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Fall Foraged Plant Dyes

Updated: Jan 21

As nearly 3000 Knox County residents know, we had a little fun tie-dying bandanas and scrunchies at Kenyon College's Brown Family Environmental Center Fall Harvest Fest last Saturday.

It was such a big hit we ran out of supplies and had a lot of interest about the project, so we thought we would share the dye recipes we used for the pokeberry, goldenrod, acorn, and black walnut dyes. We had to modify these steps a bit because we were preparing for the event and did not have an option for heating dye baths, but you can follow them as closely as you like and likely have stronger colors as a result, if you like!

If you try any of these or another, please let us know! Share some pics on Instagram or Facebook and tag us or send us an email about it!


Place the stems and berries into a large stock pot that will not be used for food preparation. Pokeweed and some other dye stuffs are toxic. It is best to keep a separate set of tools for your dyeing work, just to be safe. The pan you use to mordant the fiber can be from the kitchen as usually nothing toxic will go into that pan.

Do Not Boil!

Start by covering the plant material with tap water, add one cup of vinegar. Bring the mixture almost to a boil but DO NOT boil the mixture. Immediately turn the heat down to a simmer and allow the berries and stems to release the color. Use an old potato masher to further squish the berries.

After cooking for two hours, I turned off the heat and let the mixture sit overnight.

The next day, strain the dye, reserving the dye in a temporary pan or container while you toss the spent berries and stems in the garbage. Don’t add pokeweed parts to your compost as they have a lot of seeds. The compost bin will quickly turn into a pokeweed garden.

Carefully pour the dye into the dye pot again.

he first step when preparing to dye any yarn or fabric is to prepare it to receive the dye. This process is called the mordant. There are a few common methods to mordant the yarn or fabric. Salt, vinegar, alum and rust are a few easily obtained substances. Keep in mind that each one will cause a different reaction when your fiber is added to the dye bath. The metals in your tap water will also play a part. For this dye experiment, I used vinegar as the soaking mordant with a small amount of alum added.

2 skeins of natural colored 100% wool yarn (400 yards total or 200 grams)

2 quarts of water

1 cup vinegar

water to vinegar ratio of 1 to 8

1 tsp alum

Ease the yarn into the mixture of water, vinegar and alum in a non- aluminum pot. Always use care when working with wool and hot water. Do not agitate the fiber or cause friction from too much handling. Felting occurs in the presence of hot water and movement. Next, you ease the fiber into the water and gently push it down to get it thoroughly wet.

Bring water, vinegar and alum to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for at least one hour.

Dyeing with Pokeberry Dye

Ok ready to get to the fun part?

Remove the yarn from the mordant water and without squeezing the water out, transfer it over to the dye bath.

Gently push the yarn into the dye bath, until it is completely covered. Since the yarn is wet, it should sink readily into the dye bath.

Now, add half of the mordant liquid to the dye bath.

Discard the remaining mordant water.

Begin heating the dye bath. Bring close to a boil, and reduce heat to simmer. Simmer the dye bath and fiber for two hours. Turn off the heat and allow the yarn or fiber to sit in the dye bath overnight.

It is important to note that boiling pokeberry dye can cause it to lose its red color and become brown.

After at least two hours, rinse the yarn in cool water, changing the water until it runs clear. For Pokeberry, at this point, using soap may change the pH and cause the color to change. Rinse completely and place over the screens again to complete the drying. You need to make sure the yarn is not laid out in the sun, as this will also cause the color to change or fade. From my readings, pokeberry is color fast for gentle washing but is not light fast. Do not leave the yarns you dye with natural colors to sit out in the sunlight.


Collect the flowers by cutting the flowering tops – the brighter the yellow the better (color results are best at peak bloom). When harvesting from the wild always leave behind some flowers for the pollinators, never pull up the entire plant by the roots, just trim what you need. I like to place the flowering tops directing in the empty pot that I will use for dying, over filling it so I can easily see how much flowering tops I will need. A reusable shopping tote works great too especially if you are gathering blossoms in the wild. Gather an amount of goldenrod blossoms that is roughly equal to the amount of fabric you want to dye. The amount of flowering tops you need is roughly equal wet weight of plant material to weight of fabric you plan to dye i.e. 1 pound of plant matter to 1 pound of fabric. However I never actually weigh anything. I simply fill the pot with as much flowering tops as I can to make the dye. I then dye as much fabric at a time that will fit in the pot while still flowing freely in the dye bath that is about two pieces of clothing in my 2 gallons of dye.

You will need a large pot made of stainless steel, glass or enamel coated metal to prevent unwanted chemical reactions. The pot should be large enough to hold the amount of plant material/fabric you intend to use. I use a enamel coated pot that holds 2 gallons of water and then some. Note that aluminum pots will alter the color of the dye – the alteration could be either beneficial or detrimental depending on the color you are going for. In the case of goldenrod, it would make the fabric have a tinge of green.

