Natural dyeing includes: Scouring fibers strips them of oils and dirt. Mordant with a metal salt or a protein to assist in the absorption of the potential plant pigments. Extracting the dye from the plants. Allowing the fiber to soak in the dye to absorb the pigments. Rinsing the dyed material and drying it carefully to preserve the color.
How to make beautiful natural dyes from leaves, flowers, nuts, roots, bark and more
What are natural dyes?
How to make natural dyes from plants.
Natural dyeing is the art of taking organic materials, extracting color from those materials, and applying the color to fiber, yarn, or cloth. The color adheres to the fibers of the material and transforms it into a beautiful piece of art.
Natural dyes are somewhat unpredictable, and each one acts in unique ways. Some natural dyes are lightfast; they maintain their color even after prolonged exposure to sunlight. Some natural dyes are fugitive, meaning they will slowly fade over time.
The joy of dyeing naturally comes in the experimentation, the unknowns, the crafting of a color. It is an art form that takes patience and diligence, but also a free spirit and sense of creativity and flexibility.
Plants are full of life and interest. Not only does a plant grow from a tiny little seed, but then it helps to clean our air, develop fruits, veggies, or other eatables. For the natural dyer, it also opens a world of possibilities for color.
Here I want to share the details on how to make beautiful natural dyes from all kinds of natural materials. This post is an in-depth overview of the process of natural dyeing with more specific details to come in future articles.
Why natural dye?
There are many reasons to try your hand at natural dyeing. I will touch on a few key points I believe have impacted why I like to use natural dyes.
Natural dyeing is holistic
Natural dyeing allows the artist to take part in the preparation of the dye bath as well as the dyeing process. When using a chemical dye, you stir powder into water, and at the right time, you place your fiber, yarn, or fabric into the dye bath.
With natural dyeing, there is broader participation in the creation of the dye bath. It can be as extreme as planting your dye plants and harvesting them in the right season or merely purchasing a purple cabbage from the grocery store, chopping it up, and going through the dying process with raw materials.
The joy of working with plants
While you don’t have to have a garden and grow all your dye plants to work with natural dyes, there is the potential to do so.
This year I planted my first batch of madder (a plant whose roots create a beautiful red-orange dye result). It’s a long-term investment because the roots take two to three years to mature. These and a few other dye plants will give me not only the joy of dyeing with them when they are ready to harvest, but also the beauty of their blooms, color, and greenery in my garden.
Discovering what the world around us can do
We’re surrounded by an amazing natural world of plants, trees, fungi, bugs, animals, so many living organisms that we often take for granted.
Learning the properties of the plants around us can give us a better appreciation for the world we live in and the capabilities of even the humblest of garden weeds.
Heat dye bath
A heat-dye bath is a process of extracting color from natural materials in water over a heat source. The dye is extracted, the excess dye material is strained out, and the fiber is placed in the pot and heated. If needed, more dye source is added to the tub to add more pigment for a more vibrant color.
Cool dye bath
A cool dye bath is done by extracting the color from the dye source as you would for a heat dye bath. The color is extracted in boiling water. Then it is strained, and the dye bath cooled. The mordanted fiber, yarn, or fabric is added to the dye bath and slowly heated to below a simmer. As soon as it reaches this point, it is removed from the heat and left to soak in the cooling dye bath until the desired color is obtained.
This is the best way to dye silk.
Vat dyeing is used for indigo dyeing. This is a more complex dyeing process.
Bundle dyeing is a technique used most often with fabric dyeing. Lay a piece of mordanted, wet fabric on a strip of plastic wrap. Natural dye materials are laid out over the surface of the fabric in the desired pattern.
You can use multiple plants at the same time. Roll the fabric piece up with the dyeing materials. Tie up the bundle and wrap it with plastic wrap. Place this in a steamer and steam.
Bring the bundle out, and allow it to cool before opening it up. Open up the bundle and wash the fabric free of all the plant debris. The result will be a mottled collection of colors left by the dye plants.
For instructions on how to bundle dye see Ria Burns tutorial.
