naturally dyed yarn with elderberries

Dyeing Yarn with Elderberry (Elder)

Did you know that you can create several different colorways when dyeing yarn with elderberry (elder)? Elderberry, also known as elder, is a versatile natural dyestuff which allows you to use different parts of the plant for natural dyeing purposes.

elderberry shrub tree in bloom

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If you have been a reader of this blog for a longer period of time, you will know that I am a fan of elderberry. I have talked about it before, namely in this blog post where I shared 6 garden plants you can use for natural dyeing. I also wrote a post where I showed you a step by step tutorial of how to make elderflower syrup or cordial. We love adding it to cocktails or simply water in the summer months.

two glass bottles of elderflower syrup and a glass with a cocktail containing elderflower syrup

But the versatility of elderberry doesn’t end here. Besides the flowers, the elderberries themselves can also be utilized in various ways, including elderberry jelly and juice. I haven’t done this myself yet but I would love to process some elderberries once they are ripe this year.

Elderberry or elder belongs to the Sambucus genus. It is one of the plants that grow wild in abundance in the area where I live. Elderberry is a shrub that bears large clusters of small white or cream-colored flowers in late spring. In late summer to early autumn, these are followed by clusters of small black, blue-black, or red berries [1].

ripe elder berries on the tree/shrub

If you want to learn how to dye yarn with natural dyes, you can check out this step by step tutorial on my Youtube channel:

a woman holding a yellow skein of yarn. a second picture is showing a basket filled with colorful skeins of yarn. a text saying: How to dye yarn at home with natural dyes

Dyeing Yarn with Elderberry (Elder)

As I already mentioned, various parts of the elderberry plant can be used for natural dyeing purposes. You can create beautiful and colorfast colorways by using the leaves as well as the bark. However, be aware that dyeing with the berries will not give you long lasting results! Although they create an appealing pink color at first, the dye is not colorfast and the color will fade to a beige tone very quickly. These kind of dyes are called fugitive. In this blog post I talked about a yarn that I had dyed with elderberries in my earlier natural dyeing years. I used it to knit a pair of mittens for my daughter. In the post, you can see a picture of how the mittens looked once the initial soft pink color had faded.

Tips for Dyeing Yarn with Elderberry (Elder)

#1 Gentle Dyeing Process

I feel like I mention this in all of my natural dyeing posts, but it is such an important factor to take into account when using natural dyes. Slow is usually best. Slowly heating the natural dyestuff until simmering, letting the dye solution sit overnight before filtering off the dye material or even heating a second time is beneficial to the color depth of the dye solution. Cooking can dull the color.

#2 Freshness of the Plant Materials

In general, if you use fresh materials you will get more intense colors compared to dye stuff that has been stored for some time. This is especially true for the elderberry leaves.

#3 How much Dyestuff should I Use?

Obviously, the amount of dyestuff you use compared to the weight of the yarn will result in more or less intense colors. When dyeing with either the elderberry leaves or the bark I usually aim for roughly about equal weights of dyestuff and yarn.  

Dyeing Yarn with Elderberry (Elder): List of Materials

Undyed skein of yarn100 g
You can simply use an undyed, natural skein of yarn. If you want to use a yarn that is in the form of a ball or cake, you have to create a skein first. This can be done by using a swift (this is the one I use and can recommend).
I used my Luster Sock DK yarn (100% German Merino wool).
Alum14 g
Alum or potassium alum (KAl(SO4)2·12H2O) is a mordant which means that it is used to set dyes on fibers by forming a coordination complex with the dye. It increases the fastness of the dye.
DyestuffElderberry leaves or bark
PotYou can use an old pot or acquire one just for natural dyeing purposes. This is the size I use if I dye only one skein at a time, it has a holding capacity of 6 qt (5.7 L).
Bucket or Washing PanTo scour and wash the yarn.
SieveTo filter off the dyestuff. I use a metal strainer with a fine mesh like this one.
Kitchen ScaleTo measure the alum and dyestuff. This is the one I use.
TieTo secure the yarn and avoid tangling. You have to use something that is stable in boiling water and doesn’t give off any color. I usually use some kind of package cord.
SpoonWooden or stainless steel
Dish ShoapWhatever you have on hand.
This is used to scour and wash the yarn.
Wool Laundry DetergentThis is the one I use and can recommend. It is gentle and doesn’t have any smell.
GlovesTo protect your hands. I use nitrile-vinyl gloves.

