Colours From the Countryside, Dyes Derived from Plants

In the modern world, clothing and other textiles come in every shade of the rainbow. Surrounded by this technicolour display, it can be easy to overlook exactly what went into making these colourful fabrics and the storied history of humble dyes.

From the war paints of the Iceni to the colourful tartans of the Highland clans to the gently coloured fabrics of the modern organic clothing trade, plant dyes have come to play an integral part in art, culture, history and the fashion of today.

Saxon reenactor
Archaeologists have found evidence of textile dyeing dating back to the Neolithic period. In China, dyeing with plants, barks and insects has been traced back more than 5,000 years.

Found across the British countryside there is still a plethora of plants that can be used to create natural and organic dyes. These plants are a valuable resource for organic artisans and crafters that are still utilising the expertise of their ancestors to create stunning naturally dyed products.


Plants Used to Make Dyes

Although not always producing a colour as vibrant as their synthetic counterparts, natural dyes derived from plants represent a more natural and sustainable approach. With a bit of plant-based know-how, everything from rich purples to earthy greens can be created from the plants growing in the gardens and woodlands across the country.

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Dyes generated from the natural world may not be used as commonly as they once were, however they are a core part of the cultural and industrial history of Britain.

These natural dyes offer a valuable practice of textile colouring that is still used by people around the world today. Growing in the hedgerows and meadows of Britain is a variety of flora that is perfect for creating natural dyes.

Utilising everything from blackberries to woad to lichen, for thousands of years the people of Britain have been honing expert natural knowledge to create a variety of dyes from the world of plants.

Blue and Green

Foxglove, common across the UK countryside, creates an earthy green tone. Meanwhile, the leaves and seeds of the woad plant have been used for generations to create a strong blue hue. Elderberries, when combined with the correct mordant, creates a blue dye, while chamomile leaves are another good option for a green tone.

Common foxglove
The name is recorded in Old English as ‘foxes glofe/glofa’ or ‘fox’s glove’. Over time, folk myths obscured the literal origins of the name, insinuating that foxes wore the flowers on their paws to silence their movements as they stealthily hunted their prey.

Orange and Yellow

If you are wanting sunnier hues, then marigolds, dandelions and cow parsley are a great place to start. Steeping marigold flowers in warm water can produce a warm orangey yellow, while the flowers and stems of cow parsley can provide a more lemony hue.

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Dandelion flowers can be used to produce a bright yellow dye, while flowers from St John’s Wort create colours on the orange to red end of the spectrum.

Cow parsley grows in sunny to semi-shaded locations in meadows and at the edges of hedgerows and woodland
Cow parsley grows in sunny to semi-shaded locations in meadows and at the edges of hedgerows and woodland. The stems throughout history have been used by children as pea shooters. T. Kebert CC BY-SA 4.0

Red and Purple

The madder plant, also known as the rose madder or dyer’s madder, can lend itself to creating a striking red colour, similarly dandelion roots can make a magenta tone. Heading to the vegetable garden, beetroot and red cabbage can be used to make purple-red dyes.For a more purple hue, then crushed blackberries may be the answer, or for a dark purple tone then purple iris can be used.

Rubia tinctorum
Rubia tinctorum
Naturally dyed skeins made with madder root
Naturally dyed skeins made with madder root


The roots of some waterlilies and seaweed species have been noted to create brown dyes. Bark from birch trees can also be used to create a range of brown hues. Lichen species have historically been  important organisms for creating dye. Using lichen to create a range of colours was particularly prominent in the Scottish Highlands, but has also been noted across Britain and wider Europe.

Different lichen species and processing techniques can create dyes in everything from vivid purples to blues, reds and oranges. The orange dye traditionally used for the iconic Harris Tweed is even said to have originally been derived from a species of rock lichen.

Silver Birch
Silver Birch has so many uses, even down to making canoes from the bark.

Plants that Painted History

Using native flora for creating dyes is no new development. For thousands of years the people of Britain, and the rest of the world, have found ingenious ways to use what was available in their local environment to create coloured dyes.

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The production of textile and other dyes dates back as far as the Neolithic period and has been used for everything from simple aesthetics to denote allegiance to a particular group or class, to holding religious or cultural significance.

Queen Boudica
Queen Boudica of the Iceni. The Iceni were a Britannic tribe of eastern Britain during the Iron Age and early Roman era. Their territory included present-day Norfolk and parts of Suffolk and Cambridgeshire,

Blue dye made from the woad plant became a prominent factor in Roman Britain, as many indigenous tribes would use this dye to paint their faces and bodies before going to war.


