Iris Dyes, Inks and “Clothlets”

This is my third post about the colours obtainable from the Tall Bearded Iris (Iris hybrida, I think). Photo below:

When the bloom begins to fade, it starts to turn to mush, and dark blue pigment drips from it:
Large juicy drops fall on your table and drip blue stains:
Can we get blue dye, then, from iris? The answer is yes and no …or it depends…
Medieval painters and manuscript illuminators used iris petals for green pigment, not blue. Iris colours had a reputation for being fugitive and eventually, other more reliable greens were developed. The medieval artist's usual method for working with iris pigment was to make a “clothlet” , a small piece of linen that acted as a portable resevoir for the pigment. The clothlet was soaked in alum water, dried, then iris juices were squeezed onto the cloth which was then dried again. This procedure was repeated several times until the pigment built up. To use the pigment, tne artist placed tne clothlet with prepared egg white (“glair”) in a small container such as a seashell. (Love that touch! ) The pigment would leach out into the egg white and make a transparent green suitable for painting. (See Daniel V. Thompson: “The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting”)
Here is my interpretation of the medieval method for obtaining iris colour. I was hoping for blue as well as green, so I decided to try for colour both with and without alum (alum permits the iris greens to emerge.) First, I collected and froze the blooms in ziplocs for a week or so until the bloom season was over. A defrosted iris gives a lot of juice!

I prepared two pieces of linen: one soaked overnight in alum and water, and one without alum. Green colouring occurs with alum while blue occurs without alum. I had enough frozen iris to apply juice three times to each linen clothlet. As each layer of pigment was applied, the colours became steadily deeper.

The blue stayed true blue on linen without alum as mordant, but it also separated out into purples and greener, turquoisey blues:

The alum cloth looked turquoise for quite a while between iris juice applications:

The next to last application of iris juice created these colours: the alum cloth (right) is still in the tirquoise green range.

After the final application of iris juice: Even though the photo colours are somewhat “off” , we see a change to much deeper greens in the left-hand clothlet and a shift to greyer blues on the right (not really purple as shown.)

A conservator friend will be giving a class in July on medieval pigments especially the use of ochres, and I plan to attend. She has asked me to prepare some iris clothlets for the class, so I will not have the results of this iris dye project until after the class on July 6. I am keeping the clothlets until then without using them for pigments to paint with.

Meantime I have tried some other ways to obtain colours from iris.First, the greens:

Iris ink combined with gum tragacanth.

The ink was prepared by simmering fresh iris blooms in alum water in a crock pot until the liquid reduced by way over half. Then I mixed half ink and half gum trag to make a green glaze. I left most of the rest of the ink as a straight liquid.

The ink, as is.

Iris Surprise Sludge from cooking up all the irises previously used in my steamed bundles (previous posts) and experimental solar dye jars.

The spent irises had an amazing amount of colour left in them. These blooms behaved quite differently from the fresh ones. They took a long time to colour up in the crock pot, several hours. After sitting overnight to cool, greenish sludge formed at the bottom of the pot with some greenish liquid separated on top. I poured off the liquid and put the sludge in a jar in the fridge.

Here is what the colours looked like on cotton and watercolour paper: the paper colours captured here in this photo are too yellow to be true. They resemble the colours on cotton in fact.

I painted some iris sludge onto watercolour paper along with some sludge from lychee hulls (Why not? )
Below: Iris colours glazed onto watercolour paper:
The greenish tones are iris, the tan tones are lychee. Note the glazing effects and the colour variations as a result of overlapping glazes. The sludges act just like acrylic medium. They are thick, shiny, sticky and dry fast! Plus they are transparent. Not sure how one gets sludges on purpose, though. The lychee hulls, unlike the iris blooms, had not been used for dyeing things already.


And last note:Iris turquoise greens can dye synthetics. My Carpal Tunnel cuff is well stained ..we will see in day or two how fugitive it that dye on polyester!


Next time: more iris colour notes and some notes on dyeing with earth ochres. And if you read Fiber Art Magazine, this month will have my article about some eco dye artists who are taking their printing and dyeing processes to the next level.

A quick update on this post: Here is the info for anyone in the Ottawa region or elsewhere interested in taking a class from Genevieve Samson, conservator at the National Archives of Canada on the palette of Renaissance artists. This is the class for which I have prepared the iris pigment clothlets reported on on my recent posts.



35 thoughts on “Iris Dyes, Inks and “Clothlets”

  1. Just click on the black if it comes through like that. It’s all on dyeing with Iris’s how amazing, I was not aware they produced colour. Xx

    1. Pretty well any plant will produce some colour with the appropriate process. If you are experimenting to see “what if? ” check to see if the plant is known to be poisonous. Iris cannot be eaten for that reason. It is always best to keep food and food equipment away from your “ghetto lab” work. Plus wash your hands a lot or wear gloves if you think you might have skin irritations…Note, to my shame, that I have a photo of my coffe cup on the “lab bench” with my solar iris dyes..that was a big No No, sorry…I actually laid the cup down there to take the photos and had not been eating or drinking while doing the experiments..but photo suggests otherwise…The old adage: “Do not do as I do but do as I say” applies here!

  2. Love this so much. After your last post I went out and picked some blue iris from my garden. Don’t know the variety but they are very common here in my part of Colorado. Love the rocky soil and multiply like crazy. Anyway, got a lovely green on alum mordanted water color paper. so now I have to go pick the last of the irises and make some ink.

    1. Wonderful that you got good results with your iris! I wonder if they are Iris siberica? These ones love dry spots in my garden and they give great colour, very dark blue if smooshed on, hapazome style, no alum. They have fibrous roots, not rhizomes (spelling?) I have heard that south west coast iris blooms longer! Lucky you. You can always freeze the blooms for a more convenient “lab” time. Mine are all used up now. Thank you for sharing your results. Now we will see how long those colours last, how “fugitive” they are, as medieval painters said.

  3. Thanks for sharing your amazing work!!
    You mentioned a conservator friend will be giving a class in July on medieval pigments – can you share details on the class location & date?

    1. Iris is a revelation, for sure, Ms. Gracklebird! I am cooking up iris leaves as we speak and wow! Do they give green! I am getting deflected from my original purpoae which was to make paper from the iris leaves now that the blooms are gone…so some linen and some silk have maxe their way into the pot and are turning lovely shades of green.

  4. Thank you for so mutch beautifull experiences !
    I do’nt unterstand everything, because I’m living in Belgium and speaking french… sorry for my english.
    Please, I would like to begin with eco print, and I do’nt find how to do in your blog . Can you help me ?

    1. Hi Marie

      To start eco printing:
      Check my reference pages for the tutorial by Cassandra Tondro for instructions on eco printing paper. This is an easy way to start. I prefer to pre soak my papers in alum acetate or alum potassium sulphate. I get mine from Maiwa in Vancouver.
      Read my article in Hand Eye magazine (online) – search my name and tne title “The alchemist” – for instructions on eco printing fabric.
      Request to join tne FB group Les Fanas du Bundle, organiser Fabienne Dorsman Rey. This is a French language group centred in Europe – they can suggest a local supllier of alum, I am sure.

      Hope this helps. Thank you for visiting


      1. Thank you for your answer ;o). Next week end I will have time to read and try. I have alum already, for dyeng wool !

  5. wendy love your work you make it look so easy,I am a textile person who grad wit textile degree in 96 but I have hd to make career move for personal reasons.However now I am ready to start back if only in a small way to start.i would love to know where you can buy Allum and if you ac make your own tannin from tea leaves?some of the plants and leaves cannot be found in UK.Cathy Sugrue

    1. Hi Cathy,

      You can buy alum from any supplier of natural dyes, either by online ordering or personal shopping. A google search for suppliers near you should work. They usually carry tannin powder, too. (I buy powder for some kinds of dyeing in winter)

      Tannin comes from many sources. I make own from sumac leaves (Rhus typhina) by simmering a potful in water for an hour or so. The sumac liquor is both a tannin mordant and a yellowgreen dye.

      Tea leaves do give tannin but also a tan or rust colour – if you are aiming for the latter.

      I would recomment “Wild Colour ” by Jenny Dean as a great ref

      Hope you can locate your supplies.


  6. just catching up, and found this class–unfortunately i will be traveling on saturday. do you know if this class will be repeated?

    1. Hi Velma,

      I understand Genevieve gives the class once a year but she may be open to another this year…I can ask her when I see her and put you in touch…In any case, I will report the class on my blog. But I need to ask her permission about the extent of the details I may go into.

      The class will meet a second day the Sunday to paint a mural under the guidance of a local artist. I am not able to attend the Sunday session (Our grandson is coming over.., Even though he would probably LOVE to paint that mural, too, I think the session might end up a tad disorganised for the other students…)

      Maybe you can just show up in my place on Sun and ask a lot of questions? I will ask her if you would like

      Genevieve has been to my studio for an eco print tutorial so she is interested in what we do with plant dye prints.


      1. how generous of you…i am flying in from a two week residency in colorado saturday early, having some problems with my foot (plantar fasciitis) and will be a zombie sunday. i would like to meet up this summer and see your work and show you mine-lots to talk about i think. do ask genevieve for me, even an informal class-visit would be wonderful!

      2. Hi Velma!

        Genevieve has given permission to share her email contacts, see my blog post. The class went down to the river nearby the next day and painted watercolour riverscapee with Rob Hinchley of the Ottawa School of Art. We will have a show of our weekend’s work with Genevieve and Rob at The Stone House School Gallery at the Pontiac School for the Arts at Portage-du-Fort starting July 19. I will be showing my iris clothlet investigations and prints. Come to the opening if you would like. A nice excursion north!


      3. wow. july 19 i’m in cleveland teaching at the morgan conservatory, or i’d be there. (i’ve four days of teaching in cleveland)

      4. That is one place I would like to visit! Missed my chance last Oct. Good for you that you were teaching there – would like to have been in your class, Velma!

      5. if you’re thinking about it, i’m also teaching shifu in new hampshire… but i would love to make a date sometime after next wednesday, when i travel back from cleveland. a share and explore visit!

  7. I love your iris picture. I am writing an article on the American Iris Society’s blog about show stalks and was wondering if I could use
    the image in this article, with credits, of course.

  8. (About 2 yrs past when you wrote) Wendy, I’ve been making Iris Green paint for manuscript illumination for years, based on the direction from De Arte Illuminandi. According to D.V. Thompson, the supposed candidate for one of the “blue lilies” mentioned is the purple iris germanica. According to my botanist wife, irises are really cross bred now, but the color matter in them ought to be the same. Blue and purple types both work for me. When using alum, it is NOT being used as a mordant. It is in there to stabilize the color. Iris green is very stable when not in direct sunlight. It can sit around in open light just fine. Under sun it will die very soon. Without alum the color will die soon anyway. The reason you use linen is because the linen is resistant to taking color. You WANT a cloth that allows the color to wash away so it can be used as paint color. You are welcome to contact me directly at

    1. Hi Randy!
      Thanks for your input here. “Iris green” was a wonderful rabbit hole for me to have fallen down temporarily after I eco dyed some iris blooms from my garden and liked the way the colours split along analogous lines fron blue to green…hence my little detour into the use of iris in the painter’s palette. I am sending you some notes that I made at the time on my research; please use them; do let me know of anything that you think would correct or amplify my blog reports. I know your blog and love it



  9. I keep reading that iris roots give black dye. Do you know anything about this? I am wondering if this is species specific and how I need to prepare them. eg. is there a mordant required or recommended. I can’t seem to find any specific information. I am trying with and without alum and will probably try with iron additionally, just wondering if you had any experience with the roots(rhizomes) or any advice.

    1. Hi Becky

      I have read that it is the yellow flag iris, the more or less wild Iris pseudacorus that gives black dye from the roots. It is common on waterways. This plant is classified as an invasive in our area (E.Ontario) and the Authorities have given permission for liberal harvesting. I have not tried it yet but now that I know it is OK to forage, I wlll have a go, and be careful, bcause the roots are known as poisonous. I believe First Nations used it for black – see my ref to Daniel Moerman on ethnobotany. Let me know your results, if you fund any. For dyes, I do not use the roots from my lovely blue iris in the garden, only the dying blooms

      Good luck and thanks for the comment, it was is an interesting challenge


  10. Can I ask a semi-unrelated question? I am trying to make an ink from beet. It gives a nice purplish maroon when I first write with it, but the colour degenerates into a sort of faded brown. Is there a way to stablise the colour so it doesn’t fade? Many thanks 🙂

    1. At the FB page The Wild Dyery members are having a discussion about elderberry fastness – the result may apply to beets as well, Dorothy! Great topic. Thanks for the question


  11. Hi wendyfe & dorothy!
    I know this is months late, I just wandered across this article.
    My mother taught classes in natural dyeing. And she did quite a lot of light fastness tests. (You get a lot of light above 8,000ft. in elevation.) One of them was beets. No matter what mordant she used beets faded. And the only time she got a deep beet red color happened to be from some beets that we grew in our garden up in the mountains of Colorado. The soil was acidic and the town water was only lightly chlorinated at that time. What happened was those beets got put in a galvanized metal bucket of water to soak the mud off of them and accidently forgotten. They soaked in that bucket for two weeks. They had started to rot, but she didn’t want to throw them away, so she boiled them up and used wool yarn that she had spun, mordanted with alum. It stunk to high heck, but it was a glorious color! Unfortunately it too faded at approximately the same rate as the other beet dyes.

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