Seasonal Plant Dyes by Alicia Hall

Patricia Cleveland-Peck is tempted to try home dyed using the simplified methods suggested in this fascinating and well-illustrated book

As a gardener, I have always been tempted to try natural dyeing but have always been put off by the complex procedures involved. These included scouring, the extreme cleaning of the material to be dyed by boiling with soda ash and also mordanting, which involved preparing the material with alum and other mineral or vegetable substances in order to make the dye stick.

These operations may have been standard years ago but in this clear and well-produced book, Alicia Hall has in the main selected plants which do not require excessively arcane procedures to produce exquisite colours. I say ‘in the main’ because she does touch on the fact that there are plants such as woad, for which trickier techniques are required.

For the majority of plants here she introduces the innovative substitution of soya milk as a mordant and she also states that a simple wash in the machine can replace scoring. This plus the fact that no expensive equipment is required and that the plant material can be stored in the deep freeze effectively demystifies the procedure.

If this were not enough to tempt me to give it another go, the photographs in the book, taken by the author, would. Colour is important to me and as well as clear jewel colours I have always loved subtle, dusky and slightly faded-looking tones. The photographs here indicate that you can produce original shades hard to come by commercially.

Set out in seasonal sections, the book deals with growing the plants, harvesting the plant material and storing it. Fabric types are explained and the everyday equipment (large pan, wooden spoons, sieve or colander, spare bowl, apron and rubber gloves) is discussed before the instructions for actually extracting the colour from the plants is given. First the fabric to be dyed will have been soaked in soya milk for 48 hours and then spun in the washing machine and left to rest for a week After this it is just a question of simply putting the plant material in water, heating it slowly and leaving it for varying lengths of time. The plant material is then removed and the dyestuff is ready to receive the prepared cloth or wool. The dye bath is then heated again for varying lengths of time. When the desired depth of colour is attained the dyed fabric is removed, dried, preferably in the fresh air, ironed to set the colour and then washed one last time on a cool cycle before being hung out to dry. The dyestuff itself can be reused several times.

It is also explained that some fabrics need a modifier to achieve a good colour. Iron and copper are modifiers and instructions are given on how to make your own iron water and copper water by soaking old bits of iron and copper in jars of water to which vinegar has been added.

Many of the plants used are commonly available either from the garden or can be foraged for in the wild: nettle tops, mint, ivy, bay leaves, forsythia, buddleja, lavender, hypericum, dahlia, rosemary eucalyptus, alder cones, elderberries and walnuts can all produce entrancing nuanced colours. The book also contains a series of projects you can undertake with your dyed fabric including a patchwork quilt and a hot water bottle cover.

When you undertake natural dyeing you are experimenting. The results can be a bit unpredictable but that is all part of the magic. It is also a slow and gentle process which can help alleviate stress – I can’t wait to try.

Seasonal Plant Dyes by Alicia Hall
ISBN 9781526747235 in large paperback format
is published by Pen & Sword White Owl @ £14.99