Creating Your Own Dye Garden

September 8, 2009


During a natural dye workshop in Point Reyes Station, I met Dr. Sara Gottfried and her daughter Maya- it was a busy day, and there was a lot of  information passed along, much of it focussing on how to work with already functioning dye vats.  To extend the learning experience and bring the process into the home in a lasting way-  Sara asked if I would do a dye garden consult for her home garden.


We spoke a bit about the amount of sun in the garden, and the kind of plants she was interested in working with.  I brought with me, a combination of Bay Area native species, and several horticultural varieties, including, sticky monkey flower, mugwort, tickseed coreopsis, and violas.  These plants encompass a range of function for the natural dyer.  Some are good for pounding, some better for immersion dyeing, and others for solar dyeing.


Mugwort makes a wonderful immersion dye vat- with colors of sage green, and gold. There was already a healthy stand of it growing in the yard.  The family’s garden and home are a model for green living.  Sara and her husband dreamed of re-modeling their craftsman home in an ecologically thoughtful manner- and they manifested this dream fully- it now includes rainwater catchment tanks, a grey water system, and an interior whose materials- from floor to ceiling, are all as low-impact as one could imagine.


Here is the immersion dye vat, I brought for Maya to enjoy.  This dye came from Toyon- another California native.  The dye took to her scarf well- it turned a strong shade of  earthy orange.  It was nice to be working in the garden, and have the dye activities occurring simultaneously.  It facilitated a deep, and playful connection to the landscape, one that lasted many hours.


Here is a solar-dye jar example- this is the lowest carbon footprint way of creating color for one’s clothing, and fiber arts activities. The dye garden as a whole, marks a big step towards greater ecological consciousness.  For one, many of the dye species are native, requiring little water, and extending habitat into the backyard- for a myriad of insects, and all those species who prey upon them.  Using natural dyes displaces the need for use of synthetic dyes, and in turn keeps a host of synthetic and carcinogenic chemicals out of our water supply.

One of the most interesting intersections between the use of natural dyes, and the work that Sara focuses on with her patients at the Gottfried Center for Integrative Medicine- has to do to with hormones.  At the Center, Sara works with her patients to help them find balance and vitality, through a medical understanding of hormone levels, and their fluctuation.  These fluctuations occur naturally as we age, yet they can, and are often exacerbated by environmental factors.  One of these factors include genotoxic chemicals, which are chemicals that can mimic, and thus disrupt our natural hormone balance.  In researching synthetic dyes, it came to my attention that they have within them, a chemical that mimics estrogen. So, it seems there is one more reason to make and use your own natural dyes, beyond the beauty, fun, and alchemical magic that they bring to life- they also support greater health for us all.

The best way to bring natural color into your life, is through building a relationship with the plants that yield the beautiful dyes.

If you are interested in creating your own natural dye garden, or would like to understand more about the process, leave a comment here.  I’d be happy to talk with you about your garden ideas and desire for color.

7 Responses to “Creating Your Own Dye Garden”

  1. yet another beautiful blog on your important work. i cannot recommend you highly enough to others who wish to try to live more connected to the earth, with less toxic lives and a lower carbon footprint, starting with the clothes we wear and how we choose our dye. thanks for the fine coverage of a day of great fun & bliss. you fill all of us with grace. many thanks & blessings.

    • ecologicalartist Says:

      Thank you Sara- It was a pleasure to spend time with your family, and experience all the other elements of conscious living you are putting into practice. I hope for many happy years of color experimentation from your new plants!

  2. gardenplants Says:

    Federation of beautiful wood.

  3. Sasha Honig Says:

    Greetings from Bakersfield. I recently took a class in natural dyeing at the John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina where we used plants obtainable there. Back home in Bako I am now curious about plant dye possibilities here. I have access to lots of mugwort, so I am wondering: did you chop up the whole plant or just parts? Cooking time? Did you use a mordant on what you dyed?

  4. Sasha Honig Says:

    PS– I am also webmaster for a nature preserve here and perhaps you would be interested in the plant list page: to see what we have around here.

  5. Diana Says:

    Hi- Do you use any mordants with your plant dyes? I am interested in finding out about plants that don’t need mordants other than vinegar or salt. Also, is soad ash a safe mordant? Thank you!

  6. Jennifer Says:

    Hi! I’m working on an article for the many uses of the mugwort plant and came across this blog entry. There are a lot of readers who weave and sew, and spin their own fibers (especially wool); I’m interested in finding out what sort of mordant (if any) you used with the mugwort, and other details of the process involved, if you would be so helpful. 🙂

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