Herbal Dyemaking With Mordants

This is the second installment of my series on Dye making. I apologize for taking so long to get back to it but there’s so much to talk about! Anyways, I want to finish out the series in a more timely fashion from here on so give this a look and see if the idea of making dyes from fresh herbs is a hobby you’d like to pursue. It’s cheap and easy and the dyes are beautiful. With practice you can learn how to mix herbs for various shades and mix shades for even more colors. The antique dyes you see on Indian rugs and oriental wall hangings were made from herbs but also from bugs like beetles that provided brilliant red. Most of the basic dyes made from herbs develop into earth colors. These can varied with practice by mixing herbs with other dye making sources.

One of the oldest methods of making dye is mordanting. In this post I want to address the methods used in making dyes with mordants, what mordants you can use and a few recipes for basic mordants. If you find this interesting and would like to try this you will find it to be absorbing, creative and fairly easy. If you get through this post and make up some mordants you will be ready and willing to move into areas of dye making which I will describe in future posts. So get out the pots and pans, it is craft time again. Here is the scoop on herbal dyes:

The Use of Mordants

The common chemical mordants are alum (potassium aluminum sulfate), cream of tartar (tartaric acid), chrome (potassium dichromate), iron (ferrous sulfate) and tin (stannous chloride). Each mordant affects the color of the dye with its own particular quality. Alum produces clear, bright colors; chrome gives a mellow, soft and beautiful tone. Tin will brighten colors while Iron dulls or saddens them. Iron is most useful for browns and blacks. Some mordants may be bought at a pharmacy but all can be acquired from a chemical or dye supplier.

As color is influenced by the choice of mordant, the choice of mordant should be a careful one. A mordant is necessary in order to “fix” the dye or make it fast.

As a general rule, when using one pound of dry wool:

1. Alum: 1 oz. Can be combined with Cream of Tartar. Gives bright, clear colors.

2. Iron: 1/8oz. Dulls and deepens colors. First use Alum, add the wool to the dye bath, simmer for 45 minutes; remove the wool, add the Iron and then put the wool back in and simmer again for another 30 minutes.

3. Copper: 1/2oz. Add one cup of Vinegar to achieve a blue-green color. Since Copper can be poisonous, handle this with care: do not put hands into your mouth or splash your skin with the bath.

4. Chrome and Tin: added to any dye bath will give greater depth and permanence to the color. Tin will brighten any dye. Again, these can be poisonous so handle with great care.

Some basic recipes for Mordants:

Alum and Cream of Tartar

4 oz Wool
1oz Alum
1/4oz Cream of Tartar
Sufficient soft water to cover the wool (approx. 1 gallon)

Dissolve the Alum and Cream of Tartar in a little boiling water and stir into the gallon of soft water. Set over low heat and when thoroughly warm, drop in the 4oz of Wool and allow it to steep. Slowly bring to a boil over the course of one full hour. Once at the boiling point, lower the heat to a simmer and allow to steep for another full hour. Remove the wool after the complete two hour period and place it in a dye bath.


4 oz Wool
1/2oz Chrome
Sufficeint soft water to cover the Wool (approx 1 gallon)

When storing the Chrome before use, keep it in a dark place because sunlight will affect it badly. Follow the same instructions as for Alum and Cream of Tartar, except to cover the mixture with a lid while simmering so as to protect Chrome from light. After mordanting, store the Wool in a dark place until dyed.

Iron and Cream of Tartar

4 oz Wool
1/8oz Iron
1/4 oz Cream of Tartar
Sufficient soft water to cover the Wool (approx 1 gallon)

Dissolve the Iron and the Cream of Tartar in a little boiling water. Wash the Wool and submerge it in the dye bath. After removal from the dye bath, add this mordant solution to the dye and slip in the Wool again. Continue simmering for about 30 minutes. Afterwards, wash the Wool thoroughly.

Warning: Go light on the Iron and do not use more than is indicated. Iron hardens the Wool and may cause it to rot eventually.


4oz Wool
8oz Crystals of Tin
Sufficient soft water to cover the Wool (approx 1 gallon)

Dissolve the Tin Crystals in warm water. DO NOT BOIL. If some of them do not dissolve completely, place them in a cheesecloth bag and seal. Wet the wool in plain water. Stir the water and dissolved Crystals into the gallon of soft water. Toss in the cheesecloth bag. Warm slowly over low heat for a full hour, bringing to a simmer. As it simmers, toss in the 4oz of wetted Wool. Simmer gently for another hour, for a total simmering time of 2 hours. Remove the Wool and place it into a dye bath.

Warning: Too much tin will make the Wool harsh and brittle.

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    […] tyedye Now that I have posted everything you need to get started making herbal dyes (The Basics , Part Two: Mordants and Dyemaking Part 3), I want to move into giving you recipes for actually making the dyes. These […]

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