Natural Dye Notebook: Marigolds & Coleus

Marigold and coleus dyed sock yarn

This Summer, I’ve been doing a little natural dye experimentation. To be honest, I have never really pursued natural dyes in any way, because while I appreciate them when other people use them, I have always felt that it would be an enormous amount of work (like all dyeing). Not only do you need to have additional pots, pans, spaces, gloves, and time, but with natural dyes, there is a lot of math and chemistry involved, plus you have to navigate the complex world of mordants and modifiers, and prep your wool in lots of special ways beforehand—or so I imagined, from reading the books on the subject.

That said, earlier in the year, I had an illuminating conversation with Tammy from Wing & a Prayer Farm in Vermont, and she encouraged me just to give it a shot with what I have in my own garden, buy some alum off of Amazon, and pick up just one old dye pot from a local thrift store. She made it sound so much easier and accessible, so I decided I could probably try it.

I started with a dye bath made from coleus (specifically a middle-sized variety my garden center called Wandering Rose). I bought the plant as a hanging plant early in the summer and it just went gangbusters, and has to be clipped almost weekly to keep it under control. It’s essentially a shrubbery overflowing from the hanging basket at all times, so it seemed like the best candidate. I wasn’t sure what I would get from the heavily pigmented, deep purple leaves. I decided to go ‘cold method’ with this round of dyeing, soaking the leaves in a vat of water for about a week outside. Spoiler alert: it smelled TERRIBLE. Like, worse than you would think for just leaves in water. Absolutely disgusting. When I strained the dye bath off I had to hold my breath.

I mordanted my fiber with Alum, and a dash of cream of tartar, as outlined in the book Wild Color by Jenny Dean. Then, I dumped the yarn into that stinky, stinky bath, and let it sit in a closed tupperware for about a week. When I pulled it out, it also smelled terrible, so it went through a few baths with cool water and some lavender essential oil. At some point, it was tolerable, so I took it outside to air out and dry, and it came back a sort of…. fleshy color. Not exactly what I was going for.

Convinced that I enjoyed the process despite the smell, I decided to go with something more traditionally successful and harvested some marigolds from my mom’s embankment. Earlier in the year, she, I, and a friend sowed probably hundreds of marigold seeds along this muddy slide of land at her apartment complex—guerrilla gardening of a sorts. These plants really took hold and there are probably seventy or more blooming like crazy, so they certainly didn’t miss a few blooms. I took about two pounds of blossoms to dye 8 ounces of wool—I didn’t want to risk running short.

This time, I used the hot dye method outlined in the book, simmering the marigold bath for one hour, then straining it. I added a dash of white vinegar to the water as a modifier, which turned it a bright red-orange. Thrilled, I dropped the yarns I had chosen to dye into the pot: first, the caramel-colored sock yarn I’d gotten from my coleus dye experiment, then some mini-skeins of my own handspun wool in a heathery gray color. The result wasn’t a red-orange, but a brilliant yellow-green. I’m quite pleased with this round and plan on doing more natural dyeing soon.

Marigold naturally dyed wool

Have you experimented with natural dyeing? What were your favorite results? I’m trying to only use items from my local garden, so I’d love to hear your recommendations on any of the following materials: sage, oregano, rosemary, mint, other varieties of coleus, willow bark, other results using marigolds, iron, copper, elderberries, rose mallow, goldenrod, queen anne’s lace, pokeberry! These are all on my list to try.