Some readers have asked me for a tutorial on how to get started with natural dyeing if you’ve never done it before — a beginner’s how-to that demystifies the process. Since I recently taught a natural dyeing class, I’ve already been compiling a mental list of all the things I wish I had known when I first started. This tutorial sums it all up. I give an overview of the entire process, the tools and equipment you’ll need, and some practical tips that could only have been gained through trial and error.
My first warning: working with plant dyes is… highly addictive! If you give it a try, you’ll likely never stop. For me, it all began a few years ago when I first saw the back cover of Rebecca Burgess’ book Harvesting Color, with her holding skeins upon skeins of beautifully colored, hand-dyed yarns. I had never really thought about the colors of textiles before. I wasn’t even a particularly passionate or skilled knitter. But something deep inside me said: “I want to be able to do that.” Now, three and a half years later, I have my own rainbow of yarns to hold. I learned it all on my own from books, so I know that it can be done. I list some of these excellent resources below.
So, let’s get started!
Where to find natural dyes
It’s not hard to find dye plants in nature. Many common plants, including ones that are often considered “weeds” or waste material, are rich in dye potential: stinging nettle, carrot tops, onion skins…
In fact, I bet you could walk out of your front door right now and — unless you live in a concrete jungle — find a plant on your street that yields some dye when you throw it in a pot of boiling water. The most common colors in nature are yellows and tans, but these also tend to fade most quickly. The dye plants that have been most prized throughout history are the ones that yield the strong blues and reds, like indigo and cochineal.
Different parts of plants can be used to extract color: flowers, leaves, bark, seeds, fruit, heartwood, or root. Lichen and mushrooms also yield some truly amazing colors. When you learn to look at the world through a dye gatherer’s eyes, you start to see everything differently. That Japanese maple on your street? Its leaves could transform an old shirt into a lovely pale pink. Blackberries that got crushed during your afternoon berry-picking venture? There’s another ancient dye source, yielding pretty lilacs. Black tea leaves in your kitchen cupboard? Throw them into a pot and see what they do to a skein of white yarn. The possibilities truly are endless.
The key word with natural dyes is: experiment. There’s always a factor of unpredictability involved when working with nature’s dyes. That’s part of the excitement. Try something and see how it turns out.
In summary, the dyeing process usually involves
choosing textiles to dye, and preparing them for the dye bath
IF the plant dye requires a mordant in order to “stick” (not all of them do): simmering the textiles for about an hour in a mordant bath, which is water mixed with a small amount of metal salt, such as alum
collecting or buying your dye plant material
extracting the dye by boiling the plant material in water, usually 30-60 minutes
removing plant material from the dye bath and placing mordanted textiles in it for an hour or until color is of desired depth
Here are some plant-based dyes that a beginning dyer can easily find…
…in nature — foraging in the wild or in the garden:
- marigold: flowers and/or plant tops (yellows, greens)
- yarrow: leaves and stalks (greens and yellows)
- blackberry: berries (mauves, lilacs and purples)
- stinging nettle: leaves and stalks (greens and yellows)
- black walnut (browns)
- ivy (grey, greenish yellow)
…at the grocery store, farmer’s market, or from your own garden:
- turmeric powder (bright golden yellows)
- black tea (browns)
- red cabbage (greens and mauves)
- rhubarb (yellow, gold and orange)
- fennel (olive greens)
- yellow or red onion skins (yellows)
…from an online supplier:
- brazilwood (raspberry reds and pinks)
- logwood (deep purples, lavenders, blacks)
- madder root (orange to red)
- cochineal (bright reds)
- indigo (blues)
Choosing materials to dye
You can dye many things: yarn (wool, cotton, silk etc.), fabric, or unspun fiber (raw wool or roving). But do keep in mind that there’s a difference between animal fibers (like wool and silk) and plant-based fibers (such as cotton, linen and hemp): animal fibers tend to take dye better. That doesn’t mean you can’t dye cotton or linen, but the colors may not be as strong — for example, you’ll get a pale yellow instead of a stronger golden yellow or green.
Tools and equipment you’ll need
- Large pots with lids (stainless steel or unchipped enamel is best — large enough that the textile materials can move freely in the pot)
- Measuring spoons and cups
- Kitchen scale
- Stirring utensils
- Strainer or colander
- Mesh bags to hold fibers while simmering (if using unspun wool)
- Rubber gloves
- Hot plate for cooking outdoors
All the pots, utensils, measuring cups etc. that you use for dyeing should be reserved for that purpose only. In case you’re concerned about costs, rest assured: none of this needs to be brand new or fancy. I’ve found thrift stores or garage sales to be great places for finding large pots and perfectly usable kitchen utensils for a dime.
A word about mordants
Mordants are mineral salts that act as bonding agents: they fix the dye to the fiber. I have sometimes used the metaphor of a match-maker: mordant causes the dye molecules and the fiber molecules to really want to hold on to each other tight, and as a result, they make the color more light-fast and wash-fast.
