This the season for fall colors. As I spent two weeks recently in Northern Michigan with time on my hands I pondered what new activity to try. Every ditch was overflowing with purple and yellow flowers.

Photo to show Joe Pye weed

A flower from the abundant Joe Pye weed near my father’s house

There were fall leaves starting to turn and red sumac berries and purple wild grapes everywhere. Maybe this was the time to try dying with natural materials.There are many good websites to research this subject and I browsed them all.I knew I didn’t want to use any mordants (the material that binds color to fabric) that were harmful to the environment or me since that is exactly what I was experimenting to avoid. I discovered that alum and cream of tartar (sold at the grocery store and used as a food ingredient) would work for my experiment and it wouldn’t take much.
I found two large pans and filled them with enough water to cover the fabric in one and to cover smashed down plant material in the other.

Shows the plant being boiled to produce dye

Plant material is steaming away

Fabric in water with mordant

Fabric in mordant

I bought a couple yards of 100 percent cotton muslin and split it into three pieces. In one I put a teaspoon of alum, 1/4 tsp of cream of tartar and one of the fabric pieces.In the other pot I put my gathered plant material. My first experiment used Joe pye weed. I had read this lovely purple flower would actually make green dye but I went ahead anyway. I gently boiled the fabric and the plant material in their separate pots for about 90 minutes. Then I turned everything off and went to bed. In the morning I ran the water wit the plant material through a cheesecloth covered sieve (actually in tis case my sieve was an old curtain I found in a cupboard). I put the fabric in this water which was now green and boiled gently for another hour. I stirred occasionally and then let it sit for several more hours. I poured off the water and rinsed the fabric with more water until the water didn’t have color in it. I had a nice light green fabric color. I hung it to dry and then repeated the process with the goldenrod and was delighted with the pale yellow result.At that point I thought I was done but then discovered two quart jars of dried sour cherries that were way past the period of safe eating so I poured those in and started the same process again. The result was a subtle red brown.

Bucket of Natural Dye

Bucket of Natural Dye

Not what I was hoping for but the drying process and age may have removed some color.I will try it again because it was an interesting process. When you go through this exercise you can see how dyeing fabric has he potential to be a toxic and water intensive process.Some companies in the industry use dyes and mordants which are toxic. There is a history of leftover dye water being dumped straight back into the environment without treatment.Thoughtful companies today are making an effort to use less toxic chemicals and reuse water and dyes. The way our clothes and home goods get their color is yet another elephant in the room that needs to be considered and addressed for the textile industry to be sustainable.As consumers we can do our part by buying only what we need, seeking out responsible color production and keeping our clothes in good shape for as long as possible.