Plant dyeing fabric yellow, blue and green

The last few days I’ve been preparing my first attempt to dye with indigo. I’ve done it before, but never on my own and was excited to give it a try. Indigo is a powerful natural dye that gives all shades of blue on both wool and linnen.

If you dye blue over a fabric you earlier dyed yellow, you get green. And that exactly was my plan. I want a 14th century hunting outfit in different green shades for the medieval hunting group Johan and I are starting up. I know that hunting was done in normal clothing during the period and bright colours were popular. But it wouldn’t be wrong either, wearing mostly green. I must admit that I’m out for a Robin-Hoodish look – like this old pic of me  in a nice 14th century (male) outfit, but darker, no linnen lining, less posh and with only plant dyed fabrics.

Spring 2011.

Spring 2011.

Remember the fabric I dyed with tumeric a couple of weeks ago? I have almost finished a pair of hoses in it and also dyed another piece of the same fabric with onion shells. I got a slightly colder nuance of yellow, not as fiery as the first one. My plan was to dye these yellow fabrics again with indigo, aiming for two different nuances of green.

Dyed with tumeric; "curry-yellow"

Remember this fabric? I dyed it with tumeric a few weeks ago.

I got the onion shells for free at my local supermarket.

I got the onion shells for free at my local supermarket.

Dyeing with onion shells is just as easy and straight forward as with tumeric, only you can get onion shells for free.

The result - a lighter yellow, less warm than the one I did with tumeric before.

As I’ve stated earlier, yellow is an easy colour to achieve when plant dyeing, there are many different ways to do it. To dye blue and green from indigo takes some preparations and can be a little tricky. BoW organizer Maria writes about it in her blog. I did my best to follow her recipe and instructions. She says:

Indigo isn’t soluble in water. It has to be dissolved in another liquid. The colour doesn’t show when you dye it – it shows when it oxides with air – after the actual dyeing.

This means that the fabric you dye with indigo will seem to not catch any colour, as long as it is in the pot underneath the surface. But when you pick it up the colour will appear as the indigo oxides in the air. After 10 – 15 minutes the colour has developed fully. If you want a darker shade, you can repeat the procedure. When I saw this the first time, it looked like magic to me.

The stuff you need for dyeing and preparations, except form the pot, the fabric and water.

The stuff you need for indigo dyeing and preparations, except the pot, some plastic buckets and the fabric.

For every 100g of dry fabric, I used:

  • 10 grammes of indigo
  • 100 millilitres of water, 50 centigrades warm
  • 3 grammes of caustic soda dissolved in a spoonful of water
  • 10 grammes of natrium hydro sulphur
  • About 2 tablespoons of methylated spirits

You will also need: A huge pot or kettle, the bigger the better. Mine is of aluminium and takes 25 liters. Ordinary salt. A glass jar with a lid that closes tight. A thermometer (not a glass one, it will break and ruin everything). Something to stir with that you can throw away afterwards and a couple of plastic buckets that you wont mind staining blue. An apron and rubber gloves will also come in handy. Remember – indigo stays on almost anything.

During the middle ages you could tell an indigo-dyer by his or her blue hands. In the city of Nijmegen in the Netherlands there is a pub called ”In de blauwe hand” – the hangout of indigo dyers for many centuries…

Some tips for plant dyeing fabric:

Before you start –

First of all, do some research! Was the dye you want used during the time you aim to illustrate with your outfit? How? Was it common? Is it representative for the social class you are portraying? Does it dye the materials you want it to? Will it fade easy? What else will you need for this particular dye? Get a recipe!

  • Wash your fabric carefully before you do anything else, or it might shrink during the dyeing process. If you plan to dye at a high temperature, you better find out what happens to your fabric when exposing it for that.
  • Plan where you are to dry the fabric and how/where you will dispose of the dye, without dripping dye-soup all over your kitchen…
  • I prefer to cut out the pieces of the garment before dyeing, rather than afterwards, to not cram the kettle with to much fabric at once.
  • When you have all the pieces – weigh them while they are dry so you know what proportions you’ll need for your dye.
  • For most dyes, you’ll need a mordant, but not with indigo. It is fine to leave the fabric to cool in the mordant over night.
  • Soak the fabric/garment in water over night, that makes the dye take on more evenly.
  • Some dyes (like madder) also needs soaking 12-24 hours before use.
  • While the fabric is still soaking, prepare the dye soup. Usually the soup will need to be heated up and kept on a certain temperature for an hour or so. After that, make sure to remove any parts of leafs or shells or whatever dyestuff you use or they will stain your fabric. The dye soup shall be a clear liquid with no parts floating about in it. I use an old pillowcase over the kettle and pour the dye through it down in to a bucket or two. Then I wash the kettle clean and pour the hot dye soup back in.

