Over centuries, civilizations developed methods of dyeing with natural materials for colorful expressions of culture, clothing, and art. Archeologists have found evidence of dyes as far back as the Neolithic period, and Native Americans are known to have used mountain alder, bloodroot, black walnut, and other natural sources to imbibe color.
Yet, with the rise of mass-produced clothing and fast fashion, synthetic dyes have begun contaminating natural environmental and the communities in which textiles are produced. 2,720 liters of water – roughly equivalent to what you’d drink in three years – are required to produce a single T-shirt, and of all the lakes and rivers in Asia, 70% have been contaminated by 2.5 billion gallons of waste from the textile industry. In this waste are carcinogenic toxins used in the dyes that give our clothing such bright colors. The dyeing and finishing of denim is the biggest culprit, and has become the second-largest polluter of fresh water in the world.
But, we needn’t look further than our own yards, gardens, and kitchen cabinets for materials to dye clothing without this toxic waste. Dyeing fabric with fruit, vegetables, plants, and spices is simple, and can be done right at home. Spruce up your wardrobe with fresh colors instead of shopping for new clothes, dye your own yarn for knitting and crocheting, or throw a tie-dye party with friends. Turn to the work of artists like Maggie Pate (@maggie_pate) and Kayla Powers (@kayla.powers) for inspiration, and follow these simple steps to naturally tie-dye your life.
When it comes to natural dyes, not all fabric is created equal. Natural fabrics like cotton, wool, hemp, and linen will capture dyes more readily, unlike polyester or other synthetics. On a microscopic level, animal/insect spun fibers – such as wool and silk – are more porous and can catch dyes easily; cotton, linen, and other plant-based fibers are a little more slick, but will still hold dye better than synthetics.
However, instead of heading out to buy new materials to dye, check out what you already have that could use a boost: shirts, sheets (for tapestries), socks, pants, curtains, and scarves are great candidates, or check out secondhand clothing (even secondhand fabric to make your own clothes!).
Before dyeing, it’s important to thoroughly wash – or “scour” – any fabric you plan to use. Plant-based fibers will sometimes contain a dye-resistant wax that’ll make it harder for pigments to affix themselves. Besides sidestepping fast fashion, using older or thrifted items for dyeing is advantageous in that they’ve been washed many times, and the fabric is thus easier to dye.
To prepare for dyeing, wash plant-based fibers (cotton and linen) with “soda ash” or “washing soda.”Dissolve a few tablespoons of soda ash and regular fabric detergent per gallon of water and bring to a boil. Add fabric, then let simmer for a few hours.
Once the fabric is fully clean, it’s time to apply mordant.
Mordant is essentially a fixative that bonds dye to fabric, brightens colors, and prevents them from fading over time. Making your own natural mordant is simple, and you probably have all the ingredients you need in your cabinet. If dyeing with fruit, combine a quarter cup salt to four cups water; for vegetables, add one cup vinegar to four cups water. If you choose to buy mordant, look for those with a lower toxicity, like alum, which can be found in the spice aisle of many grocery stores. Once the mordant is dissolved, add in the fabric and simmer on the stove for at least an hour. Rinse with cold water, or let it cool completely overnight. Always wear gloves when handling mordant.
To determine how much mordant to use, weigh fabric beforehand. For example, to determine the number of ounces of alum you should use (2 tablespoons of alum is about 1 ounce), divide the material weight by four. Combine with a cup of boiling water, then pour that into a stainless streel pot full of cold water. You can also put alum directly into a pot of warm water. For iron, copper, or tin mordants, use about 2 teaspoons (or ½ ounce) per pound of fabric. Always check the instructions, however, before proceeding. For best results, do batches of less than one pound of fabric at a time.
There’s no need for plastic tubes of toxic, synthetic dyes; our kitchens, backyards, and spice racks are full of vibrant, natural dyes!
The more tannin-rich the material, the better it will affix to the fabric. Black beans, onion skins, avocado pits, beets, and black tea, for example, are rich in tannins. While some items will work better than others, proper mordants will help lock in most dyes, and practice makes perfect when figuring out which flowers, seeds, barks, spices, and backyard plants work best.
