An important goal of mine this year is to grow a variety of plants which can be used to create natural dyes. I went into some depth in my last post about how I want my new dolls to be more environmentally friendly, by working predominantly with natural materials and by having a more intimate, conscious connection with the materials I choose to use.
In the past I've used synthetic Rit liquid dyes to colour my doll costumes and their 'fur', but there's a lot of evidence to suggest that synthetic dyes are harmful to the environment. Although I'm only dyeing on a small-scale at home, my choices still have an impact, which is why this year I'm going to try growing, processing and harvesting my own plant dyes instead of using shop-bought chemical dyes.
I've never used natural dyes in my life before, let alone grown my own dye plants, so there's no doubt going to be a lot of learning, trial and error involved. My main reference is Jenny Dean's 'Wild Colour' book, which is jam-packed with information on how to cultivate, harvest and extract dye from a huge variety of plants.
Plants I'm Growing this Year
I'm going to be growing a variety of plants from Jenny's book in my garden, all of which are suitable to grow in the UK and which yield a variety of colours. I tried to be selective in my choice and not buy too many seeds, but as someone who already grows my own veg and generally loves gardening, it was hard to hold back!
Here's a selection of some of the dye plants I'm going to try growing this year. Let's go through each plant, the time of year they can be harvested and the colour range which can be achieved.
Yarrow is a wildflower which is commonly found in the British countryside. It can be sown in early Spring and flowers in the summer. The plant produces a yellow to olive green dye, depending on how the dye bath is prepared. Yarrow can be used fresh or can be dried out for later use. To harvest, yarrow is cut close to the base, so the whole plant is used to create the dye.
Comfrey is a herb which has been cultivated as far back as 400 BC for its natural healing properties. It can be sown in Spring and harvested from early summer to Autumn. The leaves are harvested to create soft green to murkier, more brown shades, depending on if the leaves are used fresh or dried.
3. Lady's Bedstraw
Lady's Bedstraw is a European wildflower which is covered in clusters of tiny yellow flowers from June to September. The colour it yields is not however produced by the flowers, but by the roots, which are a lovely shade of red. According to Jenny's book, the roots should be left undisturbed for at least two years before they're harvested, so I'm going to have to be very patient with with this one.
Woad is one of the few plants that produces beautiful shades of blue. It is biennial, forming leaves in the first year and then flowering and going to seed the next. It can be sown in early Spring, and should be harvested from the first year, as these leaves will produce the blue dye.
5. Dyer's Chamomile
Dyer's Chamomile is a perennial with yellow, daisy-like flowers which bloom throughout the summer months. Seeds should be sown in Spring, several weeks before the last frosts. The leaves, stalks and flowers can all be harvested, producing greens and yellows in the dye pot.
Rose Mallow is a pink-flowered hibiscus which can be used fresh or dry in the dye pot. Seeds should be sown in early Spring if they are to flower in their first season. Colours produced in the dye pot range from lilac to maroon.
Something I am already bearing in mind is that I'll have to work seasonally, allowing what is available in nature at the time to dictate what colours I use for my doll costumes, rather than having every colour of the rainbow at my fingertips.
This might seem restrictive, but I find that some restriction is actually helpful for me as a creative who can sometimes feel overwhelmed by all of the possibilities.
Finally, I'll also be considering wild plants which I can forage with very little effort required, to make an even wider range of natural dyes. Plants such as stinging nettles, mahonia leaves and even pinecones can yield wonderful natural dyes.
I hope that you found this post interesting and I look forward to sharing more updates on my natural dye journey soon!