Simple natural dyeing: 9 beautiful colours from broccoli

As a dyer, using simple natural dyeing extracts from plants in my local area and from my garden keeps me entertained for many hours. My most recent experimentation involved purple sprouting broccoli, which grew so well over winter in my new veggie beds. 

June 2021 – use the code LOVEBROCCOLI to get 15% off any of the broccoli dyed skeins in my Etsy shop. These won’t hang around for long, so if you are here long after June 2021, sorry!

Kathryn, Crafternoon Treats

Watch the video here: its not a tutorial, more of a story of how the dye day went, together with the results…

Many natural dyers buy in dried extracts to use in their dyepots. This has some advantages; results are more consistent and the colours produced tend to be more intense. Its maybe something I’ll try one day, but for now, I’m happy trying out whole plants and making my own simple natural dyeing extracts. 

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Simple natural dyeing with purple sprouting broccoli

By mid April, the broccoli beds were overflowing with large plants, all with several flowerheads. Its only by growing my own purple sprouting broccoli that I’ve realised that the edible flower head and stalk is actually the flower bud. If you leave the plants in place, the buds open to reveal bright yellow flowers.

We ended up with so much broccoli that we were fed up with eating it. Its a vegetable that I love, but even I could only take so much!

One thing I noticed when I was preparing it go go with meals was the colour left behind in the water. The broccoli head turned from purple to green, and the hot pan water was a deep wine red. When it cooled, it changed to a deep, teal green.

The natural dyer in me was fascinated so when it became time to uproot the plants and clear the beds, an idea for a simple natural dyeing experiment formed in my mind. I enlisted my son to help and we spent a very productive and happy garden afternoon in late lockdown, picking, boiling and preparing the dye extracts and then dip dyeing some of my ethically produced Corridale/Polwarth wool to see how many colours we could get.

The limiting factor, as in all simple natural dyeing sessions, is the amount of plant material that you have access to. We picked everything that was left and boiled it up to produce about 10 litres of extract.

Using simple natural dyeing modifiers

10 litres sounds like quite a lot. But that had to then be divided up to give 10 different combinations. In the end, my calculations on the fly didn’t quite work out, so we had 9 – hence the 9 colours produced in the natural dyeing experiment.

All of the yarns produced went into my Etsy shop – I had only a few of each colourway and made up packs so that people who love naturally dyed yarns could put together the different shades for a large shawl or sleeveless sweater. If there are any left, you can click on the photographs to reach the Etsy listing.

Modifying with citric acid, iron sulphate and copper sulphate

Broccoli extract on its own gave a lovely pale green, minty fresh colour.

Broccoli extract plus citric acid gave a delicate palest pink, an almost not even there pink.

Broccoli extract plus citric acid plus iron sulphate gave a duller, almost brown grey, slightly darker colourway.

At this point, I should have also had broccoli extract plus citric acid plus copper sulphate, but this is the combo that got away…

Modifying with bicarbonate of soda, iron sulphate and copper sulphate

Making the dyepots alklaline had a much greater effect than using citric acid. The main colour, when it was originally dyed, was a rich pea green, but sadly most of the colour disappeared when I washed the skeins. The final result wasn’t that much different to the broccoli extract on its own.

Bicarbonate of soda plus copper sulphate gave a lovely, golden green.

Bicarbonate of soda plus iron sulphate gave a rich, slightly variegated brown.

Investigating iron and copper sulphate further

Broccoli extract plus copper sulphate produce a colour very similar to broccoli extract on its own, but with some brighter, green variegation.

And broccoli extract plus iron sulphate gave a grey brown.

The most intense of all the nine colourways came out of the dye bath with broccoli extract, copper sulphate AND iron sulphate. This one was very variegated with rich, golden brown tones.

So, how is purple sprouting broccoli as a natural dye plant?

Definitely interesting but I don’t think the intensity of colours and the range of colours that are possible, even with a large amount of raw material, would persuade me to try this again. The pale colours and natural tones are really lovely though, and I have snaffled some of the skeins to work on a little project of my own.