For The Love Of Natural Dyes

For The Love Of Natural Dyes

I’ve been attracted to the idea of natural fabric dyeing for some time now. The undeniable beauty & earthiness of the colours and tones that natural dyes produce has played a big part in this. However, I must admit, for a long time I put natural fabric dyeing in the “too hard basket”. If this sounds familiar – then you should read on!

Once I did a little research and started to experiment (not always following the rules), I realised, that just like the natural dyes themselves, there was no one simple “correct” process & no one simple “correct” outcome. It’s all about experimentation and finding the beauty in the unpredictable & unique results. This is what natural dyeing is all about!

Natural dyes - what are they?

Natural dyes are derived from plants, roots, bark & other natural vegetable & animal materials and minerals. Artisans have added colour to fabric for thousands of years using natural dyes & there is an immense amount of tradition & history surrounding the art of natural dyeing. In fact the first artificial dye was not invented until the 1850’s. Today, many people are rediscovering the joy & creativity of achieving colour through the use of natural, renewable, non-toxic sources and there has been a revival of the use of natural dyes.

What fabrics can be dyed using natural sources?

Natural dyes work best when used on natural fibres. Natural dyes do not adhere well to synthetic fibres so you will not get a good result. For best results use natural fibres such as silk, wool, cotton, linen or hemp.

Do you need to use a mordant?

If you are researching natural fabric dyeing, you will come across the word “mordant” A LOT! What is a mordant? A mordant is a substance that is used to increase the bond between the dye and the fibre to increase its colourfastness. One very common mordant used by natural dyers today is Potassium Aluminium Sulphate (commonly referred to as Alum).

In addition to improving colourfastness, some mordants can also play a secondary role – and that is of a colour shifter. By using certain metal mordants such as copper or iron you can alter the dye colour e.g. making it duller, darker, brighter etc.

If you are new to natural dyeing and just want to start experimenting, my suggestion is to actually start dying without the use of a mordant. This will keep it simple. Mordants will allow you more flexibility in the long run, particularly as you become more creative and experiential with your dyeing. However, in my experience they are not always essential.

What dyes can be used without a mordant?

Some natural dyes are high in tannins. Tannins help bind the colour to the fabrics & therefore improve colourfastness without the use of a mordant. If you are a beginner and want to start out by having some fun with natural dyes, I would suggest you start by using dyes that are high in tannins such as the following:

  • Black tea leaves (produces a light tanned colour giving fabric an antique look)
  • Red or yellow onion skins (produces light pink and light yellow/browns)
  • Old fustic (a dye made from heartwood of Maclura tinctori that will produce a yellow colour)
  • Cutch (a dye that comes from the heartwood of the cutch tree (Acacia catechu) & will produce golden brown to dusty pink colours).

By using dyes that are naturally high in tannins you can achieve good results without the use of a mordant.

The basics to get you started

Believe it or not, the process of naturally dyeing yarn and fabric is similar to cooking. Think cooking with fabric! Essentially you will need a large non-reactive stainless steel stockpot.

  1. Fill the stockpot with water (enough water so to cover the fabric or yarn you are wanting to dye) and bring the water to a simmer.
  2. If you are using natural dye extracts that dissolve in water you can simply add the dye to a small amount of boiled water and stir till dissolved. Then add the dissolved dye to the large pot of simmering water and stir. Give it some time for the colour to develop. Your dye bath will then be ready for the fabric.
  3. Before adding your fabric to the dye bath it is best to soak it in water. Wetting the fabric before it is added to the dye bath will enable you to achieve a more even dye result (if that is what you are wanting). Add your wetted out fabric to the simmering dye bath, leaving it to absorb the colour over time. Stir the fabric occasionally.
  4. Once the desired colour is achieved, remove the fabric from the dye bath and rinse under water till the colour runs clear. Hang out your beautiful and uniquely dyed fabric to dry.

If you are using natural dyes such as onion skins then you will need to soak the onion skin in the large pot of simmering water to extract the colour. Then strain off the onion skins before adding your yarn/fabric to the dye pot. If using tea, I suggest soaking tea bags in the simmering water and removing them before you add the yarn/fabric.

The natural dye quantities will differ depending on the natural dye source you choose, the weight of the fabric/yarn you wish to dye, and the intensity of colour you wish to achieve.

Experiment. Experiment. Experiment.

 What's next?

There is an amazing amount of information available on the topic of natural dyeing and so many wonderful artisans who are willing to share their valuable & extensive knowledge on the topic. However, it is easy to feel a little overwhelmed at times by the sheer amount of information. My advice is to start simple and as you begin to understand the basics and your curiosity grows then research more and experiment more. SO now is the time to stop reading and start DOING! Enjoy the creative process & embrace the results (whatever they may be).
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