Volume 22 Issue 2 A Journal Dedicated to Natural Dyes Spring 2018


Color extracted by Celia Wilson from gorse petals
Color extracted by Celia Wilson from gorse petals.
Photograph by Robert Feldman


Canterbury Colours
Celia Wilson

Oxford, New Zealand, is a small rural country town, located almost due west from Christchurch city on the downlands at the western edge of the Canterbury Plain adjacent to the mountain ridge that runs up the centre of the South Island of New Zealand. Oxford is in a farming region and there is a long tradition of spinning and dyeing with local materials. There was a switch to synthetic dyes in the 1990s, but more recently there has been a growing interest in returning to organic and inorganic colour sources.

Figure 1. Colours of Canterbury, mineral pigments on paper.
Colours of Canterbury, mineral pigments on paper
Photograph Copyright by Celia Wilson

This article presents some information on various processes and uses of pigments found in the Canterbury region today, including natural dyes on wool, traditional Maori dyes and their use of paint, eco prints with natural dyes on wool, silk and paper, and rock pigments used as artist's paint.

There was the idea that synthetic dyes don't fade, but even synthetically dyed fibers fade in the intense New Zealand sunlight! I turn my clothes inside out before putting on the washing line to dry, but the synthetically dyed fabrics still fade. Everything fades, but while I might be prejudiced, I think natural dyes fade more gracefully!

Figure 2. June Inch's woolen 1980s bed cover.
June Inch's woolen 1980s bed cover
Photograph Copyright by Celia Wilson

The crocheted woolen bed cover (Figure 2), made in 1980 by June Inch, an Oxford resident, has faded but still looks beautiful. June has been spinning and dyeing using materials from the family farm, and as a potter she experimented with the local clays and glaze materials over many years. The dyes in the bed cover were made at different times of the year and the wools are from different fleeces. The following chart lists the natural dyes June used. If a mordant was used, it is noted. Silver Dollar Eucalyptus leaves, which were used in the area but not shown in the bed cover, give various shades of apricot to tan.

Dye Material Notes Colour
Onion skins Alum mordant used Brassy gold
Prunus leaves Spring
Gorse flowers   Soft yellow
Eucalyptus leaves At different times of year Green, dullish
Walnut Green skins
Black skin
Dry shells
Various shades of brown
Dark brown
NZ Lichens   Fawn, brown, tans, soft light ochre
NZ Flax - Harakeke Seed pod before opening
Flower just opened
Base of leaves
Gold, brassy
Soft pink/fawn


Figure 3. New Zealand flax plant, Harakeke (Phormium tenax).
New Zealand flax plant, Harakeke (Phormium tenax)
Photograph Copyright by Celia Wilson

New Zealand is famous for its numbers of sheep, which evolved from European breeds to thrive in the many different New Zealand conditions. June Inch found the following fleeces best for dyeing: New Zealand Romney, a coarse wool that dyes well; Lincoln breeds; Halfbred, a Merino cross with the long wool Leicester, Romney or Lincoln breeds; Corriedale, also a Merino cross with British long wool; Coopworth, a Border Leicester cross with Romney; Perendale, a Cheviot ewe cross with a Romney ram (breed named after Professor Peren at Lincoln University where the cross was bred and registered in 1960); Polwarth, a Merino and Lincoln cross, crossed back to the Merino quarter first cross. The dyed colour of the wool depends on the lustre or brightness of the fleece.

Early European explorers in New Zealand were impressed by the striking, colourfast, jet-black colour of the "flax" plants (Phormium tenax, Phormium cookianum), and cabbage tree (Cordyline australis) dyed by Maori. However, the chief source of black was the bark of hinau (Elaeocarpus dentatus) (Cooper and Cambie: 133-134). The black colour was mordanted by placing the flax fiber in the black mud of a kahikatea (Dacrycarpus dacrydioides) swamp for a lengthy period, to allow iron salts to act on the fibre. (Cooper and Cambie: 134).

