Eish! These village sheep are dirty!

The wool from the sheep in the area has always been treated as a waste product by the community. The Local Microenterprise Project has been experimenting with a new business idea to turn this waste product in an income-generating one. We have been working on refining the process for transforming the wool from dirty waste into a good quality, organic product for use in woollen garments and as a filler for the Hot Box Cookers (which in turn save on cooking fuel and save the forests!). The process is quite complicated and we are still assessing its viability for an appropriate micro-enterprise for our area. Thanks to the legendary Liesl of Bulungula Lodge fame we have gone a long way in the process although some refinements are still needed.


Step1: Eish! These village sheep are dirty, dirty, dirty! The process starts with picking out twigs, seeds, faeces and big dry pieces of dirt.

Caked with dirt!

Picking out dirt, seeds, burrs, twigs....

Step 2: Soak for 3 hours in soapy water – just soaking, no rubbing as this will cause the wool to start felting and make it difficult to spin.

Soaking overnight

Step 3: Pour out the filthy dirty water, sort and remove any remaining twigs and pieces of caked dirt and soak in a fresh bath of soapy water for another 3 hours

Step 4: Soak in plain water overnight

Step 5: Sort and clean again and then lay the wool out to dry in a hammock for 3 days

Drying in a hammock

Step 6: More sorting and cleaning of any leftover dirt and bits. Then brushing (carding) with a metal-toothed comb

Nice, clean, organic wool!

Step 7: Hand Spinning into usable yarn with our home-made ‘spinning machine’ – cleverly designed by our resident inventor, JP van der Walt!

The spinning 'machine'

Spun Wool

Step 8: Dyeing – We are busy experimenting with a range of organic dyes: beetroot juice, ink berry (dark blue) and lichen moss (orange). Any tips/suggestions on how best to do this and other natural dyes to experiment with are welcome!


  1. Wilma Koeppen

    Following this guide you will learn how to dye wool using vegetable dyes to create a range of soft natural colours.

    Things your will need

    You will need an old saucepan, though you should not use aluminium or iron if you want a particular shade. Other things required are cream of tartar, alum, salt, dye materials, soap flakes, wool and water. This guide is for 50g of wool, though you could use more for larger quantities.

    In case you did not get my other e-mails. Herewith information on natural dyes you can get from flowers etc. and the different flowers for the different colours. This is a fantastic project and I hope you can go from strength to strength!! *Obviously you will not be able to grow all the flowers etc. below, but hopefully you can get hold or plant some of them to help with the project.

    Getting started

    Prepare the wool: Wind the wool and tie it loosely. Wash it using washing-up liquid or mild soap flakes and then rinse the wool.

    Mordant (seal) the wool: Dissolve half a teaspoon of cream of tartar and a dessertspoon of alum in some water. Add this to a saucepan containing two pints of water. Add the wet wool, then warm the water to just below boiling point and simmer for an hour, occassionally stirring it. After removing the wool, squeeze it gently without rinsing and keep it in a plastic bag until you have prepared the dye bath.

    Dye the Wool

    To make the dye, boil the material you have chosen to make the dye from and then strain it. Below are a number of examples that you could try.

    Onion skins to make gold dye: Take the brown outer skins from eight onions and gently boil them in water for fifty minutes. Strain the clear amber liquid to make a pint. To dye the mordanted wool in this liquid, simmer it for thirty minutes without boiling. After removing the wool, wash it in a series of baths going from hot to cold. Finally dry the wool whilst it is still wound up and then wind it up into a ball ready for use.

    Broom flowers to make yellow

    Collect a pound of broom flowers with tips and chop them into small pieces. Boil them for ninety minutes in water. Strain the dye and simmer the mordanted wool in the dye for one hour. Finally wash and dry the wool as in the previous example.
    Lichen to make various colours

    Dyes ranging from green to light orange can be obtained from lichens. They do not require a mordant and after crushing the lichen, simmer it with the wet wool until it reaches the required colour.

    Other natural dyes include, blackberries which can be used to make pink dye. You could also use dandelions, tea, elderberry, beetroot and various fruits. Varying the season when ingredients are collected and changing the boiling time will alter the colour of the dye.

    The info below comes from the website http://www.pioneerthinking.com . I know most of these plants do not grow in your area, but maybe you can get ideas of which plants in your area you can use.

    Making Natural Dyes From Plants

    Did you know that a great source for natural dyes can be found right in your own back yard! Roots, nuts and flowers are just a few common natural ways to get many colors. Yellow, orange, blue, red, green, brown and grey are available. Go ahead, experiment!

    Gathering plant material for dyeing: Blossoms should be in full bloom, berries ripe and nuts mature. Remember, never gather more than 2/3 of a stand of anything in the wild when gathering plant stuff for dying.

