Volume 19 Issue 2 A Journal Dedicated to Natural Dyes Spring 2015


Colors of the Schulenberg Prairie (Detail)
Colors of the Schulenberg Prairie (Detail).
Tapestry, Churro wool naturally dyed with stick-lac, cochineal, madder, weld, Indigo, Osage Orange.
Photograph by Larry Fritz


Early Spring Dyeing and Healing with Goat Willow
By Giedra Dagiliene

Goat Willow and Common Osier - aliveness trees

Our ancestors knew many uses for the willow tree: food, healing, construction and dye of course. Although there are round 400 species willow, found primarily on moist soils in cold and temperate regions, two willow species have been especially respected: Goat Willow (Salix caprea) and Common Osier (Salix viminalis).

Goat Willow's spectacular early spring bloom attracted attention after the cold winter–its fluffy yellow flowers were used in a tea against colds. Deer's tallow mashed with Goat Willow leaves was a healing food in hard-living situations, rich with vitamin C and salicylic acid, which is an anti-inflammatory drug from which Aspirin was developed. My mother was born in the Lithuanian provinces, where she got first-hand knowledge of folk medicine. Her family sent her to study medicine at the University of Vienna before World War II. She told me that Common Osier bark was used to heal wounds and bone fractures by people in the past. There are many mythological tales about this low tree or shrub, which grows in wet places near my district, where the terrain is formed of glacial soil full of stones.

The ancient art of dyeing textiles with natural bark stock solution is our cultural heritage and knowledge, which could be forgotten due to global commercial sythetic textile dye manufacture and marketing. Information about the plants used by our ancestors is briefly mentioned in various publications, but there are no studies or published descriptions. The oldest textiles found in Lithuania–woven lime bark mats–date from the Neolithic era. Local raw materials were used: hemp, linen, wool. Later, natural silk and cotton were imported from the east and west. Baskets and furniture woven from willow shoots were and still are popular crafts today.

Walking with my grandson, we used willow branches to make bows and discovered how easy it is to cut off the bark. Intuitively, I took some Goat Willow home. I was surprised to find that the white branches without bark turned purple. Experimenting, I found that willow shoots boiled in the alkaline liquid dyed a purple color, but this does not mean that a similar shade will result when woolen or linen fabrics are dyed in this stock solution.

Figure 1. Goat Willow stems and bark
Goat Willow stems and bark
Photograph Copyright by Giedra Dagiliene

Bark dye preparation

Goat Willow bark can be dried and stored in linen bags for future dyeing or boiled fresh for immediate use.


1. Half fill an enameled, aluminum or stainless steel 6 liter (1.6 gallon) pot with willow bark
2. Pour in enough water to cover the bark
3. Add three tablespoons washing soda (sodium carbonate, Na2CO3)
4. Soak the bark for two hours, adding tap water if needed to keep the bark covered
5. Heat the pot until boiling
6. Stir the bark carefully with two willow sticks–the water will turn red
7. Simmer at a low temperature for four hours
8. Cover the pot and take it off the fire
9. Allow the covered pot to cool overnight

Textile dyeing with Goat Willow bark

Fiber preparation before dyeing

  • Cellulose fibers (cotton, linen): boil fibers in the 3 liters of water with a table spoon of washing soda and then rinse well in fresh water.
  • Protein fibers (silk, wool), manmade cellulose fibers (viscose) and synthetic fibers (nylon, polyacetate): wash fibers with laundry soap, then rinse well in fresh water.

  • All fabrics should be soaked in the solution of aluminum sulfate overnight. When experimenting with new plants locally, I use a simple premordanting technology, which allows me to get general conclusions relating to the natural dye palette.

    Color testing

    Experimenting allows me to discover various textile dyeing possibilities. I don't have books or instructions on how to dye with willow bark stock solution. Therefore, I first make color tests with different materials. Environmentally friendly metal salts help to get more shades: magnesium sulfate (MgSO4), aluminum sulfate (KA(SO4)2*12H2O) and iron rust (Fe2O3). Common sorrel (Rumex acetosa) works as a natural acid and baking soda works as a base when testing the influence of pH on color. I used 10 separate dishes with dye, adding small amounts of different salts to each, then soaking wet fibers in the liquid. Note that Goat Willow bark stock solution tends to settle out, so it is important to keep the dye bath mixed, using the wooden sticks. All of the dishes were heated to boiling and left to cool. Wool and silk were taken out and rinsed, but the other fibers were left to continue heating for two hours on low heat, then left to cool during the night. The next morning the cotton and linen samples also taken out and rinsed well. Lastly, all of the dyed fabrics were soaked in soapy water and rinsed.

