Natural Dyes

It’s January. Cold, windy, snowy and just plain miserable in many parts of the country.

During the winter break from school, when I’m cooped up in the house for days on end, I like to have projects to work on. I’m a soap maker primarily, but even that gets to be old hat after a while. I started looking for new things to work on and came across an old book that told of dyeing fabrics with nuts and berries. Intrigued, I started doing some research and found that it’s not that hard to make fabrics the beautiful color you want.


Types of fabric to use

Not all fabric can be easily dyed with natural materials. The best ones to use are those made from natural materials themselves. Cotton, silk, wool and linen will take the dye the best. Synthetic blends will take some dye, but will usually be lighter in color. If you’re not sure and can risk the item you’re planning to dye, go ahead and do it. If it’s something valuable, try to find a similar scrap of fabric and try that first. I use a piece of muslin to gauge my color saturation before I dye my clothes. You can find muslin at any fabric store or online here.

Natural materials to use for dye

Not all natural materials will produce a dye, and some produce colors that are nothing like the original plant it came from. Here’s a list of colors and the plant material that will give you shades in that color.

  • Orange: carrots, gold lichen, onion skins
  • Brown: dandelion roots, oak bark, walnut hulls, tea, coffee, acorns
  • Pink: berries, cherries, red and pink roses, avocado skins and seeds (really!)
  • Blue: indigo, woad, red cabbage, elderberries, red mulberries, blueberries, purple grapes, dogwood bark
  • Red-brown: pomegranates, beets, bamboo, hibiscus (reddish color flowers), bloodroot
  • Grey-black: Blackberries, walnut hulls, iris root
  • Red-purple: red sumac berries, basil leaves, day lilies, pokeweed berries, huckleberries
  • Green: artichokes, sorrel roots, spinach, peppermint leaves, snapdragons, lilacs, grass, nettles, plantain, peach leaves
  • Yellow: bay leaves, marigolds, sunflower petals, St John’s Wort, dandelion flowers, paprika, turmeric, celery leaves, lilac twigs, Queen Anne’s Lace roots, mahonia roots, barberry roots, yellowroot roots, yellow dock roots

Note: You want to be sure to use ripe, mature plant material and always use fresh, not dried. Dried plant material will usually give you muted colors and sometimes no color at all. Chop the plant material very small to give you more surface area. If the plant is tough, like yellow dock roots, smash the root with a hammer to make it fiberous. This will also give you more exposed surface area. If you know you won’t need it for a while, but the plant is at its peak, like nettle, you can chop it up and freeze it for a few months. Just be sure to label it.


Prepare your fabric

Before you start the dyeing process, you’ll want to get your fabric ready. First, wash the fabric. Don’t dry it though – it needs to be wet. Then prepare your fixative or “mordant.” This is to help the fabric take up the dye more easily. For berries you’ll want to use salt and for any other plant material, you’ll want to use vinegar. Here are the measurements:

  • Salt: dissolve ½ cup salt in 8 cups cold water
  • Vinegar: blend 1 part white vinegar to 4 parts cold water

Place your damp fabric in the fixative solution for an hour. Rinse with cool water when done. Then, it’s time to dye the fabric.

The dyeing process

Before you start, cover the surface of your work area with newspaper. I use plastic sheeting too, because I don’t want to dye my counter tops. Be sure to wear gloves so you only color the fabric, not your hands. Then, prepare your dye.

  1. Place the plant material in a large non-reactive pot (like stainless steel or glass). Remember the dye could stain some pots and spoons, so use these only for dyeing.
  2. Fill pot with twice as much water as plant material.
  3. Simmer for an hour or so, until you get a nice dark color.
  4. Strain out the plant material and return the liquid to the pot.
  5. Carefully place the fabric in the dye bath and bring to a slow boil. Simmer for an hour or so, stirring once in a while.
  6. Check your fabric. Remember, it will be lighter when it dries. An hour should produce nice color, but darker hues can be achieved by allowing to sit longer, even overnight. Turn the pot off after an hour and allow fabric to sit in the warm water as long as needed.
  7. When you get the color you want, take the fabric out and wash in cold water. Expect the color to run some as the excess dye is washed out
  8. Dry as usual.