Solar dyeing is the process of using the sun to extract dye and dye fiber in the same step. Mordanted fiber, yarn, or fabric is added to a jar with hot water and the desired natural dye material. The hot water covers the fiber and the dye material. Close the jar with a lid and set it in the sun. The time to leave it in the sun depends on how much sun your area gets and the depth of color you desire. After it has sat in the sun, and the jar shows signs of pigment extracted from the dye materials, you can open the jar up and wash out the fiber, yarn, or fabric. The color will be mottled and will vary in intensity.
Organic materials used for natural dyeing
Natural dyes are extracted from many different natural materials.
The following is a list of items that produce natural dyes:
Not only are flowers beautiful when blooming, but they can also produce color in a dye bath.
Flowers are best used as a dye source when they are fresh. Cut them low on the stem. Use the flowers as well as the stem for your dye material.
Leaves and stalks
There is a vast array of leaves and plant stalks that can be collected to create a rainbow of colors, from yellows to blues.
Leaves are best used as a dye source in late spring or early summer when they are at their peak.
The roots of plants are often a good source of natural dye. One notable root with a stunning outcome is Madder. This plant root creates brilliant red to pink shades.
Roots should be collected in the late fall. To harvest roots, you will need to dig around the plant to reach the roots. Do so carefully if you want the plant to continue growing. Disturbing the roots too much will cause the plant to die. Remove less than half of the root system per plant in order to keep the plant growing and healthy.
Wood and barks
The wood and barks of some trees create a variety of browns and tans. Some even create reds and oranges.
When collecting bark, try to use what is already on the ground to protect the tree. If you do have to remove bark from the tree, only harvest small pieces from trees that you legally have access to.
Harvest in the late winter and early spring. The quality of the bark is at its height for natural dyeing, because the sap is rising.
Fruits and vegetables
There are many products that we would generally consider kitchen scraps that make beautiful natural dyes. Many of these items can be found in your local grocery store – things like purple cabbage, onions, berries, and avocado.
Berries should be harvested whenever they are in season. Berries tend to be fugitive, meaning the color fades quickly after dyeing.
Fruit from the grocery store is often available year-round. Certain types of fruit have more brilliant dyes at different seasons. Experiment to find the best times for fruit that is available to you.
If you have fruits that you can grow in your garden, try using them when they are as fresh as possible. You will get the best dye potential.
Common vegetables like red cabbage, and onions are available to us year-round via grocery stores. Collect onion skins and store them in the freezer until you have enough for a dye bath. Some things will need to be used right away. Consider that the more moisture the vegetable contains, the more dye potential it will have.
Nuts and husks
Collect nuts and husks of nuts during the fall when they begin to drop to the ground. These can be stored in the freezer for later use, or used right away.
Keep an eye out for acorns, walnuts, chestnut husks and many others.
Yep, insects. Cochineal is a natural dye material that produces many shades of pinks and reds. This dye is actually an insect found in South and North America.
I have never collected my own insects. Cochineal can be purchased from several different natural dye suppliers.
List of dye-yielding plants
For a compilation of dye-yielding plants see List of Dye Yielding Plants for the Natural Dyer. This article includes potential dye plants and organic material, plant seed resources, possible colors produced by each plant, and a tutorial round-up so you can learn to dye with each option.
Materials and tools
Even though many of the elements of natural dyeing include “natural” products, it is best to have a set of dyeing equipment that is only used for dyeing.
- Pots and pans– stainless steel is preferable (other types of pots can be used, but they have the potential to change the dye bath, so for simplicity’s sake, I suggest starting with stainless steel).
- Long-handled spoon
- Electronic scale
- Measuring spoons and cups
- Stirring spoons and rods
- Large bowls
- Plastic buckets or bins
- Waterproof apron
Fibers to use
These include fiber from sheep, alpaca, camel, llama, mohair goats, cashmere goats, angora rabbits, silk, and vicuna.
There are many different varieties of sheep throughout the world, and each one has different fiber qualities and characteristics. The fiber of other animals also has distinct properties that will need consideration when natural dyeing.
Protein fibers tend to dye darker with natural dyes than cellulosic fibers.
For a great resource on the variety of protein fibers available and their characteristics, see the book The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook: More than 200 Fibers from Animal to Spun Yarn by Deborah Robson and Carol Ekarius.
It covers sheep, goats, alpacas, llamas, vicunas, camels, bison, musk oxen, yaks and more.
