Want to start dyeing fabrics with common household goods such as avocados, beets and onions? Hit the internet search and you are bound to be overwhelmed with competing methodologies. I know I was. I thought it would be simple – just put a shirt in beet juice, and I’ll have a pink shirt? Wrong. It’s simple, but not that simple. So, I’ve written a short, simple beginner’s overview of natural dyes. I’ve broken down some of the terms that more seasoned natural dyers commonly use such as “mordants” and “scouring” into words that the everyday DIY-er can understand. This is my Beginner’s Guide to Natural Dye. Start here and continue to explore the beautiful colors the natural world has to offer. In future posts, I’ll exhibit different mordant method experiments.
What fabric should I use to natural dye?
To naturally dye fabric, you should select white or undyed fabrics from natural materials such as linen, cotton, wool or silk. Synthetic materials don’t typically absorb natural dye well. If you are set on dying an article that is made of synthetic material, test a swatch from the same material. Also, the type of natural fabric you use can alter the final color. For example, silk dyed with coreopsis will have a different color than wool dyed with coreopsis.
What supplies do I need to natural dye?
- Stock pot
- I suggest getting a stainless steel stock pot specifically for the purpose of natural dyeing. That way, you’ll be safe if you choose to use toxic mordants. I recommend a stainless pot or an enamel coated pot because other pots such as aluminum or copper can dramatically alter your natural dye colors.
- Similarly, I suggest using a stainless steel saucepan specifically for the purpose of natural dyeing. You’ll be using the saucepan to make and steep your natural dye material. This saucepan will be your “dye pot.”
- Wooden spoon
- I suggest having a few wooden spoons on hand that you don’t mind setting aside for natural dyeing.
- When possible, use filtered water. Chlorinated water can also alter your natural dyes in ways you do not intend. In a pinch? Boil off your water before using it.
- Alum can be found at most grocery stores in the spice or baking section. I found my alum in the grocery store near the salts and peppers. You’ll need alum as a mordant (more on that in the next section).
- Natural dye material
- Plates to weigh down fabric
- You will be submerging your fabric in your stock pot. It can be difficult to keep your material submerged without stirring it every 5 minutes. I use a ceramic dinner plate to weigh down the fabric to keep it submerged.
- Natural fabric
- As stated previously, choose a fabric that is natural such as linen, cotton, wool or silk.
What can I use to make natural dye?
Here are some of the materials I tried using to make natural dyes:
- Flowers such as marigold, coreopsis, and calendula can make beautiful yellow-orange natural dyes. In my natural dye study I used a 50/50 ratio of dry to fresh flowers.
- Avocado pits and skins make a soft, millennial pink. I let the stones soak in my saucepan overnight. I simmered the stones and skins for 2 hours before using them as dye. For 12 ounces of fabric, I used 5 avocado stones and skins.
- Red Onion
- Red onion skins are versatile. When using alum, they produce a yellow-green.
- Lavender produces a grey- yellow when using alum as a pre-mordant.
- Yellow Onion
A Basic Introduction to Mordants
Mordants are used to set and bind the dye of choice to your fabric. Mordants include, but are not limited to: alum, copper, tin, iron and chrome. Interestingly, the term “mordant” originates from the latin word “mordere” which means “to bite.” So, if you think of it that way, mordants allow a natural dye to “bite” your fabric. There are three different ways to add mordants to your dyes:
- Pre-mordant: the mordant is added before you dye your fabric. You usually bathe your fabric in the mordant alone before dying.
- Meta-mordant: the mordant is added with the dye.
- Post-mordanting: the mordant is added after you dye your fabric.
For my first foray into natural dyes, I wanted to utilize the same mordant method for each dye experiment. I utilized alum only in a pre-mordant bath. Alum is easy to find at most grocery stores and does not pose some of the toxic risks the other mordants do. More on the step by step process next.
How to naturally dye fabric
- Wash and scour your fabric
- It’s important to properly wash and scour your fabric before dyeing. If you skip this step, your dye can be patchy or not adhere at all. There’s a couple ways you can achieve this. I prefer to use a soda ash and simple, natural soap in the washing machine in hot water. To learn more about scouring, check out this post: Natural Dyes-Scouring. https://maiwahandprints.blogspot.com/2010/12/natural-dyes-scouring.html
- Pre-mordant (onchrome) alum bath
- Weigh your fabric in ounces. Divide the weight by 2. This is how many tablespoons of alum you will use. For example, say your fabric weighs 8 ounces – you will use 4 tablespoons of alum.
- Add your alum to your stock pot and fill with water, leaving room for your fabric. Dissolve alum completely.
- Run your fabric under warm water before adding to the stock pot. Make sure the fabric is completely wet before adding it.
- Heat the fabric and mordant solution on medium-low heat for about an hour. You don’t want it to boil or simmer – just lightly steam. Make sure to stir every 10 minutes to make sure that all the surfaces of the fabric are exposed to the solution.
- Turn off heat and let sit overnight.
- Prepare dye bath
- Depending on the material you choose, you may want to soak your material overnight. For avocado, onion and lavender I recommend soaking overnight. Place the material in your dye saucepan and fill up with water.
- If you didn’t pre soak your dye material, place it in a sauce pan and fill up with water. Heat either your pre soaked or new dye material on medium-low heat. How long you heat up the material will vary depending on the color you are trying to achieve. For most of the dyes, I heated up the material for 1 hour.
- Dye fabric
- Remove fabric from the mordant bath and dump the water solution. Rinse and wring out the fabric well. Return to pot
- Place a sieve or strainer over your stock pot and fabric. Pour the dye pot into the stock pot, removing the dye material. The dye should cover your fabric completely. If there is not enough liquid, add some water until the fabric is covered.
- Using a dinner plate to keep your fabric submerged, heat on medium-low for about an hour. Don’t let the water boil or simmer – just steam. Stir every 10 minutes to make sure your fabric is all exposed to the dye bath.
- Turn off heat and let the fabric and dye bath cool completely.
- Hang dry
- Once the fabric and dye bath have cooled completely, hang dry outside. Be careful not to set it on any dirty objects that may stain your fabric.
- Wash Cycle
- Once your material is completely dry, run in a wash cycle without detergent on it’s own.
- Hang dry (again)
- Hang your fabric out to dry again.
- Congrats! You’re done.
For future natural dye studies
- Copper, iron and tin mordants
- You can alter your dyes by utilizing alternative mordants. You can either add supplements such as copper or tine. You can also use a cast iron pot to mordant as iron will be emitted from the pot.
- Soda ash and lemon additives
- By utilizing additives in the dye process, you can further alter the color of your dyes.
- Durability / longevity of color
- I am interested to see how the natural dye holds up over time and wash cycles.