In the fall, pick out some vibrant red leaves from the leaf pile to create rich red dyes. Flowers like red hibiscus and St. John’s wort will also create a red dye, or other plants you might find in your own yard like red chokeberries, elderberry, rosehips, bedstraw, and even bamboo shoots, or the bark of Canadian hemlock, sycamore, and crabapple trees. Madder root has historically been used to create “Turkey Red” dyes, and ripened sumac fruit to make Morocco leather.
The bark of alder trees, lilac twigs, and eucalyptus plants will dye orange (although the leaves of eucalyptus produce a yellower shade). Collect barberry shrubs, bloodroot rhizomes (the roots underneath the plant that store sap), and seed husks from butternut/white walnut trees to boil as well. Both paprika and turmeric will dye fabrics orange, although turmeric fades very easily and will need a mordant (and perhaps repeated dyes over time) to affix to fabric. Pomegranate will generally dye red, but adding alum to the solution will create an orange color; similarly, after dyeing a fabric in turmeric, dip the garment in a solution of lye and water to bring out a reddish-orange hue.
A plethora of foraged, grown, or salvaged materials will dye fabric yellow: one of the easier (and most beautiful) colors to create.
Yellow onion skins are often used to create yellow hues, and can be saved in the freezer over time instead of heading right for the compost, along with carrot tops and celery leaves. Peach tree and eucalyptus leaves will bleed yellow, as will the bark of barberry shrubs, sassafras trees, and the pith along the inside of sumac branches. Although a bit harder to find, heather, old man’s beard lichen, willow leaves, burdock seeds, and the stems of Dyer’s Greenwood will also work.
In the spring and summer, collect fresh yellow crocuses, daffodils, marigolds, dandelions, safflowers, yarrows, sunflowers, goldenrod, St. John’s wort, red clovers, and dahlia flowers for your dye, along with Osage oranges (or hedge apples): those bumpy, brain-like balls filled with white sap.
If none of these materials are available to you, look for alfalfa seeds, bay leaves (fresh or dried), saffron, curry powder, and turmeric at the grocery store.
Onion skins will typically dye yellow, but will turn green when the fabric is dipped in an iron mordant solution. If you find yourself with extra spinach or artichokes in the refrigerator, they’ll be perfect for a green dye.
Pull nettle, pigweed, red pine needles, and grass from the yard for an easy dye, or pluck chamomile leaves, tarragon, sorrel, and mint from the garden. Among the flowers, black-eyed Susans, cornflowers (the whole head), foxgloves, larkspurs, lilacs, lilies of the valley, purple milkweed (both leaves and flowers), Queen Anne’s lace, and snapdragons will all create different shades of green.
Compared with other natural hues, fewer materials will dye fabric blue. Traditionally, Japanese Indigo and an herb called woad were used to dye fabrics a brilliant blue, following specific steps. Otherwise, try the bark and berries of dogwood, the leaves of indigo plants, black beans, cornflower, hyacinth, crocuses, and purple iris (when paired with alum mordant). If you live in the Northwest, look also for orange grapes (not like the kind you find at the grocery store) and boil with an alum mordant to bring out the blue.
Red cabbage is a classic choice for purple dye, but unfortunately fades quite easily.
Luckily, flowers like dark purple irises, daylilies (after they have wilted), and purple and dark red hibiscus will also work, as will finger-staining berries like elderberries, huckleberries, blueberries, mulberries, pokeweed berries, blackberries, grapes, and blueberries, especially when crushed. Although a vibrant green on the outside, basil will also dye fabrics purple.
Cochineal – an insect native to Mexico and South America – is a common source for purple dyes, and can be purchased for that purpose. Otherwise, boil the bark of red maple and sweetgum trees, or the roots of red cedar for purple too.
Beets will stain both your mouth and your clothes. Peel and remove their tops before simmering – up to a whole day for a vibrant pink color – and use the spent beets for a recipe, like these beet brownies or a beet pasta sauce. Cherries, raspberries, strawberries, pink camellia flowers, and the bark of grand fir trees will also produce pink. A combination of red roses and lavender creates a gorgeous hue as well.
