DYEING CELLULOSE (PLANT FIBERS) NATURALLY
Do not allow lack of information keep you from experimenting with
plants for natural dyes. Remember some basics and you will most
likely get a lovely and lasting color. If you find a recipe for wool
and want to adjust it for your basket cellulose fibers like reed or
cane, remember some rules.
1) You will have the best result if you pre-mordant your material.
Cellulose (plant) fibers can handle and need more alum than wool or
protein fibers. Usually dyers use cream of tartar with alum for wool
due to the potential harmful effects on wool. I think any kind of
water softener is good with cellulose fibers. If you do not
pre-mordant with alum or tannic acid; at least add 1/8 cup alum to
2) For deeper shades of color use alum and tannic acid. Soak your
fibers overnight or even several days. Remember to add water daily
and stir well.
3) Use the leaves and stems of the red sumac plant for tannic acid.
4) If you are a beginner, make your dyebath and add your mordants to
the dyebath. As you become more experienced, mordant your fibers one
to four days before adding them to the dyebath.
5) Two of the safest and best mordants for cellulose fibers are alum
and tannic acid. Order your alum; don't settle for the grocery store
variety. You can order iron or use a rusty nail. If you want
consistent results use powdered iron. Iron will change the color in
some dyebaths. Walnut dye will change to charcoal with iron.
6) Remember to rinse dyed fibers with equal water and vinegar to
help set the dye.
7) Most basket weavers add plain salt to the dyebath to help set the
color. The books I have on wool dyeing do not emphasize the use of
salt. But what harm can the salt do the cellulose fibers? They are
much tougher than wool.
8) An alkaline solution is OK but don't use a strong acidic
solution, especially vinegar.
9) It is important to understand substantive dyes and how the
mordanting process differs from that used with berries and flowers.
Natural Materials For Basketry: Cattail
basketmakers.org has a comprehensive review of cattail.
Plants that contain tannic acid do not need mordanting. Most barks, nuts and hulls contain tannic acid, All plants of the sumac have high tannic levels.