What is Local Color?

Most of us working with natural dyes have no immediate tradition from which to learn or elders to teach us. We are re-inventing natural dye, trying to learn from books, teachers and other dyers who are willing to share what they know and, of course, our own experiences and mistakes.

Many of us purchase our natural dyes from suppliers in the form of extracts or dyestuffs that are grown and harvested in other parts of the world. In this way, we can access all of the classical dyes, such as indigo, madder, cochineal, weld, pomegranate, etc. These dyes do not necessarily reflect where we live or where we come from.

I was in Madagascar for two weeks during May for the International Festival of Plants, Ecology and Colors. Following the conference our small group spent time in a  village in the northwest deciduous region. There we saw women harvest raffia from the local palm trees and wild silk from cocoons in the local mangrove forest. Natural dyestuffs are gathered in the immediate surroundings and are coaxed from the leaves, barks, resins, and fruit of local plants. The ONLY dyes available are truly local dyes, which the dyers gather themselves and about which they possess a deep knowledge of experience. Most of the plants used for dyeing are also used medicinally. Importing dyestuffs is not an option here.

Peeling away bark from tree (Hiragana madagascarensis). Bark is taken from one side only, in order to keep the tree healthy.


The  region is rich with sources of natural color, including reds from teak leaves, indigo from the local Indigofera erecta, gold and yellow from barks, and black from tannin and iron-rich mud. Wood ash and citrus fruit provide adjustments in pH when needed.


My own local environment does not have such range of color available in “the wild”, though I do maintain a garden of dye plants. I came home from this trip with a deeper understanding of what LOCAL color really means and now have a new resolve to identify local dye sources from my own immediate environment. No doubt, they will be variations of a yellow color since plants containing flavonols and tannins are in abundance.


Local raffia, dyed with local plants
lac % 6
Raffia weaving: red dyed with teak leaves, brown from tannin and iron rich mud, blue from fresh leaf indigo.

I have already begun the dye experiments in the search of my own “personal colors”. All of the dyes will be put through rigorous testing for light fastness and wash fastness. In the end, I hope to identify one or two dye sources that are abundant and easy to harvest here in western North Carolina. Of course, collection of these plants must pose no threat to our environment.

local plant tests
Initial tests of local plants on silk with alum mordant and post mordant of ferrous acetate. Garden dye plants included for comparison.

I’ll report back once the testing is complete.

27 thoughts on “What is Local Color?

  1. This is a fascinating report with beautiful pictures. And your own experiments at home are equally interesting – who would have thought that apple tree leaves would produce that yellow! Claire

  2. Thank you so much Catharine for the wonderful Madacascar report…and also your new experiments from home in NC. My dye garden is in pots outside my apt in Seattle..chamomile may be ready for a test like yours!

    1. Peggy,
      It was a rather small forum and I was on the mail list somehow – probably because I attended ISEND in France a few years ago. As of right now, I don’t think there is anything planned for next summer but I’ll post it if I hear anything.

  3. Hi Catharine,

    Your blog posts are always so interesting!

    Last fall, I was traveling in Peru, and got to visit a couple of weaving families, who also dye their own wool. They told me that they get their blue color from the flowers of blue lupines. Have you ever heard of that? I am planning to try it, and see how it works on cotton.

    All the best, Maria Simonsson (student from the workshop at Arrowmont, October 2015)


    1. No, I’ve never heard of dyeing with blue lupines. Blue is always rather an illusive color and usually requires some form on indigo – but we are always learning…..

      1. Catharine and Maria,

        Yes, this is a wonderful post about Madagascar and Local Color! Thank you!
        I also heard this from weavers in Peru – blue from Lupine. Please let us know if you hear of or experiment with it!

  4. Wonderful post! Reminds me of when we met a few years ago at Dee Dee Styles natural dyeing workshop when Barbara Z’s studio was at Cotton Mill. It inspires me to start digging around my new locale of North Central Florida. I’m hoping to try planting a bit of indigofera suffruticosa that was grown not far from here back in the 18th century. Fingers crossed and thanks again for the inspiration and gorgeous pics.

