Kathryn of the Hills' Dye Book

Table of Contents

General Instructions
Mordanting Wool
Using Barks
Pokeberry Dye
19th C. Cheap Dyes

Feel free to E-Mail Kathryn with Questions or Comments:

kathryn@chestnuteast.com | Back to Kathryn's Main Page


1.When textile materials are immersed in mordanting and dye liquids they should be opened out and turned gently in the liquid from time to time to allow maximum, even penetration of the dye or mordant.
This process is sometimes referred to as working the material.

2.Sudden temperature changes should be avoided in all stages of dyeing and mordanting, particularly when handling wool. temperature of the dyebaths should be lukewarm (95 degrees F) for wool; hot (140 degrees F) for cotton.
Dyebaths are then heated gradually to boiling and simmered or boiled according to the specific recipe.

3.If the dye liquid boils down, lift out the fibers, yarn or cloth and add boiling water, thus keeping the water level of the dyebath constant throughout the dye process.

4.After dying, the first rinse water should be the same temperature as the dye bath. Temperature can be cooled gradually until finally arriving at the last cool, clear rinse water.
Insufficient rinsing often causes the dye to rub off or crock later.

5.When squeezing excess moisture from materials after mordanting, dyeing or rinsing, do not twist or ring the wool or cotton.
Such harsh treatment introduces streaks and wrinkles that are difficult to remove.

6.After the final rinse, roll the dyed material in a clean cloth or towel to absorb excess moisture; then shake it well and hang it in the shade to dry.
Do not dry wool in a clothes drier.
When dyed fabrics is dry enough to iron, cover it with a cloth and steam press. (Begin BLOCKING process)
Fibers and yarns are ready for use after they are dry.

7.The full amount of fiber, yarn or cloth required for each project should be dyed at one time.
Vegetable dye materials vary so much that it is impossible to duplicate colors exactly.

8.To lighten or darken colors, decrease or increase the quantity of dyestuff.
Experimentation will result in interesting color effects.

9.Recipes provide basic information on dying with natural ingredients and should be regarded as a first step in the exploration of natural dye materials.
Many other good dyestuffs are available locally with which to experiment.

Back to Index


Alum Mordant

1 pound of dry wool
4 ounces of potash alum (alumiinum potassium sulfate)
1 ounce of cream of tartar

Dissolve the alum and cream of tartar in 4-4 1\2 gallons of cold soft water.
Immerse the wool after first wetting it thoroughly and squeezing out excess moisture.
Gradually heat the mordant bath to boiling; boil it gently for 1 hour.
While the wool is in the solution, it sould be turned and stirred to insure complete penetration of tthe mordaant.
As liquid boils away, add more water to maintain the original level of the bath.
Allow the wool to stand overnight in the mordant.
The following morning squeeze out excess moisture, roll the wool in a dry towel, and store it in a cool place.
Rinse the mordant material well just before immersing it in the dyebath.

Chrome Mordant

Note: Potassium dichromate is a hazardous substance. It was frequently used when we didn't know as much as we know today about protecting ourselves and our enviroment. Generally it does brighten colors.

1 pound of dry wool
1/2 ounce of potassium dichromate

Dissolve the potassium dichromate in 4 - 4 1\2 gallons of cold soft water and follow the directions for mordanting wool with alum.

Back to Index


from:Natural Dyes and Home Dyeing: A Practical Guide with over 150 Recipes by Rita Adrosko, Dover Publications, Inc. 1971

Dye Method I

1 pound of wool or cotton
1 peck finely chopped bark

Use alum of chrome mordant. Soak the bark overnight in 2-2 1/2 gallons of soft water.
The following morning gradually heat this bath to boiling, boil for 2 hours.
Add hot water as necessary to maintain the original water level.
Strain the dye liqid twice through cheesecloth, then all cold water to make a dyebath of 4-4 1/2 gallons.
When the bath is cooled to lukewarm, immerse the material after first wettin it thoroughly and squeezing out excess moisture.
Heat the dyebath to boiling; boil for 30 minutes, rinse and dry.

Dye Method II

1 pound of wool or cotton
1 peck finely chopped bark
1/16 ouce of potassium dichromate
1/6 ounce acetic acid, or 6-7 tablespoons of vinegar

Use alum mordant on wool, and alum or alum-tannin-alum on cotton.
Soak the bark overnight in 2-2 1/2 gallons of soft water.
The following morning heat the bath to boiling and continue to boil for 2 hours.
Add hot water as neccessary to maintain the original water level.
Strain the liquid twice through cheesecloth then add cold water to make a dyebath of 4 to 4 1/2 gallons.
When the bath is cooled to lukewarm, immerse the material after first rinsing thoroughly and squeezing out excess moisture.
Heat the dyebath to boiling and continue to boil for 30 minuetes.
Without rinsing, transfer the fiber, yarn or cloth to a boiling bath of potassium dichromate and acetic acid dissolved in 4 gallons of soft water.
Stir carefully while boiling for 10 minuetes, rinse and dry.

Dye Method III

1 pound wool
1 peck finely chopped bark
1/6 ounce copper sulfate (Blue vitriol)
1/6 ounce aacetic acid or 6 to 7 tablespoons vinegar

Use alum or chrome mordant. Follow directions for dye method 2, substituting copper sulfate for potassiuum dichromeate.

