Bracken dyeing experiment

My participation in one year one outfit has sparked an interest in eco dyeing. I have already had a go with eucalyptus leaves and I thought I’d try bracken leaves as I have a few growing on our weekend block. I picked a few, boiled them up with some rainwater in an iron pot and then loaded in the eucalyptus dyed fabric into which I had rolled a few leaves. I tied it all up with string and weighted it down with a rock and left it alone for a week.


I realise that the rock might change the chemical composition of the brew and therefore skew my experiment, but as I’m not being overly scientific I decided I wasn’t too fussed by this.


A week later I pulled out a purple slug-like piece of fabric. I was thrilled.


If you examine the above photo carefully you can see the imprint of the bracken leaves. I was now beyond thrilled.

I hadn’t pre-mordanted this piece of fabric, so I decided to post-mordant it with a brew of she-oak nuts. As mentioned in my last post, I made like a squirrel and gathered the nuts, and boiled them up with some rain water and plunged in my fabric.


It looked totally disgusting. I left it for a day and then took it home and washed it.

OK, mild disappointment. My fabric is no longer purple but a kind of dirty lavender and most of the bracken imprints have vanished.


Of course, had I used silk or wool, this might have been a stunning experiment, but I have masses of white cotton that I don’t mind sacrificing and no white silk or wool. It’s still interesting though and I will turn this into a long top that I can wear under things in the winter.

Since conducting this rather iffy experiment, one of my friends, who is a botanist, told me that bracken is highly toxic and that early settlers would use it as fodder and bedding for calves and it caused haemorrhaging and death. It also makes sheep psychotic! Hence, this will be my first and last experiment with bracken as I’m not sure how I feel having that little lot leach into my skin.


15 thoughts on “Bracken dyeing experiment

  1. I didn’t know bracken was toxic! Fiddleheads are delicious and the plant is so beautiful. But your friend must be right. A quick research in the Web lead to this: “The British Royal Horticultural Society recommends against consumption of bracken either by humans or livestock, since it contains carcinogens linked with oesophageal and stomach cancer.” Good to know, for sure.

    1. Good research Hélène, I trusted my friend, but it’s nice to see it confirmed. However, the purple colour is delicious and it would be good on silk…

  2. Pity the colour didn’t stay but lucky you found out about the toxic plant. After you dye the fabric did you wash it in salt to set it (I vaguely remember doing something like that when I dyed tee-shirts in my younger days?). Yes, I have done some craft in my life. Next birthday I’m buying you a book on plants!

  3. I gasped with delight when I saw the purple, leaf-printed fabric then felt increasingly despondent as I read on. I wonder what happened to the colour and prints. Still, you are on the way to creating something incredible. When you perfect your technique, I’ll have a go!! Just kidding, I’d love to experiment along with you.

  4. That purple with the bracken, divine. Such a pity about the change & toxicness. I’ve pulled SO much bracken out over the years, it would have been lovely to think it was useful 😉 I do look forward to reading about what’s next!

  5. Sue this is brilliant! So creative. The Scots dyed their yarns with seaweeds and produced colours no chemical solution could achieve. Looking forward to more experiments.

  6. Oh what a pity as I really liked the bracken leaves on the fabric but agree it is not something to play with. Now seaweed, that sounds interesting.

  7. What a pity the colour washed out! but a very interesting experiment anyway. I think the paler colour is still quite pretty but yep, understand that you might not want something toxic next to your skin!
    I didn’t know that about bracken, my parents have PILES of it at their place too. Dad ruthlessly mows over it with his tractor 🙂

  8. Have you considered that a chemical dye fed to cattle would also produce unkind results, but you wear commercial chemical dyes next to your skin, I assume–most of us do– without being poisoned. In fact, I assume you would not fare well if you ate wool, cotton, silk, hemp, etc. fibers. But you wear them on your skin with no ill effects. So why worry about bracken dye?

    1. This is an interesting question. Bracken is actually a poison and causes carcinomas and haemorrhage in cattle when mature plants are eaten. There is evidence that cooking young plants reduces the ill effects. A botanist friend warned me against using the dye next to my skin as skin absorbs toxins. Of course, there are those who say that we shouldn’t use synthetic dyes, but that’s a whole other discussion!

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