Pub. Date:
Craft of the Dyer: Colour from Plants and Lichens

Craft of the Dyer: Colour from Plants and Lichens

by Karen Leigh Casselman

Paperback(2nd revised)

View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for delivery by Thursday, September 23


Craftspeople interested in traditional methods will welcome this complete guide to making and using dyes from plants. Although its emphasis is on plants of Northeastern North America, many of the plants listed are found throughout the world.
Helpful introductory chapters on equipment, mordants, dyeing procedures and other essentials, are followed by individual plants: its suitability for dyeing, useful parts, how to process them, colors, dye fastness, plant identification, where to find it, and more. Also include four valuable indexes — plants by common name, botanical name, by colors produced, and a general index. A list of suppliers, metric conversion tables and other information rounds out this thorough guide to safe, ecologically sound dyeing methods.

Related collections and offers

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486276069
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 08/11/1993
Edition description: 2nd revised
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

Craft of the Dyer

Colour from Plants and Lichens

By Karen Leigh Casselman

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1993 Karen Leigh Casselman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14037-7


Why bother?

It is often suggested that making dyes from plants is a highly specialized field which belongs more in the realm of the textile purist than that of the contemporary fibre artist and craftsperson. Likened to the earnest gourmet who grinds her own flour for bread, the dyer has been viewed as someone who experiments with dyes but rarely enjoys them. Nothing could be further from the truth. Increasingly, modern craftspersons are turning to natural dyes as a logical extension of their aesthetic concerns in weaving, macramé, spinning, hooking, knitting, crocheting, and stitchery. Quilters and home-sewers are experimenting with plant-dyed fibres, often with unexpected success. Furthermore, it is encouraging to see that plant dyes are now as often made by schoolchildren in their classrooms as by folklorists and devotees bent on relearning earlier skills.

Process is the key to making dyes. The techniques used to extract pigment from plants and to make the resulting colour are not unlike dressing the loom or wedging clay prior to throwing on the wheel. Each step is important. These separate steps then blend into a loose schematic structure that makes results significant. Sometimes the process is unstructured, as is often the case in the elementary school classroom. On the other hand, the sophisticated and controlled dyeing experiments of the advanced student of any of the fibre arts require careful attention to detail, a thorough knowledge of procedures, and somewhat specialized equipment. What matters is not which techniques are used, for there are many, but that the results satisfy the dyer. Successful dyeing means that the total experience was worthwhile.

Making dyes from plants can expand the whole concept of fibre and its contemporary craft application. On a personal level, plant dyeing greatly affects one's personal response to colour. Even the most inexperienced dyers acknowledge that they become less satisfied with ready-dyed yarns in shops after they have learned to produce one or two shades of their own. No two dyebaths are ever exactly the same. This means that novice as well as advanced dyers can rightly claim colours they develop as 'original.' It is this built-in authenticity which appeals to the discriminating craftsperson — the fact that no one else can duplicate a piece of their work made from plant-dyed fibres. Such yarns add a touch of distinction and suggest to the viewer that the designer/maker fully developed his creative concept from start to finish, although the design itself may be random or abstract. But the dyer need not worry that using commercially-dyed fibres is heretical. Indeed, working with plant dyes helps the craftsperson to be more selective in making choices which influence his or her work. Many yarns available today at specialty and weaving shops are extremely handsome and a delight to use. The perceptive dyer will soon discover what yarn belongs where, no matter what its origin.

Plant-dyed fibres and the dyeing process itself are stimulants to creativity. An entire concept for a new piece of work may well be formulated before the freshly-dyed yarn is dry. The nuances of colour lead the dyer to consider new combinations and unexplored juxtapositions, for plant-dyed shades rarely clash or jar the eye. Their natural harmony is a special kind of perfection that appeals to those who have learned to trust their senses.

Why bother to make dyes from plants? It is more convenient to purchase ready-dyed fibres, and easier still to duplicate the colour schemes featured in textile books, but using others' ideas does not help the serious craftsperson to be individual, any more than it benefits the adventuresome knitter always to rely on printed patterns.

