Plant dye project; the beginning

Dyeing is a process that I love. I have ‘dabbled’ in the past but never really sunk my teeth into the process and worked at it. As part of my explorations into the life of a twelfth century woman who was also a scribe (Hawis) I feel certain that making and using colours would have been very much in her field of reference. My initial research target was clothing and textiles textiles of the day. That lead onto colour and pigments and more recently paint making, and now dyes…

So as an extension of this I want to teach myself to make authentic medieval plant dyes. I have experimented with onion skins with great success. Now I want to try blue and red. I sourced some seeds from an online trader and have managed to germinate three indigo plants, a henna and a madder. Initially there were twenty seeds, including woad and weld, but these five seedlings were all I got. Disappointing because the madder, woad and weld were the colours I most wanted. I doubt that Hawis would have had indigo or henna. These are incredibly rare plants in New Zealand so I am nursing them as though they are precious children.


Cultivation of madder dye plants: From Wildcolours

“Plant each seed in a small pot filled with compost. Fresh seeds are much more likely to germinate, but be sure to protect them from slugs, which love eating young madder. Madder plants take easily from cuttings too. Once established, it spreads and creeps, clinging to upright structures and can become invasive. Adding lime to the soil during the winter helps the plant to produce better reds.”

A candidate for the Ugly Corner methinks. And I read somewhere else that it will be three years before I get sufficient useful root.

Indigo: (from the same source)DSC_9450

Cultivation of Indigo (Growing Indigo)
Indigo plants love warmth and humidity. To grow indigo in a cold country, you need a warm greenhouse, a conservatory or a sunny windowsill. Providing you can keep the plants warm, the earlier you sow indigo seeds the better, as you will have a longer growing season. I try to sow mine in early February, but you can sow indigo seeds as late as April.

Soak the seeds overnight in water and then sow your seeds in pots at least 3 inches in diameter, one seed per pot (pots are better than seed trays because indigo does not like to have its roots disturbed). Keep the pots in a heated propagator until the seeds germinate and then move them to warm windowsill. When the indigo seedlings are large enough, re-pot them once or twice into larger pots with good soil. Eventually use a 10 litre pot per plant. If you have a sheltered position and the weather is warm you might be able to keep the plants outside in the summer.

Indigo plants are hungry feeders and need feeding almost as often as tomatoes. Well cared for plants can grow 2 metres tall and might need pruning.

Spray the plants with water from time to time and if possible keep them on a pebble tray to increase humidity. Keep checking greenhouse plants for red spider mite, which may be a sign that the humidity is not high enough.

Harvesting Indigo dye
The best time to harvest is just before the flowers open. Indigo is a perennial plant and to keep the plant for more than a year you should harvest only half the leaves at one time.

Your indigo plant may need to be more than a year old to come into bloom and it needs plenty of warmth to flower. Try to keep it alive over the winter which should give you an early start the following year. Do not feed the plants from October to March, prune them to a manageable size, reduce watering and keep the plants warm.

Henna (Well the packet was labelled henna, but I am not 100% sure at all)DSC_9449

Until I am certain that this is in fact henna I wont bother with details just now. Clearly there will be no dye making from these plants this season. Hopefully I can get them to grow big enough to set seed and grow more. I know next to nothing about cultivating them so this year will be a steep learning curve.

Have a great day. Thanks for looking in.

This entry was published on January 7, 2015 at 9:17 am. It’s filed under Art, Dyeing, Living History, Medieval and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

4 thoughts on “Plant dye project; the beginning

  1. I tried growing woad once (common blue for europe, indigo would probably have only come over on silks to my part of the world) it germinated well, but alas I live within yards of the north sea and its perrenial howling gales so all the leaves (ie the bit you need for dyeing) blew off. useless.

    • Just getting seed here in NZ is incredibly difficult, I was gutted when not one of my precious five seeds germinated, but the madder partially makes up for it, that is equally rare. The lady who sold me the seeds is going to send me more, perhaps I will have more luck this time.

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