Early and contemporary publications indicate that Maori in the South Island could have used vegetable dyes extracted from toatoa bark (Phyllocladus alpinus), hinau bark as above, kamahi bark (Weinmannia racemosa) and pokaka bark (Elaeocarpus Hookerianus) (Beatie 1995: 61). James Beattie also mentions that berries from the kakaha plant (Astelia nervosa) produce a yellow dye (Beatie 1994: 48) and pukepito produces a blue dye from the rotten wood of the tawai (beech) tree (Beatie 1995: 61-62), but there may be confusion here with pukepoto, the blue coloured mineral Vivianite.

William Colenso says dark and sombre colours besides black, such as dark red dyes of various shades from tanekaha and toatoa trees, were used for staining furniture and wooden artifacts (Colenso: 59). Other dyes included blue-black colours obtained from tutu (Coriaria arborea) and makomako (Aristotelia serrata), a red colour from tanekaha (Phyllocladus trichomanoides) or toatoa (P. asplenifoius var. alpinus). Yellow colours also came from puriri (Vitex lucens) or from some of the many Coprosma species (Cooper and Cambie: 134). June Inch noted that bark from the NZ fuschia, kotukutuku (Fuchsia excorticata) produces the colour gray.

Eco Prints on Cloth and Paper

There is much interest in New Zealand in the use of natural dyes and new processes for extracting colours. Catherine Wright, a fibre artist, makes silk and wool scarves decorated with eco prints with leaves from her garden near Oxford. The plant material is laid on the cloth, then rolled up and bound to ensure close contact of cloth and leaves. She uses a copper pot for dyeing and reuses the liquid, only adding more water as is necessary. Sometimes she adds pieces of old silk ties to the cloth bundles when dyeing, and their coloured patterns are also transferred. She introduces commercial dyes in some of her pieces, adding a colour contrast to the hues from the copper mordanted plant colours.

Figure 4. Eco printed scarves on wool and silk, Catherine Wright.
Eco printed scarves on wool and silk, Catherine Wright
Photograph Copyright by Celia Wilson

I have used the eco print process, not only on cloth, but also on paper. My focus has been testing and recording colours of any plant using different waters and a limited range of "safer" mordants for cotton, linen, silk and wool. The eco prints on paper have been bound into book form, mainly as I was not sure of their light fastness. I have used alum and tannin (oak) to soak the paper but have also had good results from not using them. The look of the finished print is quite different and can set a mood; bright and cheerful or more somber or antique.

Figure 5. Eco print on paper, Celia Wilson
Eco print on paper, Celia Wilson
Photograph Copyright by Celia Wilson

Rock Pigments and Paints

I have been working with rock and organic pigments for paint since 2007. It was a natural choice for me as I have an interest in the environment particularly, having run a certified organic orchard for many years. For most of the final year of my fine arts degree in 2007 at the University of Auckland, I was pouring paint down the four meter high wall of the studio. This started after I observed erosion on a hillside and the red clay at my feet. Since then I have collected and ground rocks for the pigments hidden within.

I usually make watercolour paint because this medium best shows off the different colours sometimes revealed in unrefined pigment powder. One of the most exciting moments for me was when levigating to clean a muddy brown-green clay from a pond situated in an area of limestone and chalk north of Oxford, lots of tiny black grains of "sand" appeared. When these grains were collected and ground in the watercolour binder, the most beautiful emerald green resulted. The black grains were glauconite, also known as greensand.

There are many different inorganic pigments available throughout New Zealand due to climate and geology in a country with a long north to south configuration. Inorganic colours and pigments can be produced from ochres and minerals—haematite, for example, is found in Canterbury. Colours include gray and greenish-gray, green, olive green, yellow, yellow, yellow-brown, red, dark browns, purple, blue, black and white. These pigments exist in the subsoil and mineral and rock layers and can be seen where the land erodes away beside rivers or on the coasts or where the earth has been dug out to make roads or quarries.

Figure 6. Oxford blue clay and red volcanic paints.
Oxford blue clay and red volcanic paints
Photograph Copyright by Celia Wilson

While most colours can be found in nature, blue is very elusive. There is an Oxford clay that looks pale blue when taken out of the ground, but when made into watercolour paint it is gray. However, when placed next to red it takes on a blue hue. When made into oil paint, it is pale green.

Local rock formations around Oxford, which is situated on the alluvial Canterbury Plains, include a chalk dome, volcanic subsoil in varying shades of tan and brown, and loess made from mineral deposits blown from the riverbeds, which yields a yellow ochre. When this yellow ochre is heated, it can turn a darker tan.

