The Best Natural Dyes

You can make a fabric dye of any color with plants you can forage nearby. Stockpiling or growing natural dyes can enable preppers to camouflage their favorite gear, from clothing to bags and tents. It doesn’t have to be complicated, simply darkening gear can help you blend in. Or, you can use natural dyes to make high-visibility fabrics or ropes, with which you could signal for help, or mark your land, trees, or other property. You can also barter with natural dyes or the products you dye. Dyeing clothing is a luxury after TEOTWAWKI, but a luxury that people would be pleased to invest in once some semblance of society has redeveloped.

On the other hand, those who are off-grid now may be interested in making and dyeing their own fabrics, soaps, candles, etc.

What Makes the Best Natural Dyes the “Best”

What do I mean by the “best” dyes? Well, for preppers and off-gridders alike, the best natural dyes will be those they can forage or grow. In the United States, we have plenty of options for natural dyes, such that you likely don’t need to dedicate any garden space to them unless you have plans to dye a lot of fabric. Most of the plants we list here you can find in the wilderness throughout the continental United States.

natural dyes

For preppers, we also want to focus on sources of natural dyes that you can’t eat. Why? In a long-term SHTF event, you don’t want to be wasting precious calories for dyeing. There are always non-edible options for dyes and you’d have no use for many of these plants otherwise. Besides, dyes made from food, especially berries, are rarely color-fast. They may be great for an Easter egg project, but not for fabrics.

Brown, Black and Grey Dyes

Preppers will want brown, black and grey dyes to camouflage their gear. The dyes which make a black dye can make grey if you take them out of the bath quickly. It will take you some experimentation to get the exact shade you want, so use scrap fabrics first as a test.

Black Walnut

black walnut

Colour: Brown and black
Edible: No
Where it grows: Eastern United States, some Southern and Mid-West
Mordant: None needed

Black walnuts have a long history as a dyeing agent in the Americas. They naturally have two types of dyes: juglone and plumbagin, and a natural mordant, tannin. While you can create a light brown dye out of black walnuts, it is easy to overestimate dying time and create a deep, dark black. If you are going for a lighter dye, take your fabric out quickly, after as little as an hour. You can always place it back in the bath to create a darker color. Wear gloves when you de-shell the walnut, as the nuts will quickly stain your hands (and everything else they touch). Further, the dyeing agent juglone is toxic, so black walnut cannot be used to dye any edible products.

Acorns

acorn - best natural dyes

Color: Grey to black
Edible: Yes
Where it grows: Across the United States
Mordant: Optional alum

Though acorns are vibrant brown, very little of that brown will transfer into a dye. Instead, acorn more often creates a plain gray. Leave your fabric in longer and you’ll create a deep black instead. Acorns do have some natural tannins but aren’t quite as colorfast on their own as black walnut. Adding alum will help, and will increase the vibrancy of the color.

Birch Bark

Color: Brown or yellow
Edible: Some species are, most are not
Where it grows: Across the United States
Mordant: Alum

All varieties of birch (alder, paper, yellow, white, etc.) can be used for dye, which means you don’t have to look very far to find this brown dye. Some varieties will create more of a yellowish tone. Alum will intensify both brown and yellow. As with other trees, the dye is held in the inner bark. Do not remove the inner bark from a live tree unless you want to kill it.

Green Dyes

You can use the primary colors in combination to make other colors, but some plants yield the tertiary colors by themselves. For preppers looking to make camouflage, investing in a plant that produces green dyes by itself is smart. Though, few make the vibrant green you can achieve by combining the best of the yellow and blue dyes.

Black-Eyed Susan

black eyed susan

Colour: Olive green or beige
Edible: No
Where it grows: USDA Zone 5-9
Mordant: Alum, Iron, Copper

There are many Black-Eyed Susan species, but Rudbeckia hirta will produce the best green dye, from flower heads only. Additionally, using alum and other metal mordants will help the color. Depending on the quality of flower, you may end up with a beige instead of a green. They’re easy to grow, so you should have plenty of flower heads to experiment with.

Red and Orange Dyes

If you want, you can always add a bit red dye to a yellow dye bath to get an orange. However, some of the red dyes will yield orange if you take them out quickly.

Red and Yellow Onion Skins

Color: Bright yellow to reddish brown
Edible: No
Where to grow: You can find an onion variety for any USDA zone (some are long-day and others are called short-day varieties)
Mordant: Optional Alum

You’re growing onions anyway, probably, and can’t eat the skins. So why not turn them into a dye? Red onion skins yield a brown with hints of red. You can add iron or copper to beef it up. Yellow onion skins produce a really vibrant yellow. Mixing the two can get you any shade of orange you like.

