Folk Fibers Blog

  • Natural Dyes - Osage Orange

    Osage Orange is one of my favorite dye sources for creating a range of golden yellows, metallic and russet golds, as well as soft mossy greens. I usually steer clear of using mordants in my dye process with the exception of yellows. Above all I prefer the soft earthy color results of mordant-free dye baths. In this post I demonstrate how using mordants can be used as a color changer, brighting or darkening protein or cellulose fibers, creating beautiful shifts in color. I find this exciting when working with natural dyes to create my patchwork quilts! 

    Natural fibers dyed with Osage Orange heartwood 
    no mordant--pure and earthy

    Natural fibers dyed with Osage Orange heartwood
    alum pre-mordant--brightens color results creating metallic golds

    Natural fibers dyed with Osage Orange heartwood
    iron after mordant--darkens color results creating mossy greens

    The Recipe (no mordant)

    Osage Orange wood shavings (aprox 4oz per pound of fiber)
    enough water to generously cover dye stuff
    bring the water w/ dyestuff to a boil--30 mins or longer
    let the pot cool to touch then strain wood chips/shavings from the pot (I suggest using a colander lined w/ cheese cloth)
    set aside the wet wood chips, they can be saved and reused again or composted
    return strained golden dye bath to the pot and reheat 
    soaking the dyestuff a few days ahead is an alternative or aid in extracting color from dyestuff
    evenly soak fibers in hot water before placing them in the dyebath (this helps achieve even color)

    place pre-wet fibers into the dyebath 
    heat dye bath to a slow boil for aprox 1 hour, using a spoon or stick to submerge fibers and free air bubbles
    to achieve even color avoid crowding the dyepot 
    reduce heat and let the fibers cool in the dyebath this will give brighter results 
    most dye artist let the bath sit and cool overnight or even a few days, longer is stronger
    remove the fibers from dyebath, rinse with cold water until water runs clear
    hang to dry
    once fabric has dried, hand or machine wash gently with a mild detergent such as synthrapol
    use your fibers to create something beautiful 

    The below instructions for using mordants are sourced from Aurora Silk 

    Alum (pre)mordant used at 25% by weight of fabric, or use less if you are dyeing a light tone.  For silk dyeing, it is possible to use hot tap water and not have to heat the mordant bath. Just dissolve the alum well in hot water from the tap into a pot or bucket large enough for fabric to be completely submerged, add the fabric and let it sit overnight, with occasional stirring. Always wear gloves, such as dishwashing gloves, when working with any mordant.

    Iron (after)mordant called “green vitriol” in old dye books, this is an essential of the dyer’s art.  Iron after baths can take any yellow or gold and turn it to a soft green.  Reds become burgundies, pinks become plums, and any tannin source (any weed or bark) can be used to make pretty greys, just by adding iron. Usually used as an after-mordant modifier, where you just watch the color and when it has changed “to taste”, rinse it.  If used as a pre-mordant, ½ oz per pound is the usual ratio = 3%.  Do not use too much as it can “weight” and damage delicate fibres.

    The Osage Orange Tree, Maclura Pomifera produces a large, spherical green fruit ranging from 4" to 5" in diameter, the fruit is actually an aggregate of many small seeds, resembling a green, wrinkled orange. Common names for the fruit is "horse apple" or "hedge apple", the fruit is not used in the dye process, but can be used as a natural insect repellent. 

    A stack of cotton and raw silk ready for quilt making, hand dyed with Osage Orange and a variety of mordants. 
    Harvesting wood from an Osage Orange tree in Austin, Texas 
    Read more about identifying and harvesting the beautiful golden heartwood on my previous blog post.

    If you do not have access to harvesting your own wood, the dyestuff is available for purchase through the well-known dye houses such as Aurora Silk, Dharma TradingEarth Hues, or Botanical Colors

    Remember to enjoy the process! 

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  • Comments on this post (21 comments)

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      On October 02, 2020

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    • Gregory Mc Govern says...

