A Rainbow of Plant- Dyed- Yarns

Plant Dyed Yarns

These first offerings in the Craft Corner will be an introduction to myself, and little about my approach and philosophy. As we settle in, I'll be posting specific recipes and projects here to try!

My first love in all the arts is watercolor. Since my years studying art at Santa Monica College, the quality of colors in movement across the surface, the delicate nuances, and the subtle gradations of watercolors have been a source of wonder and fascination. During my first years of teaching at a Waldorf school, I had the opportunity to study with the late Leszek Forczek, a master in the art of veil painting. This technique uses many layers of transparent veils of watercolor to build up the values of color. A veil painting may have as many as 300 veils of color and take weeks to execute. For example, the picture you see here is a veil painting I did which has about 250 veils!


During his three year intensive course, we studied Goethe’s color theory, and applied its many principles to our work. Through the process, colors became like dear friends, each one with its own unique personality and function.

“Colours are the deeds of light, its deeds and sufferings. ~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, German Poet,Theorist and Painter, 1749-1832

As a handwork teacher, one of my goals is to bring as much beauty to the child’s experience as possible. When I started coloring the children’s knitting yarn with plant dyes, it was a revelation! Like a veil painting, the layered colors seemed to move and play across the surface of the yarn. The lighter colors underneath seemed to shine through the darker colors on top, causing a glowing effect. What a contrast to chemically dyed yarns, with their flat blocks of color and harsh tones!

When I learned to paint in art school, all my teachers said: “Never use a flat color straight out of the tube- always add at least one other color to give it dimension.”
When using plants for color, it’s never the same twice. You may be using flower petals, but if the stem or leaf is attached, there will automatically be a variation in color. The same plant, grown in a different location, or picked at a different time of year will yield a different color. It’s maddening if you are striving for complete control! But its joyous if you take on an attitude of collaboration! The results will always be surprising, and the process can deepen your understanding and relationship to the plants you are working with.

Another special thing about plant dyes is how them move across the surface of the yarn. It invites the eye move, like a painting does with a beautiful composition. All this educates the eyes, even as the hands are working and the mind is figuring out the stitches.


Here are a couple of examples of this effect.
This royal purple began as a mixture of madder root, with a touch of soda ash. (This one was mordanted with alum.)
I used the madder to dye a deep red yarn. When the bath was almost exhausted, I added some Sappan wood (a nice vegan alternative to cochineal bugs). This gave the glowing pink in the center of the photo. The final step was adding a teaspoon of ammonia to raise the ph of the dye bath, and voila! Royal Purple.


This orange yarn was mordanted with Symplocos, a plant source of alum, which gave it a soft yellow undertone. The yellow yarn was then over-dyed with madder root. I also tied the yarn, Ikat style in a few places before dyeing with the madder to preserve some of the yellow underneath. The resulting yarn has that living color quality, as the undertones shine through to the surface.

If you are a dyer, consider thinking of your colors in three dimensions next time, and see what you come up with!