Figure 7. Inorganic colours as exhibited at Dunedin Botanic Gardens.
Inorganic colours as exhibited at Dunedin Botanic Gardens
Photograph Copyright by Celia Wilson

I was very interested in the historical uses of pigments in New Zealand and, during my BFA Honours year at the University of Canterbury I researched dyes and paints as used by Maori, the first inhabitants of this land. Before the arrival of Europeans in New Zealand, Maori had a range of colours that they derived from mineral and vegetable materials. William Colenso, who arrived in New Zealand in 1834 and who became fluent in the Maori language, was a missionary, printer, amateur botanist, explorer, and politician. He states that the prized and favourite colours of the Maori were black, white, red and brown, also yellow and green (Colenso: 50), which they would go to great lengths to obtain, while each shade or tint of colour was individually named (Ibid: 51).

One of my fellow students, Imelda Neale, as part of her BFA degree at Auckland University, researched and wrote "The Collection, Processing and Use of Traditional and Experimental Paints." From her essay, I understand that for Maori, whero, red, was an important colour category, signified by the large number of names that related to or described the colour. Red was obtained from iron oxides, which include magnetite and haematite, Fe2O3, (either red or black). Haematite, found as a lump, is basalt that has undergone a process of ironisation and produces a hard, finely-particled red pigment. It was difficult to find, however, and because of this, other minerals were substituted. These were the yellow-brown iron hydroxides that include limonite, which is a mixture of goethite, FeO(OH), (brown), jarosite (yellow) and lepidocrocite (usually yellow or brown). Limonite when heated turns red through a process of oxidisation as the brown goethite in the limonite is converted to Fe2O3. The red mineral or clay earth was collected from exposed volcanic seams or layers, and the yellow ochre (a tinted clay) from streams, swamps or rivers in places where it was visible.

These yellow-brown ochres could be sourced from places that would almost guarantee the ochre would, upon firing, become a brilliant red. That is, places where there evidence of iron ore, such as stream banks or beds where there was a metallic sheen on the water or on the clay (Neale: 6). Red pigments were sourced in other ways as shown by the red called horu, which has been described in one account (Tregear: 252) as a  rust like pigment collected on fern fronds that were placed in a stream for this purpose.

Collected ochres would be made into cakes with water, and then fired in a wet, damp or dry state. After cooling they could be ground into pigment for paint making or kept for future use. Fired cakes could be wrapped in leaves for storage or transport. Unfired rocks were also easy to store and transport.

Neale's experiments show that there can be quite a variation of colours produced when firing yellow brown ochres. If the iron content is high enough it would appear that yellow ochre can turn red after one firing and then produce black after a second firing. But other ochres Neale tested, such as red, orange and purple from Banks Peninsula, turned gray upon firing, showing they were already fully oxidised and would redden no more. Generally, brown ochres change to deep brown-reds; yellow ochres change to reds or orange-reds, and yellow-brown ochres yield colours between the two (Neale: 38-39).

Red ochre appears to be one of the first pigments to be used by human beings and always seems to have been regarded with much significance. Instances of its use are found in burial graves and in cave paintings that had great social significance for spiritual or shamanistic purposes. The red colour invokes a reference to blood, and of all colours, red was the most sacred for Maori, "the very blood of our ancestors". Maori do not appear to have mixed the pigments to create other colours. This perhaps indicates that each colour had a specific meaning for them, and paint had social and cultural properties.

In addition to red decoration on canoes, red ochre was used to decorate the outside of buildings such as whare whakairo (carved house). On the interior of buildings, structural elements, such as the rafters, the ridgepole, and battens, were decorated with kowhaiwhai, painted designs and symmetrical arrangements. The pigments used were red ochre, black charcoal and white clay (taioma) (Auckland Museum: 4). The binders used would have been shark s liver oil or bird oil (Beattie: 59). Red and black paint were used at rock painting sites, such as in Weka Pass near Waikari.

White, or ma, was also obtained from pipi shells, and oyster shells, which give a white pigment when burnt. However, Neale's experiments produced grays and whites and showed that it was difficult to achieve a good white, although when this paint was applied to board it appeared whiter than when painted on a white canvas (Neale: 40).

