One of the first plants I learned about in school was Oregon Grape (Mahonia aquifolium; Mahonia nervosa). It’s one of the most useful and medicinal plants in the Pacific Northwest!
From ‘Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs‘ by Steven Foster & Christopher Hobbs:
American Indian groups used the root as a blood purifier and general tonic in treating “all kinds of sickness,” including stomach problems, sore throat, tuberculosis, kidney problems, syphilis, bleeding, and as a wash for arthritis. The stem tips were used to treat upset stomach. Plant tea used as an eyewash. The berries were considered laxative. Traditionally, root and stem bark preparations used by herbalists and physicians as a blood purifier, to treat liver disorders, gallstones, impaired digestion, constipation, respiratory ailments such as pneumonia and bronchitis, as a gargle for sore throats, and for chronic skin problems such as eczema, psoriasis and acne. Externally used as a wash for skin infections and as an eyewash. Recent studies suggest compounds in root are beneficial in treating psoriasis, helping to stimulate immune function, and reducing proliferation of keratocytes. Antioxidant activity also confirmed.
From ‘The People of Cascadia: Pacific Northwest Native American History‘ by Heidi Bohan:
OREGON GRAPE: Leaves for medicine; Bark and roots for dye; Berries for food and dye.
OREGON GRAPE for the blood, stomach, infection
The inner layer of bark (the cambium – the living tissue of the plant) on the stems and roots of the Oregon Grape plant makes a really beautiful and bright yellow dye.
I had tried it once before on a deer skin drum I made in school, but never on any other material.
The top part of the drum was soaked in a shallow bowl of Oregon grape dye, the bottom part in red alder dye. I’d love to practice dying fibers with red alder next, it made a really beautiful auburn / burnt orange color. You can see a bit of the deer skins natural color peeking through in the middle there, a kind of light tan beige.
I didn’t plan on using my Oregon grape stash as a dye – I originally harvested it* to use as a medicinal bath for my pet rat. When I found a pattern I was dying to make that I thought would look good on a light, honey-yellow fabric, I took it as the perfect excuse to experiment!
Dying Evenweave with Oregon Grape
I had some left over 28 count Lugana evenweave from Heaven and Earth Designs. They gave me a very generously sized piece of fabric for my Shallan. I measured, cut and sewed the edges.
Meanwhile, I steeped the Oregon Grape in some water on the stove. I didn’t time it – I cooked it until the pieces sank to the bottom and I knew they were saturated, then cooked a little longer for good measure. The water never got to a boil or even a simmer, it was just hot enough to saturate the plant material. About the temperature of a hot cup of tea – steaming hot.
I prepped the fabric by soaking it in a 2:1 ratio of HOT water to vinegar
I strained the dye using my french press. (If I had them, I would have used coffee filters in a strainer/colander) **Note that I am only using my French press because I KNOW %100 that this plant is non-toxic and safe to eat.
I scrunched the fabric in a pot and poured the dye over the top. Covered and simmered for 4 hours.
I put it back in the vinegar soak to set the dye one last time before I tossed it in the dryer till it was dry. When it came out, I ironed it on hot to heat set it even further.
I was surprised to find that the color was a lot more sunshine yellow than I was anticipating. (It was hard to capture it on camera – it’s very over cast today). The white fabric pictured is the same cloth this piece was cut from. The dye produced a very pretty color, but it wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for. I had in mind something a little earthier and more honey colored, so I decided to do a second dye using Chamomile tea.
Dying Evenweave with Chamomile Tea
I used the same yellow dye bath as before, but added four chamomile tea bags to it and let it simmer for about an hour (as long as it took me to make a coffee run)
I used this kind because it’s what I had. It smells amazing, and it has honey! Honey won’t change the color, but I thought it was a cute coincidence given the pattern.
I soaked the fabric in the vinegar water from before, and scrunched it up into the tea.
I let that simmer on low for 4.5 hours. It ran low on liquid, so I added the rest of the vinegar mixture and let it simmer down some more.
I put it back into the dryer on high heat & ironed on high until fully dry. My cat tried to eat a thumb tack (sigh) while I was ironing, so I burned a little bit of my fabric. Thank god it was just the corner! This is how it looked after ironing. I LOVE how it turned out here. The tea really gave it some extra depth and that earthiness I was looking for. I wish you could see the full depth of it in the photos. For reference, the fabric pictured is ironed completely flat – those aren’t wrinkles, they’re gorgeous little veins of color.
After this, I rinsed it in cold water and 2 drops of Dr. Bronner’s peppermint castile soap, then rinsed it in cold water again. I put it back in the dryer on high and ironed it one last time.
This is the front and the back of the fabric (the color is washed out by the overcast sun here). The fabric shrank quite a bit in all the hot simmering and drying – before I dyed it, it was bigger than the white piece underneath it. I’d say it’s closer to a 30 or 31 count fabric now.
I wish I didn’t have to wash it cause I really preferred how it looked before that last rinse, but overall I am happy with the results. It’s a nice, subtly mottled tan with light yellow undertones. I think the Gathering Honey pattern will look beautiful on it.
Here are some better pictures of the mottling – this looks more true to life
Some notes about the dying process – different fibers will take dye in a different way. For example, most hand dyers will say on their website that linens take dyes darker than evenweaves. It would be interesting to see the color of Oregon Grape on other fabrics, or even floss. I would have tossed some floss in the pot to test it out, but I’m all out of BLANC.
So that sums up my first official foray into dying fabrics using natural dyes! I can’t wait to branch out and see what else comes out of it.
*A disclaimer about harvesting wild plants: Make sure you know 100% what you are collecting – with wild plants it is easy to misidentify something and end up seriously injuring yourself. Additionally, some ecosystems are more fragile than they appear. If you aren’t sure how healthy an ecosystem is, please do not disturb it or harvest from that spot. A good general rule is to harvest 1 for every 20 you see. If you don’t see at least 20 of that same species, move on. In some cases, it is possible to harvest what you need without killing or entirely uprooting the plant. For example, you can trim branches off an Oregon grape plant and harvest dye materials from those.