a skein of red yarn in a dyepot

Natural Red Dyes for Yarn and Fabric

This article contains an overview of natural red dyes that can be used to dye both yarn and fabric.

madder root in a glass jar and some roots on a wooden table

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Red is a very powerful and strong color. It is actually the first color that humans perceive after black and white. In the middle ages, red became the color of regal majesty and power [1]. But how can we create such a vibrant color with natural dyes? There are several options to dye yarn and fabric in different shades of red and we will explore them in detail.


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

Natural dyes that create shades of red

Cochineal

Let’s start with my favorite way to create red: using cochineal.
Overall, cochineal is one of my favorite dyestuffs to use due to its versatility and straightforwardness. And it creates the most vibrant shades of reds and pinks.

Cochineal is one of the few examples of a natural dyestuff that is not derived from plants. It is actually made from cochineal beetles. The cochineal (Dactylopius coccus) is a scale insect from which the natural dye carmine is derived. A primarily sessile parasite native to tropical and subtropical South America through North America (Mexico and the Southwest United States), this insect lives on cacti in the genus Opuntia, feeding on plant moisture and nutrients.

a finger with red color from cochineal bugs next to a cactus
source: www.canaturex.com

The insect produces carminic acid that deters predation by other insects. Carminic acid can be extracted from the body and eggs, then mixed with aluminium or calcium salts to make carmine dye. Carmine, also called cochineal, cochineal extract, crimson lake or carmine lake, natural red 4, C.I. 75470, or E120, is a pigment of a bright-red color. It is a popular food color, used in yogurt, candy and certain brands of juice, the most notable ones being those of the ruby-red variety. In addition, carmine has been used for dyeing textiles and in painting since antiquity [2].

Tips for Natural Dyeing with Cochineal

  • Natural dyeing with cochineal is very productive. Always have enough ready to dye-fiber on hand for a second or even third exhaust of the dyebath.
  • Cochineal is pH sensitive. This means you can achieve a broader range of colors by altering the pH of your dye solution. To create a shade of red, you should dye the yarn of fabric in an acidic environment. In order to lower the pH, add citric acid and test the pH of the solution with a pH strip until it is around pH 1.
  • Be aware of the natural color of the fabric or yarn you want to dye. Using a naturally white or cream yarn, for example, will give you a completely different result than a grey yarn. In my experience, yarns with a more yellow or grey natural undertone will create more reddish shades of color.
  • Cochineal dye has to be washed out very thoroughly after the dyeing process. In my experience, a lot of excess dye comes out of the skein during washing. This effect is called “bleeding”. Since you don’t want the bleeding to occur when washing your finished knitted piece for the first time, wash the skein of yarn several times until the water runs clear.

If you want to learn how to dye with cochineal in detail, you can have a look at this blog post: Natural Dyeing with Cochineal

four pink mini skeins of yarn and some white and pink flowers

Option #2 to create red with natural dyes: Madder

Madder is another well-known dye plant used to create shades of red. But, unlike cochineal, it does require a large amount of dyestuff to achieve a clear and vibrant red.

Madder is actually the common name for a genus called rubia. It is the type genus of the Rubiaceae family of flowering plants, which also contains coffee. In fact, it contains around 80 species of perennial scrambling or climbing herbs and subshrubs native to the Old World. The name is derived from the Latin word ruber which means red. The plant’s roots contain a compound called alizarin that gives its red colour [3].

madder root in a glass jar and some roots on a wooden table

In the pictures below, you can see two skeins of yarn that I dyed with madder roots. I used 50 g of madder to dye a 100 g skein of yarn to create this shade of red. If you are looking for an even more intense shad of red, you will need to use equal amounts of dyestuff and weight of fiber.

two hanks of red yarn laying on a wooden table, naturally dyed with madder

Here are some further options for natural red dyes for yarn & fabric:

Brazilwood

Brazilwood comes from the heartwood of Caesalpinia sappan and Caesalpinia echinata which are both native to Brazil. It is also known as sappanwood and is sold as wood chips or shavings [4].

close up of a brazilwood tree, photographed from the bottom looking up
source: canva.com

Safflower

The dye potential of this plant has been known for centuries. Depending on the method used to extract the dye, you can create either shades of yellow or red with safflower [4].

close up of safflowers blooming
source: canva.com

You need equal weights of dried petals and fiber. The first yellow dye should be washed away in cold water. Only then can the reds be extracted first in an alkaline and then in an acidic solution [5].

Lady’s bedstraw

Lady’s bedstraw, also known as yellow bedstraw used to be the main source of red dye in Scotland. It is a fragrant, wild flower that grows throughout Europe. The roots contain the same chemical compound as madder roots, but in lower concentrations [4].

yellow flowers (lady's bedstraw) blooming
source: canva.com

What is your favorite way to create red and pink colorways using natural dyes? Come share in the comments!

And if you are looking for other natural dye sources to dye a different color, check out this blog post on Natural Green Dyes for Yarn and Fabric and this one: Natural Yellow Dyes for Yarn and Fabric


Want to learn more about the fascinating topic of natural yarn dyeing and connect with nature at the same time?

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: www.rosemaryandpinesfiberarts.de. natural dyeing. everything you need to know to get started dyeing yarn with natural dyes

Pin It For Later: Natural Red Dyes for Yarn and Fabric

two pictures, one of a red skein of yarn in a dyepot and one of a red handknitted shawl. a text saying: natural red dyes for yarn and fabric.

Further Reading on Natural Red Dyes:

[1]         The Secret History of the Color Red

[2]         https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cochineal

[3]         https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rubia

[4]         Dean, Jenny, et al. Wild Colour: How to Make & Use Natural Dyes. Mitchell Beazley, 2018

[5]         http://www.wildcolours.co.uk/html/safflower.html

Annika

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.
Read more about me here:
https://www.rosemaryandpinesfiberarts.de/about-the-writer/

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