pathway through the woods in spring

7 Plant Materials From The Woods You Can Use For Natural Dyeing

A Natural Dyer’s Home & Garden Series Part 4

Welcome to part 4 of this series where I talk about different kinds of plant materials that are suitable for natural dyeing. Today will be about 7 plant materials from the woods you can use for natural dyeing.

If you are new to natural dyeing, you are probably wondering which plants are capable of producing colorfast dyes. To help you get started recognizing the dye potential of the plants in your surroundings, I decided to start this series where I show you lots of examples of different dye plants. If you haven’t read the previous posts of the series yet, you can click here for the first part. In this post I covered 6 garden plants you can use for natural dyeing. And here is the second part where I talked about 5 kitchen scraps suitable for natural dyeing. The third part is about 5 weeds and wildflowers with dye potential.

If you want to know more about the natural dyeing process itself, you can have a look at my blog post How to Dye Yarn with Natural Dyes. I have also written a few more posts on this topic which you can find in the natural dyeing category of the blog.

Foraging For Dyestuff

Hiking through the woods is one of my family’s favorite activities on the weekends. The woods have a way of grounding and relaxing you while at the same time providing the perfect surrounding for outdoor exercise. And, if these aren’t already enough benefits, numerous plant materials that are suitable for natural dyeing can be found in the woods.

I only take small amounts whenever I collect dyestuff and I don’t cut anything off a living tree. There are usually more than enough fresh branches on the ground which have fallen off in a recent storm or been cut by a forest ranger.

By now, you are probably asking yourself which plant materials from the woods you can use for natural dyeing. Let’s have a look at my recommendations.

#1 Chestnut & Walnut Husks

The green, outer husks of chestnuts and walnuts can be collected in autumn when they have freshly fallen on the ground. Both plant materials yield beautiful shades of warm brown.

two skeins of yarn naturally dyed with walnut and chestnut husks

The skein on the left has been dyed with walnut husks, the right skein was dyed with chestnut husks.

#2 Tree Leaves

There are multiple leaves that can be used for natural dyeing. Birch leaves will create a vibrant yellow if picked in spring. Walnut leaves can be used for natural dyeing, as well. The colors range from yellow to brown, depending on whether they are used fresh or dried. Alder leaves can create shades of beige, tan and green. Oak leaves yield ochre and beige colorways.

The leaves from fruit trees like apricot, peach, plum and cherry are also suitable for natural dyeing. The colors created from those leaves will range between shades of yellow and green.

In general, if you pour boiling water over the leaves and let them soak for several days, you might already have enough color extracted to dye with. It is also possible to simmer the leaves for about an hour, let them sit overnight and dye the yarn the following day.

#3 Pine Needles

When hiking through the woods last year, I came across a pine branch that had fallen off a tree. The pine needles on the branch looked still fresh and green. I took some of them home and started experimenting. Not only did they smell fantastic in the dye bath, they also yielded an absolutely beautiful warm yellow. When modifying the yellow yarn with iron afterwards, I received a beautiful green color. After testing the lightfastness for a year now, I can report that the color has held up great and I can totally recommend it for natural dyeing.

green and yellow socks on a rock in the woods naturally dyed with pine needles

#4 Alder Cones

Collecting alder cones is a great activity where you can get kids involved. So far, I have only tried natural dyeing with alder cones ones, but I am interested to see if other types of cones can be used as well. They create a soft vanilla yellow if used without an additional mordant. Since both the cones and bark of alder are tannin rich, omitting the mordanting step is possible.

#5 Oak Galls

Oak galls or apples are produced by gall wasps and are commonly found on many species of oak. The female wasp lays single eggs in developing leaf buds. The wasp larvae feed on the gall tissue resulting from their secretions, which modify the oak bud into the gall, a structure that protects the developing larvae until they undergo metamorphosis into adults.
Oak galls have been used for the production of ink since the time of the Roman Empire or even longer. If you are interested in more information, you can have a look at Wikipedia here.