    Figure 2. Textile dyeing color test
    Textile dyeing color test
    Photograph Copyright by Giedra Dagiliene

    Figure 3. Woolen threads dying sampler
    Woolen threads dying sampler
    Photograph Copyright by Giedra Dagiliene


    Figures 2 and 3 show the results–each one tells us something new. The conclusions which I made during the dyeing process were exciting: the stock solution dyed all kinds of fibers. A wide palette colors was obtained from Goat Willow bark, ranging from light pink through violet, orange and brown to grey. Most colors were both light-fast and wash-fast. The woolen yarns were soft and warm after dyeing and absorbed dark shades. Natural silk absorbed pastel shades quickly. Plant fibers (cotton and linen) successfully absorbed shades by boiling longer and soaking in dye overnight.

    It is interesting to mention the dye differences relating to metal salts and pH changes. For example, iron rust fixed the dye reddish brown on wool, but on cotton and linen the shades changed to gray. Black dye washes out, which is a problem. However the results might have been better if aluminum acetate was used for premordanting cotton and chalk used for mordant fixing, as described in TRJ Volume 15, Issue 2 ("...mordant with aluminum acetate. In both cases, the mordant step can be followed by a chalk solution soak in order to fix the mordant prior to dyeing." Donna Brown, Diane de Souza and Catharine Ellis*).

    Table 1: Textile color palette dyeing with Goat Willow bark

    No. Material Al Rumex Soda Fe + Soda Fe
    1 Sheep wool
    2 Natural silk
    3 Synthetic silk
    4 Cotton soft
    5 Cotton jeans
    6 Linen bleached
    Table showing color change schematically–a computer is not able to create identical natural colors. Making your own natural sampler is a good educational tool for deep understanding what is going on.


    Goat Willow bark dye–Art for sustainable education

    In 2014, I participated in a UNESCO summer academy, organized by the "Seven Gardens" Dinslaken network. I used Goat Willow bark in a workshop on eco-prints design and textile dyeing (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DiW3mMdVM7s&feature=youtu.be). Our German partners were fascinated, so I decided to create a sampler for them, seeking to exchange experience and show to a wider public in Essen, Germany.

    Figure 4. Textile dyeing sampler I sent to Essen, Germany, August 2014
    Textile dyeing sampler I sent to Essen, Germany, August 2014
    Photograph Copyright by Giedra Dagiliene

    Figure 5. Dried bark in linen pillow
    Dried bark in linen pillow
    Photograph Copyright by Giedra Dagiliene

    Pigment extraction in the kitchen

    Natural organic pigments were used for decoration from the earliest times, as seen in Paleolithic cave paintings (see http://www.chemistryexplained.com/Ny-Pi/Pigments.html#ixzz3WBlXL4pn).

    When I was student in the Vilnius Art Academy, a professor told us: "The kitchen is not for public show," but in this article it is important to illustrate the dyeing process. Goat Willow bark contains much pigment, which settles out of solution when left to stand. By evaporating the water and drying the pigment, which can be crushed to powder, it can be stored a long time. The dry pigment can be dissolved in alcohol and be used as an ink.

    Figure 6. Dye Kitchen
    Dye Kitchen
    Photograph Copyright by Giedra Dagiliene

    Figure 7. Evaporating the water Figure 8. Pigment drying
    Evaporating the water
    Pigment drying
    Photograph Copyright by Giedra Dagiliene Photograph Copyright by Giedra Dagiliene

    Figure 9. Dried pigment powder
    Dried pigment powder
    Photograph Copyright by Giedra Dagiliene

    Fresh boiled stock solution stored in closed jars can be used as ink in schools and workshops. I used it in my ecological art and technologies project "Seven Baltic Gardens." Since this project does not receive any financial assistance from the Lithuanian governmental, using Goat Willow bark stock solution is economical. Goat Willow bark stock solution is also very stable. I use it in art experiments, sketches, posters, greeting cards, hand-made book illuminations, calligraphy, imprints, surface design, textile art, eco-prints, paper mush coloring and water color.

    Painting with Goat Willow ink


    1. Any kind of paper
    2. Brushes
    3. Sponge
    4. Soft paper napkins
    5. Wooden sticks
    6. Bird feathers
    7. Fresh water glass
    8. Homemade Goat Willow bark stock solution

    I prepare samples to show my students, always seeking to illustrate what techniques they can use for painting with organic ink.

  • Wet painting technique can be used to express natural elements, such as wind, rain, soil, air, soft surfaces.

