Editor - Staff Writer


The North American Frontiersmen


Smoke Signals

Jan./Feb. '10



Using Natural Dyes

How many articles have you read on using natural dyes from plants, trees and the earth to color your favorite shirt, or how great walnut dye is. Seems everyone is into early camo, or would like you to believe that anyone in the woods from the Native American to the woodsman or long hunter were. Funny when I read the half dozen original "Pennsylvania Gazettes" from the mid 1700's or the three original "New York Tribunes" from the late 1700's; the advertising and the "wanted" lists for run-aways, show items for sale or being worn by this period of folks as being pretty damn colorful. Having read them many, many times and haven't found the dark brown and blacks some write about ? Lots of bright colors, stripes, plaids, checker and calico patterns, maybe what they are referring to is the original garment has gotten real dirty ! I have talked to many in the garment and cloth supplies and asked them about this, usually I get a smile and not much feed back as to the dark colored clothes we read about. Most of the time the subject is changed to what they have available, this is where the old saying comes in: "you never hear a huckster cry rotten fish" seems to fit very nicely doesn't it. I won't go any further on this subject, as several of our brothers have gone into great detail about what colors were available. At our last camp we got to talking about what the Native American had available to them in the way of color, then our editor was asking for articles of different things so I thought we would do a little lookin' and see what was around in native dyes. After looking over a half dozen books that cover "Native American Dyes" and figuring it would take something the size of a Sear Catalog (Spring issue) to cover this, plus it has already been done. So in a feable attempt I have shortened what information available at hand, to try and not make you to bored. The Ojibwa and the Chippewa tribes seems to have had some of the easier uses of dye: in making the dye and the process of dying the item. Most of the plants, tree root - inner bark, earth, and rusty iron depots they used were prepared by boiling the plant, root, etc. until it had released all the juices it had held previsouly. The removal of the resource material was the next part, at which time it maybe dried and reused at a later date. The liquid containing the juices (dye) from the first boiling was then the agent used for dying the articles to recieve the coloring, this may take from a short period a few hours, or soaking from a week to several or even a month to get the desired results. After the wanted color was achived the use of a securing agent was needed, so all your work wouldn't be washed out with the first rain or washing. This usually meant another boiling of your garment or article to set the color from the previous operation. So you can see to have an item with a wonderful color was not an easy task and may take quite a long period to get what you fancy. Some tribes didn't get as involved or just traded with ones that did to get what they wanted for color, then produced their personal article from the material traded for. It seems many of the tribes had like uses for different plants, trees and earth in the manufacturing of a dying agent. After comparing a dozen tribes across this great land I put together a list as follows.

Common Name Part of plant used Article dyed Color

ALDER inner bark porcupine quills red & yellow w/blood root, w.plum, dogwood mix

BLOOD ROOT root / inner bark porcupine quills,wood red w/other plant mix

BUR OAK inner bark porcupine quills black w/hazel, butternut mix

BUTTERNUT root / inner bark wood, cloth brown w/hazel mix

CEDAR-RED inner bark wood, grass mats mahogany w/other plant mix

CHOKEBERRY inner bark securing agent for: red

DOGWOOD inner bark porcupine quills ight red w/birch, oak, cedar mix

GOLD THREAD root porcupine quills dark yellow

HAZEL inner bark securing agent for: black w/butternut dye agent "rushes" black w/hazel, oak dye agent "cedar" black

HEMLOCK inner bark porcupine quills, matting med. mahogany w/rock dust to set color

LAMB'S QTR whole plant securing agent for: green

LICHENS whole plant porcupine quills med. yellow

MAPLE rotted wood porcupine quills purple

PUCCOON dried root porcupine quills, face paint red

SUMAC inner bark / pulp porcupine quills, matting light yellow

WHITE BIRCH inner bark porcupine quills medium red w/dogwood, oak, cedar ash

WILD PLUM root porcupine quills bright, dark red w/blood root, dogwood, alder mix = bright red w/blood root alone = dark red

Please note; most are shown as being used for porcupine quills (most easily dyed), grass matting, or as a securing agent to keep dye in material dyed. I have tried several of these on cloth items and found that you have to let your article soak for a period of time to get the wanted results in the color wanted, don't forget the securing agent for a lasting color.

A few formulas for dyes are shown below, a Dr. G. P. Merrill of the United States National Museum in Washington had made tests with many recipes and found these to work as good as any tested.


White Birch. Red-osler dogwood / outer and inner bark. Oak. Ashes from cedar bark. Hot water. Boil the barks in the hot water. Prepare the ashes by burning about an armful of scraps of cedar bark. This should make about 2 cups of ashes, which is the correct quantity for 2 gallons of dye. sift the ashes through a piece of cheesecloth. Put them into the dye after it has boiled for a period, then let it boil up again, and then put in the material to be colored. Do not let a man or any outsider look into the dye.


Puccoon, nine inches of dried root - pulverized. Hot water, 1 quart. Ochre, 1 teaspoonful. If being used for dyeing porcupine quills, let it boil up a little, then put in the quills, which have previously stood for a while in hot water. Let the quills boil half an hour to an hour, keeping the kettle covered, then remove from the fire and let the quills stand in the dye for several hours. If they are not bright enough they may be redyed, letting them stand in the dye as before. The process is substantially the same in dyeing other materials.


Bloodroot, 1 handful of root. Wild plum, 1 handful. Red-osier dogwood, 1 handful. Alder, 1 handful. The inner bark of the trees and the root of the bloodroot were used, all being boiled before the quills were put in the dye. Let the quills boil half an hour to an hour, keeping the kettle covered, then remove from the fire and let the quills stand in the dye for several hours. The list of formulas is endless with just about any color one could think of, processes are from simple ones like just shown, to ones that one would need the patience of a saint to perform. Go to your local library, you'll be surprised at the amount of titles covering natural and native dyes.

Buck Conner    


Page 10


come warm yourself friends