WEFT Focus – Natural Dyeing

As part of the lead up to our WEFT workshops, we wanted to share some of the history of the crafts we are running workshops in. This week we will look at the wonderful world of Natural Dyeing.

Image of the front covers of two books on the subject of natural dyeing
Two of the books on natural dyeing which can be found in our Research Library

Until 1856 and the invention of synthetic dyes, if you wanted to dye fabric you had to use natural dyes. These dyes can come from plants, invertebrates or even minerals. The oldest examples of natural dyeing date all the way to the Neolithic – the earliest surviving evidence of textile dying comes from a Neolithic site in Anatolia (modern day Turkey) where they found evidence of a red dye, most likely ochre made from iron oxide. It is likely that the use of natural dyes was rare to begin with but it is believed that by the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age the use of these dyes were more common.

Before dyeing can take place, the fibre that is being dyed needs to be scoured (washed) and treated with a mordant (a substance which allows dyes to fix to a fibre) – animal fibres such as wool require different treatment to cellulose fibres such as cotton or linen. Colours can be tweaked using different mordants or by using ‘modifiers’ to adjust the pH and thus affect the colour produced.

Natural dyes can produce a wide range of colours from yellows to blues, greens to reds. Below are some examples of plants from our collection which can be used in natural dyeing.

dried and pressed dandelion
Dandelion – you can use the flower, leaves and root to produce dye


dried and pressed example of weld
Weld or dyers rocket – you can use this plant to produce a fantastic yellow colour


dried and pressed example of hawthorn leaves
Hawthorn – the berries of a hawthorn tree can be used to produce delicate coral pink colours


Dried and pressed example of nettles
Nettles – these can produce greys, yellows and pale greens depending on what they are dyeing and how much nettle is used

Like many traditional crafts, the art of natural dyeing is making a comeback. Sustainability and ethical production of garments is becoming more of hot topic as the effects of environmentally damaging practices become increasingly clear. A paper published in 2017 by Lellis et al  in the journal Biotechnology Research and Innovation says – ‘textile dyes significantly compromise the aesthetic quality of water bodies, increase biochemical and chemical oxygen demand (BOD and COD), impair photosynthesis, inhibit plant growth, enter the food chain, provide recalcitrance and bioaccumulation, and may promote toxicity, mutagenicity and carcinogenicity’.

Ria Burns will be leading a workshop all about the art of natural dyeing here in the museum as part of WEFT. If this is a craft that interests you please head over to our Events page and follow the link to our Ticksource to book yourself a spot on her course!



Natural Dyeing
museum site logo 2
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