In the area where I live, I haven’t come across any oak galls in the woods so far. Therefore, I purchase pre-crushed oak galls as a powder. Oak galls create a light beige color which turns into a grey with a purple undertone or even an almost black when modified with iron.

#6 Tree Barks

Tree barks like birch, oak, alder, ash, apple, pear, willow, elder and elm can create beautiful shades of color. The natural dyeing process is a bit more elaborate though. To extract the dye color from the bark, it has to be soaked in water for several days or even up to a week before it can be used. After this period, the bark has to be simmered for one hour. Boiling should be avoided in order not to dull the dye color. Barks tend to give up more color over time, so simmering them again to check if you can create another dye bath is reasonable.

skein of yarn naturally dyed with birch bark

The skein of yarn on the picture above has been dyed with birch bark. The colorway is called “Buds” and it is currently available for purchase in my Etsy shop.

#7 Lichens

Lichens have been known for their dyeing potential since more than 2.000 years. They were used as a source for red and purple dyes.

Lichens are fascinating organisms, composed of fungal and algal partners in a symbiotic relationship. If you are interested in more information, you can have a look at Wikipedia here.

I don’t have any personal experience of dyeing with lichens yet, because I haven’t come across any sufficient amount of lichens on the ground or on a cut off branch so far.

Other Plant Materials from the Woods with Dye Potential

Those are just a few of the numerous plant materials you can find in the woods for natural dyeing purposes. Acorns, ferns and heather, for example, can be used for natural dyeing as well.

What are your favorite plant materials from the woods that you like to use for natural dyeing? Come share in the comments!

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  1. Donna says:

    I have found your articles by chance and have enjoyed reading tremendously.
    I have read in the past, some home natural dyers have used pennies and nails in the dye pot to deepen/alter the color. Have you experience with this, and what results?

    1. says:

      Hi Donna, Thank you so much for reaching out to me! Getting your feedback makes writing the blogposts so much more enjoyable!
      The color modification that occurs if you add nails to your dye pot is caused by ferric ions from the rust of the nails. I actually prefer using iron sulfate to modify yarn colors. This allows me to have more control over the process because I can add the exact amount of iron that I want to. You can read more about how I use iron sulfate in these blogposts:

      As for the pennies, according to Google they are made of zinc coated with copper. I have actually not heard of this method before. But – speaking from my background of a chemist – if you would be able to alter the conditions of the dye bath in a way that would result in some of the copper dissolving into the bath in the form of copper ions, you could alter the yarn color as well.
      In general, you should be very careful when adding any kind of metal compounds to your dye bath (wearing safety equipment, only working in a ventilated area etc). And you should make yourself familiar with the chemical processes that are going on in the dye bath beforeand. I hope this helps!

  2. Caitlin says:

    This information has been incredibly helpful and fun! One question: for your pine needles: what was your solution of iron? Mine came out of the iron bath more of a brownish beige. While the pine needle dye was a lovely golden tan. Thank you!!!

    1. says:

      Hi Caitlin,
      Thank you so much for your comment! I described my process of modifying colorways with iron in this post:
      In short, I usually use 1.5 g of iron sulfate per 100 g skein of yarn. I don’t heat the iron bath and only let the yarn sit in it for about 30 minutes (or up to one hour if the color change isn’t strong enough after half an hour). I hope that helps!

  3. Meroe Rwh says:

    Thank you for this article. It is rich with information that I am looking for. I’m trying to understand about leaves but now in winter, oak leaves which are said to produce golden yellows, has offered a nice beige. I guess it’s important to not judge the plant from the one experience, and try it again at different seasons.

    1. says:

      Thank you for sharing your experience! I highly recommend that you give oak leaves another try in the spring. In my experience, fresh, young plants and leaves usually produce the most vibrant colours. If you would like to use another plant material from the woods in the meantime, I would suggest acorns or some tree bark.

  4. JoAnn says:

    Heaven and Earth Alpaca Farm. My bliss with outstanding color from plants.

  5. JoAnn says:

    Alpaca breeder who has knit since childhood. Love color.

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