Materials Needed: Natural fiber fabric such as cotton, wool, linen or silk ​Mordant of your choice: alum or iron solution Fresh Goldenrod flowering tops to fill your stock pot Non-reactive large pot, stainless steel, glass, or enamel, I use a large enamel coated metal pot A long spoon to stir the dye a wooden spoon works great Rubber bands for tie dying, if desired Clean rubber household gloves Clean bucket for straining and rinsing Strainer or Colander ​

​Directions: 1. Put your plant matter in the pot and fill it up with enough water to cover the plant matter. Bring to a Boil. Once boiling, bring down to simmer for 1 hour. At end of hour observe the color, if you want a stronger color add more plant material and simmer for another hour. 2. Allow the water to cool a bit , then strain. Strain the now yellow colored the water into a clean bucket through a mesh strainer or colander to thoroughly separate the plant material from the water. I also wear rubber gloves and scoop out the larger bits of flowers by hand, pressing and squeezing lightly. Please use caution, allowing the water to cool enough before putting your hands in the pot. 3. Rinse the pot, and put dye water back in pot. Compost the spent flowers. 4. Add your mordant to the water, for alum use 1 tablespoon per gallon of water, stir and simmer for 15 minutes so it fully dissolves and is distributed throughout the water. 5. Wet your fabric thoroughly and squeeze out the excess water. If you are tie dying apply the rubber bands in your desired pattern before wetting the fabric. I like to add a little shibori/tie dyed element to some of my fabrics, so I bind up various pieces with rubber bands to create the resist for a tie-dyed effect. 6. Place the fabric you wish to dye into the dyebath pot and simmer for 1 hour. Stir occasionally to keep the fabric free flowing. After 1 hour remove from heat, you can either let it sit in the dye bath until it cools or remove it right away and let it cool in your rinsed out bucket.

​7. Rinse the cooled fabric in cold water until the water comes out clear. If you are satisfied with the color gently squeeze the water out (wringing can cause streaking in fabric). Hang the fabric to dry in the shade to avoid sun fading. 8. You can now repeat the dying process with more fabric if you wish, the color will become lighter as you go. I have used the same dyebath for three consecutive batches of fabric with beautiful results. 9. Once you are finished and the dye is exhausted it it safe to discard the dye by pouring it on the lawn, if you have acid loving plants such as hydrangeas, azaleas, blueberries, evergreens and common garden vegetables you can pour the water on their soil. Natural plant dyed fabrics tend to fade over time, so it is best to wash them on the gentle cycle in cold water with a natural plant based soap to extend life of the color. I tend to over dye the same piece the following year when goldenrod blossoms appear again to freshen up the color.


  1. Gather acorns and lightly smash hulls.

  2. Place acorns in dye pot and cover with water.

  3. Bring to a boil and simmer for 2 hours or more. Let cool.

  4. Strain acorn pieces from the liquid.


The best time to gather the nuts is in the Fall when they are still green and newly fallen off the tree. I have read that if the nuts rot and turn black on the ground the dye may be damaged; however, I have also dyed with these black hulls and obtained similar results. You can dye with the fresh hulls or you can freeze them for year round dyeing. I have done both. NOTE THAT WALNUTS WILL STAIN SKIN FOR DAYS. WEAR GLOVES WHEN HANDLING!!! ALSO NOTE Walnut WILL stain countertops and kitchen sinks! So I dye with Black Walnut outside using a portable propane burner and the barn sink.

1. My Dye Bath Preparation & Recipe Place the whole hulls in a bucket or large stainless steel pot (that will not be used for cooking). Add enough water to completely cover the hulls. Place a lid on top. Leave the bucket or pot outside, periodically checking to add more water if necessary. About half way through the soaking process, I "smoosh" the hulls to crack their exterior and allow the juiciness to ooze out. I typically soak for two days, at the very least, overnight. The water should be a deep brown. Using a strainer, pour the contents over another bucket or pot to strain the large chunks of walnut from the soaking water. Discard the solids and save the dye “liquor". Optional - Strain the liquid one more time through cheese cloth. This will remove any residual small pieces from the liquid. Place the wetted fiber or fabric in this liquid dyebath. You may have to add more water to allow the fiber or fabric to be able to move freely in the dye. Slowly bring the dye bath up to a simmer. Occasionally, stir the pot gently to allow for an even take up of color. Simmer for 30 minutes. If the color is satisfactory (color will be lighter upon drying), remove the fabric and rinse with water until the water runs clear. Hang to air-dry. Note-If dyeing wool, to avoid felting, turn off the burner and allow the pot to cool before removing and rinsing. If the color is not intense enough, simmer for 30 more minutes. If a darker color is still desired, turn the heat off and leave in the dyebath overnight. In the photo below, the silk scarf farthest on the left was simmered for an hour; the other three scarves simmered for 30 minutes. Shibori techniques were used to make the patterning.

2. Catharine Ellis Recipe I have learned that the secret to dyeing with black walnut is slow dyeing and lots of patience. I put the entire nut(s) in a mesh bag (fresh or dry), cover with water and simmer until the outer skin (the exocarp) breaks open, releasing the soft husk underneath which contains the dye. Then I cool the bath a bit, add the fiber, leaving the entire nut in the bath (in the mesh bag) during the entire dyeing process. The mesh keeps the fiber clean. I heat the dyebath slowly and leave it for a long time. There were many occasions that I was disappointed in walnut dye, only to finally learn that it takes TIME. I still have to resist the temptation to add more walnut to the bath during the first hour of dyeing, remembering that the dye will get darker with a longer bath. I calculate about one fresh/frozen nut per 20 grams of fiber (or about 350%). If I am using dry walnuts I will double that amount, at least. Many more dry walnuts will be required to achieve the same color as the fresh walnuts.

3. Trudy Van Stralen Walnut Recipe Use dried walnuts (or 5 times the amount if fresh). Weigh out the nuts and put them in a pot of water to soak overnight. If you place them in a net bag it’s easier to remove them later. The next day, bring the water to a vigorous boil and boil hard, covered, for at least 90 minutes. Strain the dye bath into another pot. Straining is important, as any remaining bits of hull will make dark spots on the fiber. Add wetted fiber to the dye bath, bring it to a boil, and keep at a gentle boil for 90 minutes (not just 60 minutes, as for other dyes). Remove the dyed fiber and rinse well.

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