Natural dying techniques have changed little over the past few centuries. In fact, select textile manufacturers across the world still use the same techniques for creating natural dyes today, to craft unique, bespoke pieces, such as hand-woven rugs and linens.
Though natural dyeing is notoriously difficult to achieve consistent shades and hues, it is precisely this unpredictability that gives this ancient art form its charm. From start to finish, the process of natural dyeing is labor-intensive and time-consuming, but in the end, it produces some stunning, one-of-a-kind fabrics, and gives you an immense feeling of satisfaction.
Natural Dyeing Basics
Types of Fabric
Natural dye will fix more readily on natural fabrics, such as wool, silk, linen and cotton. The dye tends to be darker and holds faster to these fabrics.
You can use synthetic fabrics or blends; however, the resulting color will usually be a lighter shade, and may not last as long after numerous washes. If you aren’t sure about the color saturation, try dyeing a small piece of fabric in the same material before diving headfirst into dying a whole garment.
Preparing Your Fabric
Before you can start dying, you need to prepare your fabric so the dye will take adequately. The first step is to wash your fabric or garments.
Do not dry them. The whole dying process, including preparation, must be done while the fabric is wet.
Secondly, prepare your mordant. This is the most crucial step in the preparation process. The mordant, or fixative, is responsible for helping the fabric to take up the dye. Different plant materials require different mordants, as they activate different chemicals in the plants responsible for giving the dye its color.
For berry-based dye, you will need to use salt in a ratio of one part salt to 16 parts water. For most other plant material, use vinegar in a ratio of one part white vinegar to 4 parts water. There are several other mordants you can use, such as powdered alum, copper, iron, baking soda, lemon juice and cream of tartar.
Soak your damp fabric in the mordant solution for an hour. Rinse with fresh, cool water. Then, it is time to start dying.
The Dyeing Process
- First, gather your plant material. It is best to harvest your plants when they are mature and in full bloom.
- Add your plants to your dye pot, along with just enough water to cover them. You can use less water to increase the concentration of the dye, so just ensure there is enough liquid to cover the fabric later.
- Cover, and then bring water to the boil. Reduce heat and simmer for an hour minimum.
- Remove from heat, and leave to steep for a few hours, or even overnight.
- Strain your dye into a plastic bucket, where it can be stored for later use, and dispose of the used plant matter thoughtfully.
- Add your fabric to the dye and leave to soak for an hour.
- Return the dye along with the fabric to your dye pot, adding more water to cover the fabric, and slowly heat the dye bath, occasionally stirring to ensure the fabric is totally covered.
- Cook for at least an hour, then turn off the heat and leave the fabric in the dye until it has cooled. The longer you leave it, the more intense the color will be.
- Remove your fabric from the dye bath and rinse with cool water. Then, hang to dry.
Remember, different combinations of plant material and mordant, as well as the types of fabric and dying technique you use, will give you varying color and saturation results. So, to help you make the best selection for your project’s color, here are 10 natural dying recipes and techniques.
- Avocado + Vinegar
They may have a luscious light green flesh, but avocado skins and seeds produce a gorgeous peachy pink-colored dye. What’s more, the dye is quick and easy to make.
Scoop out eight large avocados, and retain the seeds. Bring to the boil in a pan covered in water for five minutes, then reduce to a simmer for 10 minutes. Leave to cool in the pot. Strain the dye, and add 1/2 cup of white vinegar.
- Blackberry + Salt
The process of dying the fabric with blackberries is just as beautiful as the final color. The dye starts out as a deep red, slowly turns purple, then finally reaches a deep blue.
Make sure you mordant the fabric in a salt bath before dying. To make the dye, use three cups of berries mixed with six cups of water. You may want to blend them with a hand blender to extract a deeper color. Then, cook the dye, as in a standard dye recipe.
- Zinnia + Alum
Zinnia flowers head, fresh or dried, produce a sweet pale yellow when prepared with an alum mordant. If you want a darker shade of yellow, use chrome as your mordant. To dye one pound of fabric, you will need one pound of flower heads to achieve adequate color saturation.
- Yellow Onion + Tin
No need to shed any tears over this onion recipe. The onion skin dye, following a mordant bath of dilute tin, gives you a vibrant orange.
Use one pound of yellow onion skins for one pound of fabric, and don’t skip the mordant step. Otherwise, you may end up with a browner version of the color you’re seeking.
- Hydrangea + Copper
Fresh hydrangea flowers with an alum mordant will give you a delicate green, however, adding a little copper to the dye bath results in a vibrant celery green.
Batik is another ancient art form that involves making wax patterns on fabric before dying. This tutorial shows you how to create batik dyed tea towels with natural avocado dye.
- Ombre Dip Dye
Ombre dip dying is an interesting variation on standard tie-dying that creates layers of graduating color. Try this technique on cheap t shirts to create a garment that is not only beautiful, but also on trend.
- Shibori Tie-Dye
Shibori tie-dying is the technique that crafters are probably most familiar with. It involves tying off parts of fabric with rubber bands, then immersing the fabric in dye to create circular shapes. Experiment with multiple dyes to achieve interesting color combinations and patterns.
- Shibori Folding
For a beautiful variation on tie-dyeing, try the Shibori folding technique. This technique is unlike other tie-dying methods as it creates repeating geometric patterns. It looks truly stunning on large pieces, such as bed linen.
- Watercolor Effect
To create a watercolor effect, you paint the dye directly onto the fabric rather than soaking. This technique is excellent to combine with other dying methods to achieve some unique looks.
When growing and harvesting plants for dye, be aware that some plants are poisonous. Do not dispose of used dye down drains or in areas where it can enter the water supply or contaminate food sources. And, don’t use your cooking pots and utensils for dying.
Natural dying is labor-intensive but is a highly rewarding craft. Try some of these vibrant color recipes and simple dying techniques, or experiment with your own combinations of plant dye and mordants, and surprise yourself by creating some beautiful, unique fabrics.