Making dyes requires time, energy, and patience, but the rewards are sufficiently gratifying that those who try to use plant-dyed fibres will have a strong sense of originality. 'Doing things from scratch' used to be a source of pride when problem-solving was part of each day's activities. Whatever was needed, one made. Whatever did not work was replaced by an artifact that did. Necessity gave rise to many ingenious work methods. Because it often encourages spinning, making dyes takes one back to that simpler approach of making something 'from scratch.'

Woven cloth of plant-dyed fibres has an unmistakeable heathery quality, which reminds some people of fog. The shades are subtle and harmonize with each other in such a way as to give the fabric great depth of colour. 'Sweet, beautiful colours' is the description of their own dyes by some Eskimo women who worked at Spence Bay, NWT, with dyer Judy McGrath. (See Judy McGrath, 'The Dye Workshop.') Each plant provides an amazing diversity of shades: onion skin-dyed fibre may be beige, soft yellow, lemon yellow, bright gold, old gold, orange, bronze, brass, khaki, avocado, tan, warm brown, rust, burnt orange, or russet. That is just the beginning. To use even three or four of the above shades in a single craft project will result in the finished article having an uncomparably rich look. You will never again fall into the trap of thinking, 'Yellow goes with brown, pink goes with white.'


The terminology used in this book conforms to the standard North American usage of words and phrases associated with plant dyeing. Making dyes from plants is herein called 'plant dyeing,' a term which means the same thing as 'natural dyeing,' 'organic dyeing,' and 'vegetable dyeing.' 'Plant dyeing' is considered the most appropriate term, as the use of chemicals makes the term 'natural' a misnomer. Most dyestuffs are vegetable matter (flowers, weeds, barks, lichens). Among animal dyestuffs are blood and imported cochineal. Mineral dyestuffs include the traditional iron buff and copper penny blue (p 127).

acid organic and inorganic compounds used in dyeing (vinegar, cream of tartar) to alter the pH value of the dyebath; acids neutralize alkaline (base) substances and change litmus from blue to red

adjective dyestuff which requires a mordant to affix the colour

AFM ammonia fermentation method of lichen dyeing, where lichens, water, ammonia, and oxygen are aged to produce orsallia and other purple dyes (see p 165)

alkali compounds which are used in dyeing to neutralize acids and alter dyebaths from red to blue (particularly Umbilicaria baths). Ammonia, alum, and lye are alkaline, and the following substances also function as such in the dyepot: wood ash; sal soda (washing soda); baking soda; detergent and lye-based soaps.

bleach sodium, or calcium hypochlorite, abbreviated to CL (indicating the active ingredient, chlorine). To bleach a fibre is to remove its natural colour. A bleached wool yarn appears 'snow white' compared with the ivory or greyish- white of a similar but 'unbleached' fibre.

boil liquid at a temperature of 98—100°C or 212°F. For convenience, the celsius equivalent to 212°F is herein given as 100°c. (See "simmer.")

BWM boiling water method of lichen dyeing, where dyes are extracted in water (see p 165) cook out to process a dyestuff in water until the colour is extracted

dyebath water in which the dyestuff has been cooked out. The dyestuff itself is often subsequently strained off and discarded.

dyestuff animal, mineral, or vegetable (plant) matter from which a dye is made

fastness property of plant-dyed fibre which enables it to resist fading upon exposure to light and water (washing)

fermentation processing of (usually umbilicate) lichens in water, ammonia, and oxygen for twelve weeks or longer, to make the AFM dye, orsallia

fibre thread or strand; a yarn or cloth composed of threads, either natural (wool, cotton, linen) or man-made (nylon, rayon)

fleece raw wool, unprocessed and unspun. 'In the grease' refers to unwashed fleece, and 'scoured' to fleece that has been washed.

