Dyeing Tips

A big thank you to Barb Booth of Florida for the following tips on dyeing reed.


Dyeing Secrets

Dyes can be made with just about anything that can be boiled and produces color. Start with kitchen items and go out the back door to find other alternatives. The key to colorful permanent dyes that produce colors that last is to use boiling hot water wit h whatever you mix it with. Then just dip the coiled reed until you get the color you like. Rinse afterwards with cool water. You can add vinegar or salt to the rinse water to ensure colorfastness.

Suggested dye items:

I highly recommend you use rubber gloves, a wooden spoon for dipping and stirring, and wear an apron or an old shirt (the same one every time!). Even the neatest person can have an accident which can ruin an outfit. Use the gas grill outdoors to boil hull s and plants to avoid stinking up the kitchen.

 Most dyers use enamel pots. A copper or iron pot may change the color; nevertheless, it may be just the color you are looking for. Discarded enamel vegetable bins from old refrigerators are very useful. You can also use a glass or Pyrex bowl in the microw ave.

Some people even use the washing machine, though that can be hard on the reed and cause splitting or splinters to appear. If you use this method, use a small load, delicate cycle, and hot water. Add 1 cup vinegar to the rinse cycle to make it colorfast. R un an empty rinse cycle after the dye is used to prevent any from coloring your clothes.

The mineral content of water may affect the color. Choose rain water, soft water, or distilled water over deep-well or municipal water.


Use petals and yellow inner petals (stamen?) while they are stiil fresh for the strongest dyes. Don't use the stems. This is a good way to recycle flower arrangements. A qood indicator of a dye flower is whether it leaves color on your table top or finge rs when you touch it.


Mash ripe berries and fruits enough to make the juices flow; wait a few hours; then simmer briefly. To obtain rich dyes, use plenty of dyestuff.

Rit Dyes:

Boil 1 1/2 gallons water for one package Rit dye. Dip until desired color. Unused Rit dye can be stored in a plastic milk jug without refrigeration until needed aqain. Dye will maintain its original color best if stored away from light. Most other colorants need to be frozen to prevent them from getting rancid. Just heat up again before using. You can use a glass dish in the microwave to keep things easy.



In the fall gather walnut (makes brown), pecan (red/orange) or sunflower (gray) hulls. Remove the hulls with a hammer; crush them; place them in an old stocking or knee high; cover with water; and boil. Strain the stain; and immerse your material until i t turns the desired shade. Store the stocking with hulls in a plastic bag in the freezer to be used again. Stain can be poured into a spray bottle and sprayed or painted onto the finished basket.

 (A word of caution: Even some natural materials, especially tobacco, will produce harmful vapors when heated. Plan to work with these materials out-of-doors or in a very well-ventilated work space.

Basket Stain Recipe:

Cover and let stand for about 2 weeks. Work outside because of the ammonia fumes. This stain will not sour or go bad. Add more ammonia if stain is too dark. Baskets can be dipped or stained.

 Editor's note: Barb is an innovative vine basketmaker. To see her Hurricane Opal basket, visit color photos


Fading (and more about hulls):

Judith Olney writes: I have found a lot of the natural dyes to be very fugitive. It's embarassing to have some one tell you that a basket you sold them that was dyed with logwood and sweet fern (properly mordanted, etc.) has absolutely no color left after 5 years! I have even had indigo fade out of a basket. The only natural dye I know that is absolutely permanent is black walnut.

 Also, panty hose with the legs tied off make a wonderful container for the nuts and it is easier to just leave them inside the hulls. Panty hose also make wonderful strainers to remove the gunk that accumulates when you use the dye.

 Judith Jones suggests: There is a slower way, just as effective, to make your own walnut dye. Pick up the walnuts in the fall, place them in a five gallon bucket or a galvanized trash can, cover them with rain water and let them set. I have mine outsid e so they freeze and thaw as the weather does. When I need new "brew", I use panty hose to strain off the nuts and sludge from the husks. Then I add my new brew to my old which I keep inside the garage in a galvanized trash can. I always have a good su pply of dye. With the dye in the trash can, I can dip a whole finished basket with nice results.

 (Ed. note: You might want to leave the nuts lay out in the air for a while before doing this. In our part of the country they have little worms that need a chance to get away so you don't find them floating on top of your "brew.")

  • To make your own walnut basket stain, boil walnut hulls (feed the nuts to the squirrels first, you don't need them) in a large kettle of water. Putting them in cheesecloth bags first makes removal of the hulls from the stain much easier. Cooking them outdoors on a gas grill makes the kitchen smell much better too. 
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