Mountain Alder

Color: Red or brown
Edible: No
Where it Grows: Western United States
Mordants: Alum

While all birch trees will produce a brown dye from their inner bark, one specific species, the mountain alder (Alnus incana subspecies tenuifolia) can produce a red dye from its outer bark and berries. The dye from the bark is longer lasting. While alum will intensify the red, you can use other mordants to lighten it to get an orange-brown.

Madder

Color: Red
Edible: No, toxic
Where to Grow: USDA Zones 5-9
Mordants: None needed

Madder root is the most popular natural red dye and has been used for centuries. There are many different processes and additives you can use to create different shades of red with madder, but none are necessary. You can simply use the root as is. The downside of madders is that you have to wait a few years before you can harvest madder root, which means you either need to be growing it now or storing its seeds for a long term SHTF event.

Yellow Dyes

Goldenrod

Color: Yellow
Edible: No
Where it grows: Throughout the United States
Mordant: Alum and vinegar or other acids

You can find goldenrod in the woods, or just at the side of the road in late summer and fall. The plant is common, hardy, and makes a lovely light and color-fast yellow dye. Vinegar or another acid will brighten the dye. There are at least fifty varieties of goldenrod, and they often hybridize, so the varieties near you may create a more vibrant or dull dye, you’ll have to experiment to find out. Just be sure to harvest flowers as soon after they bloom as possible.

Birch Leaves

Color: Yellow to green
Edible: No
Where it grows: Across the United States
Mordant: Copper and iron

While we covered birch bark for brown dye, you can collect the leaves instead to make a rich yellow dye. A select few species of birch will yield a greenish dye from their leaves, which you can darken with a metal-based mordant.

Blue Dyes

Woad

Color: Blue
Edible: No
Where it grows: Western United States
Mordant: Vinegar or other acids

Woad was a popular dye for centuries. It doesn’t need a tropical climate and provides the same chemical that indigo does, just in smaller amounts. Plus, it’s considered a weed in much of the Western United States so you can pick it freely without worrying about depopulating it.

Blueberries

Color: Blue
Edible: Yes
Where it grows: Northern United States
Mordant: Salt

Blueberries are plentiful and make a variety of shades of blue dye. You’ll need to use salt to get any color or light-fast properties and even still, blueberry dye fades quickly. Still, a blueberry dye is a favorite for edible products and Easter eggs.

Purple Dyes

Pokeberry
Color: Pink to deep purple
Edible: No, poisonous
Where it grows: Across the United States, except some Mid-West
Mordant: Vinegar or other acids

Pokeberries, from pokeweed, have been used in the Appalachians as a dye and food source. Leaves and berries must be boiled three times, with the water discarded each time, to remove the toxicity, before consumption. Even when meticulously prepared pokeweed can make you ill, so I don’t recommend you eat it. Instead, pokeberries are a much more useful dye than food, containing some natural mordants. That means like most dyes made berries, pokeberry dye is color-fast. If you can lower the pH of your dye bath with vinegar or other acids and keep the temperature low, you can achieve a nice purple color.

Natural Mordant

Most natural dyeing is improved by the use of mordants. Most mordants are metal oxides. Others are some form of acid, which lower the pH and therefore change the color of the dye bath. Alum and tin brighten while iron and coppers darken. You can stock up beforehand on mordants, but there are select natural sources. In fact, many of the dyes above have natural mordants, and you can mix them with less powerful dyes to improve them, however, this will darken the other dye.

Natural mordants you can harvest or make include:

  • oak galls
  • black walnuts
  • acorns
  • salt (works with cotton only)
  • iron (made from rust, water, and vinegar)

To raise the dye bath pH you can use:

  • baking soda
  • cream of tartar
  • vinegar
  • lemon juice
  • ammonia from urine
  • potash from wood-ash

Books About Natural Dyeing

There’s a lot to learn about hand dyeing and natural dyeing and plenty of books you can learn from. Among the most useful natural dyeing books for preppers is Harvesting Color: How to Find Plants and Make Natural Dyes by Rebecca Burgess. She covers plants you can forage and grow in the United States and even contains knitting projects.

Do you use natural dyes? What are your favorite sources?

Author Bio: Ellysa Chenery can be found writing all over the web. She loves adapting traditional skills for new situations, whether in the wilderness, garden, or homestead. Her favorite smell is carrots fresh from the dirt.


