Natural Dyes


Have you ever wondered what materials were used to produce the wide range of hues that can be seen in traditional 19th century cloth and dress?


Using natural dyes to add colour to the homespun materials and yarns was an important aspect of life for pioneer women. After wool was taken from the sheep, washed and carded with wooden brushes to remove dirt and debris, the wool was spun on a cuibhle-shnìomh (spinning wheel) to make the yarn. The next step was to dye the yarn. The process of dyeing wool was passed from generation to the next and begins with the gathering of plants and flowers from around the farm. Dyes were created from roots, flowers, lichens and barks that were boiled in an iron pot. As the plants simmered yarn is added to the water until the desired colour was absorbed.

Dark and light browns are created with càirt a’ spruis (spruce tree bark) or crottal, a lichen found on hardwood trees. If left with the crottal long enough, the yarn takes on a dark reddish brown colour. Fearna (Alder) will create a dark brown or black colour. Plants for making yellow to olive green are popular in this area and include luibh an òir (golden rod) and tì bhàn (pearly everlasting). Some people were able to buy indigo by the ounce from travelling salesmen who imported it from further south.

Join us for an afternoon of wool dying on October 14th from 1-3pm for a workshop called Am Breacan Bòidheach Fasanta: Mary’s Bonny Plaid. This title is taken from a Gaelic song praising a tartan cloth woven and hand-dyed by a woman named Mary. The workshop offers a glimpse at the ingenuity, artistry and dye-making talents of poineer women. Vicky Quimby will demonstrate the skills described in this post, and more. Participants will learn about various dyeing techniques and will be able to dip a few skeins of their own. Pre-registration required. Admission is $20.


For further information, contact the Highland Village Museum at 902-725-2272 or by email at: