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Plant Dyes, But Make It Fashion

What do fashion and nature have in common? A love of plants! Where would our clothing be today without cotton, linen, and hemp plants? And where would fashion be without the aid of plants to create vibrant, uniquely colored cloth? Certainly not featured on Project Runway.

Plants and fashion have a long history together. In celebration of this union and our current exhibition, Fashioning America: Grit to Glamour, let’s explore how dyes made from plants have been used for centuries to make fashion statements. Perhaps the most well-known of plant dyes, Indigo or Indigofera tinctoria, has been used for over 4,000 years both as a dye and, interestingly, to treat skin ailments and rejuvenate hair. Known in present times as the dye of blue jeans, you’ll find the predecessor of the ‘80s “jean jacket” fad prominently displayed in the exhibition. Dating from the 1850s, this is rare indigo-dyed denim frock coat (pictured right) was both practical and fashionable.

a denim frock coat from the 1850s on a mannequin in a gallery space
Unknown maker, Denim frock coat, 1850s, denim. FIDM Museum Purchase. Loan courtesy of FIDM Museum at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, Los Angeles.


Berries have a long history of being used to dye cloths and two locally found berries are well known for their pigments. Pokeberry, Phytolacca americana, often considered a weed, produces clusters of purple/black berries along reddish stems. It is unique in that it can produce colors ranging from burnt orange to mahogany to deep rose. Despite the berry’s luscious looks, DON’T eat it! The berries on this plant, although tasty for wildlife, do not agree with humans. A berry that you can both eat and use as a dye is elderberry (Sambucus candensis). The berries of this plant will yield a lavender to deep purple depending on the fabric you are dying. They can also be used for making jam, pies, and cordials!


Horse/Hedge Apples

Given that it’s fall, you may have noticed some very awkward looking fruits dangling from trees. Here at Crystal Bridges, our Orchard Trail is host to one of these trees. Meet Osage orange, also known as horse apple or hedge apple (Maclura pomifera). The fruit of this tree looks like a brain merged with a green grapefruit. Not very useful to animals or humans, the fruit is eye-catching but the fun part is in the heartwood. The wood, once shredded, can be used to make a yellow-colored dye. In fact, this dye was used to make khaki-colored uniforms during the First World War. Interestingly, when indigo is over-dyed with Osage orange, it produces deep rich green colors.


a green horse apple laying in the grass
Although not useful, the Osage orange fruit is interesting to look at.


Looking for something on the darker side? How about our native walnut? Notoriously delicious as fall treats for humans and animals, walnuts also give the gift of color. The dye can be found in the husks that surround the fruit (nut). The resulting colors come in shades of rich browns to tans. Like the Osage orange, mixing the fabric with indigo produces a new color, dark grey to almost black.

So, do natural dyes fade?

Some natural dyes, like the walnut for example, are high in juglone. Others are high in tannins. Both of these natural chemicals give the dyes staying power, although this can be dependent on the type of fabric being used (plant-based fabric versus animal-based fabric). To help make dye permanent on protein fibers (wool for example), a mordant can be used. A mordant is a substance that allows the dye to affix itself to the fabric being used. It acts like a bonding agent. Common mordants are alum, iron, or copper. Similar to the idea of a mordant, fixatives can be used on plant-based textiles. These include salt, vinegar, and baking soda.

Is your curiosity piqued? Try your own dyeing project and see what kind of fashion statement you can make!


Written by Samantha Best, outdoor interpretation specialist.