Natural dyes offer an affordable and enjoyable journey for the artist and craftsperson. Working with plants and minerals enables you to obtain a wide range of colors on fabrics without the use of toxic chemicals, as well as bringing about a feeling of union with the natural world.
My transition to using natural dyes, which I made after years of questionable interactions with synthetic dyes, has made me more aware of the plants that grow around me, more fastidious in separating my compost, and more open minded in the unfolding of the creative process.
With the recent shift in society towards more sustainable ways of living, and the discoveries of the positive influence on our health of regular interaction with nature, plant based dyes are being turned to once again as we question the impact of our chemical dependencies.
Many elements impact the color of dye, including what time of year and in what region they were harvested, the pH or hardness/softness of the water, and the density of the fabric being dyed, just to name a few.
Because of this you may experience many different shades from the same plant. This is another natural reminder that change is part of evolution. Sweet!
Plants to try…
My favorite place to recommend getting dyes from is your own kitchen! Many food scraps can also make great colors on fabric, and are non-toxic. While I don’t recommend using your spaghetti pot to dye in, I do suggest you begin saving your onion skins and avocado pits!!
Read more in my blog post here.
There are also plenty of plants that grow abundantly that can be experimented with. Eucalyptus leaves and goldenrod flowers for example provide rich hues on fabric.
As with all foraging, never harvest more than a small fraction of the available plant doing as little damage as possible, and always tune in and ask permission before harvesting.
All fabrics should be scoured before dyeing. Scouring is, simply put, giving the fabrics a nice deep clean before dyeing with them. In the manufacturing process (even for organic fabrics) there are many finishing agents used, chemicals that help the fabric be as straight as possible to make it easier to cut.
These chemicals create a barrier between the fabric and the dyes, so a nice hot bath in soapy water is recommended (unless you are using wool, then be careful not to felt it by slowly raising the temperature and not agitating too much). Because the whole point is to get stuff OUT of the fabric, be sure you are using a detergent without heavy oils or fragrances. Any free + clear or unscented detergent should work.
Vintage and pre-loved fabrics should also scoured, because they may have stains or spots that will attract or resist the dye in ways you do not intend (this may happen regardless!)
Infusing Botanical Hues into Fabric
A mordant is used to bond dye to fabric. The word “mordant” comes from the french “morde” meaning ‘to bite’, it bonds the dye to the fabric more permanently on a molecular level. Pre-soaking the fibers in a mordant provides the perfect opportunity for the dyes to affix to the fibers.
The most popular mordant for silk and wool fabrics is a naturally occurring chemical salt known as alum, which is food grade and non-toxic. It's used in making pickles, and is often sold in the spice aisle, though when purchasing mordant for dyeing it is important that you buy PURE Aluminum Potassium Sulphate. Any traces of minerals like iron can dull the colors (some people are into this, and that's cool too). Mordant is measured by weight, and used at 10-20% Weight of Goods.
Some people are averse to using a mordant, and prefer to use a tannin rich natural dye (like black walnuts, myrobalan, pomegranate rinds, oak galls, or birch bark) as a mordant instead. This will add a depth to your final color and also help to bond the dye to the fabric on a molecular level, though not in the same intensity as alum.
How to Dye?
There is no set in stone method for processing plants to be worked with as dyes. Each plant is different, each dye studio is different, things like water quality, the time of year the plant was harvested, and the vessel the dye is extracted in can all have an impact on the color that comes out on the fabric.
We are trained to be so precise in our measurements, expecting instructions to be written out to the detail. The beauty of working with natural materials is how they constantly remind us of their fluctuating nature. You may use the exact same recipe at different times of the year and end up with quite different results.
When working with dyes for fabric, the most important rule is to keep an open mind and allow space for the unexpected. Well, that and the rule that you don’t use your kitchen supplies for dyeing.
The softer the plant matter is, the less time and heat it needs to process. The harder it is, the more heat and time it may need. So the warm tones of marigold flowers can be easily extracted by soaking in hot water for a few hours or overnight, while Birch Bark will require being steeped over the course of a week or two. Burdock root may be able to provide more color if simmered over low heat for a few hours, while this may be too much for the petals of a hibiscus flower and dull the color. A full rolling boil is not only dangerous to work with, but unnecessary with natural dyes. Just like making tea, heating slow and low is always better.
More even colors can be created by extracting the color from the plant, then straining out the plant and collecting the water to dye in. The fabric is then dyed without having bits of plant sticking to it, making it easier to rinse as well. The plant can be extracted again by heating up in water for paler colors, or composted. You can also throw out this suggestion, and have fun with bundling plant matter into fabric for surprising results! It’s called bundle dyeing.
How long you should leave the fabric in the dyepot depends upon the shade you’d like, though longer is always better for more permanent color. If you are using cold water, you’ll want to leave the fabric in at least overnight. If you are heating it up you can remove after 1-3 hours, or leave in overnight. You are also more than welcome to see how the color develops when you leave in for a week or more. One of my favorite tie dye techniques to experiment with is jamming the fabric in a tight container, completely submerging in dye, and leaving undisturbed for days. You get really interesting designs, and the dye becomes way more permanent.
When working with materials gathered from nature, creating a ritual and setting positive intentions can turn the creative act into a spiritual one. Approaching the experience with reverence for the plants that have been incorporated, and honoring the combining of elements is a great way to do this. The act of creating is an alchemical experience - as fire heats the water that burns off into air, as the earth infuses the water with rich shades of color bonding to the fibers, transformation is happening before your eyes, and with the help of these elements and plants, you have created something entirely new and beautiful in this world.
Books I recommend:
"Wild Color" - Jenny Dean
"The Modern Natural Dyer" - Kristine Vejar
"Harvesting Color" - Rebecca Burgess
"Eco Colour" - India Flint
“Natural Color” - Sasha Duerrer
…and of course, my Magic with Botanical Dyes Zine!