Natural dyes can make for a fun — and sustainable — way to refresh your wardrobe. Resident FP dyer Sydney gives us a few pointers on what plants to look out for, and how to use them to produce wonderful color.
We’re guessing that, if you’re reading this, there is a garment somewhere in your life that’s been begging for a makeover. Consider now the perfect time to grant its wish!
But before you begin dyeing ANYthing, the most important thing to consider is content.
What is your garment made of?
Natural fibers such as cotton, linen, silk, and wool are best for taking dyes. Historically, natural dyes were created to dye animal fibers, so brilliant color will be most easily achieved on wools and silks. (Keep in mind that boiling wool or silk will shrink and potentially ruin the fabric.) Plant-based fibers such as cotton, linen, and ramie sometimes require multiple dyes to reach deeper color. The ONLY synthetic fiber that will take SOME natural dyes is rayon. Synthetic fibers such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic will not take botanical dyes. Natural and synthetic fiber blends may dye to light shades only.
Natural dyeing is achieved through three steps: scouring, mordanting, dyeing. So, after you’ve selected your fabric/garment, be sure to wash it thoroughly. This process is called scouring — using hot water, with a mild detergent and sometimes washing soda. Scouring ensures that all oils, dirt, production- or wear-residues are removed, which might otherwise change the color of your dyes or not allow them to penetrate the fiber. (Note! Deodorant stains on fabric can drastically change dye colors!)
What mordant should I use?
After the scouring process is complete, your next step will be mordanting. Think of mordants like the glue that you apply before covering something in glitter — knowing glitter only sticks to where the glue is. Mordants can be either metal-based (aluminum, iron, copper) or plant-based (acorns, soybeans, sumac). Knowing what color you want to produce will determine the type of mordant you use. For instance, iron creates darker colors, tannins can make colors richer, and alum (aluminum) produces bright, clear colors. Cotton usually dyes best when mordanted in tannin, then alum. When building your supply library, alum is a great investment (potassium aluminum sulfate or aluminum sulfate). Iron mordants can be made right at home, and tannins can be found outside!
Note: Make sure to keep all dye tools and pots separate from your cooking pots! These dyes are not harmful to the environment, but can potentially induce internal injury at such concentrations. We also advise wearing GLOVES and DUST MASKS when handling mordants, especially alum.
Now the real fun part — the dyes! Most dye baths can be made simply by adding botanicals to water, and heating the mixture for about an hour or until the bath is rich in color. My favorite dyes are those made from wild-harvested plants. I currently live on the East Coast but grew up in California, so I will highlight a few that be easily found or grown in these places:
East Coast Flora
A very tannin rich plant is staghorn sumac. It grows basically anywhere — alongside roads and around empty lots and in forests. Every part of this plant — albeit the roots — can be used to make a tannin mordant. Additionally, staghorn sumac, like most tannins, creates gorgeous greys or blues with an iron after-bath. Another abundant East Coast dye plant is goldenrod. Especially in August and September, fields and roadsides are flooded with this tall, bright yellow flower. Goldenrod makes a clear sunny yellow dye with an alum mordant, and a dark olive green one with iron. Black walnuts are also plentiful and, in late summer, you can find them hanging with heavy green orbs. The green hulls of walnuts are rich with tannins and yield a gorgeous brown that can create black with iron. Be sure to wear gloves when crushing and peeling off this hull, as it will quickly turn dark brown or black on your skin!
West Coast Flora
It turns out that pomegranate trees make for great dye, but not the color you’d imagine! The rinds of the fruit yield a long lasting ochre yellow that can change to mineral green with iron. (The red of its juice will not last as a dye on fabric.) Avocados are just as surprising. Their skins and pits, once simmered, give off a lovely blush pink! Another great option is the loquat. Its shiny dark green leaves produce a nice peach color that turns charcoal with iron. Marigold is a favorite, too — its vibrant orange hues dye fabric to a rich fragrant gold with an alum mordant.
Iron mordant: Find a rusty steel object and place it in distilled white vinegar. This can be left for about two weeks, shaken from time to time; or, you can simply heat your mixture for 30 minutes. The resulting liquid is your mordant. Iron mordant will react to dyes readily, so be very careful about splashing or dripping, and washing your hands! Citric acid can reverse iron’s effect, but be warned that it can also bleach your dye, so use it only if you haven’t dyed your garment or want a bleached look.
Tannin mordant: Tannins can be found in trees such as oak, chestnut and walnut. Simply collect fallen acorns or leaves and lightly boil for about 30 minutes, then let cool. This will be your tannin mordant. Tannins are highly reactive to iron, so make sure to keep them separate.
Alum mordant: Alum can be purchased in powder form, and should be dissolved in enough hot water to accommodate your fabric. For plant-based fibers, dissolve about a tablespoon of alum and add roughly 1/4 teaspoon of soda ash. This mixture will fizz for a bit, so need to panic! For wools and silks, soda ash is not necessary.
And there you have it! You’re ready to start dyeing! We’ll leave you with one last tip — be sure to stir your fabric often to get an even shade. And just like that, you’re cooking with color!
For this post, we used our Vintage Loves’ buyer’s collection of slips!
+ Please share any of your natural dye tips or questions in the comments, and Sydney will be sure to review them!
Photos by Jerome Eno.