Plants, as we all know, have many uses beyond the ornamental or the edible, one of their oldest being as a source of natural dyes; for centuries, mankind has prized them for the range of colourful pigments that they provide.
One of the best known is madder (Rubia tinctorum), whose crushed, dried, fermented root gives a deep and brilliant shade of vermilion used as a textile dye by the ancient Egyptians (traces of the plant were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb), while there is archaeological evidence that as far back as the Bronze Age, humans were using woad, or Indigofera tinctoria, for its intense-blue dye.
Other plants with a long history of use as a source of natural dye include weld, or Reseda luteola, whose tall, dainty, sweetly-scented, bee-friendly flower spikes would not look out of place in a vase. Colloquially known as mignonette or Dyer’s rocket, its leaves and flowers yield both a beige and yellow dye.
Another widely used plant is woad, or Isatis tinctoria, which also yields a powerful deep-blue dye. Fascinatingly, madder, woad and weld provided the natural dyes used to colour the woollen yarns of the famous Bayeux tapestry, a medieval masterpiece, with each batch of dye producing subtly different hues and tones.
More recently, there's been a great resurgence of interest in these kind of natural plant dyes, as proven by the Dutch artist Claudy Jongstra's fascinating show garden at this year's Chelsea Flower Show in London, which showcased the vast range of plant material – roots, leaves, flowers, seeds – traditionally used in this way, including pot marigolds, borage, iris and onions.
Jongstra is one of many modern textile artists who believe that these natural plant dyes are far superior to synthetic dyes in terms of the depth, brilliance and variation of colour that they provide as well as the way in which they age and develop over time.
Many modern textile artists also like the fact that natural plant dyes are much kinder to the environment in terms of the methods used in their production.
An example is the Cornwall-based craftswoman Sian Cornish of Lancaster & Cornish, who uses plant-based natural dyes to create a wonderful range of silk ribbons for weddings and other events.
Cornish uses plants collected in her own garden, as well as those of friends and neighbours including her local flower farm, The Garden Gate Company.
“Onion skins, red cabbage leaves, camellia flowers, dahlias, nettles, blackberries . . . I’m constantly experimenting to see what colours I can get, while my customers love the fact that my ribbons are produced in an environmentally sustainable way.”
(See claudyjongstra.com, lancasterandcornish.co.uk and wildcolours.co.uk while seed of weld and woad can be sourced from seedaholic.com)