That’s all there is to dyeing your own fabrics. I’ve done sheets, curtains, shirts, towels and even undies!

Have you ever used natural materials for dyeing? How did it turn out?


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Comments

  1. says

    This is such a great idea! Thank you for being a natural genius ;) But how about laundry and maintenance tips? How should we wash and use naturally-dyed fabrics to protect their colors?

    • Joy says

      Fabrics that have been dyed with the above process should be washed separately and in COLD water.

      Check the wash water to see if the color is still leaching before washing with other items.
      After several washings the dye will have become more stable.

  2. says

    I really like the sound of this, but what about fabrics such as wool? Can they really stand to be put in the dye bath then brought to the boil? Surely wool would be a cold water wash so wouldn’t boiling it shrink the garment?

    • Debra Maslowski says

      Good question, Lisa. All the sites I looked at said to do it this way, but yes, wool does shrink in hot water. I’ll do some more research and get back to you.

    • Laura says

      But then you would have felted wool! It is rather popular now, and instructions abound on how to do it. It gives the wool fabric a beautiful denseness. I have done a lot of sewing over the years and have experimented with this method, a long time ago. I still have a beautiful wool poncho I made. I washed the yardage (with extra) in hot water, and then dried it, before I cut out the poncho. I just took a chance with it and it changed from a rather thin, flat wool, to a thicker, textured wool that kept out the wind. This was a woven wool, but people also felt knitted wool.
      If you are worried about how it would turn out, try it with a 4 inch swatch and measure it afterward. (Stitch around the edges first to keep it from fraying.)
      So if you dye your fabric, the hot water dying process would be more or less the same process as felting. Give it a try. Experiment with small pieces of different fabrics and see how they turn out.

  3. Laura says

    I have done a bit of dying of fabric. I used onion skins on 100% cotton muslin (yes, it was bleached muslin, not unbleached.) I boiled up the skins which I had been collecting for awhile, in a pot of water. Then I soaked my wet fabric in water with a bit of alum to fix the dye (left over from some other usage), and then simmered it in the onion skin water. I did not really use measurements of these things, as I just sort of went by instinct. (I read about using the alum, somewhere.) My fabric was not a lot – probably a 1/2 yard at the most. It came out a beautiful gold/yellow/mustardy colour.

    I actually exchanged it in an online group where there were different projects and then you sent away what you had done to several other people and received what other people sent you. So my pieces ended up used or stashed by someone else. We were all doing fabric art projects, so I don’t think it was ever washed.

    That’s the thing about natural dying of fabric – it might not hold its colour if washed. Tho I remember my mom using Rit dye to tint many of her cotton blouses, and after several washings, she tinted them again. Maybe that is the nature of this kind of dying also – something we don’t think ‘should’ have to be done, but perhaps that is what people used to do.

    I also dyed some boiled white eggs for Easter, using onion skins. And, funnily enough, they came out just the same colour as brown eggs that I had in the refrigerator. (!)

    • Debra Maslowski says

      Yes, Nancy and Laura, I forgot to mention egg dyeing. Thanks for bringing it up. I forget about white eggs since my hens lay brown and green eggs. I may do some purple this year too!

  4. Rhoda Edwards says

    I dyed a brown cotton table runner in green tea and got a beautiful brown coloured runner. Thank you for the information it is very helpful. I did’nt use a fixative so the colour faded after the first wash. Now I know.

  5. Alexandra says

    I have been simmering my carrots for two hours and the water still has no color to it. :( What am I doing wrong?

  6. II says

    Hi! Not sure if is too late to chime in on this post, but I’m having trouble getting my dye to set. I have washed the item about six times now in cold water, twice with salt, wearing in between washes. Any ideas? I used dried turmeric…I have done this before with a scarf and had no trouble getting the dye to set. This item is completely cotton….

  7. Laura says

    I think you have to use a fixative at the same time as the turmeric – so that it stays – not just afterward in the rinsing process. I am no expert in dying, but I seem to remember you have to use something like alum, or salt, or vinegar – depending upon which dye stuff you are using (it is a chemical process, afterall.) There are recipes out there somewhere which explain which you use with which.

    • II says

      Thanks, I will look into that. So, I have already dyed a pair of 100% cotton undies. Is there any hope of getting the color to stay in those?