  • Dry technique allow for the possibility to paint more details or to write calligraphy.

  • Organic ink is natural and less toxic than synthetic pigments. It is an environmentally friendly tool for education, as many unsuccessful sketches that would be thrown away in the trash can be recycled to make original paper designs. The colors it gives allow students to draw more attention to the lines, forms and space expression. Exhibiting the students' work is an important instrument of communication. The student is "talking" without any words using a visual language; other people are looking and hopefully thinking about harmony with nature.

    Figure 10. Wet painting technique
    Wet painting technique
    Photograph Copyright by Giedra Dagiliene

    Figure 11. Dry painting technique
    Dry painting technique
    Photograph Copyright by Giedra Dagiliene

    Eco-prints on paper

    The winter of 2013 was very cold, but late spring was so beautiful  all the plants started flowering together in May. I found many wonderful leaves and flowers for making Eco-prints. I began freshly boiling Goat Willow bark stock solution in April before my first experiments with paper dyeing. The techniques I learned are real treasures, inspiring in an artist the emotional willingness to work hard and to go out into nature to study different plants, even in unpleasant weather or hot sunshine.


    1. Water color paper
    2. Linen rope
    3. Fresh spring leaves and flowers
    4. Two ceramic plates
    5. Rusty iron plates


    1. A3-size water color paper is folded accordion-style, then unfolded
    2. Fresh leaves and flowers are laid out on the paper's surface
    3. Put the rusty iron plates on the middle of the paper
    4. Compress the accordion and tightly wrap with linen rope
    5. Soak this bundle 20 minutes in the Goat Willow bark stock solution
    6. Take the bundle out and press it between the two ceramic plates
    7. Put the bundle in an oven and heat for 15 minutes in 200°C (400°F)
    8. Let the bundle cool while still tightly wrapped
    9. Open the bundle the next day, remove the plant material and metal plates, and flatten the paper

    Figure 12. Eco-print X-Goat Willow
    Eco-print X-Goat Willow
    Photograph Copyright by Giedra Dagiliene

    Figure 13. Eco-print XX-Goat Willow
    Eco-print XX-Goat Willow
    Photograph Copyright by Giedra Dagiliene

    Water color paper folded accordion-style is a good material to use in designing an original booklet. The artistic effect is surprising  positive emotions reward us. Every page is different, depending on which kinds of plants have been used. Intuition and patience are needed: the process is good training.

    *See also the more recent article "Mordanting Cotton and Cellulose Successful Methods," by Donna Brown, Diane de Souza, and Catharine Ellis, TRJ V19 I1.

    About the author

    Giedra Dagiliene is an artist and teacher. She worked for many years as professional interior decorator and furniture designer. Her interests are learning ancient technologies for natural dyeing, experimenting with local plants and transforming knowledge through sustainable education programs for children and adults. For the past 5 years she has been involved in the "Seven Gardens" network (http://www.sevengardens.or).

    Inspired by artist Peter Reichenbach, she initiated the ecological art and technologies project "Seven Baltic Gardens," starting experiments in secondary schools in Vilnius. She has organized exhibitions, workshops and summer camps, as well as the annual conference "Natural Surface Design." Teachers, craftsmen, artists, children, mothers and fathers are welcome to all events (grandmothers are our special contributors). Partners from abroad are welcome as well. You can register via email at giedra_dagiliene@yahoo.com.

    Teacher's or artist's motivation

    What reasons can inspire the teacher or the artist to experiment with local plants to find their coloring properties? Why does she intend to start a long-lasting study and work hard, seeking to refresh ethno-cultural memory relating local dye plants?

    Education in ecological art and technologies must perform a rescue mission in a constantly changing world. Nowadays the economic, ecological and social-environmental situation forces families to use cheaper products. Few people can remember ways other than buying mass-produced goods. However, strong synthetic textile dyes and unrealistically bright colors on a computer screen or in food colorants negatively influence young people's psychic stability. I work directly with children and young people, so I am able to support this theory with examples I see. Commercial advertisements are used in marketing to attract consumers. Carefully selected colors in the layout psychologically affect our feelings and desires by creating associations in our mind. Color-based emotions affect us much more than we can imagine. Children are particularly vulnerable to such advertising, which is why it is important to find harmony with nature and to understand the values of eco-friendly products, as well as to strive for economy using hand-made dyes for textiles, art and design. Diligence is a rare but important feature for the modern man and non-formal education methods can benefit schools. Emphasis on individual sustainable activities starting at a young age can create healthy relations in families and respect for the environment locally as well as globally.