The Iceni, led by the famed warrior Boudicca, was reported to have used woad war paint before fighting the invading Roman armies and settlements. The practice of using woad dye to adorn warriors’ bodies before heading to battle even led to the Romans labelling indigenous groups as the Picts, meaning ‘the painted people,’ a name these historical groups are still referred to as today.

In Scotland, the range of available plants with which to make dyes led to the production of clan tartans, with patterns and colours being associated with particular groups.

The colour and pattern of tartans became so important that there are historical accounts of weavers being punished for not making tartans to exacting specifications.

Andy the Highlander in a tartan kilt
Tartan is a patterned cloth consisting of criss-crossed, horizontal and vertical bands in multiple colours. Tartans originated in woven wool, but now they are made in other materials. Tartan is particularly associated with Scotland, as Scottish kilts almost always have tartan patterns. Tartan is made with alternating bands of coloured (pre-dyed) threads woven as both warp and weft at right angles to each other. Big thank you to Andy the Highlander for the image and you can follow him on Facebook

Red Coats

By the Elizabethan Era, the Sumptuary Laws were put in place. A key factor of these laws included restrictions on what clothing people of different levels of society were permitted to wear. Silk dyed with expensive purple tones were restricted for royalty only.

This mirrored a restriction in Ancient Rome in which only the upper classes were allowed to wear Tyrian purple, an expensive and hard to obtain colour produced from the mucus of sea snails.

The iconic red tone of the coats of the British Redcoats, for a time, was made from dye from the madder plant. Remnants of madder and woad, presumably used in textile dyeing, have also been found at excavations of Viking sites in York.

Are Plant Dyes Still Used?

In 1856 the first synthetic dye was created, and this set off a whole new era for colouring textiles. Synthetic dyes became easier to use, could produce more vibrant and reliable colours, and freed fabric producers from the limitations of which dye plants grew locally or could be reliably traded.

The domino effect that the first synthetic dye set off in the textile industry has led to synthetic dyes making up 90% of those used in the textile sector today.

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However, more natural, plant based dyes haven’t faded from existence. Some sustainable fashion houses primarily use natural dyes, as do some small scale textile producers, artisans and crafters, particularly those operating in the organic production arenas.

How to Make Dye from Plants

The process for making dyes from plants can differ slightly depending on the plant being used, however it does normally follow the same overall steps. Plants must be harvested and prepared, this generally means chopping, tearing or dicing plant material.

A dye bath must then be created by covering the plant material in warm or boiling water, this is then simmered for some time. The length of time the bath is simmered for does depend on the type of plant being used to create the dye, as well as factors such as the desired strength of colour.

However, it is not uncommon for dye baths to be simmered for about an hour in order to obtain the correct level of dye. A good indication of when the dye is ready is when the original plant material has significantly faded.

Natural dyes
A dye-works with baskets of dyestuffs, skeins of dyed yarn, and heated vats for dyeing,

The dye bath should then be strained to remove any plant matter or other material, leaving just the coloured liquid. To dye textiles, clean fabric must be treated with a mordant (vinegar is commonly used for this) prior to dying to ensure the colour fixes properly to the fabric. Fabric can then be placed in the dye to take on the hue.

Premade Plant Dyes

It’s important to remember when using natural plant dyes that they are more prone to fading than modern synthetic dyes. This may mean that textiles have to be recoloured more frequently or additional care must be taken with these products to limit fading.

There are some retailers that sell plants specifically for their colourant properties and there are retailers that sell premade plant dyes. Of course, there is also the option of collecting plants to make dyes.

Highwaymen in a woodland
Natures dye factory

If foraging for plants to make dye it is good to remember to get permission from local landowners or authorities before taking plant matter. Being mindful not to disturb the habitats of local flora and fauna, and to ensure that you are confident in picking the correct plants or asking an expert for assistance before foraging.

This can help to ensure that not only are the right plants collected to create a vibrant colour, but potentially harmful or protected flora is not mistakenly foraged.

From Warriors to Artisans

There is no shortage of plants growing in Britain that can be used to create a wide variety of dyes. With a little know-how the plants growing in hedgerows and across woodland floors can be implemented to make rich and varied colours.

These plants have held a particularly important place in the history of Britain with the colours they created being recorded in Roman war texts to influencing socio-political laws of Elizabethan England.

Today, these plants still hold an important place in society. They offer a more eco-friendly and gentler way to create dye in a world struggling with its environmental impact. Plant dyes provide the means for many modern artisans to make their products and the storied history of plant dyes continues growing across the UK.