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winter color harvesting

Posted on Mar 7, 2011 by in natural dyes | 2 comments

I recently traveled the back roads to Bolinas on a misty winter day, to attend a natural dye workshop taught by Rebecca Burgess at Commonweal Garden. The purpose of this 3-part workshop series is to give students the opportunity to collect dye plants, mordant fabric, prepare dye vats, dye fabric, prepare printing inks, print a design on fabric, and then sew a set of placemats and/or napkins from the dyed and decorated fabric.

Everyone came with a yard of undyed cotton, and we started by washing the fabrics in spring water containing a bit of Dr. Bronner’s soap that was slowly heated in a big copper pot. Once that was done and the fabrics were rinsed, we refilled the pot with about 10 gallons of fresh spring water and added a small amount (5 tsp.) of alum (potassium aluminum sulfate) to begin mordanting our fabrics, the copper of the pot having a mordanting effect as well.

mordanting fabric with alum in an old copper pot

The mordant pot was put on the heat and our fabrics were added while we moved on to another task—breaking up oak galls to prepare a tannin mordant.

breaking up oak galls to prepare both a mordant and an ink

About 5 or 6 broken oak galls were placed in each of two 5-gallon pots filled with spring water, and the pots were set on the burner to heat.

oak galls for a tannin mordant bath

Once the oak galls had simmered for about 45 minutes we removed them from the liquid and put them into a beautiful old rusted barrel filled with spring water. (I’ll describe what that is used for later.) Then we removed our fabrics from the alum mordant bath, rinsed them in spring water, and then placed them in the pots of tannin-containing oak gall liquid to simmer for about 45 minutes during our lunch break.

fabric heating in tannin mordant bath created by simmering oak galls

After a lunch break, we headed out onto the land (16 beautiful acres of coastal chaparral) to harvest native plants for our dye vats: Coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis), California sagebrush (Artemisia californica), California Coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica), and Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia).

pruning an old Toyon bush to collect materials for natural dyes

Toyon leaves and stems collected for natural dye

Back from our harvesting expedition, we cut the plant materials into 3-inch pieces and put them in pots of spring water on the stove. In the photo below, the Coffeeberry is in the foreground, then the Toyon, and finally the Coyote brush and California sage, which we combined in one pot. The Toyon is in a copper pot, which will have some effect on the color.

pots of native California plants to be used as natural dyes

While the dye vats were simmering, we did some experimentation with leaf printing. I forgot to take photos, but we spread out pieces of cotton muslin and placed Eucalyptus and Bay leaves on the fabric. Then we rolled the fabric tightly and bound it with rubber bands. Some of the fabric we put into a jar of “iron water,” created by soaking old iron objects in water over a long period of time. The rest of the rolled fabric we placed in the rusty barrel of oak galls and water. These we will leave soaking for a month, until our next class meeting.

iron objects soaked in water created an iron-rich liquid used as a mordant

broken oak galls soaking in a rusty barrel, to be used later as ink in a fabric printing process

Another fun experiment we did was to pour hot water into a jars of dried flowers, one containing orange cosmos and one containing tansy. The flowers quickly released their beautiful colors and we dropped small pieces of alum-mordanted fabric into the jars to capture lovely shades or yellow and orange.

dried orange cosmos creates a lovely orange dye on alum-mordanted fabric

Before class was over we were thrilled to hear about Rebecca’s new book on natural dyes! It’s called Harvesting Color, and I will be buying a copy from Rebecca as soon as it’s available (around May 1st), but it can also be pre-ordered online.

Rebecca Burgess talks about her upcoming book “Harvesting Color”

At the end of the day there was lots of color being released into the simmering pots of plants. Rebecca will be letting the pots sit until our next class meeting in one month, so that the colors can deepen.

dye vats of California coffeeberry and Toyon

It was a great class, and I am looking forward to the next one, when we will dye our mordanted fabric and print designs on it. In the meantime, I will be planning a design to carve on the linoleum block that we will use for printing. In addition to this class, Regenerative Design Institute is offering a number of “re-skilling” classes on various subjects. You can visit their website for more information.


  1. Beautifully written, and very inspiring. The pictures look delicious. Thank you so much for sharing. Perhaps one day I may finally come to try this long held interest, and with what you have shared, it will not seem a daunting endeavour. Thank you, again, Dustin for your article 🙂

  2. looking at the image of rebecca goes to show how beautiful naturally dyed fabrics are. nice article!


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