Site hosted by Build your free website today!
stripe decor

Natural Dyes

These are excerpts from the Native Baskets booklet and Cherokee Dyes Booklet .  The information pertains first to mordanting the weaving materials and then treating the dyebath.

General Information

Most hard plant parts like roots and barks need to soak at least a day for full color. If you skip the soaking part, at least boil them for an hour for full release of color. Berries do well by fermenting and then simmering. Soft plants like flowers need simmering only. Depending on the plant, you will either boil for about an hour or simmer for a short time. Once you have the color you like, remove the dyebath from heat. You can always reheat for additional release of color. Refer to each dye instruction sheet for details. Do not automatically rinse in vinegar. Check your dyestuff instructions or you could change your red to violet.

Be sure to cover the plants with enough water that the water does not boil away or that they do not burn on the bottom of the pan. Use distilled water for best results. Rainwater is acidic and tap water usually has chlorine. Well water minerals could change the color of the dye. Or throw caution to the wind as I often do and use whatever water you have on hand.

Wash reed in a mild solution of Ivory soap flakes or a similar product or Borax. Dye books always advise to wash wool and I believe your cellulose fibers will benefit from washing too. Rinse well.

Use separate pans for pre mordanting and dyeing. Wash your dye pot right away to remove all traces of dye. Use new paint sticks, bamboo chopsticks for lifting and stirring. You will need a strainer in case some fibers get loose from your bag or you decide to empty the bag of the plants and prepare your dyebath that way. Have several buckets or dishpans are better, I think for rinsing the dyed reed or fibers. Next to my dye pan, I put the jar that I am going to use to can my liquid. You can use permanent pens on masking tape that you can peel off and put on containers or use for note taking. You can also use the space for taping examples of the dyed reed. I label the jar with the plant. I add one or more jars with labels for additives for assistants and iron. I always keep a pure dyebath in the first jar. Once you start adding ammonia, soda, iron, etc.., to me it is hard to keep track of the dyebaths. You might like that first or second dyebath best and don't want to loose the purity of it. Storing it in a canning jar keeps it and it is very easy to reheat it and reuse. Another way to keep track of the dyebath and the color is to tape notes or masking tape onto the jar or container. While my cane or reed is wet, I wrap the piece a couple of times around the note and rubber band. After I make my dyebath and strain the plants from the dyebath, I put the pan back in the same position. At this time label your strained fibers and allow them to dry. After I rinse, I go ahead and wipe down each large piece like 1/4 inch or larger. This removes excess water and any plant particles from the dyebath.

Reed and other cellulose fibers do not dye easily. It is much more challenging to use dyes from plants to dye cotton and other plant fibers than it is to dye wool, silk and other animal fibers. There are many differences in mordanting and dyeing plant and animal fibers. Plants can withstand boiling, soaking for days, alkaline solutions, rapid changes in temperatures and the addition of iron. They do not become sticky with too much alum, as does wool. Too much acid can harm plants though.

There are two kinds of natural dyes: substantive and adjective. SUBSTANTIVE dyes (lichens, acorns, sumac, oak galls and walnut hulls, for instance) need no mordants to help them adhere to the fiber. ADJECTIVE dyes do. The dye must form strong chemical bonds with the basket material to set the color permanently. It enters deeply into the fiber, and when the dye is added, they combine to form a color; since the mordant is thoroughly embedded, so is the color. My objectives are to give you procedures for a permanent bonding, minimum bleeding and minimum fading on exposure to light.

Mordants prepare the fiber to receive the dyestuff. Mordants help the bonding. Compounds of alum (potassium alum), tannin (tannic acid), and iron (ferrous sulfate) are the safest choices.

You can use just alum, or combinations of mordants. (A general rule is that if you pre mordanted with alum and you are following recipes in dye books, use 1/4 amount of the normal amount of iron, and other mordants in your afterbath or post mordanting solutions.)

