Rhubarb to dye for

When I started to look into natural colours to use in soaps I was inevitably led to websites about dying fibers with natural materials like plants and bugs.  I was fascinated because I had always thought that the only colours you could get from nature were dull beiges and browns and maybe some greens.  And that didn't appeal to me.  I like rainbow colours, vibrant and clear.  So I was pleasantly surprised to see the exciting pink that the Cochineal bug gives and the deep purple of Logwood, not to mention the fabulous blue of Indigo.

I have been collecting bits and pieces of dye stuff for just over a year.  I came across a website that sold some natural dyes and I ordered some like Madder, Alkanet and Logwood which I tried to uses in soap, mostly successfully.  But I also ordered some mordant even if I had no clue what it was.  I only knew that it was used in the dyeing process, but didn't really understand it's function.  Then I started to notice books about dyeing and I bought some.  In my Icelandic book about medicinal plants and also in general books about the Flora of Iceland there is always the mention of how each plant was used in the past, either for food, medicine, dyeing or other practical purposes.  I found all this absolutely fascinating stuff!  It's hard to explain, but I find it somehow comforting to learn how to make things that usually come out of factories.

When I was a kid, we were taught a lot in school.  We had cooking and baking lessons and handiwork lessons where we learned to knit and crochet and sew and embroider.  Or rather the girls did, the boys learned woodworking and such which I would also have liked, had I known that it was possible for females to do macho things like that.  But I didn't know about sexism then and now I am very thankful for what I learned at this early age.  I remember when I moved to the States and heard my American friends talk about baking "from scratch".  I had no clue what they were on about.  Scratch?  What was that!  Some ingredient?  Equipment?  I couldn't believe it when I found out that it was possible to buy something in a box, add water and eggs and call it baking.  Hmm.  Where's the fun in that!

So anyway, back to natural colour.  I wrote a post about my first dyeing experience using Dandelion  - Taraxacum officinale) and this cold spring I have been busy dying with some plants that are in season as well as some of the dye stuff that I have bought.  I have now dyed from Cochineal, Alkanet, Comfrey, Rumex, Lupin, some Lichen and now Rheus (Rhubarb to you and me).  And this post is about my Rhubarb colours.

When I was asked to do this little talk about Rhubarb I wanted to show a lot of different ways to use the Rhubarb.  One of them is obviously to use it to dye yarn and fabric.  And what colours!  Beautiful soft yellows, through orange to corals to green (with the help of some copper).  I can't wait to finish my sweater.  The Icelandic sweaters are usually made in the natural sheep colours of greys, browns, white and black which I really like, but knitting one using my own home dyed yarn is just so cool!  I've almost knit enough to be ready to knit the pattern.  I just need to make one up.  I want it to be a flowery, girly untraditional something.  I have to see what I can come up with.

It is possible to use both the leaves and the root of Rhubarb to dye animal fibers.  I don't know how cotton receives the dye.  I need to find out.  But wool and silk take the colour quite well.  The dyebath is made beforehand by simmering the chopped dye stuff (either the root or the leaves) for 30-45 minutes and strain it and let it cool.  The leaves give a geenish yellow, but the root gives the most lovely range of colours in the photo.

The wonderful thing about Rhubarb is that there is no need for a mordant.  That means that there is no pre-treatment required.  All one needs to do is to wash the fiber to get it thoroughly clean and wet.  Squeeze out excess moisture and put it into the cold dyebath.  Then the whole thing is heated up to about 80C (very, very slowly if one is dyeing wool.  It should take at least an hour) that temperatur held of 30 minutes and then let cool down over night.  The fiber is then rinsed and dried.

I have a few books about dyeing.  I own everything that has been published about it in Icelandic that I have been able to get hold of, some of the old stuff has been typed up and photocopied.  But out of everything that I have seen on the subject there is one woman that stands out to me as the most generous and reliable source of knowledge.  I have two of her books and love them both.  Jenny Dean has a blog that I recommend to everyone and her newly republished book, Wild Color, is not only beautiful but also invaluable to those who want to learn to dye with natural colours.  I can only humbly thank her and all the other women who have written books and article and blogs about dyeing and shared their knowledge with me.


  1. You are right. These colours are just beautiful. I've never heard of Rhubarb as ingredient for dyeing. It's impressing to see this very feminine colour range, and all from one plant.

  2. Thanks so much for the great info. 7 months into soapmaking and I am still struggling with how to color soap naturally. Finally some of my soaps are more green and pink and less beiege and brown. Not that brown can't be beautiful ecept hen you were trying for purple ! Anyway, I learned alot.

  3. Petra, I think the colours are just wonderful. Very feminine and summery. They would work wonderfully in babyclothes also.

    Donna, thank you for your thank you :) I glad that you have foundmy blog helpful. I have decided to (try to) embrace the unpredictability of natural colours. Good luck

  4. Ambra, I loved this little series of posts on rhubarb! I am so trying some of these! Fabulous. Love your blog, too! xo


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