Ever wondered how to turn some of the glorious colors in your garden into homemade dyes or paints to use around the house?

dyes.jpg Using plants to make dyes is an age-old art that will truly make you feel like you’re getting back to your roots (no pun intended). If you are interested in having a more natural home, or interested in the art of homesteading in general, nothing will make you feel more like a pioneer than making your own plant-based dyes. Yet there’s another glaring reason as to why you should considering making your own dyes. Modern synthetic dyes may not be the healthiest chemicals to be putting near our bodies. Studies continue to pop up about the dangers of chemical dyes. ABC News reported that a study done by Rutgers University found the chemical PCB 11, a chemical in yellow dyes that are used for everything from bath towels to notepads, might be hazardous to health. Previous studies linked it to cancer, irritations, birth defects and developmental issues. In 1979, it was actually banned under the Toxic Substances Control Act, but a loophole allows it to make its way into consumer products in lower concentrations. Also, many of the colorants we take for granted like Yellow #5, Blue #1 and Red #40 have been linked to ADHD. Children showed a marked improvement in symptoms after being put on a diet with no food dye additives. Granted, there’s nothing cut and dry about this issue. The study pertaining to PCB 11 needed further research, and plenty of people are around chemical dyes and live healthy, robust lives. But maybe you’d like to err on the side of caution. Or, let’s face it, making your own dye can just be fun. Nothing will give you a sense of self-reliance and rugged competence like making your own dyes out of plants. You’re probably wondering where to start. It’s easier than you think. Common plants from the produce aisle can be cut down to make basic dyes. You might also consider wild foraging if you really want to get back to nature, or starting a garden with some of these dye ingredients. Below is a guide for what plants will produce which color to get you started. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it contains some of the most popular and easily accessible natural items. Brown: Dirt. No, this isn’t a plant, but if you want a full color spectrum you’ll have to get creative with all sorts of natural dyes. This one is good for mixing with water and using as a natural paint. Beetroot skin can also work as a brown dye for fabrics. Purple/Red/Pink: This is where some basic berries will come in handy. You can use strawberries, cherries, huckleberries, blackberries, elderberries, black currants, red currants and raspberries. You can also use beets, roses, pomegranates, hibiscus, day lilies and basil leaves. Blue: This one is obvious. Go get some blueberries. You can mix the juice with some distilled vinegar. You can also use purple grapes, indigo, red cabbage and elderberries. Grey: For this one, you can use wood ash. White: Chalk or talcum powder work for white. Yellow: Onion skins are a pretty popular option for yellow. Turmeric, sunflower petals, bay leaves, dandelion flowers, marigolds and celery leaves also work. Green: This is probably the easiest. You can use artichokes, spinach, peppermint leaves, lilacs or just plain grass. Orange: Some common ideas are chili powder, paprika and carrots. Now that you know where to find your natural colors, there are several ways to use them. You can make natural paints, dye clothes, make a temporary tattoo and even stain wood.

How to make natural paints


For harder materials like chalk or charcoal, you’ll want to grind the material down to a fine powder. You then mix that with some egg yolks for a classic tempera paint method. The egg yolks will need to be combined with a bit of vinegar and water. The yolks will bind the paint pigment to any surface. Berries can be crushed and strained to make a juice and will paint like a watercolor. Dry materials like onion skins will need to be simmered in a pot until you can see the dye released into the water. Then you’ll strain out the plants and paint with the water. Many paints will also go on a certain color and dry another color. You’ll need to experiment, but that will be half the fun.

How to dye fabrics with plants

This technique is surprisingly versatile. You can use it to dye clothes, yarn and basic fabrics. Natural fabrics like cotton, wool, muslin and silk work best. You’ll have a wide array of materials to work with. This project is a bit of a process, but it should be worth it when you’re done.
  • Start by prepping the material so that it takes up the dye. For berry juice, you’ll want salt, and for other plants, you’ll want vinegar. Use a ½ cup of salt to eight cups cold water and one part vinegar to four parts cold water. Place the fabric in the mixture for an hour to soak. Rinse with water.
  • Now you’ll prepare the dye. Put twice as much water as your plant into a pot. Simmer for one to two hours. You’ll want a dark color in the water. Strain the plants out of the water.  
  • Now add the fabric to the water and simmer on low heat for an hour, mixing occasionally. 
  • Wash the fabric in cold water. Expect some bleeding as the excess dye leaves the fabric. Then let it dry naturally in the sun.

How to make a plant-based temporary tattoo

You’re probably familiar with the henna tattoos you can get at just about any tourist stop. Henna comes from a tree grown in hot, dry areas with leaves that contain a natural red-orange pigment. That’s what stains the skin temporarily. Henna comes powdered, which you mix with hot water and an acidic ingredient like lemon juice or strong tea to release the dye. After about 12 hours of soaking, the dye is typically ready to be used. You could have some fun trying some patterns on yourself. You’d just paint the paste right onto the skin so it forms a design (go liberal with the paste), let dry and then you’ll need to leave it covered with plastic for at least 10 hours. Then chip the dried paste off, if it has not come off already. Other options, which form black designs, are jagua and indigo. Jagua comes from a fruit grown in the Amazon. Indigo comes from several plants, most commonly from the genus Indigofera, which grows in the tropics. Both have a similar application to henna, but you can find out more here.

How to stain wood with plants

This project is the simplest. You just boil your chosen plant in some water and use the water to paint the wood. You’ll need to paint the wood several times, letting it dry in between to get your desired shade. Popular plants include tea, coffee, black walnut hulls and blackberries, although you could try other plants. For tea and coffee, just brew a strong mixture and apply to the wood with a brush or rag. Berries can be crushed and worked against the wood. For walnuts, just soak for several days, then strain and apply to the wood. You can also boil walnuts and let them steep to release the dye.