Dye Method IV

1 pound wool
1 peck finely chopped bark
1/6 ounce ferrous sulfate

Use alum mordant. Follow directions for dye method 2, subtituting ferrous sulfate for potassium dichromate and acetic acid or vinegar.

Back to Index

Pokeberry (Phytolacca decandra) Dye

Pokeberries -Much evidence shows that pokeberries were in common use as a household dye. However it is not fast to washing or light. You will want to "refresh" (re-dye) on a regular basis. Most 19th C. sources talk of this as though it is done on an annual basis. Oh what will we do for color!

To prepare pokeberry dye:
Boil gently for 30 minutes of more a half bushel of ripe pokeberries in water containing half gallon of vinegar.
Strain and add to the dye extract the vinegar water in which the wool was mordanted and enough clear water to make a 4 gallon dye bath.

To dye pokeberry red:
Enter one pound of wet wool into a lukewarm pokeberry dye bath immediately after mordanting the wool in water containing 1/2 hour or more until the desired color of red is reached.
Keep the wool pressed under the water. Do not skimp on the amount of dyestuff: too light a red results from too few berries.
Press the water from the dyed wool and hang to dry without rinsing to further set the color.
After a few days rinse the wool and dry again.

Back to Index


from: The American Frugal Housewife.
Dedicated to those who are not ashamed of economy. by Mrs. Child, 1833. pages 38-40

A few general rules are necessary to be observed in coloring. The materials should be perfectly clean; soap should be rinsed out in soft water; light colors should be steeped in brass, tin, or earthen; and if set at all, should be set in alum. Dark colors should be boiled in iron, and set with copperas. Too much copperas rots the thread.

The apothecaries and hatters keep a compound of vitriol and indigo, commonly called 'blue composition.' An ounce vial full may be bought for nine-pence. It colors a fine blue. It is an economical plan to use it for old silk linings, ribbons &c. The original color should be boiled out, and the material thoroughly rinsed in soft water, so that no soap may remain in it; for soap ruins the dye.

Twelve or sixteen drops of the blue composition, poured into a quart bowl full of warm soft water, stirred, (and strained, if any settlings area perceptible,) will color a great many articles. If you wish a deep blue, pour in more of the compound. Cotton must not be colored; the vitriol destroys it, if the material you wish to color has cotton threads in it, it will be ruined.

After the things are thoroughly dried, they should be washed in cool suds, and dried again; they should be washed again in cool suds, and dried again; this prevents any bad effects from the vitriol; if shut up from the air without being washed, there is danger of the texture being destroyed. If you wish to color green, have your cloth free as possible from the old color, clean, and rinsed, and, in the first place, color it a deep yellow. Fustic boiled in the soft water makes the strongest and brightest yellow dye; but saffron, barberry bush, peach leaves or onion skins will answer pretty will.

Next take a bowl full of strong yellow dye, and pour in a great spoonful or more of the blue composition. Stir it up will with a clean stick, and dip the articles you have colored yellow into it, and they will take a lively grass green. this is a good plan for old bombazet curtains, desserts cloths, old flannel for covering a desk: it is likewise a handsome color for ribbons.

Balm blossoms, steeped in water, color a pretty rose color. This answers very well for the linings of children's bonnets, for ribbons &c. It fades in the course of one season; but it is very little trouble to recolor it. It merely requires to be steeped and strained. Perhaps a small piece of alum might serve to set the color, in some small degree. In earthen or tin.

Saffron steeped in earthen and strained, colors a fine straw color. It makes a delicate or deep shade according to the strength of the tea. the dry outside skins of onions, steeped in scalding water and strained, color a yellow very much like 'bird of paradise' color. Peach leaves, or bark scraped from the barberry bush, colors a common bright yellow. In all these cases, a little piece of alum does no harm, and may help to fix the color. Ribbon, gauze, handkerchiefs, are colored well in this way, if they be stiffened by a bit of gum Arabic, dropped in while the stuff is steeping.

The purple paper, which comes on loaf sugar, boiled in cider, or vinegar, with a small bit of alum, makes a fine purple slate color. Done in iron.

White maple bark makes a good light-brown slate color. This should be boiled in water, set in alum. the color is reckoned better when boiled in brass instead of iron.

The purple slate and the brown slate are suitable colors for stockings; and it is an economical plan, after they have been mended and cut down , so that they will no longer look decent, to color old stockings, and make them up for children.

A pailful of lye, with a piece of copperas half as big as a hen's egg boiled in it, will color a fine nankin color, which will never wash out. This is very useful for the linings of bed-quilts, comforters &c. Old faded gowns, colored in this way, may be made into good petticoats, and pelisse for little girls.

A very beautiful nankin color may likewise be obtained from birch-bark, set with alum. The bark should be covered with water, and boiled thoroughly in brass or tin. A bit of alum half as big as a hen's egg is sufficient. If copperas be used instead of alum, slate color will be produced.

Tea-grounds boiled in iron, and set with copperas, make a very good slate color.

Log-wood and cider in iron, set with copperas, makes a good black. Rusty nails, or any rusty iron boiled in vinegar, with a small bit of copperas, makes a good black, black ink powder done in the same way answers the same purpose.

Back to Top

Back to Kathryn's Main Page

E-mail questions & comments to Kathryn