The first step in the natural dye process is gathering plant materials. If you have a garden, there are simply dozens of plants you can collect and dry or freeze throughout the growing season. Some you may have already - coreopsis, marigold, dahlia, or sunflower to name a few. Other less showy plants can be cultivated specifically for dye, such as indigo, weld, madder, or lady's bedstraw. My little garden has a few dye plants in it, but the vast majority of my dye materials are foraged.
Some beautiful dye plants are easily recognized by even an amateur naturalist like myself. The primary rule of foraging in the wild is to collect carefully and responsibly, which means gathering about one specimen out of ten. Literally to decimate in the Roman Legionnaire sense, taking one-tenth preserves the health of the wild population.
It being a beautiful day, I am venturing out to see what I can find.
1. Birch leaf
Birch leaves are easy to spot, but sometimes hard to reach. They give a sunny yellow or chartreuse.
2. Yarrow, Achillea
Yarrow is common meadow wildflower which gives yellow and olive shades. Cut close to the base to encourage re-growth.
3. Cherry leaf
I've had good success with black cherry leaves producing shades of orange on wool and a lovely golden color on silk.
Barberry, particularly the Japanese and European varieties, is an invasive shrub and thus an ample dye source. Gather all you can of the leaves, barbed shoots, and brightly colored roots for a strong yellow or chartreuse dye. It also makes a good turquoise when overdyed with indigo. Don't bother planting it, there are too many barberry plants in our woodlands already!
Each of these plants should be used with a mordant to form a chemical bond with the fiber being dyed. They can also be air dried and stored in paper bags for later use. I am currently amassing a collection of dried materials to keep me supplied during the cold months.
Now is the time to be foraging! Look for elderberry leaves, oak leaves, staghorn sumac, willow fronds, Queen Anne's lace, black-eyed Susan, and many others to keep the dye pot brimming through the winter.
Next up: Collecting Bark