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Natural Dyeing: Colours From Nature


Clockwise from top: Dyed wools and dye ingredients, avocado, eucalyptus, iron, oxalis and lichen; A dye pot journal: Deb’s collection of dye samples range from the 1970s to now; The wonder of mordants: all these wools were dyed with oxalis, and then treated with di§erent mordants (iron and sodium bicarbonate) throwing di§erent colours; Shawl died with oxalis. Hand spun, dyed and knitted – Deb crafts her work every step of the way, from ingredients to ¦nished object. Photos by Maude Farrugia


There’s dye in everything, really’, says artist Deborah Brearley, as she unpacks oxalis, lichens, rusty nails and an array of other gathered materials onto the kitchen bench: all ingredients for the natural dye pot. Deb has been dyeing textiles using natural pigments for more than three decades, and in the world of natural dyeing that makes her a bit of a master.

‘This is like a journal’, she says as she produces a loop of twisted-wool dyed samples, with handwritten tags such as Lichen (Paradise Falls, Apollo Bay), winter 1979 and Orange fungus (Perrys’, Bacchus Marsh), winter 1981. The journey of her life is noted on these tags, a record of her art and travels, tracking the seasons and places she has been. As well as dyeing her own fibres, Deb spins her own yarn and knits it into garments and artworks. Her art practice is multidisciplinary – including painting, quilting and photography; she’s committed to understanding and valuing materials and processes, from ground pigment to finished artwork.

Dyeing is very much Deb’s way of exploring her environment and the mediums within it, the interactions between natural fibres and dyes. Lichen ‘smells like the bush’. Oxalis is feverishly collected and frozen during its short flowering season to allow for sunny yellow throughout the year. Orange fungus is foraged for when in season. As a revegetation pioneer and avid gardener, Deb respects and celebrates nature when collecting her materials: ‘I look around for materials in the urban environment, like scraping lichen o§ my shed roof instead of marauding through the bush for it.’ says Deb. Many natural dyes can be found in re-wilded urban spaces with weeds and fungi a rich source of potential dyes.

Deb spends the morning sharing stories and brewing up dyes in the kitchen, and this domestic element is central to her love of natural dyeing. ‘I love to use everyday kitchen and garden stuff in my dyes, it’s kind of magic’, she says as she drops hanks of pure, undyed wool into a cauldron of bubbling oxalis flowers. ‘This is the real witches’ brew stuff’, as she gleefully sprinkles sodium bicarbonate into a kitchen bowl, and dabs a steaming yellow ball of yarn in it. A sunburst of orange begins to creep up the strands of yarn as the chemical reaction begins.

Deb’s attitude to natural dyeing is wonderfully playful and focuses on experimentation, using everyday ingredients to explore colour and texture: ‘I was down in Tassie and didn’t have any iron with me, but I did have my iron tablets, so I put some in and it started working – I said “thank you very much, I’ll use that!”‘. She also happily sings the praises of the natural world as it ‘throws’ up different colours in each brew. You can’t predict exactly what colours you’ll get when dyeing with naturally found ingredients, just as you can’t replicate the flavour of a wine from vintage to vintage: the growing conditions, harvesting and dyeing process all contribute to the final colour. For her, that is part of the beauty and fun of using home-brewed dyes rather than those obtained from a bottle.

While Deb uses edible ingredients in all her dyes, she says it’s important to have a healthy respect for them and the dyeing process. For her tips for health and safety while dyeing with natural pigments see the boxed text.


Deb favours dyeing wool to start with, rather than cotton or other fibres, as the colours take very easily and there is less need for chemical mordants to fix the dye colour to the fibres: ‘Natural dyeing is a huge world, so this is a nice entry point’. You can also use silk in the same way; but if you want to dye cottons you will need a more advanced understanding of mordants.

Deb also suggests collecting yarn remnants from op shops or your own stash, rather than buying new. ‘They can be different colours to start with, but the colours will harmonise together with the second dye-bath, and they will match together in their own special way.’