These include fiber from the cotton, flax (linen), and hemp.
Cellulose fibers tend to dye in more pastel tones when using natural dyes.
These are fibers made from filaments of plastic. A few examples are polyester and microfiber blends or acrylic yarn.
These fibers are not suitable for natural dyeing because the dye does not react on the surface of these fibers.
In addition to pure polyester fibers, polyester blended with natural fibers are also not ideal. Polyester and wool, polyester, and cotton, and others do not work well with natural dyes.
A polyester fiber filament is a tiny strand, an extrusion of a plastic-like substance. The material is pressed through tiny spinnerets at a factory and twisted together to make the yarn that is then woven or knitted together to make polyester-based fabrics. Because the surface of the material is slick and doesn’t have a cuticle like natural fibers, natural dyes don’t attach to it well. To dye these fibers, there are chemical dyes you can use that react with the surface of the polyester better.
For a complete resources guide see Natural Dyeing Resources for the Modern Dyer.
The weight-of-fiber is a term referring to the amount of fiber, yarn, or fabric you will be dyeing. This weight is used to calculate the amount of scouring liquid, mordant, and dye materials you will need in each of the following steps.
To determine the weight-of-fiber (WOF), gather the fiber, yarn, or fabric you will be using.
It should be dry.
Using an electronic scale weighs the amount of material you want to dye. One way to do this effectively is to turn on your electric scale, place a large bowl on the scale, and tare the scale to zero.
Now add the material you will be dyeing to the bowl. The scale will weigh the material in the bowl (but not the weight of the bowl). This number is your WOF. Write the weight down as you will be referencing it multiple times as you prepare to dye.
The water you use in natural dyeing can affect the properties of your dye baths. Some dye materials will react differently depending on the alkalinity and acidity of the water.
Working with a neutral pH is helpful. If you want to be able to repeat a dye result when you are working with natural dyes it is a good idea to record each measurement, product used, and the amount and all other elements of the process.
When it comes to water, it can be easy just to record the amount of water you are using. But water pH levels will affect your dye bath. So the quality of the water is just as important as the quantity.
A little h2o chemistry for dyers
This graph covers the range of pH in water. For natural dyeing, using a neutral pH eliminates any added complications or unexpected outcomes. A neutral pH is represented by the number 7. Acidity and basicity are determined by the pH level of the water you are using.
“pH is a measure of how acidic/basic water is. The range goes from 0 to 14, with 7 being neutral. pHs of less than 7 indicate acidity, whereas a pH of greater than 7 indicates a base.”https://www.usgs.gov/special-topic/water-science-school/science/ph-and-water?qt-science_center_objects=0#qt-science_center_objects
You can test your water by dipping a pH testing strip into the water and comparing it to the accompanying pH chart. Testing will help you determine the starting point of your water.
If your water is not neutral (a pH of 7), you can either use filtered water from the store or adjust the water using additives to shift the pH to a neutral.
If your water bath is too acidic (it is between a 0 and 7 on the graph/test strip) then you can add soda ash or baking soda? Slowly, testing with a pH strip until you reach neutral.
If your water bath is too basic (it is between 7 and 14 on the graph/test strip), then you can add lemon juice or white vinegar. Slowly add either of these liquids to your water bath testing with pH strips until you reach neutral.
What is a mordant?
A mordant is a mineral salt used by natural dyers to bind the dye color to the surface of the fiber.
Most natural dyes need the assistance of a mordant to bind to the surface of the fiber. Mordants also assist in keeping a fiber more lightfast and washfast.
To use a mordant, you will create a water and mordant bath, submerge the material you are dying into the mordant bath for some time, and heat to a specific temperature. The mordant will then adhere to the fiber.
Alum (potassium aluminum sulfate)
Alum is a mineral salt that is used as a mordant to coat fibers, preparing them to take on more natural dye. Using cream of tartar, in combination with alum, will help to permanently fix the alum to the fibers. Alum is best used on protein fibers or in combination with tannin on cellulose fibers.
Soy milk contains proteins. When used as a mordant on cellulose fibers, the soy milk adds protein to the fibers preparing them to soak up more color.
