Late Winter Natural Dyeing

16 March 2022

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Even in late winter, when the land feels cold and bleak, there are still natural dyes to be found.

I live in Vancouver, B.C., so spring comes a bit earlier here than it does in the rest of Canada, but even in the coldest places, you can still find dyes—and now is the perfect time to go out and gather natural dyes to welcome the coming spring.

 Throughout the past two years of the COVID pandemic, I’ve been going for daily walks to help my mental health and to get exercise. Walking through my neighborhood, I get acquainted with my surroundings and the plants that grow here. I’ve been able to track the life cycles of local plants and keep an eye out for things I’m able to wildcraft and dye with. I always take a few bags out with me to gather plants. I don’t find plants I can use on every walk but having a bag means I’m prepared. Carrying bags also allows me to pick up any garbage along the way, which is a good way to make sure that my relationship with the land is symbiotic. There is joy in the reciprocity of caring for the land while gathering natural materials, and I’ve found that when folks see you being good to your surroundings, they start doing the same.

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When you’re looking for winter dye materials, the first plants to look for are conifer trees—any evergreen trees that keep their needles all year. You can gather their cones and use them as dyestuff. When gathering cones, I take them from the ground and not from the tree itself; I only take a few of the cones that are laying under the tree, leaving some for the animals that may use them as a food source. If I’m not going to use them right away, I dry them and store them for later use. To get colour, you’ll need a lot more cones than you might think, but it’s worth the effort!

image description: a scattering of cones from the alder tree, on a white background

Alder cones

image description: piece of white fabric, with six patches of increasing darker dye; to the right, a piece of woven fabric and a few alder cones; the main fabric has the text "Alder Cones - March 2022" written on it
The second thing I look for are fallen branches. Often, in late winter, storms will break limbs from trees and you can strip their bark and use it as a dyestuff. My favourite bark to use is birch bark and this past winter I got ahold of a huge branch that came down, and I stripped it for bark to dye with. Remember to use a very sharp pocketknife, to cut away from your body (and your fingers!), and that you want to get all of the layers of bark, right down to the wood. This means getting the hard outer bark, the soft inner bark, and the cambium (the layer between the bark and the wood). Birch bark dyes a dusty pink when used with an alum mordant and can be shifted into a beautiful silver grey when modified with iron (ferrous sulphate) at between 2-4% of the weight of fibre. The third late winter dye I recommend using is onion skins. You can save them up from your own food waste at home, but it might take a long time for you to gather enough materials, so consider asking your local grocer if you can take their scraps from the bottom of the onion bin, or, if they’re up for it, they might save them for you to pick up! Onion skins dye a magnificent golden yellow when used with an alum mordant and a khaki-to-forest green when modified with iron (ferrous sulphate) at between 2-4% of the weight of fibre.
image description: piece of white fabric, with six patches of increasing darker dye; to the right, a piece of woven fabric and a few onion skins; the main fabric has the text "onion skins - March 2022" written on it

Finally, if you’re on the west coast of North America, now is the time to gather Arbutus bark—when the trees are shedding their red bark, and you can find it laying at the foot of the trees. It dyes a range of colours, but you have to be careful not to get the dyebath over 180 degrees Fahrenheit (approximately 82 degrees Celsius) or the colour won’t be as brilliant as it could be.

(Arbutus sheds one thing per season: flowers, fruit, leaves, and then bark. They also drop while limbs to save themselves if they’ve had a bad growing year.)

image description: a scattering of small pieces of arbutus tree bark, on a white background

Arbutus bark

image description: piece of white fabric, with six patches of increasing darker dye; to the right, a piece of woven fabric and a few small pieces of tree bark; the main fabric has the text "Arbutus bark - March 2022" written on it
Keep an eye out for these other plants!
  • Fruit tree branch shoots. These are pruned in late winter and if you use shears to chop them up, they can be used as a dye.
  • Eucalyptus from a florist. Many types of eucalyptus are great dye plants!
  • The green leaves from roses. I use these for ecoprinting. Be sure to use these in a well-ventilated space and use gloves and a mask because roses from the florist have been sprayed with pesticides and can be harmful.
  • Alder cones. These tiny cones dye a great khaki colour but it takes a lot of them to get enough to make a dye bath.
  • Sumac flowers. You can gather these once they’ve fallen from the trees, and they dye a great silver grey when used with iron (ferrous sulphate) at between 2-4% of the weight of fibre.
image description: a close-up of a dried sumac flower

Sumac flowers

image description: piece of white fabric, with three patches of increasing darker dye; to the right, a piece of woven fabric and a dried sumac flower; the main fabric has the text "sumac - March 2022" written on it

If going out foraging sounds like too much work, there is no shame in buying natural dyes at a supply shop. Even with all the dyes I am able to forage and grow myself, I still purchase dyes throughout the year. Natural dyeing should be fun—just be safe and have a good time!

All images credit Caitlin ffrench.

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Copyright © Caitlin ffrench except as indicated.
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About Caitlin ffrench

Caitlin ffrench is an artist living in East Vancouver. She works with wildcrafted pigments from the land bases she visits and she uses string to make all sorts of magical things.

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