10 October 2013

My Dyer's Garden

some color

Natural dyeing was such a fun pastime for me all summer. The surprises outnumber the failures, overdyeing erased mistakes and disappointments, and I love coming home from a hard day's work to check yarn that's been soaking in pigment all day or all week or all month.

Weeds make a great dyeing project, but they don't always have the best or adequate pigment. Flowers have a therapeutic effect, both while growing and while coloring yarn, but I wasn't sure I could pick flowers to extract pigment from them.

A dyer's garden sounds like a great idea, but what if I couldn't pick the flowers once they began growing?

In August, my healthy crop of bachelor buttons, or cornflowers, reached the mostly seed stage. The stalks were taller than I'd wanted when I planted the seeds back in April, and the flowers hid the rocks in my landscaping most of the summer. That's not really a complaint. I LOVE the color of bachelor buttons! But I love my rocks, too.

Reluctantly and cautiously so as not to destroy any hidden ladybugs or praying mantises, I cut down the bachelor buttons. Among the 900 or so seed heads were about 300 flowers in various stages of growth, some nearly spent, some radiantly full, some not quite open. I filled a clean spaghetti sauce jar with the blue blossoms, then poured on a little distilled water.

Soaked Bachelor Button

I'd done it! I'd picked flowers for dyeing! This was SUCH a major step for me.

But could I do it with the dahlias???

I started slowly, plucking only the blossoms that were beginning to wither. But then one radiant morning, I was shooting the sunrise and decided I needed a dahlia in the photo. My dahlias are tall, but not THAT tall. So I picked one. A fresh one. One that was too pretty to pick. And I shot away!

Dahlia Sunrise

I decided if I could do it once, I could do it again. After work that day, I picked three more. That's all I could do. They were too pretty to stick in a dye pot, and I love seeing them every day. Back to the drawing board.

Until the first week of October, when our first hard freeze was forecast.

The flowers would be dead the next morning. There were far too many to put in one vase. It was time to start picking...


Dahlia Dye Pot

I didn't know when I bought my dahlias last spring they couldn't survive our winters. I didn't know when I dug holes for the tubers AND three deliciously scented potted rosemary plants that none of them could stay outside all winter. Had I known, I probably wouldn't have planted any of them in the garden. I'm glad I didn't know. The joy they brought all summer long is not something I would voluntarily choose to miss.

I'm not considering using the rosemary for dyeing YET, but every time I brushed up against it while working in the garden or watering, it released the most heavenly scent. It also turned my homemade potato soups into masterpieces. It works miracles with squash and rice, too.

Smile a Little Smile for Me, Rosemary

Back to the dahlias, I didn't plan to use the blossoms as dye material when I bought the tubers. I just wanted pretty flowers in my garden. As the summer progressed and I learned more about natural dyeing, I grew very curious what my red and pink flowers would do to wool and cotton. Now I find myself seeking out seeds and bulbs with darker colors because I can use the spent blossoms as dye material.

But don't let that fool you; I'm not planting any flowers just so I can dye with them! They are a cure for stress. They are an instant pick-me-up. They brighten the darkest of days. They attract butterflies, hummingbirds and hummingbird moths!


I picked all my purple flowers the night before our first freeze and stuck them in a jar with vinegar and distilled water. The jar was frozen the next morning! Some of the plants survived two consecutive chilly nights, and some are blooming again now. I will add either the dried petals to the jar later, or I'll pick again when we get another freeze. I am making flower-picking progress!




purple flowers

Late in the season, I found seeds for sunflowers with the most amazing names: Vanilla Ice (would that make an amazing snowflake name or what?!?), Red Sun, Bi-Color, Buttercream, Evening Sun, Firecracker, Lemon Queen, Velvet Queen, Moulin Rouge and Chocolate Cherry. I didn't know if they would have enough time to grow, so I planted only a few of each, some in the garden, some in pots on the patio and some in pots inside.

The sunflowers apparently know when time is running out. Although they were dwarfed, almost all of the outside sunflowers bloomed before that first frost! All are sadly gone now...

Velvet Queen

Bye Bye

I didn't get enough for dyeing this year, and I'm not sure I could pick them for dye if I did have enough, but oh, my goodness, the colors... I've been in sunflower heaven! The indoor ones are still growing! Just imagine what my backyard will look like next August with this combination!

I'd never planted hollyhocks before, but I'd read they make good dye pigment. So I bought dark colors, and I planted. The leaves grew so healthy and huge, it made me think of the wildflowers in Alaska. But no flowers. Do hollyhocks not bloom the first year?

Flowerless Hollyhocks

I have no experience whatsoever with rhubarb. Wasn't something the average person could buy when I was growing up in southern New Mexico. When I learned the leaves make a great mordant for natural dyeing, I decided it would be worth trying to grow some, particularly because The Lizard likes rhubarb pie. I've never had rhubarb anything. Yet. I am getting curious about the flavor. I've planted some rhubarb, but only indoors for now. I didn't mount this bandwagon until nearly the end of September, and I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt the rhubarb would not have enough time to grow outdoors this year.

The Lizard warns rhubarb is a HUGE plant. That's okay. I used my biggest pot. If successful, we'll need lots and lots of rhubarb for dyeing and for making pies!

Rhubarb on the Way


  1. It's always fun and most educational to see what you're up to. This is something which I've never even entertained the thought I could do. How neat..Thank you for being an inspiration to us, and sharing your beautiful photography .

  2. The purple really stands out a ton

  3. I love the purple too. I'm baaa-aack, by the way. :)

  4. You must be the most patient person in the world waiting for the flowers to give your yarn color. I will impatiently stick to Kool-Aid or buy it already dyed.
    You truly are one amazing lady.

  5. Rhubarb is giNORmous - easily 2 or 3 feet across. The stalks are the edible part; they look exactly like red celery. They're extremely tart - so you'll have to use some kind of sweetener - but very delicious in a puckery, spring-tonic type of way.

    I feel your flower-picking pain! Even when I have a gazillion marigolds I can't bring myself to pick just one for inside. Kudos on your courage, and good luck with the purple dye vat.

    P.S. The Alfalfa/Iron looks full of interesting, subtle shades (though of course the Rose/Alkanet is my favourite.) :)

  6. Good Morning, i was enjoying your blog and noticed no one answered your question about the hollyhocks. Yes the are biennials. They bloom every other year and in between they give amazing background-filler foliage. There are some newer varieties on the market that now bloom yearly. I haven't had the pleasure of growing these yet, but i've read about them in my seed catalogs.Good luck with your flowers and dyeing efforts! I cant wait to see the results!

    1. Thank you, Tammys! I was hoping the hollyhocks were just being normal. I am very much looking forward to wonderful, flowery plants next year!!!

      It is my understanding some of the daisies might be the same way... so maybe the daisies will bloom next year, too!


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