Gather Magazine

Wild colour: making natural dyes from plants

Natural dyeing is an ancient art that evokes a direct connection to the land, and each colour extracted feels almost alive with warmth and energy. We dip into the life and work of one such artisan wild dyer, Rebecca Desnos, who found natural dyeing after years spent searching for her ‘thing’

Have you always been creative, Rebecca?

My love of crafting began in my childhood and I was forever sewing and making cards. As a teenager, I sold handmade cards in local craft shops. In my 20s, I would buy secondhand men’s shirts and transform them into dresses and skirts. This was in the early days of blogging and I wrote lots of sewing tutorials. I used to customise my clothing and loved dyeing items to get them just the right shade, but I wasn’t using natural dyes at this point.

What inspired you to start making your own dyes from plants?

Over the years, I developed an interest in natural living and holistic health. A pivotal moment was around 10 years ago when I read a book called Killer Clothes. I learnt how seemingly innocent materials can endanger our health. My take-away was that I wanted to make my own healthy clothing and fabric. Plant dyes seemed the perfect choice. I’d been meaning to experiment with them for years, and it finally felt like the perfect time! 

Once I dipped my toes into natural dyeing, I instantly fell in love with the gentle colours that felt so ‘alive’. I started off dyeing with powdered plant extracts and a few years later, after having my first baby, I was searching for ways to connect with nature, and it turned out that plant dyeing and foraging was just what I needed. My son and I would go for walks in search of dye plants; alder cones and dandelions were the first local plants we tried. We’d return from walks with our coat pockets stuffed full of plants. I started my first dye garden on our balcony and we grew marigolds, Japanese indigo and coreopsis.

Did you know straight away that you’d found your passion?

I spent so many years searching for my special interest in life. I have a degree in linguistics and I studied for a masters in interior and spatial design. I never felt creatively satisfied so kept searching for my ‘thing’, and it turned out that plant dyeing was it. Natural dyeing linked together so many existing passions and interests, and the entire process brought me a lot of joy. 

A university tutor inspired me to start making books; we had to present our final interior design projects in a book format. Years later, it just felt natural to start making my own books about plant dyeing. So many people wanted to learn how they could start dyeing with their local plants. Most of my work – not that I can even describe it as ‘work’ as I love it too much – is done during nap times or when my children (I have three little ones now) are in bed at night. 

What is it about making natural dyes that you love so much?

The thing that excites me the most is that we have dye potential all around us just waiting to be unlocked. Once you start to learn about some of your local dyes, you’ll see the world through new eyes. Soon, you’ll realise that there are dye plants right on your doorstep. When you explore things yourself and let go of the need for perfection, you can learn so much from the process.

Plants offer us a way to connect with our local environment and feel in tune with the seasons. Natural dyeing teaches you to be patient, as you have to wait many months to see your favourite plants pop up again. You become acutely aware of the seasons and weather. I love capturing the season’s colours on fabric; it’s a beautiful way to document them. Every piece of fabric that you dye is a unique reflection of the natural world around you.

You’ve created an online community called the Natural Dye Club. How did it begin?

I’ve been publishing books for a number of years, but not everyone finds it easy to learn from books. Also, when someone has a problem, then they’re on their own trying to figure out why a dye has turned brown or why the fabric has developed uneven patches. So I decided to bring my books to life in the form of videos and start an online dye community. Members can share their progress with each other, and I’m there to help answer questions to help people get unstuck right away. There’s a library of video classes and I add a new class each month. It’s a bit like inviting people into my home for a dye class, but through the power of the internet I can connect with people all over the world. It’s all pre-recorded so people can join in any time zone.

Do you grow the plants you use for dyeing, or forage for them? 

Both. My favourite local plants to forage are nettles, hawthorn leaves and acorns. There’s always something special popping up throughout the year. Even in the depths of winter, there are alder cones scattered across the grass, and these made a beautiful golden caramel shade. I also grow many dye plants. I’m lucky to have a garden now, but I lived in a flat for many years. It feels like a dream now to have more space. I grow marigold, dyer’s chamomile, cosmos and coreopsis. Then I always grow Japanese indigo, for homegrown blue. Each summer, I look forward to dyeing with fresh indigo leaves using the ‘salt rub method’, which involves rubbing salt into the leaves to create a juicy mixture, then rubbing this into fabric. The colour ends up a gorgeous teal, which is one of my favourite colours.

I also grow herbs – sage, rosemary and lemon balm. They can be used to make a dye in a pot, or can be hammered onto fabric to create botanical prints. A couple of years ago, I learnt how to make my own super potent herbal infused oils. So I grow a lot of calendula flowers in the garden specifically to infuse into oil. Last year I let a lot of violas self-seed across the garden and dried thousands of the little purple flowers. I have enough to infuse into oil now, so that’s a fun project to look forward to.

What’s your favourite part of the process? 

I adore the entire experience, from foraging plants to the scent of the dye pot gently simmering, and then the colours that are infused into the cloth. When you’re working with gorgeous scents, colours and textures, it’s so easy to get lost in the moment. If I ever feel stressed or worried about anything, a simple pot of dye always makes me feel like myself again.

How to get started

Ready to start experimenting with natural dyes? Rebecca has some advice

Natural dyeing is very similar to making a strong cup of tea. It’s much simpler than you probably realise. I always suggest dyeing with tea as a starting point, as most of us have some tea bags knocking around a kitchen cupboard. Funnily enough, I don’t actually drink regular tea, but I always have some for visitors, as most people aren’t keen when I offer them herbal tea! You can also dye with rooibos tea and they all make slightly different colours.

Tea is rich in tannin which is a natural mordant, meaning that it helps bind the dye to the fibres. When you see how easy natural dyeing is, this will hopefully inspire you to try more plants. 

  • Wash and dry your fabric. Then paint the dry fabric with diluted soya milk; soy protein is a binder on fabric and the painted pattern will dye darker than the background and your pattern will magically appear later on. Allow the fabric to rest for a week before dyeing, so the soy protein can ‘cure’ on the fibres.
  • Take some tea bags or loose tea and make a strong pot of tea by simmering the tea bags in a saucepan of water. Take out the bags, then add your dampened fabric to the hot liquid. Top up the water level so the fabric is submerged under liquid. Allow the fabric to soak for 30-60 minutes, stirring every so often. Take the fabric out of the tea and admire your painted pattern. Rinse, dry, then enjoy your fabric!

Rebecca’s tips

Before you decide which dye plants to grow, there are a few things to consider in advance

  • Will you grow directly in the ground, in raised beds or in pots? Perhaps you’ll use a mixture of all three options. 
  • Are you going to fit in some new dye plants among your vegetables or will you transform a whole area into a dye garden? 
  • Find the sunniest spot for your dye plants. Most plants prefer sunshine, but will tolerate some shade. 
  • Position taller plants at the back of a bed, such as Hopi black dye sunflowers and hollyhock. These often benefit from some support too, depending on how windy your garden is. Then position medium-height plants next, such as scabiosa, coreopsis, cosmos and Japanese indigo and finally the smallest plants (like French marigolds) at the front. 

Rebecca’s books 

My first book, Botanical Colour at your Fingertips, encourages people to explore their local plants and garden herbs, as well as kitchen food waste such as onion skins, avocado skins and tea. I wrote this when my first son slept during his naps.

Grow Your Own Colour is my latest book, where you’ll find out how common garden flowers like marigold and cosmos can be used to dye fabric in a variety of incredible colours. I share tips on how to grow in small spaces, so no matter how little space you have, you can grow your own dyes.

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