      Wow, what an informative & artistic website. My limited dyeing experience had been T-shirts with aniline dye. Really want to give dyeing with osage a try though. The wool with alum mordant is such a glorious orange color, I’d love to make a T-shirt with that hue, but (from your fiber examples) cotten doesn’t seem to get any darker than a light yellow :( Would pretreating the fabric (calcium carbonate solution) help cotten achieve a darker hue, or is this a keratin fiber vs cellulose fiber color issue? Thanks.

      On June 20, 2019

    • Andrew says...

      This is a bit of thread necromancy, but I hope you’ll forgive me. I wanted to point out that the heartwood is not the only part of Osage Orange trees that will render a very usable dye. I harvested a couple of Walmart bags full of twigs and leaves about a month ago and made a dye vat out of them and achieved a lovely golden color on alum mordanted wool yarn.

      On August 18, 2018

    • Tony harmon says...

      Can this be used to in return dye the Osage itself?

      On June 26, 2018

    • Kristen says...

      Do you have any idea if Osage orange fruit can be used for dying? I have easy access to large quantities of the fruit but would have to purchase wood or shavings.

      On September 17, 2017

    • Terry says...

      Thanks for posting this! The nasty old tree that I hated as a child has turned out to be one of the most useful trees in the forest!

      On March 08, 2017

    • a says...

      Very nice description of options. One comment – if harvesting Osage for dye materials, keep in mind that boyers (makers of traditional wood bows) would love to find straight, knot free sections around 6ft in length. Sharing the material if felling whole trees would be a nice collaboration and in fact many traditional/primitive boyers would be VERY interested in natural dyes as well ;-)

      On April 25, 2016

    • trade80silks says...

      nice thought. thank you for sharing that blogs

      On November 23, 2015

    • jimmy trusso says...

      I use many natural dyes and tints for the shirts and other clothing I create for my business. have been using much indigo, but a friend told me about osange orange. where can I get some? Amazon? Thank you.

      On June 10, 2015

    • Michael Gentry says...

      I made up an Osage dye bath and dyed a cotton shirt which came out a delightful yellow-gold color. However, when my wife laundered it most of the color came out, leaving it more of a tan color. I hadn’t used a mordant, but was advised that failure to use a salt bath is why the color wasn’t fast. I have the shirt cooling in the replenished bath after simmering it in the heated dye bath for a couple hours. I removed the shirt and added a couple Tbs. of un-iodized salt before returning the shirt to the bath. I plan to let it cool. & soak another 24 hours before removing, rinsing in clean water and hanging to drip dry.

      Can I still use alum to achieve a brighter or more durable color? Should I only hand wash the shirt to preserve the color. Any suggestions you can offer will be appreciated. Thanks!

      On October 22, 2013

    • Doug Hill says...

      Thanks for your expertise! Going to try using the ‘waste’ sawdust and chips from bow-carving to dye rattan splints for basket weaving. I’m glad to have a baseline recipe to begin with. Thanks!

      On August 06, 2013

    • Elyse Adams says...

      Hi Maura
      I have learned so much from you about the art of natural
      Dyes. Your knowledge is absolutely amazing. Your quilts
      Are beautiful? It is wonderful to see your projects! I wish you
      Great luck. I am inspired both dye and raise some indigo
      Out here in Sonoma Ca. On my vineyard!


      On March 26, 2013

    • Abby says...

      I just wanted to tell you how beautiful your work is! I found you via Country Living magazine. I LOVE handquilting, and it is so wonderful to see a business like yours thrive!

      On February 11, 2013

    • Sara Breakfield says...

      Love this! Now I need to experiment with mordants! And maybe even a big copper pot to see what happens! Always love your posts Maura!

      On February 01, 2013

    • Emma Dahlqvist says...

      Fantastic colors! I really like the brightness of the alum-mordant ones, especially the silk. Beautiful. Thanks for sharing!

      On January 28, 2013

    • Elizabeth Beattie says...

      So, so excited for this!!!! Thank you for sharing!!!

      On January 28, 2013

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