fugitive quality of a pigment which renders it non-permanent. A fugitive colour (see beet, p 102) will fade upon exposure of the dyed fibre to light or washing; a non-fast colour indigenous native to a region or locale; naturally produced or born in a specific place

levelling term used to describe the addition of sodium sulphate (Glauber's salts) to a dyebath to act as an agent which evens colour

lichen form of plant life composed of two organisms: an algae and a fungus; not to be confused with moss

liquor strained-off dyebath; the liquid in which the dyestuff has been cooked out

macerate to reduce to a soft mass by soaking in a liquid

mordant additive, most often in the form of chemical salts (alum, iron, tin); helps make the dye fast and affects its colour by brightening, darkening, or otherwise changing the dye colour obtained

natural dye fibre dye from animal, mineral, or vegetable matter; synonymous with organic, plant, and vegetable dyeing

orchil substance present in certain lichens (Parmelia, Umbilicaria) which, when fermented with water, ammonia, and oxygen, produces red

orsallia an indigenous AFM lichen dye, devised by the author, using North American lichens such as Actinogyra müehlenbergii, Lasallia papulosa, and various species of Umbilicaria (see p 169)

pH pH value of a solution refers to its degree of acidity or alkalinity. The pH scale ranges from 0 to 14, with 7 as the mid-point (neutral).

ply strand of a yarn. Three-ply refers to a yarn made up of three strands of any weight or thickness.

rinse to wash in water without soap; to remove from dyed fibre any trace of the dye liquor or mordants which may remain after dyeing

scour to wash in warm soapy water until all foreign material and excess natural grease are removed; particularly applied to the preparation of fleece for spinning and dyeing

simmer liquid at a temperature of 95°C and 200°F; temperature at which the dyebath is processed when the fibre and mordants have been added

skein continuous, circular hank of yarn; usually 4 oz (114 g) in weight, if commercially wound

soak out to wet yarn thoroughly; to aid the extraction of pigment from a dyestuff by soaking it in water for several hours or longer

substantive dyestuff that will impart colour to a fibre without the use of mordants. Most boiling water lichens are substantive.

wool natural fibre, from sheep, in any form. The term applies equally to raw fleece and finished cloth; pure wool has no other additives, but wool yarn may or may not have sizing applied to it when it is factory-spun or dyed.

yarn spun fibre, of any content; available in various sizes and weights, from one-ply (singles) to two; three; four; or five-ply



The amount of equipment purchased for making dyes depends on the dyer's seriousness. Many pounds of fibre can be successfully dyed using utensils found around the home or studio. Nothing used for plant dyeing, however, should ever be used subsequently in the preparation or cooking of food. This means using old pots and pans or buying new ones. For dyers whose long-term interest warrants it, buying quality equipment at the outset is a good investment. A stainless steel pot may cost four or five times the price of an enamel one, but it will last for years, whereas the enamel pot will rust long before and have to be replaced. Dyers may also discover that it is difficult to obtain large enamel canners out of season.

Dyers using hotplates will find it takes longer for the dyepots to heat than if a kitchen range is used as a source of heat. Wood-burning stoves are excellent and cheaper to operate than electric ranges (see appendix, p 223). However, it is quite safe to use the kitchen stove for dyeing if some precautions are taken (see safety precautions, p 67). If there is an exhaust fan or hood, use it to dissipate the fumes from the dyepot. Otherwise, work with an open window, even in the winter months. Although many dyebaths are alarmingly disagreeable in smell (seaweed, for instance), most are not toxic. All mixtures are potentially hazardous, however, and may produce toxic fumes. Using rubber gloves, keeping a window open, and cleaning up carefully afterwards should become a ritual for dyers. Teachers are advised to work with non-poisonous household mordants (see classroom techniques, p 80).


– Enamel canning pot, with lid. As the same pots are used for mordanting and dyeing, one will do, preferably the size that holds 8 canning jars in the rack.

