Monday, 1 November 2010

Berry dyeing: a dying craft or a fun activity

Let's talk about dyeing with berries and whether this is a craft about to die out or whether it deserves a comeback as a fun activity to do with friends and family that will bring you all closer to nature. Throughout, I will add some tips and tricks on how to get started with this fascinating craft.

How it all began

If you have ever eaten any type of berry you will know that most of them contain substantial dye powers. A run-away strawberry on your new blouse or a bit of blackberry crumble on your favorite trousers. Not a good combination. Nevertheless, it will probably give you an idea of how dyeing with berries could have been discovered.
Dyeing is known to date back to before 2600 BCE where we have the first known written record of dyeing in a Chinese manuscript. Up until 1856 dyeing was all done with natural products like roots and berries. This all changed when William Henry Perkin discovered the first synthetic dye. Out went natural dyes and in came synthetic ones instead. Having said that, the knowledge of dyeing with natural dyes was not lost entirely. Natural dyes will have kept a place among people who either couldn't afford synthetic dyes or who wanted to continue using natural dyes for aesthetic reasons. There is a different quality to the colours gained through natural dyes - no two batches are ever the same and even the same item may have varied colours. If this is the effect you are looking for, natural dyes is just your thing. In these days of eco-consciousness and neo-craftism dyeing with natural dyes has also found a new niche. Say your white organic cotton blouse has gone dull grey - what better way to spice it up than to pop it in a bath of blackberry or onion skin dye.

All natural colours
Dyeing with berries often gives a variety of purple colours, though reds, greens and browns often occur too. I have personally tried dyeing with Blackberries and Elderberries, both resulting in lovely shades of purple. As do Raspberries, Mulberries, Blueberries, Pokeweed berries and Huckleberries while Strawberries and Lingonberries give a more pink shade. Elderberries are also known to dye a blue/green colour when using the mordant Alum. Ivy berries are known to give a grey/green colour and Privet berries give green/scarlet colours. Scottish berries Bearberry and Blaeberry result in varying colours depending on the mordant used. Juniper berries give a shade of brown.

[caption id="attachment_2715" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="Eddie's berry dyeing experiments. Elderberry (left) and Blackberry (right)"][/caption]

The mordant effect

A mordant is a substance that can be used to fix the dye to the fibre, yarn or fabric being dyed. While most berries are what is called a direct dye, meaning that they don't necessarily need a mordant to dye, they are also not light or wash fast on their own. A mordant or fixer helps make the dye keep better on the item you are dying. The most used mordant among natural dyers these days seems to be Alum (aluminium potassium sulphate). It is seen as the safest mordant and will give the dye a brighter colour. But it is not as light fast as other mordants which include: Chrome, Copper, Iron, and Tin. Some mordants are poisonous so I would check up on this and take precautions before using them.

There is also another option but I am not sure if they can actually be called mordants. It is also possible to use salt (for berries) or vinegar (for plants) as a fixative. Pioneer Thinking gives further instructions on how to use these. For my own attempts at dyeing with berries I used salt as a fixative and it worked really well. The only issue being that the result is not as light fast as using some of the stronger mordants.


[caption id="attachment_2529" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Elderberry dye soup"]Elderberry dye soup[/caption]

If you are the type who likes experimenting and making up your unique items natural dyeing is really something for you. You can mix and match and make up your own new colours. The advantage of using berries is great too as they are often easy to access. Go forth and raid a hedgerow. Although, here I feel I should also add a couple of words of warning. If you use wild berries you should be conscious of leaving some for wildlife and not ruining the plant with your raid. Also I would like to add that whatever berry you decide to use do check the safety precautions. Some berries are poisonous to eat and I don't know the effect when you cook them for dyeing. For health and safety reasons I will also just add that when you dye you should really use dedicated utensils that will not be used for cooking afterwards.

Having said that, there are great opportunities to try this out in a safe way with children around. Use raspberries or strawberries and salt as a fixer and you should be pretty safe. I think dyeing with berries is a fascinating activity that everyone should give a go at least once.


Druding, Susan. 1982, List of the History of Dyeing.

Fraser, Jean. 1983, Traditional Scottish Dyes. Canongate.

Hardman, Judy and Sally Pinhey. 2009, [amazon ASIN="1847971008"]Natural Dyes[/amazon]. The Crowood Press

The images in this post are copyright of Eddie Roued-Cunliffe. You are hereby granted permission to use them for non-commercial purposes as long as you credit Eddie and link back to this page. If you are using them and talking about this post I would love to hear from you in the comments.

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