First-time foragers are often anxious about picking the wrong thing to eat and ending up with an upset stomach — or worse.
But foraging doesn’t always have to mean eating what you find.
Allysun West forages for her natural dye materials. The medicinal dye-based textile designer in Portland said that artists and layfolk alike might want to forage for dyes for several reasons.
“Someone may not have access to a space where they can grow dye plants, someone may need a specific color that they don’t have in their garden or they may just want to harvest their dyes from nature,” West said.
If you are interested in foraging but want to avoid gastrointestinal distress, foraging for materials to use as natural dyes is a great way to experiment with the hobby while adding some panache to your linens and yarns.
Foraging for natural dye can also be a fun way to pick on invasive plants. The bright yellow bark of the Japanese barberry, which is invasive in Maine, makes a sumptuous yellow dye, West said.
“We all benefit from plants like that being harvested,” West said.
There are deep traditions associated with the practice as well, said Jackie Ottino Graf, owner of Forage Color in Searsmont.
“The essence of natural dyes means coming from nature, so unless you are planting and harvesting specific dye plants, sourcing color from the landscape really harkens back to native traditions,” Graf said. “Plus it gets you out in the woods and fields and uses materials that would otherwise just go through their lifecycle.”
Graf had a few recommendations to get started. Black walnuts, she said, are readily available in the fall, and the “tennis ball-sized spongy green balls” protruding from trees are easy to spot.
“They smell citrusy when fresh and can be used fresh or dried,” Graf said. “They give a warm brown to deep brown color.”
Another dye material that’s easy to harvest is birch bark.
“I find fallen logs and strip off the bark. Soaking for a few weeks and then gently simmering will yield shades of pink.”
Goldenrod is another easy plant to forage, although its peak season is late summer and not chilly fall.
“They are all over the side of roads and spread super easily but are not invasive,” West said. “I have a lot of love for goldenrod because it is so accessible to everyone and creates a really lovely yellow. You may think you get the yellow from the flowers but most of the color actually comes from the green stem and leaves.”
West said that other out-of-season natural dyes include St. John’s Wort, which blooms in the mid-summer and makes a maroon dye; horsetail, which can be harvested in the spring for a bright lime green dye; and Rudbeckia, or coneflowers, which can be made into a yellow dye while “the center makes a great purple for printing.”
Graf and West also recommended looking out for sumac, with its distinct leaves and magenta “droops” that impart an earthy tone onto fabrics.
“Sumac is around pretty much everywhere too and is one of my favorite plants for eco-printing and makes a grey when in a dye bath,” West said. “Start with one, find it in one place and then you will see it everywhere.”
Once you have the materials, you can make homemade dye using these natural ingredients.
“All you have to do is cut them down or pick the parts you need and add the pieces to a pot of water, let it all boil for an hour and then add your fabric for an hour or until it is your desired color,” West said.
Graf said to think of making a dye bath with foraged materials like “making a strong tea.”
“I heat gently and let the plant material stay in the water for several hours to days before dyeing,” Graf said. “I strain out the plant material and add my fibers to dye, removing [them] when I am happy with the color.”
Both Graf and West said that there aren’t any major safety considerations that they can think of when it comes to foraging for natural dye, except for the usual considerations for safe and responsible foraging.
“[Make] sure you are aware of some poisonous plants like poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac,” West said.
“As always, only use a designated dye pot for your dye materials. And remember to get permission if you are harvesting on land that is not public.”