art, Asheville, dyeing, fiber art, Slow cloth, Western North Carolina

Natural Dyeing with Dede Styles, Part I – Identification

Dede ponders the answer to a question.

I couldn’t wait for the India Flint workshop so I signed up for a workshop with Dede Styles at Cloth Fiber Workshop on Saturday. I’m so glad that I did. She gave us a great lesson in identifying local wild dye plants, with information about when to harvest and what parts of the plants to use. It is much more helpful to me to have someone show me an actual plant rather than identify it from a photo in a book or on the Internet. I never trust the photos.

That being said, here are some photos for you not to trust. But they’ll help me remember, so there.

First we tore up the older rhodedendron leaves that Dede brought and started cooking them and mordanted our fibers while we went searching for dye plants in abandoned scrubby places under a nearby bridge.

Dede told us to look for dried broom sedge and remember where it was to harvest the green broom sedge around late August, when it yields the best yellow dye. You can dry it yourself to use later but the old stuff that has been outside over the winter doesn’t dye as well. It is one of the quickest natural dyes.

This is the goldenrod plant. Harvest the flowers in fall for a goldenrod color. Contrary to popular belief, goldenrod pollen doesn’t cause allergies because it is not wind-driven. It blooms at the same time as ragweed, so it’s a scapegoat.

One major difference between sumac, which produces a brown dye, and tree of heaven, which does not produce dye, is that sumac (on left) leaves have serrated edges, and tree of heaven (on right) leaves have smooth edges.

Nettles produce a lot of good things, but they also produce major skin irritation and pain, so they’re identified here to help me avoid them.

Burr dock – use the big leaves, avoid the burrs like crazy. These plants here don’t have burrs yet. Other kinds of dock should produce dye also, but she had not tried them.

Use the leaves of blackberries or the whole canes of the shoots that come up. Below is mullein, which we collected by the roadside.

Other dye plants we found were grapes (leaves) and daisy fleabane (the whole plant). Daisy fleabane blooms in spring. A similar plant, the fall aster, blooms in fall. I have both in my back yard.

More from my notes:

Wear gloves when harvesting burr dock leaves. Harvest in late summer.

Queen Anne’s Lace – use whole plants.

Black walnut hulls – use the green hulls only for the best dye. You can crack the green hulls off with a hammer and dry them for future use, but the black ones already on the ground are not best for dye.

Black walnut leaves can be identified by their smell. You can get black by packing leaves with wool in layers with metal slivers, unpack and repack for three days.

The color from blackberry shoots turns from yellow to a dull gold after about two years.

Madder roots produce red/orange. Wait two years before digging the roots. (This is grown in gardens.)

Little bluestem grass will dye like broom sedge.

The inner bark from black oak is a great historical source of yellow dye. The color “Bancroft’s Aurora” is black oak bark and cochineal. Harvest fresh from windfalls April – early May.

Even though you usually see these plants along the roadside or along railroad tracks, it is best to find them elsewhere if you can because of chemical sprays. And never harvest all of a plant in one place. Always leave a few to reproduce.

Next post: The dye pots

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