Plants for dyeing: Pokeweed

pokeweed Pokeweed is shrub that commonly grows in dry, neglected areas. In New England, it generally blossoms in mid-summer and sets fruit in September. Throughout history, pokeweed has had several uses. One of the first plants to show itself in spring, young shoots were gathered, boiled and eaten as a tonic after the long, cold winter. As the plant matures, however, parts of it become poisonous.

The Algonquins called this plant puccoon, which means “plant used for stains or dyes.” An English name for the same plant is “inkberry”, and in my museum classes I sometimes have kids pick, mash, and write with pokeberry. Though technically a berry, which provides a stain rather than a dye, pokeweed can be used to color wool a rich shade of magenta. Unfortunately, stains fade a discolor rather quickly, and are definitely not as colorfast as true dyes. (Think of what happens on that white T shirt that gets blueberry or strawberry stains on it. )

For that reason, I have only used pokeweed to color my yarns a few times. While alum mordant is usually pretty effective with plant dyes, I have not found that it works well at all with pokeweed. My best results and truest, deepest colors have been achieved using white vinegar as mordant.

Pokeweed dyepot:

This is a simple recipe. For a pound of yarn, pick a large paper grocery bag full of pokeweed berries. Crush them until the juice runs, combine with about 1/2 gallon of water in a suitable steel or glass container. Pour in about 1 cup of vinegar. Submerge presoaked yarn skeins into dyebath, raise to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for about 1/2 hour. Allow yarn and dyebath to cool. Rinse yarn in cool water, allow to air dry.

If you try this yourself, I’d love to hear about your results.


Post revised 9/26/14


9 thoughts on “Plants for dyeing: Pokeweed

  1. Hi, I found your post while researching the use of pokeberries for dyeing. What happens to the berries if they have been frozen? My sister thoughtfully picked two huge bagsful for me and stuck them in her freezer. Will they still work once thawed? Thanks…

  2. Mary F Hernandez says:

    Good Morning,
    I was so pleased to find your website while researching Pokeweed. I grew up in AR and my Mother used to take us hunting for this plant. It was the late 40’s. She would prepare the leaves as part of a meal. Myself I enjoy making dyes for painting or just having fun. Many articles on line warn that we should not even be handling the plant, and if we dare, then wear gloves. Not sure I agree with that whole heartedly, my Mother lived to be 90 and I never saw her with gloves on while picking pokeweed. Because of some health concerns I may start wearing them. Caution is a good thing. Thank you so much for your advice about the white vinegar. I used Alum last year, and I bet it’s more toxic than the berries! I have learned a lot in the past few days about this “weed”, mostly because my landlord wants me to remove a large, lovely specimen that is near the basement!
    Do you have the specifics for how to “ferment” the juice so it can be used for ink?
    Thank you again for your site. Peace and Light.

  3. katknit says:

    No, I don’t know about the fermenting part, but I simply use the berry juice to make ink. Works for me.

  4. Chad Stinard says:

    Hi Linda,
    I am in El Paso, where the states of Texas, New Mexico, and Chihuahua come together and am seeking information about which plants native to this region are suitable for producing dyes for yarn. There are a lot of onions grown in this area. Can onion skins be used to produce good dyes? Are there any more articles on Plants for dyeing?
    Thanks, Chad

    • Hi Chad,

      There’s a category cloud in the left sidebar. Click on natural dyeing, and it will take you to all my other posts about dyes. Yes, onion skins are an excellent source for yellows, oranges, and rusts.


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