: 13,920
    edited October 2021
    I mentioned oak galls (oak apples) above. It was used commonly to make ink for medieval manuscripts. Parasitic wasps lay their eggs in the oak trees and the galls are the result. The next time I'm in a forest I will go hunting. If anyone has some to hand, please let me know. x





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