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From Claret to Caramel: The Alchemy of Dyeing with Dahlias

Dahlia Eco-friendly Natural Dye Organic Sustainable Living Zero-waste

Dry claret dahlia on naturally dyed scarf

Bespoke woven woollen shawl dyed with dried dahlias in our studio.

Among autumn dye stuff, the dahlia is exceptional for it comes in exciting shades of the brightest red, burgundy, orange and pink and fills the dye house with a wonderful fragrance. 

Bright Dahlias drying on a wooden table for natural dyeing by Juniper & Bliss

Dahlias drying in the September sun outside the studio.

Autumn is a treasure trove for natural dyers seeking shades of velvety caramel and nutty brown as an abundance of mature cones, seeds, barks and leaves are packed full of tannin during this season.

But the dahlia is exceptional in that we don’t forage for it but wait for friends and head gardeners to give us the green light to deadhead their breath-taking display in the herbaceous borders! The prolific varieties of these wonderful dye yielding flowers mean that we are fortunate enough to get what we need from the gardens around us and among them Doddington Place Gardens is a wonderful source. 

Red dahlias growing in the ghost garden in Doddington Place Garden for use later for natural dyeing by Juniper & Bliss

Ghost garden with deep red dahlias in Doddington Place Gardens

A Brief History of the Dahlia:

The dahlia was brought to Europe by the Spanish botanist and explorer Francisco Hernández following his 7 year stay in Mexico where he was sent in 1570 by King Phillip II to explore the natural resources of the conquered lands. In Nova plantarum, animalium et mineralium Mexicanorum historia, published in 1651, Francisco Hernández named his discoveries in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec. The dahlia was then first introduced to Europe as Acocotli and Cocoxochitl.

It is thought that the Aztec ate the starchy fleshy tubers like potatoes and processed them for sweetening other food. The natural antibiotic properties were used for medical purposes.

Interestingly, before the discovery of insulin in 1923, diabetics in Europe and America were often given a substance called 'Atlantic starch' or diabetic sugar, which was derived from inulin extracted from dahlia tubers.

An Aztec flower with a Swedish name:

In 1789 the Spanish taxonomic botanist abbé Cavanille brought the dahlia from Mexico to the Botanical Gardens in Madrid and gave the Asteraceae genus the name by which we know it today, in honour of the Swedish scientist, botanist and environmentalist Andreas Dahl

Andreas Dahl, the Swedish botanist
Andreas Dahl (1751-1789)
An interesting fact about Dahl is that as a keen environmentalist, in 1784 he highlighted the evils of pollution from the herring oil processing factories, resulting in first ever Swedish and possibly in the entire world, laws restricting the release of industrial waste into the  groundwater.  

Since the 1800s thousands of new forms of dahlias have beed bred. The 50,000 varieties named in the past century are thought to be hybridized from at least two, and possibly all three, of the original Dahlia species from Mexico.The National Dahlia Society is a wonderful source of information about all aspects of this wonderful plant.

Francisco Hernández, Nova plantarum, animalium et mineralium Mexicanorum historia (Rome, 1651).

Dyeing with dahlias: The deepest burgundy, red and pink produce the strongest dye in shades of wonderful caramel and taupe. Fresh flowers produce great colour but equally it’s perfectly fine to dry them for use later. 

As with most natural dyeing it's important to mordent the yarn or textiles properly before beginning the dyeing process. This is the most important process as done properly, it will ensure even colour distribution and colourfastness. Boiling up the dried or fresh flower heads, straining and passing through fine muslin produces the best colour and releases a wonderful aroma in the studio. The result is always reassuringly reliable, wonderful shades of caramel!

Dry dahlia, chrysanthemum,
Dahlia, camilla and chrysanthemum dried for dyeing later in the year.
Dahlia dyed wool hanging on the washing line

Blue Faced Leicester wool dyed with dahlias.

Woollen scarf dyed with dry dahlia by Juniper & BlissWoollen scarf dyed with dried dahlia flowers in our studio.  

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