Eucalyptus dye database

This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body.

Welcome to the Eucalyptus dye database.

I studied the Eucalypts (eucalyptus, angophora and corymbia species) at The Australian National Botanical Garden (ANBG) for their dyes from June- November in 2016. I wish to thank the ANBG for their generous support of this project, and to their rangers for helping to collect the plant materials each week. Working at the gardens ensured I was able to accurately identify all the plants used as dyes. I was also very grateful to receive an Australia Council grant to undertake the research. All of the colours are beautiful and I think that any eucalyptus tree you have access to would be worth trying for it's colours. For help identifying Eucalyptus trees I would suggest visiting the ANBG website and their databases of information.

Directly below are links to the dye colours from both the leaves and barks. Please keep reading on this page for information about the recipes, fabrics and mordants that I used in the project.

Ranger Ben from the ANBG

Ranger Ben from the ANBG

Ranger Dan at the ANBG

Ranger Dan at the ANBG

General safety when making eucalyptus plant dyes

  • Use separate pots, tongs and stove tops for making plant dyes than the ones you use for cooking food.
  • It is good to simmer eucalyptus dyes outside where possible. Even though many of the dyes smell wonderful some people get headaches from them. 
  • Wear kitchen gloves when handling the dyes and mordants. Use a face mask when handling the dry mordants.
  • Think about how you are going to be able to dispose of any dye liquor with mordants (see below for an explanation of mordants). I have a spot behind the shed. 
  • Used leaves and barks (that have been processed with water only) can be used as mulch in the garden.

Fabrics

Protein fibres such as wool and silk take up eucalyptus dye very well and I used a wool etamine and a silk habotai for the samples in the dye database. The third fabric I used was linen with a soy milk mordant (see under mordants below). Each fabric takes the eucalyptus in unique ways.

Eucalyptus mannifera leaves on wool, silk and linen

Eucalyptus mannifera leaves on wool, silk and linen

Recipes

For the project I used the same recipe for every dye-pot so results from the different plants could be compared. Below I have outlined the specific recipes for this project. However if I am making dyes to colour materials for artworks my recipe wouldn't need to be so precise. Basically I use a non-reactive (stainless steel) pot big enough to hold the materials to be dyed. Next I would nearly fill the pot with leaves and then add water until the leaves are covered. I would bring the pot to the boil and then turn the heat down and let the leaves gently simmer for 50 minutes. The dye liquor can then be strained and the fabrics or yarns added and simmered in the liquor for another 50 minutes. 

Project recipes

The leaves- from each species I removed 100 grams of leaves from the stalks and flower buds. These leaves were placed in 3 litres of tap water (Canberra) and brought to the boil in a stainless steel pot. After simmering for 50 minutes and straining the dye liquor, equal amounts of the dye liquor was poured into 4 separate stainless steel pots. Each pot has small samples of fabric added,

  1. with the dye liquor only
  2. with alum as a mordant 
  3. iron as a mordant
  4. copper as a mordant

For the project I only used fresh leaves cut from the trees and processed them within 3 days of collection. However, it is great to collect wind-fallen leaves to use as dyes when you see them. 

The barks- from each species I placed 100 grams of bark in a glass jar with hot water to soak for at least overnight. The barks were then processed in the same way as the leaves.

Generally I used bark that was hanging over branches of the trees or loose at the base of the tree. Great to collect eucalyptus barks as the trees are shedding in summer.

Bark soaking on the kitchen windowsill

Bark soaking on the kitchen windowsill

Mordants

Eucalyptus dyes are substantive dyes and therefore do not require a mordant to adhere to fabric. A mordant is a substance which helps a dye to combine with textile fibres, enabling the dye to become firmly fixed in the fibre. Mordants also have the additional quality of changing the colour of the dye. Mordants can be used at different times during the dyeing process—as a pre-mordant to help a fabric take up the dye, in the pot with the plant materials, or as a post-mordant to effect colour changes in already dyed fabrics. I used 4 mordants in this project. The first was soy milk. Cellulose fibres such as linen and cotton don't take eucalyptus dyes well, therefore to assist the linen fabric take up the dyes I first soaked it in a mix of 1/3 soy milk and 2/3 water (hang the fabric on the line to dry without rinsing. Once the fabric is totally dry it can be stored to use when you need it). The protein in the soy milk helps the linen take up the dye. All of the linens in the eucalyptus database have been pre-soaked in soy. Here is an example of linen that hasn't been soaked in soy and one that has.

Eucalyptus cadens leaves (linen without and with soy milk mordant)

Eucalyptus cadens leaves (linen without and with soy milk mordant)

I also used alum (aluminium potassium sulphate), iron (ferrous sulphate) and copper (copper sulphate) as pre-mordants to create a range of colours in the dyed fabrics.

  • iron and copper were used at 2% of the dry weight of the fabric to be mordanted. So for every 100 grams of fabric I used 2 grams of iron or copper. I filled a stainless steel pot with enough water to cover the fabric to be mordanted. The I dissolved the mordant in the water, added the fabric and brought the pot to the boil. Then turn down the heat and gently simmer for 1 hour. Let the water cool and remove the fabric. Hang out to dry without rinsing. Iron greys or 'saddens' the colours. Copper brings out greens and browns.
  • Alum was used at 15% of the dry weight of the fabric. Alum brightens the colours. I have noticed in this project that it tends to bring out reds and oranges more strongly, and deepens yellows.
Eucalyptus melanophloia leaves on wool  (no mordant, alum, iron, copper)

Eucalyptus melanophloia leaves on wool  (no mordant, alum, iron, copper)

The dye-pot can also be used as a mordant. It is good to have a collection of reactive copper and aluminium pots to experiment with. I haven't had too much success with these pots, but my rusty billy gives a good iron mordant. Rusty nails added to the pot while you are dyeing will also give good iron colours.

Not getting the results you expected

Many factors affect the colours obtained from eucalyptus dyes. These will include factors that you can't control such as the biophysical conditions the tree is growing in and recent rainfall. Here are some points to consider,

  • the fabric you are using to dye with
  • the water you are using- chemicals in your water supply may change the dyes
  • the amount of dye material to fabric. If the colours are lighter than you expected you may need to use larger quantities of the dye material. Wool especially soaks up the dye.
  • please contact me via my contact page if you have any other questions, or want to share some interesting results.