– plastic ice cream containers, 1-gallon or 4-litre size, or a plastic bucket (for soaking out dyestuffs and holding strained-off dye liquor)

– wooden stick, dowel, or piece of driftwood for stirring

– cheesecloth, old nylons, or plastic colander for straining off the dyestuff after it has been cooked out

– plastic measuring spoons and glass measuring cup (old style, 32-ounce size; new type, 1-litre size or 35.2 fluid ounces)

– rubber gloves, as heavy as possible

– old newspaper, rags, and clean-up supplies

– the collected dyestuff; several gallons of rain or tap water; one or more of the following household mordants: baking soda, common salt, drugstore alum (see alum, p 23); urine; vinegar; cream of tartar


– 1 stainless steel stock pot with lid; 2 or 3 canners with lids; 1 separate 'iron' pot (for iron mordanting and dyeing), which may be cast iron or enamel; 1 aluminum pot (for pot-as-mordant dyeing); 1 tin pot (for pot-as-mordant dyeing); a copper-lined tin wash boiler, or an antique copper or brass pot. Because most serious dyers give workshops and demonstrations, it is important to have on hand a variety of equipment suited to these situations.

– several plastic pails with handles and pouring spouts

– wooden stirrers; plexiglass stirrer for indigo dyeing

– several plastic colanders which, if possible, will fit exactly on top of the plastic pails

– plastic measuring spoons; several glass measuring cups (old style, 32 fluid ounces; new type, 1 litre)

– several pairs of lined rubber gloves

– clean-up equipment

– common mordants and, in addition: alum, blue vitriol, chrome, hydros, iron, lye, tin, cream of tartar, Glauber's salts

– scales (baby scales are better than diet or kitchen scales as the latter tend to be flimsy in construction)

– thermometer (in Celsius and Fahrenheit)

– litmus paper to test pH

– shears or pruners, preferably with non-iron blades

– blender, or mortar and pestle (for grinding umbilicate lichens)

– folding clothes rack (wooden, or rubber-covered aluminum)

– looseleaf binder for yarn samples and notes


Buying quality equipment means it will last for many years and prove less expensive in the long term. A stainless steel 'stock pot,' such as those used in professional kitchens, is invaluable to the serious dyer, as are a variety of antique vessels. Although the initial cost of a stock pot is high ($100), it costs less than a much smaller antique pot. Most stock pots hold at least 10 gallons (45.46 1) and, if well cared for, last for twenty to thirty years. Brass, copper, iron, and tin pots occasionally turn up at country auctions or dealers' shops. Regrettably, they are now almost prohibitive in price, affordable only by either the very rich or the very dedicated. Still, the challenge presented in using such a pot can be exciting.

Top prices are paid for vessels in prime condition. That means they are clean on the inside, polished outside, free from large dents, have no leaks, and have a functioning handle. They may or may not have lids. Premium-quality antique pots are more desirable to the collector than to the dyer. The overall condition of a pot need not be perfect, and a lid from another vessel can be used for a cover. Cast iron hearth pots are excellent for dyeing, but professional cleaning of the interior may be required before they can be used. Copper and tin sap buckets make good dyepots, but the most suitable vessels in the antique category are brass porridge pots and copper jelly pans. A small porridge pot can cost as much as $80 to $90, and a copper jelly pan with a capacity of 2 gallons (9.0921) will fetch upwards of $125 at most auctions. Dyers who want an antique pot are advised to remember that at auctions, anything goes. A deeply encrusted iron pot may be impossible to clean. However, a reputable dealer may be able to locate a good pot, and there is the advantage of knowing that, when purchased, such a vessel will probably not require repairs.


A jeweller or silversmith will usually be able to fix brass and copperware, and possibly tin, depending upon the character of the tin. No severely rusted metal pot should ever be considered useful for dyeing, nor is it worth having repaired. Some blacksmiths will fix cast iron pots, although most prefer not to. However, with the increase in the number of ironsmiths in northeastern North America one can take cast iron pots for repairs. Handles can be replaced and useful devices such as trivets for hot dyepots can be fashioned.


Excerpted from Craft of the Dyer by Karen Leigh Casselman. Copyright © 1993 Karen Leigh Casselman. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Page,
I - Why bother?,
2 - Equipment,
3 - Where to go and what to look for,
4 - Mordants: What they are and how to use them,
5 - Natural fibres and their preparation for dyeing,
6 - Dyeing procedures,
7 - The dyestuffs,
8 - Workshop and classroom techniques,
9 - Plants for dyeing,

Customer Reviews