To get started you will need:

  • a light-coloured ball of pure wool, any ply
  • a large pot (to be your dye pot forevermore)
  • foraged dye plants, such as stinging nettles, oxalis, lichen, wattle bark or avocado skins and pips (see colour chart in the boxed text)
  • water
  • small bowls, for adding mordants
  • a board or book for skeining wool.

Step one

Depending on the effects you would like with your dyes, skein the wool or wind it into balls. Check out YouTube if you’re unfamiliar with either of these techniques, they’re very simple: you can use your hand for winding small balls, and a book or wooden board to wind skeins around. Loose skeins will help you achieve evenly dyed wool. Tight balls of wool dye unevenly, and create exciting ombre effects with different colours in the one ball.

Step two

Bring your primary dye ingredient to the boil over a high heat with around one litre of water, and simmer for fifteen minutes or longer. More or less water and brew time change the dye concentration, so you can experiment with these to achieve different hues and colours. Allow the liquid to cool to warm, strain it through a fine cloth over a sieve, and then return the strained liquid to the dye pot.

Step three

Keep your dye pot just warm over a very low heat. You don’t want it too hot, and definitely not boiling. Too much heat can damage wool, as can agitating it in the dye bath, as it will tend to felt.

Step four

Drop the skeins or balls of wool into the dye pot, and swish them around with tongs. Leave them in the dye liquid for one hour. Once the desired colour has been reached, remove the pot from the heat, remove the wool from the pot and run it under warm water. Aim for a water temperature similar to the dye pot as you don’t want to shock the wool with cold water. Gently squeeze out excess water.

Step five

If you’re happy with the colour, you can skein your wool now (loosely, don’t stretch the fibres). If not, you can experiment with mordants such as iron, alum and sodium bicarbonate (see boxed text). Mix mordants to a paste in bowls with a small amount of water. Add a little more water and then experiment with dipping or submerging your wool into these – the amount of water and time spent soaking will have different effects. Be patient and wait for colours to change: it won’t happen instantly, but it’s magic to watch! If you’re playing around with balls of wool, this is where you can really have fun with different mordants, to create crazy pattern effects.

Step six

Skein the wool and allow it to dry. Once it’s dry, and you’ve rewound it into balls, its ready for your crafty project, if you can bear to use it!


It’s difficult to predict exactly what will happen with natural dyes, but the following colour chart gives you some idea of what you can expect to get using various natural dyes on wool or silk. I’ve used the described technique for each of these examples. Remember: if you want lighter colours, try a weaker brew or less time with your fibre in the pot; if you want darker colours, try a stronger brew and more time with your fibre in the pot.

Avocado (pips and skins): pink

Elderberries + alum: pale green

Eucalyptus: di§erent varieties throw di§erent

shades, from reds through to greens

Kangaroo paw stems: red

Lichen: orange

Lichen + iron: rust red

Oxalis: bright yellow

Oxalis + iron: olive green

Oxalis + sodium bicarbonate: brick orange

Stinging nettles + iron: green

Wattle bark: brown.


Mordants are the bridge between the dye and the fibre – they allow the fibre to absorb the dye; they also alter the dye colours (see colour chart in other box). Mordants are usually inorganic, but here are some cheap and cheerful home-style options recommended by Deb.

Iron: crushed up iron diet supplements or rusty nails brewed up with water

Sodium bicarbonate: from the pantry Alum: use an aluminium pan to brew dyes when you use this.


Use dedicated pots and utensils for dyeing – no brewing up a dye in your pasta pan!

Use rubber gloves while handling fibres in dye – so that you don’t dye your hands, and there is less chance of absorbing chemicals through your skin.

Always dye fungus outside. Dyeing with fungus is a ‘whole other world’ in terms of colours and combinations, and if you don’t do it in a well-ventilated area you may ‘send yourself trippy!’.


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