Precautions: Don’t use the same pots and utensils for natural dyeing that you use for food preparation. Always wear gloves. Creating the dye solution and the dyeing process itself should be done in a well ventilated area. I often use a cooking plate that I put on my patio.

Dyeing Yarn with Elderberry (Elder): Natural Dyeing Process

A. Elderry Leaves

Tear 110 g of freshly picked elderberry leaves in small pieces. Pour boiling water over the leaves and let them sit overnight. On the next day, slowly bring the dye solution to a simmering and heat for about 60 minutes. Then let the pot cool down and sit overnight again. At the same time, take a 100 g skein of yarn that has been mordanted with alum and put it in a bucket or washing pan filled with water. You can read all about how I mordant my yarns in this blog post. Let the yarn get thoroughly wet so that you can achieve an even distribution of color throughout the skein in the dyeing process.

On the following day, filter off the dyestuff. Place the yarn in the pot containing the dye solution and gently heat for 60 minutes. Then allow the pot to cool down and sit overnight one more time. On the next day, take the yarn out of the dye solution, wash it and hang it to dry. If you want more detailed instructions on each step of the natural dyeing process, you can have a look at this blog post.

B. Elderry Bark

Natural dyeing with tree barks requires the most time and patience compared to other natural dye materials. In order to extract the color out of the bark, it needs to be soaked in water for several days or even a week. I used 70 g of elderberry bark and soaked it in water for seven days. In the next step, heat the dye solution for about ninety minutes. Be careful not to get the water to a boiling point because this will dull the color. Afterwards, leave the pot to cool down and sit overnight.

On the next day, filter off the bark and add a mordanted, soaked 100 g skein of yarn (see above for more information). Gently heat for 60 minutes, then let the pot cool down and sit overnight. Generally, tree barks should contain enough tannins (which act as a natural mordant – see this blog post for more information) so that you don’t need the extra mordanting step. But I decided to use a mordanted skein because that’s what I had available.

On the next day, take the yarn out of the dye solution, wash it and hang it to dry. If you want more detailed instructions on each step of the natural dyeing process, you can have a look at this blog post.

Dyeing Yarn with Elderberry: Color Results

Let’s have a look at the color results. Elderberry leaves yield a vibrant yellow with a green undertone when picked in spring and used fresh (right skein in the picture).

naturally dyed yarn with elderberries

The elderberry bark produced a light grey/tan colorway (left skein in the picture). In my opinion, it is a very lovely, interesting shade. However, I personally found the smell of the dye solution rather unpleasant. Therefore I will probably not be using elderberry bark again anytime soon. If you plan on dyeing with elderberry bark, I recommend that you use a cooking plate (this is the one I have) and do the natural dyeing outside or in a very well ventilated area.

Have you tried dyeing with elderberry before? Let me know about your experiences and color results in the comments!

Pin It For Later: Dyeing Yarn with Elder

two skeins of yarn in yellow and light tan, naturally dyed with elderberry leaves and bark

Want to learn how to dye yarn using natural dyes?

I have created a beginner’s guide to natural dyeing that contains everything you need to know to get started. And the best thing: it is available for free!

four hand dyed skeins of yarn in shades of purple and blue on a wooden surface and a text saying beginner's guide: natural dyeing. everything you need to know to get started dyeing yarn with natural dyes




I am a yarn dyeing artist, writer and educator.
I am also an avid knitter and love to create something with my hands every day.
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  1. Steve Eagle says:

    Question about elderberry. Can you give a Latin name? We have elderberries here (Texas, USA), but they are perennial shrubs. The flowers are eaten or fermented, and the berries used as fruit and home made medicines/tonics. Are these the same plant.


    1. says:

      Good morning Steve, the elderberry species that is native to Germany and which I have used for natural dyeing is Sambucus nigra. Your description of your local elderberry shrubs sounds exactly like our elderberrys here.

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