    To make the dye solution: Chop plant material into small pieces and place in a pot. Double the amount of water to plant material. Bring to a boil, then simmer for about an hour. Strain. Now you can add your fabric to be dyed. For a stronger shade, allow material to soak in the dye overnight.

    Getting the fabric ready for the dye bath: You will have to soak the fabric in a color fixative before the dye process. This will make the color set in the fabric.

    Color Fixatives:

    Salt Fixative (for berry dyes) 1/2 cup salt to 8 cups cold water

    Plant Fixatives (for plant dyes) 4 parts cold water to 1 part vinegar

    Add fabric to the fixative and simmer for an hour. Rinse the material and squeeze out excess. Rinse in cool water until water runs clear.

    Dye Bath: Place wet fabric in dye bath. Simmer together until desired color is obtained. The color of the fabric will be lighter when its dry. Also note that all dyed fabric should be laundered in cold water and separately.

    Muslin, silk, cotton and wool work best for natural dyes and the lighter the fabric in color, the better. White or pastel colors work the best.

    NOTE: It’s best to use an old large pot as your dye vessel. Wear rubber gloves to handle the fabric that has been dyed, the dye can stain your hands. It’s also important to note, some plant dyes may be toxic, check with the Poison Control Center if unsure.

    A Listing Of Plant Material Available For Dyes

    Shades Of Orange
    Shades Of Brown

    – Bloodroot will give a good orange to reddish orange color.

    – Sassafras (leaves)

    – Onion skin

    – Lichen (gold)

    – Carrot – (roots) orange

    – Lilac (twigs) – yellow/orange

    – Barberry (mahonia sp.) yellow orange (with alum) very strong & permanent. Any part of the plant will work.

    – Giant Coreopsis (Coreopsis gigantea) Yields bright permanent orange with alum.

    – Turmeric dyed cloth will turn orange or red if it is dipped in lye.

    – Pomagrante – with alum anywhere from orange to khaki green.

    – Butternut – (seed husks) – orange
    – Wild plum root will give a reddish or rusty brown.

    – Oak bark will give a tan or oak color.

    – Sumac (leaves)

    – Dandelion (roots) brown

    – Broom – (bark) yellow/brown

    – Walnut (hulls) (deep brown)(wear gloves)

    – Tea Bags (light brown)

    – White Birch – (inner bark) – brown

    – Juniper Berries

    – Fennel – (flowers, leaves) – yellow/brown

    – Coffee Grinds

    – Acorns (boiled)

    – Hollyhock (petals)

    – Colorado Fir – (bark) tan shade

    – Yellow dock (produces shades of brown on wool)

    – Beetroot (Dark Brown With FeSO4)

    – Red Leaf Buds (of many maple trees )- red-brown color when dried. Found on branches before new leaves appear only present during early spring and throughout fall.

    – Amur Maple ( Acer Ginnala) – black, blue, bown from dried leaves.

    – Ivy – (twigs) – yellow/brown

    Shades Of Pink

    – Strawberries

    – Cherries

    – Raspberries (red)

    – Roses and Lavender, with a little mint and some lemon juice to activate the alkaloids can make both a brilliant pink dye and a very tasty pink lemonade.

    – Lichens – A pink, brown, or wine colored dye can be produced from a lichen known as British soldiers.

    – Camilla -It’s a nice pink-magenta. With lemon and salt.

    – Grand Fir -(bark) pink

    Shades Of Blue – Purple
    Shades Of Red

    – Red cabbage

    – Woad (first year leaves). Woad gives a pale to mid blue colour depending on the type of fabric and the amount of woad used.

    – Mulberries (royal purple)

    – Elderberries (lavender)

    – Saffron – (petals) blue/green

    – Grapes (purple)

    – Blueberries

    – Cornflower – (petals) blue dye with alum, water

    – Cherry (roots)

    – Blackberry (fruit) strong purple

    – Hyacinth – (flowers) – blue

    – Japanese indigo (deep blue)

    – Red Cedar Root (purple)

    – Raspberry -(fruit) purple/blue

    – Red Maple Tree (purple)(inner bark)

    – Nearly Black Iris – (dark bluish purple) alum mordant

    – Dogwood – (fruit) greenish-blue

    – Oregon Grape -(fruit) blue/purple
    – Red leaves will give a reddish brown color I use salt to set the dye.

    – Sumac (fruit) (light red)

    – Dandelion (root)

    – Beets (deep red)

    – Crab Apple – (bark) – red/yellow

    – Rose (hips)

    – Chokecherries

    – Madder

    – Hibiscus Flowers (dried)

    – Kool-aid

    – Canadian Hemlock – (bark) reddish brown

    – Japanese Yew – (heartwood) – brown dye

    – Wild ripe Blackberries

    – Brazilwood

    – St. John’s Wort – (whole plant) soaked in alcohol – red

    Shades Of Gray – Black
    Shades Of Red – Purple

    – Iris (roots)

    – Sumac (leaves) (Black)

    – Carob pod (boiled) will give a gray to cotton

    – Oak galls – makes a good black dye.

