I’m doing a workshop on natural dyes at an event my new Tuatha (roughly equivalent to a Village) is running at the end of the month. I’ve been refreshing my knowledge, doing a bit of online shopping and spending a couple of evenings doing some new research with my laptop while the TV is on in the living room. This blog post comes to you via an evening listening to Gardener’s World talking about planting up Mediterranean herbs while I was looking into Italian dyes. I decided to try to gather a list of Food/food adjacent items used in the Mediterranean that can also be used to dye wool, linen or silk. It is not ever remotely intended to be exhaustive but the idea of the title so amused me and I can’t resist it.
It’s important to note that while a lot of plant material can be used to dye not a lot of them are necessarily recommended for dyeing cloth or wool that’s going to be in the light or washed a lot. There’s a whole other blog post in the kinds of things that made a dye truly useful for professional or home dyers in search of a long lasting, quality dye. The efficacy of a dye depended on a variety of factors, including the material being dyed, the type of dye used, and the skill of the dyer. Unlike modern synthetic dyes, natural dyes were often affected by factors such as temperature, pH levels, and even the water source used in the dyeing process, so consistency is… weeeeeeelllll, difficult. Dyes that tend to fade or change color over time, especially when exposed to light, heat, or other environmental factors are called “fugitive” colours – and I’m telling you all this because a lot of the items I’m going to discuss below are fugitive, so don’t take them as easy colours for long lasting, practical projects. However, they are fun, there are some nice results and, and this is increasingly important, they’re more environmentally friendly than most of the synthetic options available. Like all lists of natural plant dyestuffs the majority of these produce yellow.
I’ll start with this one because it was the one that I happened to hear about on GW and read about at exactly the right time and it amused me. Apparently there is a rule of thumb that says a plant with leaves that bruise to release a strong scent frequently give a colour. Thyme produces a green-yellow and the green – I read and am excited to get to try out – can allegedly be deepened by adding some copperas (ferrous sulphate). I’m very interested in ways to make green dye so expect to hear more about experiments in the near future. It’s supposed to be reasonably lightfast, or at least the strongest of this bunch. Rosemary can also be used and in the same way for similar yellow and green, but apparently results are a lot less lightfast. Oregano relative yields yellows, oranges, browns and grays, depending on the mordant used, but again not very light fast. Alkanet root is a fun one because in alkaline environments, alkanet dye has a blue color but in acid it tends towards the red. Alkanet is in the borage family and I’m cheating a little bit because while it is used in food – for example it’s often part of what gives the Indian dish Rogan Josh it’s colour, it was in the Meditterean more often used to colour wine. (as far as I know)
Sumac – not only an incredibly tenacious short tree with fabulous autumn colour that suckers all over the place, sumac is a spice commonly used in Mediterranean cuisine. The dried and ground berries of the sumac plant were used to produce a range of colors from yellow to brown. Sumac is rich in tannins, and tannins play an enormous role in colour production and tend towards the darker end of the spectrum, usually the brown to black. It also has a sort of citrus warmth if you prefer to hear about the spice 🙂 Saffron is the usual go to when people think of a yellow natural dye – not quite sure why since it is fugitive and expensive, but I suppose the colour is a lovely warm colour. It comes from the red/orange stigma of saffron crocus and is extensively used in cooking. Tumeric, from India, really came into Europe as a substitute for saffron, it produces a yellow to deep orange color, and is very effective as a dye and was/is known as ‘Indian saffron’. Tumeric is the root curcuma tinctoria. Safflower is also from India and imported as a saffron substitute, it’s a kind of thistle, carthamus tinctorum – it’s dried flower heads can produce a nice pink without mordanting (the process a lot of materials need to undergo to make dye ‘take’ properly – see this other post if you want more details.) It’s light fugitive and, while popular with hobby dyeists, not much used otherwise.
Pomegranate rind and flowers – The dried and ground rind of pomegranates is another good source of tannins and can produce a range of hues from beiges to yellow. As with most tannins this is actually a more lightfast dye than many of the others lists. The flowers while they can give a more orange yellow are not great on the lightfastness side but are a pretty dyestuff so I have some anyway. Elderberry -another one that is sensitive to the PH levels – I love working with elderberries in making pigments, they smell great and the colour in the pot is absolutely gorgeous – unfortunately the purples and blues it produces are not at all lightfast or anything like as magnificent as the cooking up suggests.
Walnut husks – The outer husks of walnuts produce a rich brown color just make sure you absolutely wear gloves when handling them because they really do stain. I have had great adventures with walnuts and again it’s the smell of fresh walnut trees that I particularly love. Again these are rich in tannins and as such don’t need mordants or at least not as often, still owrth experimenting with them to get different shades. You can also use walnut shells, and again as they are tannin rich go to brown and can be used without mordants.
Onion skins – The outer layers of onions were used to produce shades of yellow and brown. It’s a great colour and is still popular with kids projects and small dyeing projects just around teh house – old teatowels have often been perked up a bit when they start to look sorry for themselves. Orache (Atriplex hortensis) is a sort of wild spinach, often grown in gardens as well, it comes in red and green and makes interesting shades of pale yellow, but again, not light fast.
Beetroot – if you’ve cooked with beetroot you won’t be surprised it’s here. Again gorgeous colour in quantity but the actually pink dye is not overly strong and not light fast.
Spinach and nettles – more yellow/yellow green, but you can’t talk about medditerean food without spinach, even if, from a dyers persepctive, it’s not overly exciting.
In other news, while I was doing my research on dyes I finally came across a readable copy of “The Plictho of Gioanventura Rosetti ; instructions in the art of the dyers which teaches the dyeing of woolen cloths, linens, cottons, and silk by the great art as well as by the common” on the Internet Archive (https://archive.org/) considering the last time I tried to find a print copy they wanted over a thousand euro for it I’m very happy. I’m currently in a rabbit hole in Italian dyeing where every thing is a secret and they have special names for the dye workers for each colour. Gioanventura Rosetti blew that up by publishing the Plictho and revealing recipes and secrets to anyone and wveryone. Once again Medieval Venice is this fantastic centre of talent and skill, like with glass work and it’s fascinating. My other persona is most definitely Venetian!
(Other notes form Ethnobotany of dye plants in Southern Italy, Mediterranean Basin: floristic catalog and two centuries of analysis of traditional botanical knowledge heritage (https://ethnobiomed.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13002-020-00384-2#MOESM2) )