Joe Pye, Natural Dyeing

Dye Study on Joe Pye Weed

20180821_092301.jpg  Joe Pye Weed grows along the roadside and power line corridors in Central New York.  This patch is just across from my house on the edge of a marsh.

Many dyers have gorgeous photos of themselves walking through the woods in flowing dresses carrying willow baskets and artistic shears.

I would love to be that person, but I know me.  It’s only a matter of time until I walk into a ditch.

For most days, jeans and boots are my go-to.


Today was just the verge alongside my road, so long pants and rubber gardening boots got it done.   Gloves are key.  Flexible ones with thick palms will keep you from getting skewered, poked, & bitten.    Long sleeved shirts are nice for walking through tall brush.  If you love your short sleeved shirts in the summer, you can find gloves that cover your forearms.

You won’t need protective clothing for every ramble, but for walking through shoulder-high brush, you’ll appreciate it!

I use 5 gallon plastic buckets for my cuttings.  They are easy to put down, and I don’t have to worry if the ground is wet or level.  I can prop them in the brush and they’ll just hang out until I pick them up again.  I like the bright white buckets that are really easy to find again.  Stay away from the dark blue ones which blend in.  You don’t want to waste time walking around trying to find your bucket!  Plastic buckets aren’t pretty, but they are durable.  Rain, puddles, ponds, mud- nothing phases them.  I can hose them out after I’m done, and they are ready for more.  If you are trying to minimize your plastic use, then try bushel baskets.  They are lightweight and durable.  Dye them bright red you can find them again!


After gathering, it’s a good idea to shake off and hose down your cuttings.  This lets the slugs, snails, and spiders on the plants return to life out in the world rather than finding a place in your house.  I don’t have an outdoor sink yet, so I use a hose and my bucket for washing outside.   After rinsing, I bring the hopefully slug-free plants in to my big sink.

I’ve read everything I can find on dyeing with joe pye weed, and everyone seems to have a personal recipe.  Color reports range from pink to clear yellow to yellow-green.  I haven’t seen a photo of anything pink, just written reports which makes me wonder if pink is really one of the dyeing options. I’m going to do a range of water based extraction tests and then try a few different mordants to see what happens.

The Dye Extraction Plan:

Dye Bath One-A:
Flower & seed heads only
Minced, soaked in water, put in solar oven to steep

Dye Bath One-B:
Flower and seed heads only
Minced, soaked in slightly alkaline bath, put in solar oven to steep

Dye Bath One-C:
Flower & seed heads only
Minced, soaked in slightly acidic bath, put in solar oven to steep

Dye Bath One-D:
Flower & seed heads only
Minced, placed in 212F water and simmered for 45 minutes

Dye Bath One- E:
Flower & seed heads only
Minced, placed in 212F slightly alkaline water and simmered for 45 minutes

Dye Bath One- F
Flower & seed heads only
Minced, placed in 212F slightly acidic water and simmered for 45 minutes

Dye Bath Two:
Leaves and stalks only
Repeat processes for A-F

Dye Bath Three:
Full plants
Repeat processes for A-F


Separating the heads & mincing the flowers:  
At first, I was not going to mince the heads, so I went ahead and lopped the flower heads off with shears.  Then I thought again and decided I wanted to mince them.  Minced flowers have more surface area for the transfer of dye from the plant to the water.  If there is lots of dye in the flower, you don’t need to mince them.  It’s been a tough year for growing plants with the heat and drought alternating with floods.  I don’t have high hopes for these flowers.  If you have a dye-dedicated blender or chopper, you can chop the heads from the stems and pulse-chop them in your blender.

I fried my blender on some woody stalks (oops), but I have a handy chopper around which is perfect for this sort of flower.

If you don’t have a blender or chopper, don’t worry.  Scissors are all you need.  Just chop the flowers and seeds into tiny bits right off of the stalk.  If the flowers are spread out, chop them into a bowl, grab a handful of flowers, and cut them into bits with your scissors.

20180821_131413I put 360g of plant material in the jar with 3600 ml of water.  The amount of dye in plants varies tremendously based on the time of year, the soil, the growing season, etc.   A recipe of X amount of plant to X amount of wool is a rough guideline unless you keep very detailed records about where you gather and the weather.

So, why am I weighing the plant material?  For this comparison, I want to use the same amount of plant material across the different batches to see which process is most effective in addition to what colors they each give.  Sometimes the boil and simmer gives more dye.  Sometimes a long, low heat soak gives more dye.  More importantly,  the different extraction temperatures can change the color/composition of the dye.  I will lose more water on the boil/simmer extraction than the solar heating, so it’s nice to have an idea of how much I started with.  A boiled bath can look darker just because there is less of water.

So- many more steps to go.  I have lots of chopping, soaking, and heating ahead of me.  I hope the sun comes out, so I can get these jars heating tomorrow!

3 thoughts on “Dye Study on Joe Pye Weed”

    1. Sadly, life got in the way and I didn’t have time to finish this project. I’ve been meaning to repeat it, but my patch of plants stopped growing after my neighbor did construction that changed the water flow. I need to find another patch for harvesting 🙂


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