JUNE 07, 2023


As my practise as a maker becomes more focused on coming from a sustainable ethos, as well as an aesthetic one, planting my own seeds to make natural dyes is even more important to me.

I started using plants to dye from a few years ago, but now I want to more and more source them from my own garden and field along with using my alpaca fleece. So, this blog is about what I am growing from seed this year – Coreopsis, Madder, Japanese Indigo, Woad and Weld; and Flax to harvest for its fibre. I have also hand-picked nettles, comfrey, ivy and acorns from where I live to make dye baths.

Coreopsis flowers.
This years Coreopsis plants.
Coreopsis flowers that I dried last year.

For the second year running, I am growing the annual Coreopsis in the polytunnel. Not only is it a pretty flower and easy to grow, but the dye colours from the flower heads can be rich and sumptuous oranges, golden browns and yellows! So, it’s the beginning of June and my plants are 10 to 15cm high. Once they start to flower, I will be picking the full blooms every day as they come out and drying them. Unless you have acres of these plants, you would never be able to collect enough flowers in one go and use them fresh, so one dries them for later use. One needs a lot to dye a small amount of yarn! I still have not managed to use these flowers from last year to experiment with!, but I have previously bought some and produced wonderful colours!

Last year’s Madder plant with alpaca fleece to stifle weed growth and retain moisture.
Madder plant in the polytunnel last year.

Also, I started growing Madder from seed last year, again in the polytunnel and it has come up really full and strong. Apparently, it takes at least two years, but best to leave it for three years, before one can pull up the roots to even think about making a dye from them! I germinated some further seeds this year too and I have also planted them in the polytunnel. So, I have to think long term here, hoping that my patience will reward me with beautiful red dyes next year or the year after!

Japanese Indigo flowers from last year.
Japanese Indigo in the polytunnel surrounded by other things.
CDried Japanese Indigo leaves from last year.

As for Japanese Indigo, it grows like a weed in the polytunnel! – it loves the wet and warm environment with a good fertile soil. Again, I had some plants last year grown from seed that I had bought and little Japanese Indigo plants are germinating everywhere again this year. So, some have self-seeded and I also I dried some flower heads last year and I have planted these out too. I will have more leaves this year and I will try dyeing from them again. Last year I had such a disappointing time dyeing with the leaves and I didn’t manage to create anything but a pale blue! So, fingers crossed this year! I will seek further advice, it is so magic when you manage to get strong blue dyes from green leaves! But interestingly, when I have been on natural dyeing workshops, sheep wool/yarn has taken the colour up far better than my alpaca – interesting! This plant is an annual in this country because our winters are too cold.

How the Woad bed looks this month.
Another part of the Woad bed.

Well as for Woad, everyone says it grows like a weed and once you have it, you will never get rid of it! However, Pat from two villages away, gave me lots of plants last year, but in my garden only a few grew! This year though, I was given masses of seeds by various people. In the first year you use the leaves to dye with and the second year you let the plants flower and collect the seeds for planting the following year.

Last year I started preparing a special area to grow my woad and try again. I covered a fenced off area to the side of the alpaca field with old carpets and once the weeds had subsided, I gave the area a good amount of alpaca poo and then put the carpet back until early spring. Then I dug it over (I must admit Jim from the village did quite a bit of digging too!). It became good rich soil, just what woad likes apparently. Now I have rows of little seedlings coming through in between cardboarded areas to keep the weeds down and moisture in (really needed this dry spring!). The leaves of these plants give wonderful shades of blue… and pink!

One of the two Weld plants I’ve managed to germinate.
Flax seedlings.

Then, last but not least, is Weld. People say it is the best natural dyed yellow you can get! I have bought dried weld stems and struggled to get a really strong colour – I am going to have to experiment further with the Ph of my tap water AND try using rain water – lots of dyers say only use rain water! I have struggled to grow the plants from seed too – only two plants have come up! Watch this space, we will have to see whether I get anywhere with Weld!

I was also given lots of Flax seeds by various people to see if I can make yarn. I prepared another area of land for them to the side of our wildflower meadow. This was done rather too late, to really get rid of the weeds… and Jim helped me even more with this patch! Anyway, I have planted the seeds and I have some success with germination, but watering them regularly is just going to be too difficult I fear for much success. Whether I get as far as making any half decent yarn from this patch – we will see!

So, this is where I am with planting seeds for natural dyeing this year here in Northamptonshire and making yarn. It is a continual learning curve, but one I am getting a lot from and if no detrimental effect to the environment – I like it.

I will be writing a separate blog to update you on progress of these plants and another one about natural dyeing later in the year.

Thank you to @shanewaltener @growingslowtextiles and @flaxland for providing many of the seeds.