Autumn Foraging And Dyeing By Abigail Booth

Posted on September 22, 2017 by


There is nothing that brings me more joy than to walk out into the woods as the seasons begin to change from summer to autumn. The smell on the air of crisp mornings and crunching leaves is palpable and the very colour of the landscape begins to turn from faded greens to fiery reds and browns. It signals the start of a new chapter in the year, where the colours in my dye vat leave behind the bright sunny shades of summer and take on a warmth and glow of autumn. A whole new set of dye plants is now available for foraging in local woodlands and city parks.

Rich dyes are now present in fallen leaves and the bark of storm-felled trees

Autumn foraging tends to be all about trees, as acorns drop and alder cones turn brown. Rich dyes are now present in fallen leaves and the bark of storm-felled trees. I find it the most wonderful time of year to wrap up warm and embark on country walks to scour footpaths and treetops for nature’s bounty. Autumn is also busy with the patter of small creatures in the woods as they stock up and prepare for hibernation throughout the winter. It is important to remember that certain dye plants provide vital sustenance to the local wildlife so, as always, forage mindfully and take only a little from each source. Depending on where you are in the world you may be familiar with different species of trees, and might like to experiment with more than what is listed here. You will find that every tree is unique and each will offer its own palette of natural colour, so I encourage you to explore and discover what your local landscape has to offer.


Alder Cones
Alnus glutinosa

Alder cones are the beautiful mini pinecones found growing on alder trees. They tend to drop in early to mid-autumn and there are always plenty of them for foraging. As far as I know, animals leave them alone as I have often seen them still under trees in winter and the following spring. They are really rich in dye and I have often had stained fingers when foraging for them after rainfall. As soon as you put them in water ready for heating you will see the dye begin to seep out of them. You will achieve soft browns and sometimes pinks, which turn to beautiful greys in an iron mordant.
Dye colour: soft brown, pale pink
Iron mordant: pale grey


The weeping willow is an easy tree to forage from as their branches hang low, full of elegant green sprigs of leaves. The leaves and the bark both produce dye, so cut whole sprigs of the thin branches. If possible, cut a good bunch of leaves, which you can roughly chop into pieces or add whole if your pot is big enough. It needs a decent amount of time simmering to extract the rich dye, which will initially look yellow, but after a day or two off the heat will mature into deep russet orange or pink. It produces beautiful warm dyes, which will turn to dark brown with an iron mordant.
Dye colour: russet orange, pink
Iron mordant: dark brown

Acorns & Oak Galls
Quercus robur

As acorns begin to fall from the oak tree, it is a clear indicator that autumn has arrived. As the seed of the oak tree, they turn brown and begin to drop in early September, which is the ideal time to begin scouting the ground for them. Oak galls are strange-shaped growths found in oak trees. Gall wasps lay their eggs in the leaf buds or acorns, which cause them to mutate into gallnuts. The galls themselves are incredibly rich in tannin and have been used for centuries as a dye and a source of indelible ink. There are several different types of gall depending on the species of wasp and some will either drop like acorns, while others stay attached to branches and can be plucked off.
Dye colour: pale to dark browns
Iron mordant: grey, black

Copper Beech
Fagus sylvatica purpurea

Copper beech trees create a beautiful blush of purple amongst the russet reds of autumn. Their leaves and branches can be picked while out walking and used fresh or dried in the dye pot. I tend to take five or six sprigs of leaves to make up a vat. Once cut, you can see the blush of pink in the bark, which hints at colour beneath the surface. When gently simmered, the leaves and branches will give a muted putty colour with hints of pink. In an iron mordant it shifts it towards a gentle purple grey.
Dye colour: putty, pink
Iron mordant: purple grey

Juglans regia

It is well worth keeping an eye out for walnut trees or asking friends and family who may have them growing in their back gardens. Apart from producing beautiful nuts for eating, the fleshy husks that surround the nut and its shell are incredibly rich in dye. Once you have found a source of walnuts, which tend to be ready for picking in September or October, you can begin shelling them, however take care as the broken husks will begin immediately to turn black on contact with oxygen and will stain your hands. I advise wearing a pair of gloves for the job. If you have a glut of them and are not a fan of the nuts themselves, you can dye with them whole, which saves the messy business of shelling.
Dye colour: pale brown
Iron mordant: grey, black


There are so many different varieties of eucalyptus tree, and each have varying concentrations of colour, from tan browns right through to deep, dark orange. It is always a gamble as to which you might come across, but the varying results are always interesting. Eucalyptus leaves need a long time simmering in the dye vat for the colour to develop. I tend to simmer them for a minimum of two hours, which is no hardship as the smell is divine. If you are not familiar with eucalyptus growing locally to you, then it is worth asking a local florist if they have any leftover at the end of the day.
Dye colour: tan brown, dark orange
Iron mordant: grey, black

Sorbus acuparia

Rowan trees are always easily identifiable with their big bunches of bright red berries and sprays of green leaves. It is the berries that you are looking to pick, as they hold delicate shades of pale pink. You will need a decent amount of berries as they produce such a pale colour. I would pick between six and eight big bunches from a few different trees. To set up a vat, you need to crush and simmer them for an hour to release enough dye and the longer the fabric soaks in the dye the stronger a colour you will produce. When treated with an iron mordant, you will get deep blue greys.
Dye colour: pale pink
Iron mordant: deep blue-grey

Birch Bark
Betula pendula

If you can find fallen birch logs then take some time to strip the bark as it is packed full of pigment. Once removed from the log, you will find a deep red layer clearly visible under the paleness of the outer surface of the bark. To prepare the bark for dyeing you can chop it into smaller pieces with an axe or, if it is brittle, break it up into small pieces by hand. For the bark chips to release their dye, either soak them for up to a week in cold water or simmer them for several hours. You will find you can achieve russet reds, oranges and pinks with birch bark, while an iron mordant will give you dark greys.
Dye colour: russet red, orange, pink
Iron mordant: dark grey

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