Botanical Dyes- a new view

Revisiting dyeing fabrics with natural and botanical dyes

Pick plants, add fabrics, step back and watch the magic.

Dyeing with botanical dyes (plants) creates lovely color but for the entire of my dye career I have been mesmerized by full bright color. I embraced the synthetic dyes wholeheartedly in their deliverance of a magnificent array of colors while giving a slight bow of respect to the organics. Many years ago, I toyed with onion skin, eucalyptus and some flowers from the garden. Although turning out some lovely pieces – they just couldn’t deliver the color range punch of the synthetic dyes. The organics just weren’t that interesting a result.

All these many years later, though, I’m finding that my mind is seeking out new challenges, new ways to learn about ways to color the cloth. What is drawing me into botanicals this go round is not the color but the history, the science and the story behind the colors. I’ve chased cochineal and now I’m chasing Indigo for the color-rich stories. I’m finding stories of intrigue, high adventure, espionage and murder. It is also the history of colonialism, slavery, and the rise and fall of whole economies. The synthetic dyes are chemical marvels of a modern age while the natural dyes encompass human history. 

My Experiences with Botanical Dyes

I guess my first foray into the natural dyes came early in my life. My younger sister and I were probably around 8 or 9 when we got the bright idea that iris flowers would maybe make color. They were such a beautiful purple. One unsupervised day, we went out and picked all of our parents’ iris flowers, stuffed them in a kitchen pot with water and put it on the stove. We weren’t sure what we had to dye so we went in and found my mother’s underwear (white) and proceeded to boil it all up.

How on earth did we come up with the idea and know what to do? I am sure that we were introduced to the concept at school while studying Native American Indian culture. Anyway, our curiosity resulted in underwear colored dirty gray pink, an irate mother over losing all the iris flowers and a lot of kitchen detail. How did traditional people learn to use plants combined with mordents to set color? Some of our iris color stuck but only as a stain on the fabric rather than color. If my sister and I had known we might have learned that it is the iris root that delivers the color rather than the flower. The chemistry of the botanicals can be extraordinarily complex.

Fast forward to recent times. I was invited to show fiber work in conjunction with a permanent collection of Navajo rugs at the Western Colorado Center for the Arts in Grand Junction, CO. I found myself wanting to submit a piece that honored the rugs in some special way. Since I live in the desert it was an easy thought process deciding to create a garment dyed with the plants around my home. Clothed in the Colors of the Ancients was such a piece. In preparation, I took a native plant workshop from our local Agriculture Extension for the purpose of finding out the uses of plants. Amazingly one of the instructors was well versed in the early Puebloan uses resulting in some good conversations.

Clothed in the Colors of the Ancients was created for Spin Knit, Stitch as show at the Western Colorado Center for the Arts in Grand Junction CO. Dyed with organic plants collected from the desert embellished and stitched with yucca.

is dyed with organic plants collected from the desert embellished and stitched with yucca.

That class coupled with a book entitled Wild Plants and Native Peoples of the Four Corners provided wonderful information on local plants that could be used. That book coupled with a small hand typed booklet with dye recipes I found at the trade post on the Navajo Indian reservation at Canyon de Chelly. Utah Juniper, Rabbit Brush, Sage, Yucca, 3-leaved Sumac and rust were all used to dye this garment of wool, silk and cotton.

This experience has whetted my appetite to study more – but with the emphasis not on the colors so much as trying to satisfy my curiosity for how people learned to extract and hold the color. I want to “walk the land” with individuals who have knowledge of where to find the wild color. I’m not much interested in the domesticated plants – but rather in the unlocking of color when faced with the wide expanse of the outdoors.

Shibori Workshop Using Indigo Dyes

This past June was a whirlwind of discovering Indigo. I was set to teach a Shibori workshop with an introduction to indigo dyeing. I started binge reading and experimenting in preparation for the workshop immersed in the history and chemistry of the plant. Within a space of a week after teaching the workshop I found myself in a patch of indigo plants in deep conversation with a Shibori artist and the farmers propagating the indigo for test market.

Indigo dye bath

Indigo dye bath. Fabric color is light green before turning to blue indigo color

There is a definite trend back towards finding sustainable ways to dye fabrics – especially amongst the younger dyers. Ecodyes and botanical dyes are among the hot topics in today’s blogs and dye conversations opening untapped horizons in my search for both new subjects to teach and new art. I will not be giving up my synthetic colors anytime soon but I will be giving greater attention and respect to the world of botanical dyes this coming year.


Mary Hertert has owned and operated Color Creek Fiber Art since 1997 in Anchorage, Alaska before moving it to Grand Junction. She is an all-around outdoors gal hiking, boating, or just plain looking at everything from rocks to trees to water. Mary has traveled the world and lived in some pretty exotic places before coming back to the U.S.