Botanical Dye with Weeds: Oxalis

by Pinky Wittingslow September 16, 2018

Botanical Dye with Weeds: Oxalis


I was lucky enough to escape on a Farm-stay craft retreat with my local Spinner’s Guild and the Tumult guild for a weekend full of spinning, weaving, food and gass-bagging (as we do). It’s an annual retreat and we usually organize a few little workshops for the weekend and share our skills.

Being a very enthusiastic natural dyer and teacher I couldn’t help but show the girls a spot of botanical dyeing and also being early spring I had my eyes on one weed in particular invading the lovely farm gardens.
Oxalis pre-caprae

Oxalis pes-caprae known by the common names Oxalis also know as Sowersob. Yellow wood Sorrel to name a few, is a noxious weed that pops up everywhere in early spring. It’s hard to miss with masses of bright yellow flowers on tall stems above leaves that look like clovers.

Bunch of Oxalis pre-caprae

While we can easily dye protein fibres such as sheep and alpaca fleeces as well as silk with our Ashford Acid Dye Range, they don't work on cellulose fibres such as Tencel. There are synthetic dyes on the market you can use for cellulose, but I much prefer heading out into my garden or going for a drive in the countryside to harvest free colour. And what’s better is that in this particular case I’m helping to control a noxious weed!

Oxalis and Tencel dyed with Oxalis

A really great feature of Oxalis as a dye is that because it is full of oxalic acid, this helps bind the colour to your fibres without the use of other chemical binders such as the common alum. It also means that it dyes cellulose fibres as well as protein fibres.


WARNING: Just because it is a plant doesn’t mean that it is safe, oxalic acid is also in rhubarb leaves and is toxic when consumed.  Don’t run away screaming either though, lots of things are toxic such as tomato plant leaves, we just need to be sensible and knowledgeable.  So my rules when dyeing with natural dyes are:

  • Avoid eating and drinking while dyeing to avoid cross contamination and accidents. I have to admit that I have accidentally taken a sip from the brush water and cleaned my brushes in my tea more than once while painting!
  • Keep your dye equipment separate from food preparation equipment - op shops are great for sourcing dye vessels, spoons etc.
  • If you don’t know if your plant stuff is toxic, don’t use it or do your research before using it and wear gloves.
  • Stick to well known safe kitchen dyes such as beetroot, onion skins and edible berries when working with kids.
  • Protect your skin and airways. Try and dye outside with a portable cook top or fire pit or solar dye with potential toxic materials and wear gloves when handling them especially if you have skin sensitivities.
  • Don’t leave potential toxic dye baths in reach of curious critters and kids.

Farmstay resuls on Wool Alpaca blend Handspun yarn and Merino Sliver
Here's a couple of our Farmstay results. We were free as the wind that day and threw our samples in without straining out the plant matter. Once dried the plant matter falls away put I prefer to strain the dyebath usually before adding my fibres.

Here’s how to use oxalis for colouring your own fibres...




  • An old pot or vessel just for dyeing. Stainless steel is best but old ceramic slow cookers and glass work well too.
  • A bucket with equivalent volume to your dye vessel
  • An old sieve and piece of nylon curtain just for dyeing.
  • An old spoon just for dyeing. I use a wooden spoon.


Step 1:

The first step is to make sure if you are using yarn that it is in skeins. If it is in balls, use a Niddy Noddy to wind it into a skein. Tie in 4 places to avoid tangling.  Go to Step 2 if you are just using fibre.

NEAT TIP: I collect plastic shower curtain rings from op shops and put one of these through each of my skeins to be dyed. It gives the skein a ‘handle’ that is easy to find in a dye pot, avoids tangles and gives me something to hang it from.

Niddy Noddy and skeins of yarn ready to soak

Step 2:

Soak your fibres and yarns in cool water. We need to get them saturated so that they soak up the dye evenly. This can take up to 30mins or longer and sometimes I’ll even dump my skeins in a bucket of water the day before I want to dye them.

Yarn  soaking in sink with shower curtain rings attached

Step 3:

Prepare the dye. To extract the colour from the Oxalis, dump it in your dye vessel as is (stems are fine too) and top up with warm water to 2/3 full. Then gently heat for 30mins on the stove. ALTERNATELY, you can just cover your oxalis with cool tap water then pour over a jug of hot water and let is steep. Either way, after abut 30 mins the plant material will release the colour into the water and you will see that it goes form clear to bright yellow. Let your dye bath cool.

Oxalis in the dye potNote that being precise with water measurements isn’t essential. I find  that so long as you have enough water in the pot for your fibre and yarn to move freely you’re fine. The colour will be drawn to the fibre.

Step 4:

Strain the plant matter out by placing your sieve and nylon curtain piece over a bucket. I place the nylon curtain fabric in my sieve and secure both to the bucket with a clamp from the hardware store. This stops it falling in accidentally if I get a little over-zealous! Then carefully pour your dye bath into the bucket through the sieve. Dispose of the plant matter. Rinse out your dye vessel and then pour your strained dye liquid back in.  

We didn’t have a strainer set up and all our containers where full of other experiments so the girls dyed there fibre and yarn in the pot without straining. Once dried, the plant material should fall out without too much of a hassle.

Step 5:

Remove your yarn and/or fibre that has been soaking in the water and gently squeeze out some of the excess. Place your yarn and/or fibre into the dye bath and very gently circulate it in the water to expose it to the colour.  

Yarn treated with Alum in the oxalis dye bathNote here that my yarn has gone a bit more orange. This is because I had used a mordant of alum on my skein previously. It is not needed to set the oxalis colour but it is fun to shift the colour from a bright canary yellow to a sunshine gold.

For cold processing just let it sit in the dye bath overnight or even 48 hrs if you can wait that long.

For hot processing (which can assist the colour to take faster) slowly bring your dye vessel up to approximately 50 degrees heat or even a low simmer so long as it doesn’t bubble. Maintain for an hour, turn off the heat and let cool.

Step 6:

However long you have left your materials in the dye pot make sure it has cooled before you remove them to avoid felting unless you are using cellulose as this doesn’t felt. Rinse your yarn and/or fibres in cold water until the water is clear of colour. Hang in the shade to dry before use.

Wool and Tencel Dyed with Oxalis


Always wash items naturally dyed in cool water with pH neutral detergent. Don't let soak for too long and do dry in the shade. Natural dyes will last a long time if you take care of them. Yellows in particular do have a tendency to fade faster than other colours but you can re-dye them to rejuvenate the colour. And when your dye is free why not?!


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Love Aunt Jenny xo

Pinky Wittingslow
Pinky Wittingslow

Pinky is a serial crafter who has devoted her life to making and teaching all things textiles because she truly believes we can craft ourselves to better health and a better world.

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