Home & Garden

Flowers meet fibers for a rainbow of color

Chris McLaughlin will never look at a plant the same way again. The longtime master gardener and author has written six books (including three gardening titles for the “Complete Idiot’s Guide” series), but her focus on flowers shifted when she discovered how to make natural dyes.

“Now when I see a plant or flower, my first thought is: What color can I get out of it?” said McLaughlin. “(Dyeing) has made me look at things differently.”

McLaughlin soon discovered that other gardeners had no idea about the colorful potential within their flowerbeds. Likewise, textile hobbyists were unfamiliar with the wealth of potential material in their own backyards.

“There are gardeners vs. fiber artists,” she said. “Starting as a gardener, I was just gravitating toward the plants. But then I got into textiles.”

McLaughlin, who lives in Placerville, took up hand-spinning yarn as a hobby. Coloring cotton, wool and silk was another step in creating a unique and personal textile. She had some familiarity with vegetable dyes such as onion skins that she had used to naturally dye Easter eggs. Her interest in yarn led her back to botanical dyes.

“I was transfixed and never looked back,” McLaughlin said. “As an avid gardener and garden writer, it dawned on me that I didn’t know any other gardeners who used their plants in this way. Which made me curious. Surely it was the plant lover that should be playing around with botanical colors, right? But these dyeing techniques seemed to remain in the fiber artist circles.”

So, McLaughlin wrote a book, distilling her newfound love of dyeing and mixing it with her 35-plus years of gardening experience. The result is “A Garden To Dye For” (St. Lynn’s Press, 142 pages, $17.95).

“I decided to write this book in order to bridge the gap between mainstream gardeners and the hand-crafter world,” she said. “I wrote it solely from the perspective of a plant, animal and fiber lover, experimenter and student of the arts.”

Her beginner’s guide to botanical dyes from a gardener’s perspective has been an instant hit in the gardening community.

“This first-of-its kind book gives us one more reason to love and use our garden plants – for their colorful natural dyes,” said garden authority Joe Lamp’l, host of the syndicated TV show “Growing a Greener World.” “Leave it to the ultimate appreciator of plants – Chris McLaughlin – to guide us through the why-do and how-to’s.”

Said McLaughlin, “I love how you can come up with all these cool things. These fabrics are one-of-a-kind and so beautiful.”

This is nothing new, she added. Dyeing fabrics with flowers and leaves is an ancient craft; that’s how people colored textiles for centuries.

“Everything makes a comeback,” she said, with a laugh. “You see students knitting. Even guys are knitting; everybody’s doing it. It’s very tactile and satisfying, working with yarn and fabric. I’ve become obsessed with spinning. I’ve been making lots of yarn – but I still don’t knit, at least right now. That’s my next step.”

As part of her yarn-making, she started experimenting with the plants in her garden to see what colors they would produce. She urges other gardeners to look at their own dye stock, too.

“If you have a cottage garden, you may already have coreopsis, dahlias, hibiscus, rudbeckia or daylilies,” she said. “Vegetable and herb gardeners might have red cabbage, beets, mint, pomegranates, walnuts or marigolds. Even a typical suburban landscape that was planted by the housing developer might have birch, juniper, roses, Japanese maple or eucalyptus.”

That last leaf is her favorite.

“I love the eucalyptus,” she said. “It gives so many fun colors. The vibrancy (of that color) depends on the age of the leaf; fresh and new makes a different color than late October.”

Summer is a good time to collect material for projects. It takes a lot of natural material, often several handfuls, for one batch of dyed fabric.

“Right now, I’m collecting marigold heads,” she said. “Everybody grows marigolds. I can dry the heads and store them in a glass jar until I’m ready to use them. They’re very pretty in a jar, too.”

Other common flowers that offer a lot of color: Roses (particularly the dark red ones), pink and purple hollyhocks, goldenrod, calendulas, cosmos, zinnias and yarrow.

One plant that she grows specifically for dye is Japanese indigo; its green leaves make a lovely blue.

McLaughlin also became friends with the produce manager at her local supermarket. That way, she could scavenge more onion skins, a favorite natural dye ingredient. Other food-turned-dye ingredients include blackberries, blueberries, black beans and avocados. Not only do they dye fabric, but they can be used as natural paint pigments.

Since McLaughlin lives in the foothills, she also uses nearby oak forests as a resource for natural materials.

“Oak makes a lovely yellow, but not too vivid; it’s a mellow yellow,” she said. “You can find lichen on downed branches and they can create a whole host of colors, depending on the kind of lichen. Some create neon yellow, very vibrant. Another one makes a very pretty purple. You can make a really gorgeous lavender with lichen. And mushrooms; I’ve just recently started working with them. You can get every color under the sun, all so different.”

To get acquainted with colors and the dyeing process, McLaughlin recommends using silk scarves or “playsilks,” squares of fabric that can be used for craft projects and child’s play. Besides serving as a way to learn to dye, these eco-print pieces also make fun gifts.

“Making silk scarves is one of my favorite things to do,” she said. “It’s easy and fun. It’s also a great way to experiment and see the different colors you can make. There’s a veritable rainbow waiting for you. Just look outside.”