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native color

Posted on Sep 30, 2010 by in natural dyes | 16 comments

In mid September I attended my second natural dye workshop with Rebecca Burgess, held at Regenerative Design Institute in Bolinas. It is so exciting to see the colors that the plants yield, sometimes completely unexpected, like the luscious coppery pink from horsetail (Equisetum arvense)!

samples of alum mordanted silk and wool dyed with horsetail (Equisetum arvense)

Here’s the plant that produces this amazing color:

Horsetail (Equisetum arvense) growing at RDI in Bolinas

Three other native California plants that were used in the dye baths were: California coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica), Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), California sagebrush (Artemisia californica). The non-native Black walnut (Juglans nigra) produced a lovely soft brown dye, and Japanese indigo (Polygonum tinctorium) a stunning blue (see my other posts on indigo).

natural dyes on wool (clockwise from top): Horsetail (Equisetum arvense), Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), California coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica), California sagebrush (Artemisia californica), Black walnut (Juglans nigra)

natural dyes on wool (clockwise from top): Horsetail (Equisetum arvense), Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), California coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica), California sagebrush (Artemisia californica), Black walnut (Juglans nigra)

The plants produce different colors in each season. Examples of the difference between yarn I dyed at Rebecca’s classes in spring and fall are shown below.

Samples of wool dyed with native plants. Top row: Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) in spring and fall. Bottom row: California coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica) in spring and fall.

I am currently soaking bark from native madrone trees (Arbutus menziesii) to make a chestnut brown dye.

Bark from the native Madrone (Arbutus menziesii) will yield a beautiful brown dye.

I highly recommend Rebecca’s classes if you are interested in some fun hands-on learning about natural dyes. (See her website for a class schedule.) She has inspired me to continue learning more on my own so that I can use my own dyes on yarns and fabrics for my various projects. I have always loved plants and gardening, as well as textiles, so this adds yet another dimension to my love affair.

Beautiful samples of materials dyed with plants

Coffeeberry leaves being simmered in a lovely old copper pot

Students hanging their natural dye experiments to dry

Rebecca (left) and students at work with the dye pots

More to come after I attend my next class at the end of October!


  1. Thank you for the comment. I’m glad to find your blog! The workshop and your explorations of local dyes are very interesting, I look forward to following your experiments.
    All the best.

  2. Was really interesting to see the difference in season in your photos. Where the leaves or fruit used for the dyes and also what mordants if any?
    Thank you

    Lynn d

    • Hi Lynn, The leaves were used to make the dyebath, and the yarn was mordanted with alum. It could also be the quantity of leaves used in the dyebath that affected the color, but Rebecca (who made the dyebaths) seemed to think the season had something to do with it. Although we didn’t have a sample of yarn dyed with California sagebrush in the spring, Rebecca mentioned that it was more of a soft green dye, compared to the acid yellow we got in the fall class. -Dustin

  3. Hi Dustin
    Still really like your site. Wish knew how to paint with indigo. Think maybe the dyer , John Marshall might have that on his website will try to look later.
    Recall a group belonged to years ago and they got a deep rich beautiful brown from madrone, but yarn felt awful. Jen learned to crunkle up the bark and soakd and cook for about 12 hours first.
    Lynn D

    • Hi Lynn, Thanks for visiting. I have tried indigo painting, but was asked not to publish the recipe since Michel Garcia developed it, and it will be in his forthcoming book. Today I am experimenting with eucalyptus dye and getting some amazing colors! I’ll post something about it soon.

  4. Hi Dustin,

    Beautiful! I’m the biologist at ACR’s Martin Griffin Preserve – across the lagoon from RDI. I was wondering if I could use your photos in the biweekly natural history notes I put together for the volunteers that work with the kids. I often talk about uses of the native plants and these are such lovely examples. (I’ve been wanting to take some of the wildcrafting class at RDI for years. I work Saturdays and haven’t been able to work this out yet.)


    • Hi Gwen,

      You are very welcome to use my photos for your work at the preserve. Let me know if you need higher resolution files. And thanks for all the good work you are doing.

      Warm regards,

  5. Hi Dustin, what beautiful dye results! I am especially fond of the dusty pink from the horsetail- is that from the infertile green stalks or the fertile spikes? Cheers!

    • Hi Azure, Good question! As far as I recall it was the green stalks, but Rebecca had collected the plants, so I couldn’t say for sure. It would be interesting to try both and compare. Let me know if you try it.

  6. Hi Dustin!
    I am curious about the horsetail to.. did you use alum mordant to get the pink colour? and did you dye in a iron pot or steel or what kind and how long??
    did you use vinegar?
    have so much horsetail around here.. want to try!
    kind regards, Olof

    • Hi Olof, Yes, There was alum mordant on the yarn and silk dyed with horsetail. It was quite a while ago, but I believe it was a stainless steel pot, and unfortunately I don’t recall how long we simmered the fiber in the dye bath. No vinegar was used. I have also found that sometimes horsetail only yields a tan dye. Not sure if that has to do with the growing conditions or some other factor. Good luck with your experiments!

  7. Hi very cool experiments! How did the Madrone bark turn out and what was your method? I’d really like to try this! I live in Vancouver and we have tons of these trees around the coast.

    • Hi Galit, It has been a while since I tried the madrone bark, but as I recall it was a pretty subtle color. Probably worth trying though, since I have seen others obtain warm reddish brown tones. Perhaps I didn’t use enough bark for the amount of fiber I was dyeing. Good luck!

    • I live in the Seattle area and have had great results with Madrone bark. I got beautiful light brown colors. See my Instagram page to see a picture of the yarn I dyed.

      • Could you say something more about how you dyed with Madrona bark? Also in the Seattle area, I have it in my backyard and am eager to play with that incredible bark. Hot water? Amounts? Time? Mordant? Thanks!

        • Hi Deanna, This was several years ago, before I kept good notes, so I can’t really advise you. I do remember soaking the bark for a few days and then simmering it, but the dye color was not remarkable. Perhaps trying a few different mordants and modifiers would yield interesting results. Good luck!