The star of the show, however, is none other than the avocado – both the pit and the skin. Scrape away all of the fruit, and thoroughly wash the skin and the pit before simmering, and watch the pink emerge.
Carob pods are a perfect source for black dyes, but the trees are not native to the U.S. and can only be found in California. If you’re not in the Golden State, you can buy the pods online or at health food stores. Lower concentrations of the pods will create a greyercolor.
Other trees, luckily, are helpful in providing black-dye materials. Boil the spikey acorn cups from sawtooth/Japanese silkworm oak, or walnut hulls – the large balls containing the walnut – from walnut trees when they fall in autumn. Oak galls – irregular growths that occur on the trees – will also produce black, but be careful of the insects that might still dwell inside them.
If you have a collection of rusty old hinges, nails, or other iron, they’ll create a black dye when set with an aluminum mordant. Regardless of flower color, the roots of irises will also boil black.
To create brown dyes, boil Amur maple leaves, the buds of maple trees, clumps of broom sedge/beard grass, dandelion roots, juniper berries, hollyhock, goldenrod shoots (gathered in the early spring, before they flower), dried fennel seeds, and the stems and twigs of ivy plants. The bark from birch, Colorado white fir, pine, white maple, broom trees, and oak (along with its acorns) will yield shades of brown. Add ferrous or iron sulfate to a beet-based dye bath to turn it from pink to brown.
Tea and coffee are highly effective brown dyes. Use brewed coffee, or save spent grounds in the freezer over time to massage right into the fabric.
Preparing the Dye
To begin preparing your dye, roughly chop your ingredients and cover with water in a non-reactive metal pot. Stainless steel or enamel are best; aluminum is fine, but the pot will become stained. Iron pots will mess with the color of the fabric, and should be avoided. Regardless, it’s best to use pots separate from those you cook with, as they might stain, and some mordants contain chemicals.
Simmer the mixture for several hours, then let cool (ideally overnight). Once room temperature, strain out the organics with a mesh strainer and put them in the compost. Spice-based dyes don’t need to be prepared this way; they can be added directly to warm water and allowed to dissolve before dyeing the fabric.
The liquid you are left with is your dye bath!
Fabrics should be dampened before dyeing, unless you’re using a spice-based dye, in which case they can be dry.
Add your dye solution to enough water so the fabric has space to move around. Add the fabric, and heat the mixture to around 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Allow the fabric to soak for at least an hour, but a full day or overnight will yield stronger hues. Adjust the color as needed: add water for a paler hue, and more of the dye for darker, remembering that damp fabric is darker than dried. Spice-based dyes – like curry powder or turmeric – are a bit easier. Add roughly 3 tablespoons spice per 1 cup of water, then boil with the fabric for about an hour.
Remove the fabric with tongs, and let it cool until it can be handled. Rinse with cold water a few times until the water runs clean, or on a gentle wash cycle with no detergent. If you are using rubber bands (for tie-dyeing), keep them on through this process until you’re ready to dry.
Line dry items in the shade, and watch their beautiful colors fly!
Now for the fun part: creating those fun, swirly tie-dye patterns.
There are dozens of tie-dye patterns to follow, but these are among the most popular:
Caring for Naturally Dyed Items
Caring for naturally dyed clothing and fabrics looks a little different from your typical laundry routine. Ideally, wash them as little as possible; hang them in the shade outdoors to freshen up without using water.
When it is time for a rinse, machine wash items on the coldest setting, or with cold water by hand with a very mild detergent. Stay away from stain removers if you can. They’ll be prone to bleeding for the first few washes, so make sure to separate lights and darks. It’s also best to keep naturally-dyed clothing separate from other clothing, as synthetic dyes might stain them.
Always air dry, but do so in the shade; the sun will fade their natural colors. Once dry, store in a closet or drawer away from the light.
Rebecca Desnos – a natural dyer – has some helpful tips about washing naturally dyed fabrics on her blog.