The Dye Garden

This year I established a dedicated area for growing dye plants for use on our wool. Interest in using sustainably grown plant dyes is steadily spreading as people become aware of the damage to the environment caused by synthetic commercially produced dyes as well as their high carbon footprint.

For several years I have been using dye plants responsibly foraged on the farm, tree leaves, cones, bark, lichens, fungi as well as cultivated flowers grown in the garden and herbs from the medicinal garden.  So many plants that can be used for dyeing are also wonderfully decorative, fantastic for wildlife and often have medicinal uses too. The dedicated dye garden has meant I can grow larger numbers of certain dye plants that reliably give good colours that are both lightfast and washfast.  The plants grown in this first year include weld, dahlia, coreopsis, woad, madder, calendula and dyers chamomile. All the plants were raised in the greenhouse from seed with the exception of some dahlias and the madder.  Dahlias were grown from stem cuttings and the madder was propagated from root cuttings. The greenhouse gave much needed protection from the cold spring so germination was good and the young plants were successfully planted out after the last frosts.  All the plants grew really well and within a blink of an eye they filled the beds.

Weld and woad are biennial plants which means they flower in their second year but their leaves can be used for the dye pot in their first year too.  The only pests causing damage to the plants were caterpillars from the cabbage white butterfly munching the woad leaves (which is part of the brassica family) but all the plants fully recovered in the late summer. Woad leaves (indigotin blue dye) are best harvested in the autumn and used fresh although I am experimenting with freezing the leaves.  The madder roots (the alizarin red dye is most concentrated in the roots) will not be ready to harvest for a few years so I will continue using the original plants growing in the vegetable garden alongside the rhubarb (another great dye and mordant plant) until then.

Harvesting the flowers from the coreopsis (giving orange/russet dye), calendula (giving green dye), dyers chamomile (giving yellow dye) and dahlia (giving orange dye) was a daily job during the summer…….a rather lovely job tiptoeing amongst the flowers and the buzzing bees!  The more flowers picked, the more the plant produces.  These flowers were then dried in racks in the airing cupboard to be stored for use when needed through the winter.  This has given me the flexibility to offer a bespoke dye service on our homegrown Devon Closewool yarn all year round.

Experimenting with natural dyes and understanding some of the science behind the techniques and recipes for each plant has been such an eye opener, endlessly fascinating!  My inspiration started with the most marvellous book ’A Heritage of Colour’ by Jenny Dean which I would thoroughly recommend to anyone wishing to start on the road to natural dyeing.