Keep in mind that a mordant is needed to make many of the natural dyes color
fast or permanent. The book by Dianne Epp gives some of the chemistry of
dye, fabric and mordants. Check it out.
I think madder (Rubia tinctorium) is the only natural red dye of vegetable
origin. Alizarin is the constituent of madder. The bulk of the red dye is in
the red mass between the outer skin and the woody heart of the root. For
history note that thecolor of the "Redcoats" of the armies of France and
England (Revolutionary War) came from this plant dye.
In our area, South Texas, cochineal (Dactylopis coccus) has been a natural
red dye source in the past. When the Spanish explorers came to Mexico and
found the Aztecs using the the dryed insects as a dyestuff they thought
they were seeing the natives using seeds from plants. The coloring
material in the little cactus bugs is carminic acid yeilding pinks, scarlets
and crimsons on wool and silk. I have several cactus on in the fence row on
my place and at certain times of the year they are covered with small
patches of cotton like webs. The bugs are located inside these webs. They
are small and it takes a lot of the critters to make enough to use as a dye.
I remember reading something like 70,000 of the dried bugs are needed to
make a pound of cochineal. I have been told that early (1800s) products
such as lipstick came from these insects.
I am sure you know that indigo is the most popular natural source for blue
dye and was used in America during sthe 18th and 19th centuries. (blue
jeans) It comes from the leaves of the Indigofera plant native to India. I
have read that the process of extracting the dye requires a complicated set
of steps yielding very little dye (ounces) from hundreds of pounds of plant
I think there is another plant material called "woad" which may have been
used earlier then indigo as a natural source of blue but I do not have any
information about its use, sorry.
Little mollusks shells (Murex) from the coast of Phoenicia near Tyre were
used as a natural source for purple (Tyrian Purple). The coloring agent was
dibromindigo. Again, huge amounts of the raw material was needed to produce
the dye (12,000 shells for a gram of dyestuff.
A natural source of black comes from Logwood (Haematoxylon campechianum)
native to Central America, Mexico and Sough America.. The coloring agent
in this is haematin. To process the material, large blocks (hundreds of
pounds) of the material are chopped into small chips and then fermented to
extract the colorant. Mordants are needed to make the color fast or
permanent. The dye is not used as much now as it was up to the early part
of our century but it is still used extensively to dye leather.
Yellows, golds and bronze colors come from peach, white ash, hickory and
Osage orange roots (I think it is the root which is used from this tree
which has oher names like Hedge apple or Bow d'Arc). Onions have already
been mentioned as a yellow dye source. Weld (Reseda luteola) is another
ancient yellow dye source. The seeds and leaves of this plant are used as
the source of the natural dye material. The active dye in this material is
luteolin. (I think it was Weld mixed with woad which produced a green dye
in the Middle Ages.)
Several years ago I did an interview of one of elderly my neighbors, Anna
Jane Swift, who grew up in the early part of this century on a dry land
South Texas ranch. Among the wonderful stories she told was the the
practice of using coffee grounds and wax to decorate and dye Easter eggs a
reddish brown color.