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3 Responses to “The Best Natural Dyes”

  1. I did a year long project on natural herbal dyeing for school. But after seeing the vibrancy of dyes made from fungi and lichens, I think my time spent on plant dyes may have been wasted. Myco-pigments are so vibrant it’s hard to realize they are natural. And usnea lichen creates a bright magenta and yellow.
    The plant dyes I produced were most often in shades of olive and khakis. Just about any plant dye will produce these colors. Yellow shades are easy to get. Helpful for camo in a prairie or desert environment perhaps, but a little too light for a forested environment. Using a pot that shed some of its mineral content was able to turn a tan dye into a dark olive.
    Several of the plant dyes don’t develop their color without toxic mineral mordants, some of which are hard to find or illegal and which any leftovers have to be taken to the hazmat waste dump. Considering that in the colonial era people were using lead and mercury for medicine, and people used to use lead for toys like cast soldiers, etc. , they weren’t too concerned about heavy metal toxicity then, but today we know better. So the more vibrant colors that plant dyes CAN produce, with certain toxic mineral mordants, I decided to forgo.
    People should be aware that the pot that the dyeing is going to occur in, needs to be allocated only for NON food use only, as residues of the dye can bond with the pot even with thorough rinsing. The mineral of the pot can also affect the dye. An iron pot will darken colors, which is good if you are trying to get a dark color. Aluminum can act as alum. Copper has its own effects. etc. Each of these minerals is available as a mordant, but if the pot you are using is of the metal, you may be able to skip adding additional mordant.
    NOTE: to get blue out of woad, requires a urea fermentation process and photodevelopment in sunshine, as does getting blue out of indigo. Urine is valuable for its ammonia / urea content for this and other purposes such as tanning leather or even for laundry (the romans hadn’t invented soap yet, and used urine) and concentrated it can be used as a disinfectant treatment for wounds. solar evaporation can accomplish that with little effort.
    Also save wood ashes. They can be used to make lye for soap making and some preserving (example, lutefisk uses lye), as well as dyeing.
    Waste starch of any kind (apple cores, etc) can be used to make vinegar, a valuable acid for home chemistry. On old homesteads in the colonial and pioneer eras, nothing was wasted.
    Old home making manuals contain many recipes for cleaners, dyes, glues, pest deterrents, preserving, etc that use a lot of home chemistry methods that use basic ingredients like potash or ammonia, it is wise to have a few basic chemistry components on hand or know how to make them. I believe egg shells also have some chemistry uses. etc.
    I don’t know about the lichen and fungi dyes, but I can say that plants each have their own color scheme as well as scent. Madder smells like hay, and alkanet smells like socks! Madder is a warm red, orange, peach and coral colors, alkanet is cranberry red, dusty pink, to violet and blue gray. Items dyed yellow, tan, olive green, or orange with onion skin smell like, you guessed it, onion (tho not strongly).
    Wool dyes better than cotton, hands down. Wool is also a better insulator against hypothermia, will keep you warm while wet, whereas cotton can easily kill you from hypothermia even in 70* weather. When I dyed wool it was yarn and unspun wool, but if attempting to dye a garment, it may not want to pick up color without heat, and heat will shrink and even warp the garment. I shrank a sweater that way. Sheep wool, alpaca and llama wool, all act basically the same for dye purposes.
    If an item is a cotton poly blend, its ability to pick up dye is very limited. Synthetics of course will have basically 0 ability to pick up a natural dye.
    There was a scottish method of dyeing wool yarn by layering leaves with urine or potash and yarn in layers in a barrel or container and leaving it for a week or more, and letting the chemistry do the work of impregnating the fibers with the dye material, this could be a low-labor way to do it rather than hauling water, chopping wood making fire etc. The only limiting factor is not leaving it so long that the fibers started to break down.

    Reply
  2. Fantastic information! Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  3. What makes you think madder root is toxic? Tea made with first year roots [not aged and dried, but of course scrubbed of dirt and chopped] is good for those who suffer from kidney stones, as it is a calcium binder. Fermented roots can be a partial basis for a root beer, along with the other roots commonly used–not coming to mind at moment. Egg shells might be soaked crushed to make a calcium water. Strained and used in graduated amounts to “taste” /color, would “redden” madder dyed fabrics, acids such as small increments of vinegar, citric acid, or such, would “orange” your colors.

    Many yellow dyes contain antioxidants. Marigold tea very good for macular degeneration.

    In fact many natural dyes doubled as medicinals. More research would be helpful to deepen your replies. All leaves contain tannin, which can be extracted by crushing and simmering. Tannin is a mordant/assist for all cellulose fibers.

    Reply

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