Mordants come with some cautions. The most commonly used and safest one is alum, a white, powdery substance sold by dye suppliers. You can get really beautiful results with alum, without ever venturing into the more toxic ones such as chrome or copper. Alum is the least toxic both for humans and for the environment. It is, however, an irritant and should not be ingested. Use common-sense cautions: wear rubber gloves when handling mordants and mordant baths, store in clearly labeled containers and keep away from children and pets, and work outside or in a well-ventilated area.
But these are metal salts and the less of them that end up going down our drain and potentially into our water system, the better. Here are ways to reduce your “mordant footprint”:
- use the least amount of mordant necessary to get the desired changes
- save your mordant baths: keep bottled/covered and well labeled in a safe place, and when using the second time around, add one half the normal amount of mordant
- explore non-chemical mordants: rhubarb leaves (oxalic acid), tannin, heuchera flower
THE DYEING PROCESS
Preparing fibers for the dyebath
Your textile material should be clean before dyeing for the dye to adhere properly. Yarn, fabric and garments should be unbleached and pre-washed before dyeing. If using raw wool, pre-wash it according to these instructions to remove grease and dirt. Then,
- tie yarn in skeins
- put unspun fiber in mesh bags to keep them from getting tangled up
- weigh textile material while it’s still dry
- wet out textile in water for at least 1-2 hours, or overnight
Mordanting the fibers (if necessary)
- measure the mordant: the recommended amount of mordant varies enormously depending on whom you ask. The amount that I now use, after much trial and error, is 3 tbsp alum PLUS 1 tbsp tartaric acid per 1 pound of fiber.
- dissolve mordant in boiling water in a heatproof measuring jug, add to a pot almost full of warm water
- squeeze out excess water from textile material, add it to the mordant solution and stir gently
- the fibers should be submerged in the liquid and able to move freely
- heat to 180 F, stirring occasionally to ensure evenness of color
- continue to simmer (180 F) for 1 hour
- let cool, remove fibers and rinse. Keep fibers damp if you are going to dye right away.
Mordanting silk: follow the steps above, but turn off heat once the temperature has reached simmering (180 F). Let cool overnight. Silk loses its luster if too much heat is applied.
Mordanting cotton or other cellulose fiber: 4 tbsp alum PLUS 1 tbsp washing soda per 1 pound of fiber. Heat to boiling or very high simmer, and keep “working” the cotton to prevent streaks.
Cold-mordanting: let fibers soak in a mordant bucket for 3-5 days.
Extracting the dye
Boil the dyestuff in plenty of water:
- flowers: boil 20-60 minutes, strain off water
- barks & roots: soak overnight, boil ½ hr, strain and save the extract. Repeat two more times or as long as the dye continues to extract.
- berries: crush, then simmer for about an hour
- The amount of dyestuff you’ll need to obtain strong colors varies according to the plant. This is where you may want to consult sources such as the books I list below. Amount of dyestuff is usually given per weight of fiber. Here are some examples:
- Yarrow, blackberry, birch leaves: use equal amounts (by weight) of dyestuff and fiber
- Onion skins: twice as much dyestuff as fiber
- Turmeric, logwood chips, walnut husks: half the weight of dyestuff to fibers
- If you want stronger colors, try using more dyestuff (but not more mordant!).
4. Dyeing the textiles
- If necessary, add more water to the dye bath to allow the textiles to move freely
- Add textile and heat to hot. The fibers should be submerged in the liquid and able to move freely. Keep temperature between 180-200 F. Heat for 1 hour or until the color is the desired depth.
- If you wish to modify the color with an after-mordant, follow the steps below at this point
- Take out to cool, then rinse and dry
Optional: Modifying dye colors
- Modifiers change the pH value of the dye, making it more acidic or alkaline. You could try to dissolve in the dye bath or a separate bucket of water:
- vinegar: 1-2 tsp (acidic)
- household ammonia: a few drops (alkaline)
- wood ash water (alkaline): put cold ashes into a bucket, fill with cold water and leave to steep for 1 week. When ready to use, add about ½ cup into dye bath.
Tips for successful dyeing:
- Make sure the fibers are damp or wet before submerging them in the dye bath. This way they will take the dye more evenly.
- Animal fibers don’t tolerate sudden changes in temperature. Bring wool and dyebath up to temperature together, to avoid wool from becoming matted due to the cold to hot shock.
- Maintain proper temperature at all stages of the dyeing process: when extracting the dye, mordanting your fibers, and finally heating up the materials in the dye bath. The water should be at most simmering, between 180 and 200 F. Anything hotter than that can burn the pigment; anything cooler will not dye effectively (except for special dyes like indigo and woad).
- Don’t agitate or stir wool during the dyeing in a hot bath, but do turn them over a couple of times like a pancake.
- Cotton, on the other hand, does need to be continuously stirred and worked.
- Let fibers air dry and cool down before rinsing.
- Label each skein and/or mesh bag of fiber (masking tape and water-resistant marker work well)
- Keep notes! That way, you can always go back and try to reproduce a particularly lovely color, or avoid repeating a mistake. I personally haven’t been good about taking notes, and have regretted it many times.
My favorite books on natural dyeing:
Online suppliers of dyes, mordants, information and inspiration: