Indigo, Cochineal & Rhubarb Root

Catharine Ellis is an internationally acclaimed textile artist who is well-known for developing the technique of woven shibori. Specializing in both weaving and dyeing, she has also done extensive research and experimentation with natural dyes. In 2019, she co-authored the long-awaited guide The Art and Science of Natural Dyes: Principles, Experiments, Results with textile chemist Joy Boutrup. On July 13, 2020, Catharine presented “Colors from the Garden” as part of our Appalachian Traditions Discussion series. Check out the recording, after you enjoy our interview!

CP: Where are you from?

CE: I grew up in Boston and I went to college in NY. In 1976, I moved to North Carolina when I came to take an 8-week concentration class at Penland.

CP: How did you become interested in natural dyeing?

CE: I spent a year living on the Navajo Reservation in the early 1970s where I had my first experience with natural dyeing. I pursued that for a while and then transitioned to the use of all forms of chemical dyes, which I used for many years. 12 years ago, when I retired from full-time teaching at Haywood Community College, I re-entered the world of natural dye as a more sustainable way of working. 

CP: How long have you been teaching at the Folk School?

CE: The first time I taught at the Folk School was in 2011. In the past, I have always taught classes that included both weaving and dyeing.

Rainbow of Naturally Dyed Wool Fabric Swatches

Cross Dye with Henna

Rainbow of Naturally Dyed Yarn

Fabric Colors Created with Natural Dye

CP: You are renowned for developing Woven Shibori and have an original book about the technique. More recently, your teaching and writing have turned more towards natural dyeing. Can you talk about that transition?

CE: My own work has always integrated both weaving and dyeing in some form. Currently, my primary research and teaching falls into the natural dye realm. Last year, Joy Boutrup and I co-authored The Art and Science of Natural Dyes: Principles, Experiments, Results (Schiffer Press, 2019). Joy is a textile chemist and engineer, who lives in Denmark. Together, we have a unique perspective to investigate the “why” behind the “how” with natural dye processes and there is a real desire among dyers for that information. 

CP: Can you talk about the process of co-authoring this book? Is the scientific aspect of dyeing something you enjoy?

CE: Joy is a scientist. I am an artist and practitioner. We have taught together for many years. Her ability to analyze, in addition to my studio skills, has made us a unique teaching team. Joy lends the scientific explanations and credibility to my own discoveries and questions in the studio. I never would have ventured into such a project without Joy as resource. 

CP: Do you need to be interested in science to be successful at dyeing?

CE: Absolutely not, but you do need to be willing to weigh, measure, observe, and question. 

CP: Do you have a favorite natural dye plant du jour?

CE: Right now, I am experimenting with yellow flavonoids from the garden, especially weld (Reseda luteola) and dyer’s broom (Genista tinctoria). I recently completed a blog post about dyeing with these plants.

Read more about broom & natural yellow dyes in Catharine’s post: “The Effect of pH on Yellow Dyes from the Garden

Broom Growing Outside Catharine’s Studio

Broom, with, and without Chalk

CP: What’s growing in your garden this season?

CE: In addition to some of the yellow dyes, I am growing three different forms of indigo, for use in my fermentation vats: woad (Isatis tinctoria), “Japanese Indigo” (polygonum tinctorium) and a “tropical” indigo (Indigofera suffruticosa)

CP: The most popular regional dye materials during the early days of the Folk School were said to be madder and indigo (Fariello 49). Do you agree with this? Is this still true today?

CE: Neither of these dyes would have been grown in the wild locally, though it is possible that some dyers grew madder in a garden, but it must grow for at least 3 years before there is enough dye developed in the roots.  I think that these were likely the most precious dyes, the boldest and most dramatic. They are the dyes that rounded out the yellow, beige, and brown palette that could be harvested locally.

Knit dyed with Indigo (blue), Cochineal (red), and Rhubarb Root (green/yellow)

Experimenting with Madder Root (Madder with Alum & Ferrous)

CP: Indigo and denim have a rich history in the Carolinas and Tennessee. Can you talk about the difference between the process of indigo dyeing used in mass production vs. smaller batch natural dyeing?

CE: Indigo and denim go hand-in-hand. Industry uses synthetically produced indigo along with strong reduction chemicals in their process. My own indigo vats use naturally produced indigo from plants. Plants and fruit sugars are used to produce the fermentation and reduction.

CP: Do you think there is more of a push for natural dyeing commercially, as part of the sustainable fashion movement?

CE: Stoney Creek Colors in Tennessee is now growing indigo in a sustainable way and working with a limited number of denim producers but this is all done on a relatively small scale. Yes, there is interest by commercial dyers, but our easy access to color through chemistry will make any change to natural dye very challenging. 

CP: The Folk School is designating a new large section in the garden exclusively for dye plants. Is there anything specifically you would like to see in the dye garden?

CE: I have sent Farmer Teddy some seeds and also plan to root some cuttings of dyer’s broom for the garden there.

“From Native Herbs, Vegetables, and Flowers, We Gather Colors of the Rainbow”
This postcard is part of a promotional packet of postcards
that was produced by the John C. Campbell Folk School
upon its twenty-fifth anniversary in 1950.
Photograph by Betty Denash.

CP: What are typical characteristics of the Appalachian dyeing tradition?

CE: Appalachian dyers typically worked with the plants that could be gathered locally. These plants would have resulted in a somewhat limited palette of yellows and brown. The most experienced/professional of the traditional dyers expanded their palette with cochineal and madder for red and indigo blues, though none of these red or blue dyes can be gathered here in the wild. 

