Sea Green and Sapphire

A blog about a love of colour, addiction to fabrics and joy of crafting…

Dyeing with Ragwort



Ragwort (Senecio jacobaea)

Here in the UK ragwort is classified as a noxious weed. Around here there’s a huge abundance of this plant, it just gets everywhere. And I must admit, I rather like it. If you ignore all the things that make it so notorious (it spreads like wild fire, it is poisonous, particularly to horses), I think it is rather pretty.

Although it is a plant that even people with a very relaxed attitude to weeds should really get rid,  it can be used for dyeing, so I have allowed some of them to grow in my garden. My logic was that if you pick it before it sets seed, there can be no harm (although this nearly caused a neighbourly dispute as my neighbour gets palpitations every time he sees them in my garden).

So as much for good neighbourly relations as for the sake of a dyeing experiment, a few weeks ago I finally picked all the ragwort plants I could find in my garden. This was quite a few large plants, perhaps a kilo in total. I separated the flowers from the stems and boiled them separately for about an hour.

I mordanted wool with alum and copper, and then after dyeing modified the results with acid, alkali and iron. I don’t use copper modifiers because this creates too many problems with disposing of the dye liquid (however, when I mordant with copper I keep reusing the same liquid over and over again, just adding more copper and vinegar when it is exhausted, so disposal is not such an issue).

Sadly, the results weren’t hugely exciting. Regardless of the method, all I got was different shades of beige.  With the ragwort flowers I got lighter, more yellowy sort of beige and with the stems I got slightly darker sort of beige, more like a light brown, particularly with a copper mordant.

The acid and alkaline modifiers did not make much of a difference, so I wouldn’t say they’re worth the effort. However, an iron modifier did make the colours darker, as expected.

Dye results with ragwort flowers

Dye Results with ragwort flowers (from left): alum, alum+acid, alum+alkali, alum+iron, copper, copper+acid, copper+alkali, copper+iron

Dye Results with Ragwort Stems

Results with ragwort stems (from left): alum, alum+acid, alum+alkali, alum+iron, copper, copper+acid, copper+alkali, copper+iron

I’m sure no dyer gets hugely excited by producing endless skeins of beige yarn, but I don’t want to be a colour snob, so I am going to set myself a challenge of thinking a good use for these yarns. Just to put a positive spin on it, I can see these sorts of sandy neutral colours might come in handy in colour work of some kind.

I am thinking if I combined these with some stronger golden yellows and browns, I could use some of these mini-skeins to knit a pair of fair-isle mittens. And the rest can always be overdyed with something…


Author: Heidi

I love colour wherever I find it, in art, photography, gardens, nature. I also love all kinds of fiber arts; spinning, dyeing, knitting, felting, sewing.

12 thoughts on “Dyeing with Ragwort

  1. Thank you so much for posting this! I’m always interested in what other dyers throw into their dyepots. I don’t have ragwort in the garden, but other noxious weeds, such as potato vine, privet, and lantana. This summer, they will all end up in the pot 🙂

  2. PS. I’m so impressed with your systematic approach and labelling. Wish I wasn’t so airy-fairy!

    • Thank you, I’m glad I impressed you as it took a lot of self-discipline to do it and I was moaning myself all the way through that it’s so tedious and taking up so much time 🙂

      I find that although I always have to force myself to do the labelling, in the end I am always glad I did it, because the labelling process really makes you look at the results and learn from them, rather than forget about them and rush off to the next project. At the same time I put samples into a folder so that I have a proper record of all the colours I produce. Having that folder is a good motivator because it’s fun to look at all those colours. But interestingly I don’t do all this admin for my spinning, although I know I should, somehow I just can’t bring myself to be quite as systematic with that.

      • Thats so interesting! I have a whole box full of undyed samples of carded locks and a little yarn I spun from different types of sheep (Southdown, Romney, Polwarth, Leicester, Drysdale, Corriedale, etc). Each lock is in its own little plastic bag, and each mini-skein is carefully labelled. But my records of dyeing experiments are almost non-existent, which is strange because I really like labelling, sorting, compartmentalising….
        Have you tried dyeing with eucalyptus leaves? If you like, I’ll send you some in an envelope. My friend Katharina loves the smell of eucalyptus and lemon verbena, so I frequently send her leaves because she can’t grow them in the short German summers. Just let me know privately – oops, don’t know how to do this… But you might. Anyway – gotta post a photo I took of a quince blossom this morning. They are so delicate! Next dyeing day I’ll dye a skein of silk/merino in cream and pink and call it Quincy…

      • I love the sound of your lock and spun yarn collection – I keep thinking I should make something similar, but I never quite get round to it…

        Thank you every so much for your offer of eucalyptus, so generous of you! 🙂 Perhaps we can do a swap of some kind, would like like some dried coreopsis (tickseed) or dyer’s chamomile flowers perhaps? I will send you an email privately.

  3. Heidi, I think those soft beiges are lovely and totally worth all the trouble you went to. I think they would look great with some warm creams and sea greens and sea blues. Like driftwood and sand along a beautiful piece of coastline.

  4. Thank you Kate, you are inspirational! And “driftwood” is so much more lyrical as a description than “dull beige” 🙂

    I absolutely love the colour combination you suggest, I always associate those colours with Cornwall, sandy beaches and gently turquoise sea.

  5. Oooh, yes, please, I’d love some coreopsis! It’s so nice of you to offer a swap. I’d like you to know, though, that I didn’t expect anything back. I’m a great believer in “pay it forward” and “what goes round comes round” etc. Having said that – I absolutely love bartering and do a lot of it. We have chickens and a huge vegetable garden, so we have always something to give in return. Most popular are eggs, rhubarb (grows like wildfire), rosemary (we have a 30m hedge), loads of broccoli (at the moment), and tons of fruit (we have about 30 fruit trees). We also have bees, but they’re only new so we let them keep their honey for a season before stealing it from them.
    Here’s me babbling again…(blush)

    • Oops, in my brainless enthusiasm I totally forgot that biosecurity NZ doesn’t allow plant material to come into the country through the mail, so I’ll have to dream about finding someone here who has coreopsis, or maybe growing it myself. One of my friends who goes to Provence a lot once sent me a sprig of lavender, which prompted an official letter telling me customs would keep the sprig in case I wanted to pay $60 to have it fumigated, but would destroy it after a certain time. Sadly, the sprig never saw the light of day again… Fortunately, all this rigmarole won’t prevent me from sending you a pile of gum leaves (here, eucalyptus trees are commonly know as gum trees).

      • Oh that is a shame, but I suppose it can’t be helped 😦

        I tried sending you an email but unfortunately it bounced back. But if you like, we can continue this conversation on Ravelry (I’m HeidiIlona there).

  6. I’m not certain since I haven’t attempted it myself yet, but you may have gotten that beige-y color because of the iron you used. We have a huge thing of wild Ragwort running rampant in my back yard this year, so before it all gets mowed down, I’m thinking about collecting some to experiment dyeing with. From what I understand, you should use just alum for a pale yellow, tin for a bright yellow, and iron or a yellow-beige. This is supposed to be with just the flowers too, if I’ve got it right. The leaves can give you a pretty green dye, but apparently it isn’t very permanent. =/

    I hope maybe this helped some in case you ever try again! But I do think those sandy colors you ended up with would be lovely compliments to some others

    • I did try various combinations of mordant and modifier, and even with just alum I got a sandy beige so your suggestion is certainly a good one but in this case it wasn’t the iron that was the culprit. But you are right, there’s nothing wrong with slightly “duller” colours as compliments to brighter ones.

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