Working with foraged colour

I have been involved with sustainable clothing and textile design since the late nineteen nineties and within my practice as a designer, I have used the ‘Grande Teinte’ favoured by dyers in the past. These include Madder, one of the oldest known dyestuffs of which there are many different varieties, yielding red from their prolific roots system. Evidence of Madder has been found in Mohendro Daro in the Indus valley, thought to have been created circa 1750 BC. Herodotus found madder in Egypt 450 BC and Pliny described  a Madder type plant (Sandberg, 1994).

Other plants that contain red dye in their roots belong to the Gallium family and include:

Ladies Bedstraw
Hedge Bedstraw
Common Cleavers
Sweet Woodruff
Dyers Woodruff
Marsh Bedstraw

Some of these plants have been identified in textiles from medieval Germany and it is thought that they were used where professional dyeing had not developed or the climate was unsuitable for Madder (Brunello, 1973).
Note: picking wild plants in moderation is acceptable but not removing roots. Should you wish to try some of these plants, Emorsgate have a selection of native wild plant seeds

This project is a culmination of research that I have carried out during  the past year, looking at the myriad of natural sources to obtain colour from, some of which are documented and others pure experimentation. I started with Brunello’s (1973) comprehensive list of plants that he recorded from historical dye documents and I identified the ones that could be found locally. This led to a fascination with the colours that could be achieved  simply walking outside the front door, such as Marjoram, Hollyhock, Gunnera, Beech, Oak and Mahonia. I started to trial leaves, barks, fungi and flowers and to create a collection, turning into boxes and boxes of dried materials.

As a sustainable designer in 2020, I have decided to confront the issue of endless air-miles that current clothing production involves and set a challenge to limit fiber, colour and making to the UK.  Working with four professional textile artists, creating unique pieces for me to work with, is a dream come true and we have been lucky to have support from The Arts Council to create the exhibition ‘Foraged Colour’.

The Dunstan family kindly gave me a studio to work in. Without running water this is akin to a medieval workshop but surprisingly it has been easy to adapt and it is a lovely space.

Supplying the artists with their yarns has been a demanding job because the natural plant materials are not uniform and yield slightly different colours, depending on the location and time that they were foraged. For example the ivy berries are picked from a wide range of locations, in order to leave enough for the birds. Some are ripe and other green, so the results vary. Ivy berries can yield colours ranging from purple to pale green , grey and teal, depending on modifiers such as the alkalinity of dye bath.

Ivy berries and sumac

All the artists have developed their own palettes to work with and this includes:

Ivy berries and flowers
Alder leaves and cones
Cherry plum leaves
Honey fungus (see below)
False turkey tail
Willow bark
Beech leaves
Eucalyptus leaves
Apple heartwood
Red onion skins
Oak leaves
Beefsteak fungus

and we have been lucky to source from   home grown


The initial stage of the project is underway but we are now having to reschedule the launch due to the current global situation. Updates will be posted on the website. We are working in partnership with a number of organisations such as Oxfam and have extended the concept of foraging to include reused materials, for linings and up-cycling workshops. New dates for these and other Foraged Colour workshops are to be be confirmed.

Woven textiles, sustainable textiles, natural dyes, hand woven
Weave by Eve Kumari .Colours used: Beech, Birch, Honey fungus, Madder, Woad.
Textile by Gill Hewitt. Colours used: Eucalyptus, Onion skin, Red Cabbage, Apple bark and Woad.

Linda Row

Brunello, F. (1973) The Art of Dyeing in the history of mankind. Phoenix Dye Works, Ohio.
De Graff, H. (2004) The Colourful Past. Archetype Publications, London.
Sandberg, G. (1994) The Red Dyes. Tidens Forlag, Stockholm.

Honey fungus: this is potentially damaging to your garden, so I advise that if you collect this from a wood, put it under water immediately to extract colour and only reserve the water; return the waste fungus to the place you found it.