Dye Lab

There is an old Zen Buddhist saying, "not knowing is nearest." This quote has always stayed with me because it captures the wonder, joy, and excitement of uncertainty. There is so much not knowing in dyeing- what plant will give what colors, what pH, what mordant, what temperature are a few among the many variables that go into a final result. I get so much joy out of learning about plant dyes through experimentation.


Plants are made up of many phytochemicals including tannins, flavonoids, terpenes. We release these chemicals into our mugs every time we make a tea. A dye bath does the same thing. A green tea tastes different from an echinacea tea because they come from different plants with different phytochemical signatures.


Wool is magical, what else needs to be said. Wool is made up of amino acid protein chains with charged molecular sites that facilitate bonding with dye molecules. In a sense, they have a more "open" structure with lots of possibilities to connect with other compounds. Cellulose and synthetic fibers do not have this open structure.


Mordants are usually metal salts, which help fix a dye to a fiber. Metal compounds are very reactive, and they increase the number of bond sites on a fiber. I use a pre-mordant method where I soak wool in a mordant solution, then I put the mordanted wool in my dye pot. I use iron and alum mordants in my dye work. Iron usually darkens a dye result and alum typically brightens dye colors.


Chemical reactions occur at a certain pH and temperature. This is true for the chemical reactions happening in our bodies and it is true in the dye pot environment. When we change the pH of a dye bath we change the range of chemical reaction possibilities.

Dye test bundles

Every time I gather a new plant, I brew a tea of it in three jars. I modify the pH of two of the jars resulting in:

Jar 1 = acidic (low pH)

Jar 2 = neutral (7)

Jar 3 = basic (high pH)

Then I add a bundle of three strings to each jar.

String 1 = Iron (long string/2 knots)

String 2 = Alum (medium string/1 knot)

String 3 = No mordant (short string/ no knot)

The knots or string lengths help me keep track of which string has which mordant.

When I have a bundle of three strings in each of the three jars, I keep the pot on simmer while I make some tasty tea and drink up some phytochemicals.