    – Sawthorn Oak – (seed cups) – black
    – Pokeweed (berries)

    – Hibiscus (flowers)(dark red or purple ones) make a red-purple dye.

    – Daylilies (old blooms)

    – Safflower – (flowers, soaked in alcohol) – red

    – Logwood (is a good purple but you have to watch it as it dyes quick when the pot is fresh. Also it exhausts fast. We use alum to mordant and using iron can give you logwood gray.)

    – Huckleberry gives a good lavender color and I have used it not only for a dye but also for ink.

    Shades Of Green
    Shades Of Peach/Salmon

    – Artemisia species provide a range of greens from baby’s breath to nettle green.

    – Artichokes

    – Tea Tree – (flowers) green/black

    – Spinach (leaves)

    – Sorrel (roots) – dark green

    – Foxglove – (flowers) apple green

    – Lilac – (flowers) – green

    – Camellia – (pink, red petals) – green

    – Snapdragon – (flowers) – green

    – Black-Eyed Susans

    – Grass (yellow green)

    – Pigsweed (entire plant) yellow green

    – Red Pine (needles) green

    – Nettle

    – Broom – (stem) green

    – Larkspur – green – alum

    – Plantain Roots

    – White Ash – (bark) – yellow

    – Purple Milkweed – (flowers & leaves) – green

    – Lily-of-the-valley (light green) be careful what you do with the spent dye bath. The plant is toxic so try to avoid pouring it down the drain into the water supply.

    – Barberry root (wool was dyed a greenish bronze-gold)

    – Red onion (skin) (a medium green, lighter than
    forest green)

    – Yarrow – (flowers) yellow & green shades

    – Mulga Acacia – (seed pods) – green

    – Peach – (leaves) yellow/green

    – Coneflower (flowers) – green
    – Broom Flower

    – Virginia Creeper (all parts); alum mordant; Peach.

    – Achiote powder (annatto seed

    – Plum tree (roots) (salmon color on wool with alum)

    – Weeping Willow (wood & bark) makes a peachy brown (the tannin
    acts as a mordant)

    – Virgina Creeper – (fruit) – pink

    Shades Of Yellow/Wheat

    – Saffron (stigmas) – yellow

    – Safflower (flowers, soaked in water) – yellow

    – Syrian Rue (glows under black light)

    – Red Clover (whole blossom, leaves and stem); alum mordant; Gold.

    – Yellow cone flower (whole flower head); chrome mordant; Brass to Greeney-Brass.

    – Onion (skins)

    – Alfalfa (seeds) – yellow

    – Marigold (blossoms)

    – Willow (leaves)

    – Queen Anne’s Lace

    – Heather – (plant) – yellow

    – St. John’s Wort – (flowers & leaves) – gold/yellow

    – Burdock

    – Celery (leaves)

    – Golden Rod (flowers)

    – Sumac (bark) – The inner pith of Sumac branches can produce a super bright yellow color.

    – Weld (bright yellow)

    – Cameleon plant (golden)

    – Mimosa – (flowers) yellow

    – Dandelion flower

    – Osage Orange also known as Bois d’arc or hedgeapple (heartwood, inner bark, wood, shavings or sawdust) (pale yellow)

    – Daffodil flower heads (after they have died); alum mordant

    – Mullen (leaf and root) pale yellow. *careful, because the little fuzzy hairs can make one itchy!

    – Hickory leaves (yellow) if plenty of leaves are boiled and salt added.

    – Tea ( ecru color)

    – Yellow, Curly, Bitter, or Butter Dock (despite various leaf shapes, all have a bright yellow taproot) gives you a yellow/flesh color.

    – White mulberry tree (bark) Cream color onto white or off-white wool. Alum mordant.

    – Paprika ( shade of pale yellow – light orange)

    – Beetroot (yellow) (alum & K2Cr2O7)

    – Turmeric (spice) –bright yellow

    – Oxallis – the one with the yellow flowers. Use the flower heads, some stem ok. It is nearly fluorescent yellow, and quite colorfast on alum mordanted wool.

    – Dahlia Flowers (Red, yellow, orange flowers) make a lovely yellow to orange dye for wool.

    – Mulga Acacia -(flowers) – yellow

    – Sunflowers – (flowers) – yellow

    • Bulungula Incubator

      Wow Wilma, thanks for this info. Very very useful, we will have a good look at your suggestions

      thanks, rejane

    • Bulungula Incubator

      Hi Zach

      Thanks for the tip. I had heard about tumeric but I didn’t know about coffee – we’ll give it a try!

      thanks, rejane

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