Devotional Color


Jan 15, USA (SUN) — In yesterday's edition of, I was interested to read the inquiry from Keshava das, who was inquiring as to the color combinations needed to dye sannyas cloth. For many years, I've had an interest in wildcrafting plant materials to make natural dyes. While I don't have a recipe for any particular shade of 'sannyas saffron', I can offer a little information on the wide range of oranges, and how they are made.

The field of orange color is an interesting representation of the variegatedness of Lord Krsna's devotees. Take any snapshot of a large gathering of devotees, and you will see an ocean of subtle shades, ranging from bring orange-pink to the subtlest shades of saffron. In the early days of ISKCON, the range of colors was even wider, as many of the devotees were simply dyeing sheets in various shades of yellow, and wearing them as dhotis and saris.

Natural dyes are so much nicer than packaged chemical dyes, in every way. Not only are they eco-friendly, they don't put nasty chemicals next to your skin. Natural dyes cost a fraction of the amount you'll spend for store-bought dyes, and they're available when you need them. While sanyasis themselves won't likely take the time to process dyestuffs, the women of the community might be interested in naturally dyeing bolts of fabric for clothing, altar use, etc.

The Process

To begin dyeing textiles, whether cloth, wool or other materials, you first need to gather the natural dyestuffs that will give the colors you want, grinding them down into a rough mix or coarse powder. Tie them into a linen bag so the color can mix in the vat of water, but the dyestuffs won't stick to the fabric.

You then have to add a "mordant", which is a substance that mixes with the fiber so that it can form with the dye, thus causing the fabric to retain more color and hold it more permanently. The mordants are mixed into the dye bath and stirred well into the water

Depending on the dyestuff you use, and the mordant you mix with it, a particular shade of color will result. You can take a single dyestuff, like Elderberry, and get at least seven distinct colors with it:

Elderberry leaves with a copper mordant gives bright yellow. The leaves with alum give beige to green. With tin, they give a camel brown. Elderberries mixed with alum and salt give lilac blue. Mix them with gray and they give blue-gray; with alum they give bright purple. Mix the Elderberry bark with iron, and you get solid black.

Some plant dyes do not require a mordant. These dyestuffs are said to be substantive. Other plants, while not producing substantive dyes, do produce dyes that are essentially permanent, or fixed, without use of a mordant.

The Range of Orange

Following is a short list of the dyestuffs found in most North American environments, and many places around the world, that will give you beautiful shades of orange color. Those that are bolded are likely to come closest to 'sannyas saffron'. By regulating how long you leave fabric in the dye, you can further regulate the shade of color.

    Agrimony - orange
    Annatto - orange
    Beetroot - apricot
    Birch - reddish orange
    Bloodroot - orange / orange to rust
    Bur Marigold - orange yellow
    Calendula - oranges
    California Poppies - bright sunny oranges
    Calliopsis - pumpkin
    Cherry, Wild - yellowish orange to tan
    Coreopsis - pale rose orange / dark burnt orange
    Cotinus - yellow to orange
    Dahlia - orange / medium orange
    Eucalyptus - orange
    Hollyhock - orange and rusts
    Indian Tee - strong orange
    Lichen, Yellow - orange yellow
    Madder - bright orange red
    Marigold, African - orange to gold
    Nasturtium - peach
    Nodding Marigold - brownish orange
    Onion Skins - yellow to burnt orange / orange brown
    Oregon Grape - orange
    Silver Dollar Eucalyptus - orange brown
    Turmeric - substantive orange dye
    Willow, Black - gold to orange

Following are the color ranges and mordants for each of the saffron range dyestuffs:

    BEETROOT (Beta vulgaris): Whole plant gives apricot with alum

    BUR MARIGOLD (Bidens tripartita): Whole plant gives orange yellow with alum

    CALIFORNIA POPPIES (Eschscholzia californica): Flowers give a range of light, bright, sunny yellow to orange shades w/ various mordants

    CHERRY, WILD (Prunus serotina): Leaves give substantive yellow orange to tan

    COREOPSIS (Coreopsis tinctoria): Whole plant gives pale rose orange w/ tin

    COTINUS Smoke Tree (wood is like Fustic): Roots and stems give yellow to orangish

    LICHEN, YELLOW: Gives substantive yellow dye; gives orange yellow with alum.

    MARIGOLD, AFRICAN (Tagetes erecta): Flowers give orange to gold w/ tin & cream of tartar

    NASTURTIUM (Tropaeolum): Red flowers give peach w/ alum

With alum, you should add the mordant before you add the dyestuffs. With all the others, you can add the mordant before, during or after they dyeing.

You can begin experimenting by using about a half-pound of dried dyestuff to a pound of fabric, in a sink-full of water at room temperature. Let it sit for at least an hour, and move the fabric around periodically to get even dyeing.

When ready, rinse till the water runs clear. Add a small quantity of vinegar or mild soap to soften and slightly brighten the color.

Those interested in additional details on natural dyeing are invited to email for more information:


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