People have a powerful desire to wear clothes adorned with color.  No one knows for sure how long people have been dyeing cloth.  All we know is that dyed cloth is as old as recorded history and probably older.  Some of the oldest dyed cloth is from the pyramids.  When discovered, the cloth was disintegrating, but the dye itself was a brilliant red and was accompanied by a hieroglyphic text: “His hands are red with madder [red dye], as one who is smeared with his own blood.” This same plant, whose botanical name is Rubia tinctorum (“red dye”), is growing today in my garden and was used to make the reds in these quilts.

r most of
historical time the two most important dyes were a red dye and a blue one.  The red comes from the roots of the above mentioned Rubia tinctorum (common name, “madder”), an extremely vigorous plant which grows all over the world and yields colors ranging from dusky brick to brilliant scarlet.  The blue, indigo, comes from several indigotin-bearing plants which yield an extraordinary range of color from the palest blue to a blue so dark it’s almost black. 

There are several yellows which were used historically
in the commercial dyetrade—weld in Europe, Osage orange and quercitron in North America, saffron and turmeric in India and the Middle East.  Additionally there are hundreds of satisfactory yellows which were never very important commercially, but were widely used by home dyers—plants like marigolds, onion skins, goldenrod, black-eyed Susans and Queen Anne's lace.

Take madder and indigo, add a yellow and you have the three primary colors,
apable of producing a glorious and astonishing range of colors. Nature also provides some wonderful specific colors like the rich brown of walnut hulls, the startling orangey yellow of coreopsis (whose common name is “dye flower”), the soft purply grey of blackberry shoots.

Natural dyes have a great range of color, each dye capable of producing many hues.  The dyes used in my quilts include:
  • reds: madder, cochineal
  • pinks: madder, cochineal, annatto, hollyhocks
  • oranges: a combination of madder and a yellow, either weld or Osage orange
  • yellows: weld, Osage orange, peach leaves, mimosa leaves, coreopsis, marigolds, tnsy
  • greens: indigo in combination with a yellow, usually weld or Osage orange
  • blues: indigo, “Prussian blue” (iron plus an acid)
  • purples: madder, madder with indigo, cochineal, cochineal with indigo
  • browns: walnut hulls, cutch (from two species of acacia trees)
  • greys: blackberry shoots, purple basil, tannin-iron, depleted black dye bath
  • blacks: some combination of red–yellow–blue, usually madder, Osage orange, logwood; also indigo and a brown