Dye fabrics: The best dye plants

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What are dyeing plants? Basically, there are dyes in all plants: not only in the colorful flowers, but also in leaves, stems, barks and roots. Only when cooking and extracting can you see which dyes can be "extracted" from the plants. Only the so-called dye plants can be used for coloring natural products. They have to meet some criteria. They must be available, wash and lightfast, efficient in cultivation and have certain characteristics when coloring. Below we present the best dye plants for the coloring of fabrics.

Since when do you have dye plants?

Dye plants have a long tradition. Even before the colors could be produced artificially, you painted and dyed with natural colorants. The earliest extant finds date back to Egypt, where mummy bandages were found that had been dyed about 3.000 BC with extracts from petals of safflower thistles. In the case of the Greeks and Romans, madder (Rubia tinctorum, red), dyer's woad (Isatis tinctoria, blue) and saffron crocus (Crocus sativus, orange-yellow) were the most important dyeing plants. Turmeric (Curcuma longa) and walnut (Juglans regia) were used to dye the natural fibers wool, silk and linen. Already in the Middle Ages reached the coloring with plants, among other things because of the Buchmalerei, a climax.
The advent of synthetic dyes in the 19th century greatly diminished the importance of dye plants. Developing environmental awareness, addressing sustainability issues and turning to ecologically produced clothing in recent years has led to renewed awareness of the approximately 150 plant species that have a coloring effect.

Blue dye from red cabbage

Anthocyanins for dyeing fabrics and wool, for example, can be extracted from red cabbage

vegetable dyes

The dyes in the dye plants consist, chemically speaking, of organic molecules. They are soluble in water, oil or other liquids - in contrast to the so-called pigments. The molecules of the dye plants can be combined particularly well with natural fibers. Vegetable dyes can be divided into the following groups:

  • Flavonoids: The color spectrum of this group ranges from yellow, orange and red to violet
  • Betalaine: These are water-soluble red flower or fruit colors
  • Anthocyanins and anthocyanidins are responsible for red to blue dyes
  • Quinones, for example, are contained in safflower, henna and madder and produce red tones
  • Indigoid dyes are blue dyes, for example, contained in the indigo plant

Dye plants and natural fibers

To dye fabrics with dye plants, wool, linen or other natural fibers must first be pretreated with a stain so that the dyes adhere to the fibers. For this purpose, the mordant alum, a salt of potassium and aluminum, or tartar is usually used.
The substance is boiled for pickling for one to two hours in the respective mixture. Likewise, the fresh or dried plant parts are boiled in water and the extracted dyes are then added to the fabric. After further simmering and pulling, the substance is removed from the broth and hung to dry. It is necessary to fix freshly colored substances with vinegar and later wash separately, so that the color that could not be absorbed, rinsed off.

The best dye plants

Plants for red shades

Madder (Rubia tinctorum)

With the roots of madder (Rubia tinctorum) substances can turn red

Madder (Rubia tinctorum) is a herbaceous plant with long tendrils. The elongated leaves have small spines on their underside. They have yellow flowers and carry dark berries in autumn. The undemanding perennial can be cultivated in loose soils. Madder is one of the oldest dye plants ever. To get the warm red color, you must first chop the madder root and then boil the powder for 30 minutes. Then an alum solution is added to extract the dyes.
Beetroot (Beta vulgaris) mainly contains the dye betanin. For color extraction, you should finely grate the tuber and then with a few drops of water in a cotton cloth. Press the whole thing over a jar and use the beetroot juice to dye or paint when it is completely cold. The flowers of the individual geranium varieties can be extracted with alum solution. Simmer the flowers in alum for about 15 to 20 minutes and then strain the mixture.

Plants for yellow shades

Dyer Camomile (Anthemis tinctoria)

The flowers of the dyer's camomile (Anthemis tinctoria) give fabrics a nice yellow color

You can easily grow the dyer's chamomile (Anthemis tinctoria) from seeds yourself.The deep golden yellow color is obtained by boiling the fresh or dried flowers in alum solution for about 15 minutes and then simmering. The main dye of dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is the yellow flavoxanthin. You pick it out of the plants by pickling the fresh flowers and the leaves in alum solution or with tartar.
Today, onions (Allium cepa) are usually only used to dye Easter eggs. These are given a light, brownish yellow hue. In the past, it colored many fabrics, especially wool and cotton. Collect the outer skins of the onions and simmer for about 30 minutes in a water-alum solution.
Tip: Saffron, turmeric and henna can be extracted in water and deliver wonderful yellow to yellow-brown tones.

Plants for blue shades

Dyer's woad (Isatis tinctoria)

Dyer's wool (Isatis tinctoria) stains fabrics, unlike the flowers, blue

Dyer's woad (Isatis tinctoria) is a traditional dye plant for blues. The dye of the yellow-flowering, up to 120 centimeters high, two-year-old plant is contained in the leaves and is dissolved with alcohol and salt. Pickled fabrics first turn yellow-brown. Only when they dry out in the open, they become blue by the interaction of sunlight and oxygen.
The indigo plant (Indigofera tinctoria) belongs to the so-called "vat dyes". This means that it contains dyes that are not water-soluble and with which you can not dye fabrics directly. In a laborious reduction and fermentation process, the dyeing molecules are formed in the tub. As with the dyeing woad, the fabrics are initially yellow and then color in the air to the typical dark blue "indigo".

Berries of the black elderberry (Sambucus nigra)

The berries of the black elderberry (Sambucus nigra) are crushed for dyeing and boiled in water

The berries of the black elderberry (Sambucus nigra) should be crushed for coloring and boiled briefly in water. The fruits of blueberry or blackcurrant are just as suitable - they are also processed in the same way. Blue dyes also contain the cornflower and the knotweed as well as the leaves of the red cabbage.

Plants for green shades

Flowers of the Sunhat (Rudbeckia fulgida)

With the flowers of the sunhat (Rudbeckia fulgida) a nice olive-green tone can be achieved when dyeing

The stinging nettle contains most of the stinging nettles between April and May. To extract, the upper parts of the plant should be cut into small pieces, boiled with alum and then strained. Alternatively, you can use dried leaves. While the flowers of the sunhat (Rudbeckia fulgida) yield a harmonious olive green after extraction, the flowers of the iris produce a rather cool blue-green.
The outer shells of walnut yield, soaked and extracted, on cloths a dark brown; the bark of oak and chestnut provides some darker, almost black shades of brown.

Video Board: DIY dyes from your kitchen & garden: magic of living color.

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