A natural way with dyes

A natural way with dyes

Words Margaret Willes

Photographs Sam Walton

With a resurgence in interest in natural dyeing, it’s a good moment to think about the history and heritage of this ancient craft. In her new book, The Domestic Herbal: Plants for the Home in the Seventeenth Century, Margaret Willes takes stock of the many uses of herbs and plants in all sorts of different ways around the home. Here, she takes us on a little meander around the fragrant world of tansy, greenweed and golden rod, and the not so sweet-smelling woad.

Hole & Corner x Vince natural dye workshop with Lola Lely 2019


In a book published in 1623, The English Housewife, Gervase Markham listed all the kinds of tasks expected of a woman in charge of her household. The range is wide, from cooking and making up medicines and ointments to brewing and the care of clothes. In the last category he included not just laundry but also dyeing, and cultivating herbs in the garden for the various colours.

Some of the herbs for dyeing have been planted in a garden at the Museum of the Home, previously the Geffrye Museum, in Hoxton. The museum is closed at the moment for extensive refurbishment, but the garden can still be visited, although it’s best to check what is going on during lockdown. It is named after Nicholas Culpepper, the radical apothecary who lived in Spitalfields, and published a herbal in 1652 which astonishingly is still in print today. Historic dyeing plants can also be seen in the gardens of the Weald and Downland Museum at Singleton near Chichester in Sussex.


Markham, in fact, was an advocate of self-sufficiency, and much dyeing of cloth was undertaken by professionals on an industrial scale. Even he would not have expected the housewife to use the blue dye that comes from woad. Derived from Isatis tinctoria, the blue is from the leaves that are pulped, moulded into balls, dried and powdered before being fermented. Not only would this have been difficult to do at home, but the noxious smell from the woad mills was notorious, with the unfortunate workers permanently stained by the colour. Elizabeth I took a particular dislike to the manufacture of woad, forbidding it to be milled within three miles of her royal residences.

Other dye plants were much more socially acceptable. An idea of some of them is contained in the commonplace book of Elizabeth Birkett, compiled at the end of the 17th century. Elizabeth was the wife of Benjamin Browne of Townend in Troutbeck, then in Westmorland. The Brownes were statesmen or estatesmen farmers, holding their land by ‘customary tenure’, a system peculiar to the border counties. The house is now in the care of the National Trust.

Rose Madder

According to Elizabeth, instruction on plants for dyeing was given to her by ‘a Scotch Woman’. For black, she recommended galls, excrescences produced on oak trees by insects, mixed with sorrel roots. The principal plant used for red dye was rose madder, with the pigment extracted by boiling the roots. The London barber surgeon John Gerard, who published his great herbal in 1597, advised that a fixative of alum would ensure that the colour did not fade. Elizabeth Birkett added madder to the bark of crab apple trees to make orange.

Elizabeth may have lived in the comparatively remote village of Troutbeck in the Lake District, but she had access to exotic ingredients for her cooking as well as her dyeing, possibly supplied by a grocer in Kendal, or brought up from London by carrier along with the books that are still in the library at Townend. Logwood from South America was mixed with pounded galls and copperas to produce a brown colour, described by Elizabeth as in ‘the Irish way’. Indigo imported from India was added to native ling or heather to produce green.


Yellow dye can be made from a whole range of plants. Elizabeth Birkett used the versatile herb, tansy, a tall plant, two to three feet high, with ferny foliage and golden, button-like flowers. She could also use it in cooking, the bitter taste combining well with eggs, and in medicine. Tansy was traditionally eaten at Easter to get rid of any worms that might have resulted from the Lenten diet of fish.

Other plants yielding yellow include weld, dyer’s greenweed, dyer’s broom and golden rod, but the most precious was made from saffron, Crocus sativa with its deep purple flowers. Like woad, saffron was usually cultivated as a cash crop, requiring skill to harvest, for the tiny stamens had to be extracted from the flower. This was usually the job of women and girls, who would be specially hired at the appropriate season. In the 16th and 17th centuries large-scale cultivation was based around Saffron Walden, although the flowers were grown in other parts of Essex and Cambridgeshire. Saffron was not only used as a medicine and as a flavouring for cakes and biscuits, but also made into a dye for silk and lace, to make them look as if they were made from gold thread, a particularly fashionable idea in the early 17th century.



Most of the dye recipes reproduced in the 17th century were for wool, while linen was usually bleached in the sun and left uncoloured. However, Elizabeth Birkett has one recipe for producing orange linen. This combined wood ashes with ‘arnotto’ or anatta, an orange-red dye from Bixa orellana, a native of South and Central America. Perhaps she wanted to stand out from her neighbours, with a dress in gloriously exotic hues.

The illustrations of plants are taken from a copy of Gerard’s herbal of 1597 that was specially hand-coloured at the time for presentation to Sir Thomas Bodley’s new library. They are © Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

The Domestic Herbal: Plants for the Home in the Seventeenth Century by Margaret Willes was published at the end of June by the Bodleian Library.

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