September 20, 2006 | By: Carol Lea Spence

As the searing heat of summer fades into memory, walk out your back door or take a drive down a country road. In the crisp, cozy days of autumn, some of nature’s bounty can still be found – in the form of plants that create beautiful natural dyes. 

Natural dyes are colors extracted from the various parts of plants, and occasionally insects and minerals. Dyes created from natural extracts go back in time thousands of years. 

Roberta Burnes is a fiber artist with 15 years of experience working with natural dyes. An education coordinator at The Arboretum, a joint venture of the University of Kentucky and Lexington Fayette Urban County Government, she said she was drawn to them through “a combination of my love for working with fiber and my love of color and also my love for doing things that hearken back to historical uses for plants.”

“To me it’s a way of learning about the history of people who came before me,” she said. 
Burnes conducts classes in dyeing, using materials from nature. She is eager for others to learn what she knows – that natural dyes exude a warmth and depth of color that synthetic dyes don’t produce. There is also compatibility among naturally-derived hues. 

“It’s funny, but I have found that colors you wouldn’t dream of putting together all seem to harmonize when they come from a natural source,” she said.

At a recent workshop at The Arboretum, Burnes taught participants that the colors of nature are as close as their gardens or the local grocery store. And it isn’t only cultivated plants that make beautiful dyes.

“The nice thing about natural dyes is that there are a lot of nasty weeds in your garden that you can make use of,” Burnes said. 

Broadleaved dock, amaranth and lambs quarters may invade a garden, but they each produce a beautiful hue. Cultivated plants also can generate an entire palette of colors, with garden blossoms, onion skins and sprigs of rosemary producing hues that can be either bold or gentle on the eye. The workshop participants found that using the blossoms from French marigolds created a bright, intense gold, while the broadleaved dock produced more of a golden tan tint.

Natural dyes often are not as intense as synthetic dyes. Colors tend toward greens, yellows, oranges and browns. Blues and reds are more difficult to obtain. Most reds come from plant roots, not flowers or foliage. The most intense red in a natural dye doesn’t stem from plant material, but from cochineal, an insect. Cochineal, depending on the solution strength, can even produce “bright screaming purples and pinks,” Burnes said.

Blues or purples are quite rare in nature, she explained. Most come from indigo leaves, which require a long fermentation process involving urea. Before indigo made blue accessible to the masses, Burnes said a certain type of snail found in the Mediterranean region was used. The dye produced was highly sought after and very expensive, which is the reason purple is associated with royalty and wealth.

Plant-based natural dyes are derived by simmering plant parts in distilled water that has been heated to 140 degrees. The longer the plant material soaks in the simmering bath, the more intense the first color. 

“With natural dyes, when you dye you slowly exhaust the dye bath, so you end up with a whole palette of the same color scheme,” Burnes said. “You might have your bright yellows, but you’ll also have your pastels.”

The idea of natural dyes may lead one to believe that they are not as toxic as their synthetic counterparts. But Burnes noted that it’s important to keep dedicated pots and utensils for the process.

“You definitely don’t want to do it with things you would also use for cooking or eating,” Burnes advised, “because it does use all kinds of plant materials. Some of that plant material is not stuff you’re going to want to eat. It also uses mordant, which is the chemical, the salt (or metal) that fixes the color.”

Mordants come in a variety of choices, from mildly to highly toxic. Burnes often uses potassium alum, although not the same variety found in the pickling aisle in a grocery. She chooses not to use other mordants such as chrome or tin because they are “so very toxic” to the environment. 

The mordant can be directly applied to the natural fiber by dissolving it in hot water and then simmering it along with the fiber for 30 minutes. Or it can be included in the dye bath itself. The amount of mordant applied to the dye bath depends on the amount of fiber to be dyed.

Animal-derived natural fibers accept the dye better than plant-derived fibers. Wools, whether as roving, yarns or fabric, readily accept natural dyes, whereas cottons do not without additional mordanting and, Burnes said, “many, many additional steps.” Silks also can produce striking results. Synthetic fibers such as polyester will completely reject the dye and remain white. 

Old wool skirts are one of Burnes’ favorite sources for material. She admits to rummaging through Goodwill and Salvation Army stores to find light colored skirts that she will then cut into squares for dyeing. 

“If you want to start cheap, you can make little patchwork quilt things or pillows out of wool skirts,” she said. “I make rugs out of them by cutting them into strips.”

All in all, Burnes finds that using natural dyes stimulates the creative process. 

“You’re getting to know the plants for one thing,” she said. “You accumulate these samples of colors and you start to get ideas about what to do with them. I’ve got whole projects that have been created out of these colors.”

And if the color doesn’t come out the way she hoped?

“It moves you in another direction. You get what you get and then you go from there and they all go together. It’s very exciting.”

Burnes will conduct an upcoming workshop at The Arboretum entitled “Nature Weaving.” The three-hour class will combine art with nature. Participants will create a tapestry made from natural-dyed wool, scented herbs, grasses and other natural materials. The workshop is on Saturday, Oct. 21 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and costs $15 ($12 for Friends of The Arboretum). Pre-register by calling The Arboretum at 859-257-9339.


Roberta Burnes, 859-257-9339