Although I have lived in Appalachia for a number of years, my own dye education spans the globe. I have studied with dyers in France, China, Japan, Peru, Madagascar, etc. I continue to draw from all of these traditions. 

CP: What is a mordant and why is it important? Do all-natural dyes need a mordant?

CE: A mordant is a mineral salt that assists the dye in binding to a textile. Alum is the most common and universal. It occurs naturally but most of what we use today was manufactured in a lab. Iron is also used in very small quantities to darken or dull colors

Some dyes require mordants at all times. Others do not, under certain circumstances.

Circle Twills
Jacquard Woven Cotton
Alum & Iron Mordant, Madder & Cutch

CP: What is Appalachian tannin?

CE: Many plants produce tannins. The staghorn sumac and smooth sumac are both native plants that grow here readily. They are a great source of gallic tannin. I harvest and dry leaves to be used all year long. The term “Appalachian tannin” is not a proper name for this plant, but a designation that I gave the local source of tannin. Tannins are NOT mordants, though they are often mistakenly referred to as such. They do assist in the attachment of some dyes to protein fibers and they play an important role in the mordanting of cellulose fibers. 

CP: Does the same dye look different on different sorts of fabric?

CE: There are similarities, as the same dye components will bind to the different fibers. The differences mostly come from the fibers themselves: the amount of dye absorbed by the fiber, the reflective quality of the fiber, etc.

Folk School Dye Pots
Photo by Doris Ulmann, taken in 1933 or 1934. These dye pots were used by Louise Pitman, head of handicrafts at the John C. Campbell Folk School and an expert in vegetable dyeing. Dyeing wool with organic matter such as flowers and roots was common practice for dedicated textile artists during the Craft Revival.

CP: Louise L. Pitman was drawn to the Folk School in 1928 because of the craft revival. She remained at the Folk School for 17 years and became Director of Handicrafts by 1933. She also became an expert in vegetable dyeing. One of Pitman’s legacies is her collection of 46 index cards left at the Folk School which document Pitman’s natural dyes tests. Each card, mostly likely created in the 1940s, provides the formula used to achieve a particular color and has a yarn sample attached. Have you ever used these cards as reference? Is this collection relevant to the present? Or is it more a romantic relic of the past?

CE: I’ve never seen them but would like to – perhaps the next time I come to the Folks School I could explore this. I keep LOTS of records of all my own dyeing and testing. These are entire books of samples, notes, formulas, etc. They have been invaluable to my own process of learning by doing.

Folk School Dye Test Cards
These recipe cards for are part of a box containing 46 total vegetable dye recipes which are hand-written on index cards. The recipes were most likely written by Louise Pitman, as the dates on the cards correspond to Pitman’s employment at the John C Campbell Folk School.
View the complete digital archive of the 46 cards on WCU Hunter Library Digital Collections site.

CP: Your blog is like a modern, more in-depth version of these cards. There is such a wealth of information and data in your posts. Is the contemporary dye community mostly open to sharing their formulas and experimentation with others? It seems to me, the info on your blog is invaluable, and that you are very generous with your process and results.

CE: I am a dyer, a weaver, and artist, but I am also a teacher. That is what motivates me to publish the blog. My own teachers, Joy in particular, have been most generous with their knowledge. We all need to help each other learn and become better dyers. 

CP: Pitman also wrote an article published in the Bulletin of the Garden Club of America (link to WCU archives of collection) in 1938, detailing the process of vegetable dyeing for wool. One passage that I find poetic and sweet:

Bright colors come best on bright days, specifically when dyeing is done in the open. There is an old mountain tradition that one obtains the best colors in fall. Possibly the soft refreshing air of late September and early October was such a relief after the heat of summer that the women enjoyed the dyeing more and so came to believe in the exceptional quality of fall colors. (Pitman 59)

I love the imagery presented here. Do you have a favorite season to dye? Do you ever dye outdoors? Do bright colors really come on bright days?

CE: I think that the bright day scenario is mostly poetic BUT all colors reflect more in bright light and by fall, many of the dye plants have matured and contain more dyes, tannins, etc. So there is a very practical interpretation of this as well.

Woven Shibori Natural Dye Scarves

Catharine’s Bio

Catharine taught in the Professional Crafts/Fiber Program at Haywood Community College for 30 years and is now devoted to studio work, research, and specialized teaching. She co-authored The Art and Science of Natural Dyes with Joy Boutrup (Schiffer, 2019), and is the author of Woven Shibori (Interweave Press, 2005). Her work has been featured in Fiberarts magazine and Surface Design Journal. Catharine has exhibited and taught classes throughout the United States and in Canada, Korea, Chile, Japan, Holland, France, and Australia.

Visit Catharine’s website and follow: blog.ellistextiles.com.

Watch to Catharine’s Appalachian Discussion talk, Colors from the Garden.


Fariello, Anna. Craft & Community: John C. Campbell Folk School 1925–1945. 2018. Western Carolina University.

Pitman, Louise L. “Vegetable Dyes” Bulletin of the Garden Club of America. 1938: 56-63. Electronic: WCU Hunter Digital Collections.

All images, unless otherwise noted, are works by Catharine Ellis, and also courtesy of Catharine Ellis.

Cory Marie Podielski
About Cory Marie Podielski

Cory Marie Podielski is a freelance graphic designer, photographer, and writer for the John C. Campbell Folk School. She has been writing for the Folk School Blog since 2012 and enjoys interviewing artists, musicians, and craftspeople. In her spare time, she enjoys playing the banjo, dancing, printmaking, playing in clay, and assisting in Folk School bread baking classes. podielski.com