I’ve been experimenting with natural dyes for the last few months with an increasing curiosity for the broad range of colors that can be found in nature. I used to think of natural dye colors as muddy and dull, and while you can get plenty of those, there are some fantastic hues that make all of my pink and yellow dreams come true! There is more on this subject to share than can fit in one blog post, so I’m sharing a brief overview of what you’ll need to get started as you resist the urge to dye everything in your closet!
One of the reasons I love this medium is that even though there are general scientific guidelines that will ensure you get colors within certain ranges, each color experiment is dependent upon the kind of water you used, the freshness of your materials, the mordants you use or don’t use, the type of fibers you are dyeing, the temperature of your dye pot, the length of time you allow it to sit, and whether or not it’s the first, second, or fourth item in the dye pot. You can usually get a bright pink, red, and purple from the same cochineal dye pot!
I’ve shared links to some of the harder to find dye stuffs below, but there are plenty of vegetables and plants that are probably already sitting in your kitchen somewhere. In fact, my favorite outcome from this process ended up being the avocado pit dye that gave me the perfect blush! You can get beautiful shades of caramely-orange from onion skins, and a vibrant clementine shade from turmeric (although I’m still working on how to keep it from fading in the sunlight), and a lovely blue from dry black beans!
If you’re able to gather your natural dye supplies, think about in which part of each season to look for them. Goldenrod in the early fall will offer a much brighter yellow than if picked in fall’s later months. Ask me how I know this. Ha! Be sure to gather items responsibly and without trespassing if you’re foraging in your neighborhood or the countryside. We made sure to only take as many black walnuts as needed last fall to ensure the squirrels weren’t going to go hungry on our street.
The amount of dye stuffs you’ll need will differ depending on the dye. Measurements are usually given based on the dry weight of the fiber you’re dyeing, so it’s a great idea to check out some of the books mentioned at the end of this post for more specific measurements. For example, I only used 2 oz. of cochineal to get that dark fuchsia/cranberry color and probably could’ve used only 1 oz. for the desired fuchsia I was after. I used 6 oz. of dried marigold petals and still had a weaker color than I was expecting. Take notes of your measurements as you experiment so you can make adjustments down the road.
Avocado Pits=light peachy pink on linen, light peach on silk, light blush on wool
Marigolds=light yellow on cotton and linen, olive green when used with iron
Turmeric=bright tangerine on linen, bright yellow when mixed with white vinegar
Yellow Onion Skins=warm orange on linen
Red Onion Skins=grayish purple on linen
Madder Root=bright rust on linen
Cochineal=bright cranberry on linen and silk
Hibiscus=a cool pink on linen
Mordants allow the dye to chemically bind to the fabric. You can add mordant to your fabric before you dye it or add it to your dye pot. Mordants such as copper and iron will also alter the color of your dye. For example, using only one marigold dye pot, you can dye one piece of linen a beautiful shade of yellow. Then after adding the appropriate amount of iron to the marigold dye bath, you can dye a second piece of linen olive green!
Some dye stuffs (avocados, onion skins, and black walnuts) contain tannins, which act as mordants. This means you can skip this step altogether unless you want to change the color. Always use precautions when working with both dye powders and mordants so as not to inhale them. Some mordants may irritate sensitive skin.
alum—Alum is one of the easier mordants to use and should always be added to a cup of warm water to dissolve before being added to a dye pot. Pairing it with cream of tartar can help brighten the overall color. Too much alum can affect the softness of your wool, so don’t get crazy with it. Try 2.5 – 3 tbsp of alum and 1 tbsp of cream of tartar.
copper—Copper is usually used to dull or darken your colors.
iron—Iron can also darken and change your colors. Use it to get greens, greys, or browns.
white vinegar—I used white vinegar to brighten my turmeric dye, and it changed it from a bold orange to a bold yellow. I also tried using it to see if it would brighten the blush in my avocado dye pot, but it faded the color instead. The moral of this story is that one mordant won’t do the same thing to every single dye. No, that would be too simple! Lesson learned.
I used 100% linen to test all of my colors because I wanted something consistent. Linen is a cellulose (plant) fiber and took all of the colors well, although some dyes needed mordants and others didn’t. Wool and silk (protein fibers) accept dyes best. Plant fibers (cotton and linen) need a mordant or a dye with natural tannins (avocados, onion skins, or black walnuts).
All fibers should be scoured prior to dyeing for the best results. Scouring is the process of removing oils or chemicals occurring in nature or through the manufacturing process. You can scour linen and cotton using hot water and a pH neutral laundry detergent in your washing machine, or scent-free dish soap in a pot on the stove top. However, you will want to scour wool in a pot on a stove so you don’t accidentally felt it.
Once a pot or tool has been used to dye something, it is no longer food safe. So be sure you’re not using your fancy stuff! I always look for large stainless steel pots at thrift stores and garage sales and have a separate place in my kitchen for everything so it isn’t accidentally pulled out at dinnertime. Copper and aluminum pots should be avoided as they will act as natural mordants throughout the dye process. So, unless you’re wanting to use them to alter the specific color of your dye, stick to stainless steel. You can also store excess dye for later use as long as you strain all of the dye bits out of it and refrigerate it.
clothesline or drying rack
mason jar(s) with lids for storing unused dye
So, you have gathered your linen and are ready to make a set of cloth napkins! Here’s the rundown:
Step One: Wash 1 yd of 100% linen in your washing machine with a pH neutral detergent in warm to hot water or heat it in a pot of water and unscented dish soap until it’s boiling. Simmer for an hour and let cool. Rinse with cool water. Add it while it’s wet to your empty dye pot.
Step Two: Prepare your dye pot by filling your stainless steel pot with enough cool, filtered water to cover your 1 yd. of linen fabric. Add your dye stuffs to your pot and bring it to a simmer. You don’t want it to boil as it will muddle your color. Let it simmer for 45-60 minutes before turning off your heat and letting it cool. The longer you leave your linen in your dye pot, the stronger the color may become. Understand that the color you see when wet may be slightly darker than the color of your linen when dry.
Step Three: Let your linen air dry in a shady spot before rinsing it in cool water. Feel free to wash and dry as usual. Linen will obviously get softer with each wash cycle.
Step Four: Cut and sew your fabric into linen napkins by double-folding the edges and stitching along the inner fold.
There’s something intrinsically special about using plants to dye your own fabric. It connects you to the process of designing your own clothes and home goods in a way that gives you more respect and curiosity for the materials used and the process itself. Whether you’re interested in natural dyes as an alternative to synthetic ones or are just curious about all of the colors you can find in your own backyard, you are sure to get hooked!
Two books that have greatly aided me in my natural dye experiments in the last few months are The Modern Natural Dyer and Natural Color. They are two of the most beautiful and knowledgable books on the subject that I’ve come across in my research. I’ve also heard good things about Botanical Colour at Your Fingertips, although I haven’t had the chance to flip through it yet. There are also a wealth of older publications that you’ll be able to find at libraries, book stores, and thrift stores. All of the dye extracts that I purchased were from Griffin Dyeworks and Fiber Arts.
Dyeing with indigo is an altogether different process than the ones described above. You can find my tutorial for working with pre-reduced indigo and creating a beautiful pattern using shibori techniques here. Looking for something much simpler? Check out this faux-indigo technique shared in this tutorial, and then make your own dyed cloth napkins using this tutorial or support another dye artist by browsing these beautifully dyed cloths! –Rachel