When you dye –

  • Dye a few pieces at a time, (not an entire garment) unless you have an extremely large kettle or a very delicate and thin fabric.
  • Be careful not to chock a wool fabric with to large changes in temperature, heat and cool slowly or you will damage the material permanently.
  • To much stiring in the kettle makes the fabric fray and/or shrink. To little may cause uneven colours and stains. Be careful and have patience.
  • Steam arises from water around 70 degrees Celsius. If you want to dye on an event or have no thermometer, this is good to know.
  • If you you use an iron or copper kettle, that’ll affect the colour and is likely to darken your fabric.
  • I know that most plant dyeing recipe says that the fabric needs to stay in the pot for an hour or so. I don’t care. When I like the colour, I’m done. I mean to say that you decide when you are satisfied with the result. But make sure that you have some sort of idea of how your dye works over time and how you can expect it to bleach in sunlight. With indigo, usually 10 minutes in the bath is enough to have a bright colour. With madder, it might be a matter of hours.

Afterwards –

  • When you’re done dyeing the most important project – remember to take advantage of any residual dye-soup. If you are unhappy with an earlier dye you can take this as an opportunity to make things better. (Only make sure you have prepared the fabric with proper mordant and preferably also soaked it)
  • Always put in a few extra scraps of the fabric when you dye, together with the parts for the garment you are making. You might need them for patching of the garment later.
  • Some dyes you need to wash out of your fabric right away. Others gain more strength in colour if you let them dry before you wash them. Make sure to have a plan for that and be prepared for the colour to “bleed” a bit before it is washed the first time.

Finally, don’t forget to document what you’ve done! Save a test-piece from every dye you do. Write down your recipe and exactly how you did everything, so that you or someone else can repeat the procedure. I have a special notebook for this. It is often very useful and inspirational, full of happy memories of the fun I’ve had while plant dyeing in the past.

The parts to the new "tröja", undyed.

The parts to the new “tröja”, before I dyed it yellow with onion shells.

When plant dyeing, and especially with indigo, timing and temperature is everything. Therefore I had no time to take any pictures during the preparations of the dye soup. Also, as indigo oxides in the contact with air, you should keep a lid on your pot.


The indigo bath has a greenisch-yellow colour an smells really bad.


Retrieving the pieces of my hunting jacket from the indigo bath. The yellow is turning green in contact with oxygen.


Wet pieces and rags, fresh from the first wash after dyeing.

The wet fabric looked very promising, but when it was dry I noticed that many pieces were rather uneven in colour, especially the hoses. I felt slightly disappointed, but after all – it was my first attempt with indigo. I knew that it would be tricky to get an even dye. You cannot stir the indigo bath without ruining it, as that would stir down oxygen that damages the dye.

My hoses - fiery yellow from the tumeric before indigo, unevenly olive green after.

My hoses – fiery yellow from the tumeric before indigo, unevenly olive green after.

The dry green fabric

The dry green fabric for my jacket/tröja. It looks a lot darker when not in bright sunlight.

I didn’t expect such a strong and dark colour on the onion-indigo dyed fabric above.  I really like the green nuances even thou the colour is a bit uneven. I like that it shows that I’ve dyed the fabric myself and I think it will still be perfect for my hunting outfit.

Linnen to the left and wool to the right, in the classic indigo blue colour.

Linnen to the left and wool to the right, in the classic indigo blue colour.

Actually, I have already ordered a new load with indigo and other dyestuff for future experiments. I plan to give it another try already later this week, together with some friends. I have a lot of projects going on right now. For instance – this weekend our reenactment group for medieval hunting will go on its first tour ever. I think it will be awesome, and I’ll tell you all about it another time.

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2 Responses to Plant dyeing fabric yellow, blue and green

  1. Mackenzie says:

    Just wondering, who’s the author of this blog post? I’m citing your color results in some SCA documentation.

    • Hi Mackenzie! My name is Emil Lagerquist, member of the team behind the Swedish reenactment event Battle of Wisby 1361. I’m the author for this post and glad that you’ve had some use for it. 🙂

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