Photo: Michelle Housel

Photo: Michelle Housel

Dye Job: Think Natural
The Inquirer & Mirror's Gardening By the Sea column, July 28, 2016

When Michelle Housel started her garden with her family, her goal was to grow food. Michelle is in her mid-twenties and lives with her partner Zak and four-year-old son Odin, and together, they raise bees, vegetables, berries, chickens, and flowers. But recently, she added a new element to their homestead plan: a natural dye garden.

Natural dyes are derived from plants, insects, and minerals. Before industrialization, that's where color for clothing came from. Many of these dye sources are still readily available today, and more than a few can be grown in Nantucket's gardens or found wild in the backyard. These days, Michelle is experimenting with everything from common island plants like blueberry and sassafras to far-flung invertebrates like cochineal bugs, whose red dye comes from the sap of prickly pear cactus, one of their main food sources.

Why try natural dye? First of all, it's a new way to connect to and learn about plants, to see them in a different light. When Michelle started experimenting with natural dyes, she said, “My focus changed from food to color. I can't look at a plant and not think: I wonder what color that makes.”

There's also another reason to try natural dye: while they're not as “lightfast” as chemical dyes (they'll fade over time), they're also easier on the environment and don't pollute our water supply like industrial dyes. Natural dyes are fun, safe, and beautiful.

Michelle's first forays into the world of natural dye didn't take her beyond the backyard. She began with pokeweed, a native bush often considered a nuisance. It's voracious, tough to dig up or kill, and poisonous to ingest. But as many a curious child has discovered, the berries stain anything they touch a vibrant pink.

Michelle's first and second attempts didn't go perfectly. “The color completely washed out,” she said. But during her fall garden clean-up last December, she discovered a poke bush with lingering berry clusters. She collected the berries and tried again. Rather than following a recipe, she used “the folk method”—basically, eyeballing it.

The next morning, she rinsed out her fabric and ran it through the laundry—“the ultimate test,” Michelle says. This time, the dye had stuck.

“That's what started the obsession,” she said. “One successful project.”

After pokeweed, she tried blueberry, but the color faded quickly, turning a light gray-blue after the first wash. Pretty, but Michelle says that it's probably more worthwhile to bake a pie than to dye with the delicious berries. But tickseed sunflower, or bidens, was another story. She had planted the bright yellow flowers in her garden before she knew its potential for color, but once she found out, she stained her fingers while harvesting a batch of blossoms. The final result was a gorgeous rust orange.

Local garden dye possibilities seem endless: Queen Anne's lace produces yellow; lavender, true to its name; sumac, light red; Concord grapes, dandelion, dahlias... the list goes on.

As a result of Michelle's new hobby, her son Odin's wardrobe includes a rainbowed array of naturally-dyed cotton t-shirts and she has amassed a collection of colorful napkins. Plus, naturally-dyed yarns make great gifts for knitters.

For those interested in trying their hand at natural dye, why not start with pokeweed? If your first attempt doesn't go as planned, it's easy to try again since the plant is so abundant.

A quick note of caution: mature pokeweed is poisonous! Do not ingest any part of the plant. As is the general rule for any new plant you encounter, go slow. If you haven't been exposed to pokeweed before, pick just a few berries to start to be sure you don't experience any adverse skin reactions. When you try the recipe, open the windows in the kitchen to be sure the space is well-ventilated. This is a good idea even when you're using non-toxic plants.

That said, many people dye with pokeweed and experience no problems. The basic procedure is pretty simple.

Pick your pokeweed berries. As a rule of thumb, the amount of the plant should equal the dry weight of your fabric, but the more plant material you use, the more vivid the color. Use gloves if you don't want to stain your fingers.

Select a fabric. Use a natural fiber like cotton, silk, or wool. Wool works well because its natural protein helps the color stick to the fibers.

Set up your space with two separate pots: the first is for your fiber. and a premordant, which helps the color stick to the fabric. Michelle recommends white vinegar, but you can also use salt or alum. Use one part vinegar for two parts water. Your fabric should be free floating and totally submerged. Put the pot on the stove to simmer.

In the second pot, combine your pokeweed berries with water.

Simmer both pots for about an hour. Be careful: do not boil the pokeweed! You'll likely end up with a brown hue rather than a vivid pink.

After simmering both pots for an hour, smash and then strain the pokeberries, retaining the dye water. Lightly rinse your fabric in cold water and then combine the dye water with the fabric. At this stage, Michelle said she added another dash of vinegar and it worked well. Feel free to experiment!

Simmer the fabric in the dye water for another hour or so. Then turn off the stove and let it sit in the pot overnight.

In the morning, rinse out the fabric with cold water. If it's fabric, run it through the washer and dryer. If you used yarn, just rinse and squeeze under cold water until the dye stops running.

Enjoy the colorful results!

Sometimes, there are disappointments: Michelle recently tried rose petal dye, and the color was gorgeous—that is, until she ran it through the laundry and it completely washed out. But the process of trial-and-error can also be quite rewarding. For those looking to explore further, Michelle recommends Harvesting Color: How to Find Plants and Make Natural Dyes by Rebecca Burgess. But careful—she's the first person to admit that a natural dye hobby can get a bit out of hand.

“I'm having this problem. My partner texted me to say my dahlias were blooming. I love dahlias. I used to be excited about admiring them,” she said. “But now, I get excited because I want to chop the dahlias off and dye with them!”