Have you ever been ambushed by an idea? Not a mere suggestion or nagging intuition, but a full force, frontal assault of the psyche. Somewhere in our move to Wyoming four years ago and while exploring the surrounding hills, I was smitten by the notion of dying fly tying materials with flower pigments. The relentless “what if” that plagues an otherwise sound mind propelled excursions to identify, collect, and extract pigments from wildflowers. It is hard to grasp the logic of such behavior as it may not exist; the idea just showed up one day and would not be persuaded to leave.
Field guides for local plants (to weed out noxious and toxic varieties) and a trip to the library introduced anthocyanins and betalains, water-soluble plant pigments we see as reds, yellows, and blues. Flower petals and leaves began to crowd my tying space and the pages of my fly tying notebook were increasingly devoted to plant names and color schemes. Wild sunflowers, plains coreopsis, prairie coneflowers, fringed sage, and Blacked-eyed Susans became as familiar as blue-winged olives, cased caddis, pale duns, and yellow stoneflies. I was hooked on flowers.
Extracting pigment for dye is a simple process. Start by boiling water in a glass measuring cup using a microwave oven. Remove the cup from the microwave and add flower petals to the hot water; tear the petals into small pieces as you add them to release as much pigment as possible. The pigments extracted from a flower are subtle, use a handful of flower petals in a cup of water.
While the flower petals steep in hot water, loop a couple of feet of thread loosely around your fingers and (after removing your fingers) immerse the thread into the warm liquid. A pinch of wool for dubbing can also be added. You can leave the materials in the dyebath for an hour or two, or even let it soak overnight; the technique is as flexible as you want to make it.
When you remove the thread from the dye solution, rinse it in cold water to remove excess dye, and then dip the dyed material in a weakly acidic solution to “set” the color and prevent pigment from washing out in the creek. A teaspoon of household vinegar diluted in a cup of tap water works fine, just like dying Easter eggs. Coffee and tea are also acidic and add a darker hue to the dyed material. In fact, an hour in a cup of coffee gives a warm, medium brown color to nylon thread.
Thread dyed with natural pigments (left to right): white (starting material), light pink (barberry leaves), pale yellow (coreopsis), yellow-orange (Black-eyed Susans), light tan (coneflowers blooms and black tea), medium brown (cottonwood bark), rusty-brown (red clay and dark coffee).
I found nylon thread retains plant dyes better than polyester or polyester/cotton blends. Coats and Clark upholstery thread and Danville monocord in white and beige are prime candidates for natural coloring. Dubbing is more difficult to dye with water-soluble plant pigments. Natural dyes work well with wool and hair, but I am still searching for a synthetic dubbing material that consistently retains flower colors.
Some plant pigments are pH-sensitive and colors might shift when exposed to weak acid solutions. There are other mordants (chemicals to set color) you can try; see the references at the end of this article for more information on natural dyes and dying techniques.
Out of Control
Disturbed areas and roadside ditches are a haven for annual sunflowers and sweet clover – both excellent sources of pale yellow dye. Roadside ditches are also a haven for prairie rattlesnakes in northeastern Wyoming and after my first few heart-stopping surprises I decided it was time to plant flowers in an area less prone to reptile encounters.
Catalogs from nurseries specializing in native plants arrived almost daily in the mail and every trip to town included a visit to the local garden supply store. The side yard was scarified to make room for a rock garden cultivated with native stock and xeriscape (low moisture requirement) perennials suitable for drought-prone Wyoming summers. Hollyhocks, barberry, coreopsis, Salvia, and yarrow occupied a second garden and the following season yet another area was devoted to flowering perennials.
An idea is born in inspiration, nurtured in effort, and prospers in unbounded enthusiasm. Yes, things got out of hand.
An excellent pattern for the start of a mayfly hatch. The abdomen of this fly was woven with nylon thread dyed with tree back and set with coffee, dubbing for the thorax was dyed with leaves and blooms from prairie coneflowers.
Hook: Tiemco 2487 or other curved scud/emerger hook, sizes 10-20
Tying Thread: Danville Flymaster 6/0 flat waxed nylon
Shuck: Antron fibers
Abdomen: Woven from nylon thread with a series of overhand knots
Hackle: Stiff saddle hackle tied paraloop style over the thorax
Thorax: Fine dubbing
Weaving with Flowers
Weaving fly bodies from thread has intrigued me for years and woven emergers suspended beneath a paraloop hackle are one of my favorite flies for the front end of a mayfly hatch. The new found flower power in my tying kit fueled a weaving frenzy and hundreds of woven emergers hatched from the colorful remnants of the Wyoming prairie. I fished them, gave them away, and even sold a few to tourists that thought the idea of tying flies with flower-dyed thread was “cute.”
Spooled threads sold in fly shops are excellent products and continue to account for the vast majority of my fly tying stock. Flower dyed thread is reserved for my obsession with woven emergers and, more recently, nymphs. I don’t dye thread by the spool, just enough to weave a few dozen flies every winter.
Why I Dye
Last July I spent a weekend preserving flowers a in a hank of thread. When winter snow blocks the road to town and the barbed wire chatters in the icy wind, I can dig into my cache of yellow, cream, pink, and rusty brown thread and weave flies for the coming season. The warm glow of last summer’s wildflowers is more than a memory, it is a source of color and vitality so real even the wariest of wild trout are deceived by its appearance.
I know there are hundreds of thread colors available in quantities I could not exhaust in a lifetime of tying. I also know the pale yellow emerger riding the brim of my hat traces its lineage to prairie coneflowers found alongside a gravel ranch road, a fly woven with sunshine, spring rain, and Wyoming wind. And best of all, I know a pretty little spring creek full of brown trout with a particular fancy for yellow wildflowers.
BE SAFE: Water extraction is the only option to consider when collecting pigments at home; non-polar solvents are much too volatile and flammable to use anywhere at home. What you may lose in the way of color is more than compensated by a substantial margin of safety. Add to that safety margin by using the plant extracts as a dye, not a tea or herbal elixir. The effects of plant toxicity and allergic sensitivities can be serious. Items used to extract plant pigments and dye materials should not be used to prepare food or drinks.
Natural Dyes, Judy Hardman and Sally Pinhey, Corwood Press, Limited, 2009
Natural Dyeing, Jackie Crook and Geraldine Christy, Sterling Publishing, 2007
Dyes from American Native Plants: A practical guide, Lynne Richards and Ronald Tyrl, Timber Press, Inc., 2005
Native American Ethnobotany, Daniel Moerman, Timber Press, Inc., 1998