Most dyers agree pre-mordanting your fibers before adding your fibers to the dyebath gives the best results. You will usually obtain darker colors. Before mordanting or dyeing soak your reed in warm water until it is thoroughly wet. Rinse well. Mordant and then hang to dry if the dyebath is not prepared.

Secondary or Additive Mordant

Secondary mordant(s) change the color of the dyebath following use of primary mordant(s).

Optional for berries, sumac, madder, walnut and butternut. Remember iron "saddens" and will turn walnut and butternut charcoal or gray from brown. It will change mullein from yellow to yellow green. Remove fiber from dyebath. Divide the dyebath into half. Take a third of the dyed fiber and set aside.

Hang up the remaining two-thirds fiber. Label and store half the original dyebath. To re-use, just re heat and add more fiber.

Add iron and cream of tartar to the other half of the dyebath. Put in a few pieces of reed. If you like the color better than the original color, you can add iron to all the dyebath. Simmer at least 1/2 hour. This solution is safe to dispose of in soil.

Afterbaths or Postmordanting

Optional - try these common household products in your dyebath for color changes.
After you have removed reed from dyebath, submerge a few of the pieces you set aside in the hot after bath or simmer a few minutes. Soaking is usually not needed. With ammonia you will see immediate results if there are going to be any changes. After baths change the pH of the water and can change the color of the reed.

Washing soda or baking soda Vinegar/Lemon (white vinegar) Ammonia (non sudsing)
Alkaline solutions Acid solutions Alkaline solutions
1 t. per gallon water (add more if needed for color change) 2 T. to 1/4 cup per gallon water.  Too much can harm cellulose fibers 1/4 c. fresh ammonia per gallon water (add more if needed for color change)

Chemical Details

Measuring: One Level Teaspoon = One oz = 28 1/2 grams Weight in grams.

Mordants help fiber bond with dyes.

Assistives to the dyebath can change fiber's colors.  The effects on water or dyebath can be a change in color of plant dyebaths.

Alum (potassium alum)

5.2 grams in your water for pre-mordanting or in the dyebath.

Pre-Mordant or post-mordant used with the assistive, washing soda. Alum can darken fibers of any dyebath. Most weaving materials benefit from pre mordanting with alum. Note:  Alum assists brazilwood in obtaining reds.

Washing soda, soda ash, sal soda (sodium carbonate)

5.5 grams in your water for pre-mordanting or in the dyebath.

Pre-Mordant used with Alum to make water less acidic

Assistant to dyebath (1 tsp or more per gallon of dyebath when used as an assistant)

Washing soda makes water Alkaline or harder.
Dock gives better colors with fibers premordanted in alkaline water.


Tannic acid

3 grams

Pre-Mordant for plants other than walnut, barks, nuts, dock (these are substantive dyes)
Tannic acid darkens the fibers.


Iron, copperas (ferrous sulfate)

Post Mordant  3.0 grams (added to dyebath)

Additive Mordant (1/2 t. to 1 t. or 1/2 oz per pound of fiber)

Darkens or Saddens:
Effective with walnut, berries, yellows. Colors change to gray, olive green.
Turns yellow from goldenrod to dark green

Tartar (cream of tartar)

Assistant to iron 3.6 grams

Use with iron to soften water if needed

Baking soda

Assistant to dyebath (1 tsp to 1 T per gallon of dyebath)

Changes liquid to Alkaline
Dock changes from yellow to orange

Ammonia (non sudsing - clear, no additives)

Assistant to dyebath (1 tsp to 1/4 c fresh ammonia per gallon of dyebath)

Changes liquid to Alkaline
Turns yellow from dock, orange
Turns red from brazilwood, purple


Assistant to dyebath   (2 T to 1/4 cup per gallon of dyebath)

Changes liquid to Acid
Use with berries to change colors or obtain color.


Vinegar (white, clear) (5% acetic acid)

Assistant to dyebath (2 T or 1/4 cup per gallon of dyebath)

Changes liquid Acid
Use with berries to change colors or obtain color.

© Cherokee Dyes Booklet, Peggy Brennan, excerpts 10/26/04