  5. Hi Catharine– how great that you were able to attend the conference. I was sorry not to be able to go… nice post!

  6. Dear Catherine, thank you so much for your so important post. I mostly dye with plants which I gather locally. Do talked about dyeing directly with indigo leaves. How do you do that? How is it done without any vat or dye bath? Or do you know anybody who I could contact for an answer? I’m so eager to learn more about that – always only knowing the indigo dyeing with vats. Color greetings from Erdmute from Germany


    Catharine Ellis posted: “Most of us working with natural dyes have no immediate tradition from which to learn or elders to teach us. We are re-inventing natural dye, trying to learn from books, teachers and other dyers who are willing to share what they know and, of course, our o” 

    1. I don’t have a great deal of experience with direct indigo dyeing. When I’ve dyed this way before, the bath was always kept very cold, the leaves masticated and the dye was massaged into a silk textile. In Madagascar we watched the dyers heat the leaves (just to lukewarm) to extract the dye, which readily attached to the cellulose of raffia. I have a LOT to learn yet.

  7. I try to only use dyes from my immediate area so mostly greens, browns and yellows. I have managed to get blues and pinks on occasion from flowers. I add copper pipe, rusty bits or use aluminium pans to obtain different shades. Still very in the learning stages though.

  8. Thanks for sharing the global and local!

    I’m here at Penland now with Maiwa which is totally building on the class with you and Joy Boutrup last year. I was thinking of my own local sources in northern Virginia: black walnut, goldenrod, jewelweed (love the color, but never tested light fastness) Osage orange are the ones that come to mind in (over) abundance for large dye lots.

    Where is weld from?

      1. Interesting question. I don’t know that “local” has to necessarily mean endemic. Plants have been moving all over the world for centuries. Although weld is not native to North America, it grows beautifully here, reseeds itself, is the best yellow dye ever, and the use of it leaves no carbon footprint. It has become “my local”. If you compare weld to food – tomatoes are not native to north America either….

  9. Catherine, do you know about locally sourced mordants as well? I’ve been aiming to experiment with naturally dying using only things I can forage locally. I’ve tried wood ash, sea water, sumac leaves and my own fermented urine! Can sumac leaves be used as a mordant? Still learning and experimenting. I live in Asheville. Exciting to see this post because that is what I’m really interested in. So far, blood root, sumac, black walnut, poke berry, goldenrod, rock tripe, nettles.

  10. A true mordant is a mineral salt, such as alum or iron. Although tannins, such as sumac leaves, will help in the attachment of dyes they are not really mordants. There are plants that will accumulate mordants in very acidic soil but I don’t know of effective ones growing in this area. You can read more about alum bio-accumulators at http://plantmordant.org/symplocos/

  11. Thank you for this post. I’ve been researching forms of iron for colour shifting/fixing and got bogged down in some inexact iron chemistry (the term “iron oxides” used seemingly generically, for example.) I was interested to see you refer to 1% ferrous acetate – to date my assumption has been that I can only get ferrous acetate by developing rusty iron in vinegar, so no precision whatsoever! If you could shed light or point me towards reliable information I would be very grateful!

    1. Yes, you can make ferrous acetate with rusty iron and vinegar but it’s difficult to gauge the amount of iron being applied to the textile. It’s much more accurate to make it from ferrous sulfate and sodium acetate. Make a 1% solution with 1 gram ferrous sulfate, one gram sodium acetate and enough water to make 100 ml.

  12. The raffia colors are grand! I use local plants for paper and dyes, but find my questions continue to expand. I’ve finally learned some manners, too, to say thank you, to take little and never the first found, to rejoice in diversity.

  13. This is a wonderful post, Catherine! Last year I did a project in Rowland’s class where I made a natural dye field guide of my neighborhood. Many of my neighbors contributed plant material for me to dye with–some more successful than others! I then hooked a map of the neighborhood using undyed wool for the streets. I marked each house with a french knot made from a twist of the results from that location (each plant dyed with alum and iron). Since we have a wonderful park in the neighborhood, I used that area to display larger samples of the colors (still hooked). It turned out great and was loads of fun. I’m considering doing a different map for each of the seasons.

    1. What a great project, Jean. I took up rug hooking a few years just so that I’d have a good excuse to dye wool. I end up using lots of leftover dye baths and the rugs a a total hit or miss. Would love to see a photo of your “map”!

  14. I enjoyed this and hope to catch the follow up on native nc dye plants. I live near Penland and love native plants. I am a native plant rescuer. I would like to know more about the dye plants of NC, particularly the mountains near Asheville.

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