For face and body painting, Best says that Maori used red ochre (kokowai, horu) (Best: 219); Tregear notes that yellow and blue colours were used for face painting and that the blue, pukepoto, was obtained from deposits of iron phosphate (Tregear: 256) (possibly the mineral Vivianite). Of course, black (panga) was used in moko (tattoos) and the soot for this pigment could be collected from a frame of flax sticks suspended over a fire. Colenso also says that various kinds of charcoal both animal and vegetable from several sources were manufactured in a highly curious manner with much labour and skill (Colenso: 61). Black was also obtained by collecting soot from burning resinous wood and resins such as Kauri gum. Best also stated that the Tuhoi people used the residue from burning vegetable caterpillar (Cordyceps robertsii, a fungus that attacks certain insect larva), mixed with water or the juice of berries of the mahoe tree and then formed into lumps for storage (Best: 222).

Botanical colours

I was led on to investigate botanical colours when I was due to exhibit my rock colours at the Dunedin Botanic Gardens. I was drawn to solar dyeing and the eco print process, using it on both cloth and paper. I mainly bind these eco print pages into books and record all my colour experiments.

Figure 8. Red hollyhock petals, solar dye in water and vinegar, December 2015.
Red hollyhock petals, solar dye in water and vinegar, December 2015
Photograph Copyright by Celia Wilson

In Figure 8, the pink to green colour changes in the hollyhock solar dye happened both with when the fabric came into contact with metal when drying and when the fabric was exposed to the air (i.e., protruding out of the dye) during dyeing. Vinegar in the bath may also have contributed to this effect. The pale brown thread and kozo paper have a slight pink cast which does not show in the image. Yellow from gorse petals (Ulex europaeus) was the first colour I extracted in 2008. I have found that is long lasting: I still have a little bottle of that dye and the colour has not faded at all.

I have used evaporated dye obtained from the seedpods of the NZ flax plant (Phormium tenax) and seeds of Hebe species as ink and made traditional walnut ink (Juglans nigra). All make a good "paint". The addition of vinegar or watercolour binder to these inks seems to increase their keeping qualities. I still use these inks made a few years ago.

Figure 9. Hebe ink on paper.
Hebe ink on paper
Photograph Copyright by Celia Wilson

I volunteer at Oxford's art gallery, Arts in Oxford, where they were lucky enough to receive a donation of a hollander beater, a tool traditionally used to make paper pulp from cotton rag or cellulose fibre. Just recently, we have been dyeing paper pulp with natural dyes and mineral pigments to colour the pulp before using it to make the sheets of paper.

My examples of sources and uses of natural dyes in New Zealand, both historical and current, illustrate that there are many ways to use dyes and mineral pigments found in New Zealand!

Figure 10. Ashley River/Rakahuri 3 (storyboard), mineral pigments on Sandford paper 385 x 283 mm, 2010, Celia Wilson.
Ashley River/Rakahuri 3 (storyboard), mineral pigments on Sandford paper
Photograph Copyright by Celia Wilson

Auckland Museum. Kowhaiwhai Tuturu Maori. Auckland: Auckland Museum, 1998

Beattie, James Herries. Traditional Lifeways of the Southern Maori: The Otago University Museum Ethnological Project, 1920. Ed. Atholl Anderson. Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 1995.

---. Our Southernmost Maoris. Facsimile edition. Christchurch: Cadsonbury Publications, 1994.

Best, Elsdon. The Maori as He Was: a Brief Account of Maori Life as it was in Pre-European Days. Wellington: Dominion Museum, 1934.

Colenso, William. "On the fine Perception of Colours possessed by the ancient Maoris." Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand 1868-1961. Vol 14, 1881. National Library of New Zealand. Retrieved 14 September 2008 from http://rsnz.natlib.govt.nz/volume/rsnz_14/rsnz_14_00_ 000720.html.

Cooper, R C, and R C Cambie. New Zealand's Economic Native Plants. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Neale, Imelda. "The Collection, Processing and Use of Traditional and Experimental Paints". Essay for Maori Studies Paper 342, Te Ao Kohatu, University of Auckland, 2006. Personal information to the author. November 2006.

Tregear, Edward. The Maori Race. Wanganui: A D Willis, 1904.