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colorful harvest

Posted on Oct 3, 2011 by in indigo, natural dyes | 5 comments

This summer and fall, much of my natural dye activity has been to grow or collect and dry my dye plants for future use. Dye plants in my garden this year that I am harvesting and drying are Japanese indigo (Polygonum tinctorium), Dyer’s coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria), Cota (Thelesperma megapotamicum), and Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris). I also have a pot of Madder (Rubia tinctorum), but it is less than two years old, so I will be waiting another year or two before I begin to harvest that.

A few stems of Cota harvested from the garden and ready to dry for future use

Cota has been used by the native people of the southwest for centuries, both as a dye plant and as a medicinal. I am drying mine in anticipation of receiving of a booklet of dye recipes and a skein of handspun Churro wool from a Navajo community that runs the Black Mesa Wool Buy each year. The dye ranges in hue from yellow to dark orange.

The Japanese indigo I am drying in anticipation of adding it to a much larger harvest of indigo that will be composted in the traditional Japanese way to make sukomo, which can be used to start an indigo vat. Visit the Ricketts Indigo website for a lovely photo essay on traditional Japanese indigo harvesting and processing.

Some of my Japanese indigo that has been cut and is drying in the sun, to be composted this fall into sukomo, for the traditional Japanese method of creating an indigo vat.

My small harvest of indigo will be added to the several hundred pound harvest from Rebecca Burgess‘s indigo fields in Marin County, California. Later this month Rebecca will be constructing a nedoko, a traditional Japanese composting shed with an earthen floor, and I plan to assist so that I can learn more about the process. More on that later.

A small portion of Rebecca’s indigo being harvested by volunteers. The hills of West Marin are a wonderful place to garden.

After the indigo is dried, Rebecca and friends begin the tedious task of removing the leaves from the stems in preparation for the composting process.

Throughout the summer I have been gathering flowers from my Dyer’s coreopsis and letting them dry, to be used later for a lively orange or red dye.

Dyer’s coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria), for a beautiful orange or red dye.

In the next few days I plan to harvest some of the large quantity of Mugwort in my garden, and dry it for future use. I did a test dye bath in May of this year, and it yielded a yellow-green. Now that the Mugwort is flowering, it will be interesting to see if it yields a different color.

Alum-mordanted wool dyed with Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) in the spring

The oak covered hills of my area are a great place to collect another wonderful dye material, oak galls. Gall formation is often triggered by tiny wasps the size of fruit flies that lay eggs on oak trees. The eggs hatch and the larva begins to chew, releasing a chemical that triggers the plant to produce a gall. Oak galls were used by native Californians as an eyewash and dye, and were also used for centuries in many countries to create ink.

I am always on the lookout for oak galls, as I walk in the oak woodlands of my native California.

As a dye source, oak galls can produce beautiful shades of tan and brown with no mordant or with an iron modifier, and gray and black with the addition of iron to the dyebath. I have been collecting rusty objects in a jar with water and vinegar, to create iron liquid that I can use in the dye bath or as a modifier. (Use 1 Tbsp. of vinegar for each cup of water.)

An iron modifier created by adding rusty objects and a splash of vinegar to a jar of water.

I’ll be sharing photos and notes as I experiment with all these fantastic dye materials over the next few months.


  1. Looking forward to the winter dyeing season 🙂 Almost Bacchanalian with all that plant material!

    • Indeed! I enjoyed looking at your blog, Arlee. Will be back to read more.

  2. Dustin – This is a great post for inspiration and reference and so helpful for a beginner like me. Ohh I have so much to learn. -J

    • Thanks, Janis. Always more to learn for all of us, and isn’t it wonderfully fun!

  3. I´ve never seen anything like those oak galls – that´s so interesting! 🙂