Soy milk is nut milk created by soaking soybeans in water for several hours. Once the soybeans have swollen with the water (about 12 hours), pulse the water and soybeans in a blender a few times. The water will become white and milky. Strain out the soybeans, saving the water/soy milk liquid. Soak cellulose fibers in this liquid to naturally mordant.
For a complete tutorial on making soy milk see How to Make Soy Milk for Natural Dyeing
For complete instructions on how to mordant with soy milk, see Rebecca Desnos’ book, Botanical Colors at Your Fingertips.
Iron (ferrous sulfate)
Iron used as a mordant saddens colors so they are more muted.
Iron can be used as a mordant or in combination with other mordanting materials (as an additive).
Previously dyed material can also be dipped in a water and iron bath. Iron dipping will mute or sadden the colors. This technique is best when applied to cellulose fibers, but it can be used lightly on protein fiber (otherwise, they become brittle).
Other types of mordants
There are other mordants that can be used in natural dyeing.
Two of these include tin and copper.
I have not included them here as I don’t work with either of them. They are slightly more toxic than alum (potassium aluminum sulfate) and take extra caution to work with as they can be detrimental to health if not used carefully.
You can find recipes and references to these mordants in many natural dyeing books.
What is a tannin?
Tannins are a substance in plant materials that naturally mordant fiber. There are several different dye materials that act as self-mordanting. These tannin rich plant dyes are also called substantive dyes.
For an explanation of what a tannin is and how to use it visit Maiwa.
Tannin rich dye materials
Pomegranate skins, avocado stones, tea, and gallnuts.
What is an additive?
An additive is a substance you use in combination with another mordant to increase the effectiveness of the mordant or to alter the results in some way.
For more on additives and how to use them see Maiwa’s Guide to Natural Dyes.
Additive options to use
Iron water (ferrous sulfate)- use only lightly for protein fibers as it can make fiber brittle. Applies well to cellulose fibers.
Cream of tartar– Used well on protein fibers. Not typically used for cellulose fibers
Ferrous acetate. Maiwa has a ferrous acetate recipe under the additives options.
There are a few safety precautions to consider when natural dyeing.
The first is that you use separate pots and equipment for natural dyeing. You don’t want to dye and cook meals in the same pots and dishes.
While natural dyeing does involve natural materials that often are not harmful, there is still the use of mordants and potentially poisonous plant parts that could cause health issues if cross-contaminated.
Wear a dust mask
Consider wearing a dust mask while working with mordants and other powdered substances. Always wear a dust mask when measuring out mordants, powdered dye and concentrates. The particles get in the air and cause respiratory problems. A dust mask solves this issue.
Wear rubber gloves
When working with mordant baths, it is advisable to wear gloves and thoroughly wash your hands or skin whenever the mordant bath splashes onto you.
Wash skin whenever you get splashed
When dyeing, there is a high likelihood that you will get splashed with dye liquid. Consider wearing old clothes or a waterproof apron to avoid ruining your nice clothing. Also, dye liquid is often scalding, if not boiling. Be aware and cautious when working around your dye pots.
And be aware of heat source safety. Working with burners, stoves, boiling water, and dye baths require common sense and caution.
My dads words apply well.
“Don’t rush, slow down, and think it through. Then you won’t cause an accident.”Jody Bywater
- Waterproof apron
Disposing of dye and mordant baths safely
When you have completed using a mordant bath or a dye bath, you need to dispose of it. For mordant baths that have alum or iron (or other metal mordants), dispose of the bath by dumping the excess water onto gravel or another location away from the soil. The mordants in the water make it toxic enough that you wouldn’t want to water your veggie garden with it.
To further strip the mordant bath of the mordant salts to make it less toxic to the environment – exhaust the mordant bath. To exhaust the bath use it a second time just like you did for the original mordant bath. Don’t add more mordant, just add in more fiber and bring up the heat. Follow the mordanting instructions. Then after you have removed the second batch of fiber you can dispose of the water outdoors. There will be little mordant left in the water, decreasing its toxicity.
Natural dye baths are typically non-toxic and can be emptied down the drain. I often end up dumping mine in my flower garden, though I don’t suggest dumping it in your vegetable garden. It’s probably fine, but better to be cautious.
Preparing materials for dyeing
Amounts to use
Each dye bath may be different. Depending on the intensity of color you are looking for and the material you are dyeing with. Below are generalized calculations to get you started.
