Create Your Own Nature's Palette

Aug 28, 2013

As a child, I used to experiment with dying yarn with my mom. We used powdered drink mixes and even experimented with natural dyes a couple of times. Those brief experiences left me with a fascination for transforming a clean white skeins of wool, silk, and alpaca with rich natural dyes. About a year ago, I joined a couple of coworkers for a fun afternoon of experimenting with natural dyes. After hours of laughter, food, and fun, I left with a smoky purple hank of wool and a thirst for more. I still have so much to learn.

All of the yarn above was dyed with natural products (except the cream skein at the top, which is in it's natural form. Red: Brazilwood; Purple: Logwood with ammonia added; Both browns: Cutch with diluted copper added, Beige: Henna; Pink: Weak cochineal; Olive green: Old Fustic with iron added.  
Knitting Daily Editor Kathleen Cubley shared this article from an old issue of Interweave Knits, and I really want to try the logwood and osage.

The Basics of Natural Dyeing

Some people say, Why go to all the trouble of dyeing yarns with natural materials when so many beautiful commercially-dyed yarns are available? I say, Using natural dyes in today's world of "techno-feats" is particularly gratifying for a variety of reasons.

First, the process itself is pleasing; delightful scents, evolving colors, and a sense of awe accompany each dyepot. Much like cooking, you can start with a recipe and then "doctor it up" as you like—add a pinch of this, a dab of that.

When dyeing, I feel connected to the past. I think of dyers and artisans of medieval times, of aboriginal women bringing color to their world, and of Appalachian settlers making use of the beauty of nature around them.

Working with natural materials also enhances my awareness of the environment as a whole. I make a mental note of a patch of goldenrod I glimpsed along the roadside, and I wonder what color joe-pye weed (or any other plant that happens to catch my eye) will make.

Natural dyes yield beautiful and complex colors that look great with one another. Each color is unique according to the minerals in the soil where the plant grows, the parts of the plant used, the mordant (color-fast additive) selected, the mineral content in the water, and even the container and utensils employed in the process.


Most organic materials will yield some type of color when boiled and strained and applied to yarn—yellow is the most common color. Experimentation can be fun, but there are books to help you choose a palette to suit your every whim.

My favorite dyestuffs are brazilwood and cochineal for reds, osage orange and fustic for yellows, cutch for browns, logwood for purple, and indigo for blue. They are all excellent in light-fastness and wash-fastness and are sold in a variety of forms.

It's lots of fun to experiment with new dyestuffs, to over-dye colors on top of each other, and to add ingredients that make changes within the same dye-pot!

With natural dyeing I usually just enjoy the process and take a "what if" attitude rather than try to achieve a certain color. This approach is a lot of fun and yields some very interesting results!

—Nancy MacDonald, from Interweave Knits, Summer 1997

Are you intrigued yet? My next step is to watch the video Dyeing In the Kitchen on Craft Daily. In this fabulous hand-on workshop, Deb Menz demonstrates every step of the dyeing process, and she shares a wealth of tips and techniques for dyeing yarn.

Subscribe to Craft Daily today and learn how to create your own hand-dyed yarn! Plus you'll find great video workshops for designing your own garments, afghans, and hats.

Best wishes,

P.S. Have your dyed your own yarn? Share your favorite tips or tricks in the comments.

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aaannie wrote
on Aug 28, 2013 9:26 AM

For an extremely rich color, try extracting the dye with spirits, such as vodka. Once, I was buying some vodka for my daughter, who does lots of natural dyeing, and I heard the clerk say to the person ahead of me in line that it was his last night, that he was retiring. I decided I had to make his last night memorable, so as I checked out, I remarked that the vodka was for my daughter who was dying. He got a shocked look on his face and then I told him she was dyeing fabric, that she extracted the dye with vodka.

Cochineal makes a wonderful rich pink that way - and you get cochineal by scraping the black off infected prickly pear. It is actually bugs that give you that wonderful pink. Annalia