Isabella Whitworth

probably more than natural and synthetic dyes, wax, resists, and history

Natural Dyes

I think it is as important to know the source of a dyestuff as it is to know where food comes from. I am unable to grow much dyestuff but for several years have been producing a crop of Japanese indigo (Persicaria tinctoria) in Devon. Until the summer of 2012 this has regularly produced a good crop, and I have always prepared a batch of work to dye in the late summer. In 2012, one of the wettest summers on record, the crop seemed to develop well but the blue didn’t – I eventually lost the crop to frost without a vat being produced.

An article which I co-authored with Christina Chisholm on the growing and use of Japanese indigo can be downloaded free from the Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers website here.

A simple palette of natural dyes appears in my work, obtained from traceable sources. Cochineal comes from Lanzarote; indigo from a project in Tamil Nadu; weld has been homegrown, purchased from UK growers or from Couleurs de Plantes in France, who also supply an excellent strong madder. Tannins are bought as extracts supplied by Pure Tinctoria.

Using natural dyes is entirely different from wax resist or shibori using synthetic dyes, each dyestuff requiring a separate ‘recipe’ and individual immersion in a dye vat.  Each piece of work can involve several overdyes. Results are not always predictable and one stage of work can demand a change of design direction because it has failed to turn out as planned – a natural dyer soon learns to be adaptable. But natural dye colours are infinitely rewarding for their variety, their subtlety, and an element of surprise and discovery.

Because so many working processes are involved natural-dyed items inevitably end up more expensive than synthetic-dyed and this can make marketing difficult. I have separate labels for both ranges explaining dyes and techniques used, and I give a precise source of natural dyestuff  if possible.


Above: New work from April 2016. Work plan in sequence: mordant pastes on silk, immersion dyeing, wax resist, indigo, wax resist, long sequence of dips to achieve the dark blue. De-wax, wash.

3 thoughts on “Natural Dyes

  1. Hello Isabella

    i have just found your new blog and like the look of it!

    I am wondering if you might give me some refs to UK suppliers of natural,dyes and mordants. I get my mordants from Maiwa in Vancouver which also imports Couleurs des Plantes but would like to know a UK source.

    I will be in the UK in March to give a talk and class etc at the International Printmakers Festival in Glos. (Stroud) I would like to recommend to participants where to get supplies locally. My talk etc, will be about contact dye printing on paper with plant pigments. Info on the process (AKA eco printing) is on my blog –

    Thanks Isabella. Your site is inspiring


    • Hi Wendy,
      Thanks for finding me – and following. I have just had a dip into your website and it’s beautiful – lucky International Printmakers Festival. I’ll be happy to advise you on suppliers but need to get my list up to date. I’ll post it here in a day or so.
      Best wishes and let’s hope the weather cheers up for you before you get here in March.It’s been a damp old winter here.

  2. This is a short list of suppliers of natural dye extracts in the UK. It isn’t exhaustive and there may well be others: the list is for information only and not intended as an active endorsement of any on the list!

    Earthues extracts

    DT Craft and Design

    The Woad Centre: woad powder

    Pure Tinctoria extracts

    Jane Deane

    Handweavers Studio and Gallery

    Couleurs de Plantes

    A limited range sold in the UK by Llynfi Textile Co

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s