To calculate the amount for each bath, use the weight of fiber (WOF) and the percentage represented in the tables to get the correct amount.
You will get more accurate weights if you use grams.
Alum: ½ oz (5oz x 0.10 = 0.5)
Cream of tartar: 0.35oz (5oz x 0.07 = 0.35oz)
Before applying color to your fiber, yarn, or fabric, you will want to thoroughly clean the fiber to remove any oils, dirt, or other surface grime. Sometimes commercially made yarn and fabrics have a surface chemical that will inhibit the natural dyes from affecting the fibers. Scouring your fabric, yarns, and fibers is an excellent way to prepare it to color successfully.
For a complete guide on scouring see Botanical Colors article, How to Scour.
Cellulose fibers: ½ oz. soda ash for every 3.5 oz. fiber
Protein fibers: ½ tsp Synthrapol for every 17.6oz. Fiber
Alternatives for scouring wool:
- a neutral pH washing powder or liquid
- hot water – soak fibers for 10-15 minutes, rinse gently in hot water
Don’t agitate the wool through the scouring process or it will felt.
Mordanting – how to mordant
There are several different options for mordants and mordant combinations. Here I will cover basic recipes for each mordant. They are slightly different for protein and cellulose fibers.
Protein fiber mordant bath
Alum (aluminum sulfate)
For helpful guides on how to mordant protein fibers with alum see the articles below:
Remember that iron saddens most dye colors.
Iron mordant 3% WOF.
This is a helpful article about how to use soy milk to mordant fibers. This can be applied to protein fibers.
Cellulose fiber mordant bath
Alum (aluminum acetate)
Learn the basic process with this article:
Maiwa Blog – How to Mordant Part 3. This article covers the process of mordanting protein and cellulose fibers. Scroll to the bottom to read two alternative methods for mordanting cellulose fibers with alum. One method using alum sulfate and tannins and another method using alum acetate.
Alum (aluminum acetate) 20%, tannic acid 10 % or washing soda 6% WOF.
Iron mordant 5% WOF.
Rebecca Desnos‘ book Botanical Colors at Your Fingertips has in-depth instructions on how to make your own soy milk and mordant cellulose fibers with it.
How to make natural dyes
Dye baths can either be estimated in ratios or in weights.
You can also throw in as much material as you want and experiment with the outcome.
It depends on how exact of a result you are looking for and whether you want to be able to recreate it later. Keeping a record of exactly what you add will make repeating a color in the future easier.
A good starting point when natural dyeing is to use a 3:1 ratio. Use three times the weight of dye materials as the weight of the fibers you are dyeing.
Extracting natural dye
Use the notes under the different dye materials (flowers, leaves, bark…) at the beginning of this post for a guide on when to harvest each type of material.
The specific recipe for each dye material will be slightly different to get the best results. Experimentation and flexibility are necessary when working with natural dyes.
For a basic extracting dye process do the following:
- Chop, cut, break up, or otherwise turn your dye material into small pieces.
- Place dye material in a pot and cover with boiling water. Put a pot on a stove or other heat source and simmer for about an hour. Add more boiling water if it begins to get low.
- Remove the pot from the heat and allow to sit for another hour.
- Strain the dye liquid through a sieve or cheesecloth to remove all dye material debris.
- Pour the strained dye liquid back into the pot and place it back on the heat source.
Basic dyeing process:
- Add mordanted fiber, yarn, or fabric to the dye bath (the fiber material should be wet if it’s not, soak in water and then wring it out before adding to the dye bath).
- Add water to the dye bath until the material is fully submerged.
- Simmer the dye bath for one hour.
- Removing the pot from the heat allow to cool.
- Remove the dye material and rinse with cool water until the water runs clear.
- Squeeze out excess water. Fabrics can go into a spin cycle in a washing machine, or be hand rung. Wring out yarn to remove as much water as possible. For fiber, squeeze out as much water as possible.
- Hang the dye material so that it is well ventilated and allow to dry thoroughly.
Things to record
- Type of fiber used
- Weight of fiber used
- Scouring done and amounts used/material used
- Mordant used and measures used
- Water pH
- Amount of dye materials used and how long it took to extract color
- Length of dye time and dye technique used
More dyeing resources
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