My favorite flower is a weed, and I don’t care.
I have a difficult time calling wildflowers that thrive “noxious” or “invasive.” The idea that we should only plant finicky flowers seems absurd when useful wildflowers look at least as beautiful. So, despite the raised eyebrows of more traditional gardeners, I don’t just ignore the bunches of clover and dandelion dotting my lawn. I also dig up roadside wildflowers like Queen Anne’s Lace and plant them in my yard.
Queen Anne’s Lace reminds me of my childhood. Along the edge of our yard, the leggy flowers nodded and danced in happy little groups. My dad tried so hard to make our lawn pristine, but the wild edges were the best part of our garden. My sisters and I would play for hours in the overgrowth, emerging with clumps of blossoms and pet bugs.
Planting Queen Anne’s Lace is a commitment, though. If I ever decide to plant something else in my lacy little corner, I’m out of luck. Queen Anne’s Lace, like most wildflowers, takes a lot of patience to eradicate. Just ask my dad. It’s been my favorite for as long as I can remember, though, so I’m glad it’s here to stay.
A recent storm knocked over more stalks than I could plop in vases around the house, so I went searching for new uses for my favorite wildflower. It turns out, Queen Anne’s Lace is incredibly useful. The blossoms and leaves make a healthy tonic, and the roots can be used like carrots. There’s even a recipe floating around for wild carrot cake. Queen Anne’s Lace is a great cleansing and diuretic tonic, and it’s full of vitamins, too.
Most sites warn to double check that you are really picking Queen Anne’s Lace if you plan to eat it. It is sometimes confused with Poison Hemlock. I think they seem quite different: Queen Anne’s Lace is covered in little hairs, has that dark center floret, and smells so much like carrots. Their flowers and leaves are quite different, too. To be safe, though, google both to make sure, especially if the plant doesn’t seem like a carrot cousin. Otherwise, you might just meet a Socratic fate.
Queen Anne’s Lace is perfect for crafty pursuits, too! I read you can make paper from the roots, and the flowers and leaves make a bright yellow dye. When I read that, I immediately started digging through my fabric bin for some bits of white cotton to dye. Lots of plants make various shades of yellow, but few make the clear lemony yellow of Queen Anne’s Lace. I could dye things rich golden shades with turmeric all day, but I never knew my favorite flower could also create my favorite shade of yellow!
I decided to make some cotton cushion covers out of men’s shirts. The buttons make the perfect opening so you can wash the covers! They came together so fast, and I loved that I didn’t have to search my notions bin for appropriate zippers. Since the cushions are going to get some heavy use, I also wanted to make sure they were colorfast. I get so bummed out when I cook up a pot of dye and the color fades in the wash. So, I really took my time and used a 3 step mordant process.
I’m sure a single step alum mordant would suffice, but I just wanted to play it safe so I added a tannic acid step and a second bath in alum. Powdered tannic acid is available online, but I didn’t want to wait so I gathered some sumac leaves to make my own. Happily, the fabric survived the laundry! So my bright, sunny pillows can hold up to life on the high traffic sofa!
If you decide to try your own Queen Anne’s Lace dye, please share your results! I’ve noticed that with natural dyes, every experiment comes out a little different. We can’t account for all the tiny variations like pH of water or the exact quality of our wild dyestuff, and that’s the part I love the most!
Here’s how I made Queen Anne’s Lace Natural Dye:
- cotton fabric
- laundry soap
- washing soda
- 1 small container of alum
- tannic acid or sumac leaves to make your own tannic acid
- enough Queen Anne’s Lace blossoms and stems to fill a big stock pot
- 3 large pots or a pot and 2 vessels to hold mordants and dye
- rubber bands for shibori, if desired
Note: Make sure you use natural fibers with natural dyes! Synthetic fabrics, like polyester, won’t take the dye. If you use a protein fiber like wool or silk, the mordant process will be different. I like working with cotton best since it’s a plant fiber, but there are tons of tutorials for working with other fibers.
- Wash your fabric on the hottest setting possible to scour the cotton. I add a little washing soda to get it super clean. Even if your cotton is clean, there could still be residual oils, sizing, etc, and the cleaner the fabric, the better the color.
- Let the fabric soak so it is completely wet. It will keep absorbing water even over night, and fabric that is evenly wet will dye more uniformly. I was impatient, and you can see that my cushions are a little streaky. I think this looks cool, but if you want a more uniform color, take your time with each step.
- Fill a large pot with enough water to cover the fabric. Heat it up and add the small container of alum (found in the spice section of the grocery store), and let it dissolve. Then, slowly add about a half cup of washing soda (found in the laundry section, probably on the bottom shelf). Let it dissolve, too.
- Add the wet fabric to the alum and washing soda mordant. Let it simmer for a little bit and then let it soak. Some people do this step really fast, but I like to at least let the water cool completely. So, you could leave it in for as little as an hour or for a whole day. A longer soak will most likely result in a better color, but a short soak will still work.
- Carefully rinse the extra alum off your fabric.
- If you only have one pot, transfer the alum mordant to a vessel because you’ll need it again.
- I wanted to add a little shibori element to my pillows, so I let my fabric air dry after this first mordant step. Then, I bound up various parts with rubber bands to create the resist. You could probably do this before you mordant or after one of the other mordant steps, too. I really want to figure out a way to do batik with natural dyes, but they require such high heat to create the colors that the wax would melt. Someday I’ll find a way!
- If you want to really make bright, colorfast shades on cotton, a tannic acid mordant is important. You can buy powdered tannic acid online, or you can make your own out of various materials. I gathered sumac leaves because they were just down the street, and made an easy tannic acid. I put a couple handfuls of fresh leaves and stems in a stock pot with enough water to cover my fabric. Then, I boiled the leaves until the color leached out and the water looked like milky lemonade. I strained the liquid off the leaves.
- I added the fabric to the strained tannic acid and let it simmer for a bit. Then, I soaked it for a few hours, similar to the alum step. Surprisingly, the pale yellow liquid turned a deep hunter green! The fabric took on a slight hint of yellow, too. The yellow faded when I rinsed the fabric, but I would probably use powdered tannic acid if I wanted to dye something that wouldn’t mix well with light yellow. Since I was aiming for yellow, it was all okay!
- Carefully rinse the extra tannic acid off your fabric.
- Put the fabric back in the alum bath and do the whole heat it up and let it soak process again.
- Carefully rinse the extra alum mordant off your fabric.
- If you have a second pot, fill it with Queen Anne’s Lace flowers and stems. Then, cover the plant material with water. Some people claim that the color is brighter with just the blossoms, but I didn’t have enough flowers to fill my pot, so I added the stems and leaves, too. The final color is still super pretty!
- Heat the flower soup slowly, and cook until the color is leached out of the plant materials. The water will turn a dark orange color and your house will smell like carrots!
- Strain the plant material out of the liquid. I used a funnel lined with muslin to catch all the tiny petals.
- Transfer the fabric to the dye, heat it up, and let it soak! I left it in the dye bath overnight.
- Rinse your fabric thoroughly. I washed it on cold/delicate and dried it in the dryer before I made the cushions. The color barely faded at all.
Now, I’m even happier that I purposely planted my favorite wildflower in my garden. All winter long, I can admire my summery cushions while I sip Queen Anne’s Lace tea and know that those hardy, graceful stalks will be back in the spring so we can repeat the process all over again. I like things that happen with grace and ease, and Queen Anne’s Lace is full of both. While this dye recipe may seem laborious, it’s really just a lot of cooking and waiting. The magical plants do all the hard work.
Thanks for checking out my little dye experiment! I can’t wait to see how yours turns out!