How to make dye?

Contents

A color guide to the best plants for dyeing fabric and fibers naturally

People have been dyeing fabric and fibers with plants for thousands of years, and you can too! In fact, chances are that you have plenty of plant material in your garden, refrigerator, and pantry to do just that. Onions, blueberries, and spinach are just a few plants that you can use to create beautiful fabric dyes. Read on for more info!

If you’ve ever dyed fabric at home, chances are you probably used one of the packets you can buy at the pharmacy or local sewing shop. Instead of using these, which are packed with chemicals that leak into groundwater, you can use a variety of different plants. You probably wouldn’t look down at a spinach and blueberry salad and think “hey, I could dye a shirt with this stuff”, but you’d be surprised at how many plants can yield rich, beautiful dye colors with the help of simple mordants. When it comes to dyeing fabric or fiber, make sure that it’s thoroughly dampened before it goes into the dye bath, or it may dye unevenly.

What’s a Mordant?

Also known as a fixative, a mordant is a metallic or mineral compound that causes a chemical reaction with the plant dye. Sometimes it will intensify or enhance a color (or change it completely), but the main purpose of a mordant is to lock the dye into the fabric. You can dye without mordants, but the colour won’t be as rich, and will wash out very quickly. The most common mordants used are:

  • Alum
  • Ammonia
  • Baking Soda
  • Chrome
  • Copper
  • Cream of Tartar
  • Iron
  • Salt
  • Tin
  • Urine (yes, human)
  • Vinegar

Plants to Dye With

I’ll list these by colors of the rainbow rather than alphabetical order, along with the mordants used to brighten and/or affix the dye. Keep in mind that you don’t *have* to use a mordant to dye with: the colors will be softer, more like pastels, and won’t hold up under heavy washing, but it’s fun to experiment to see which hues you can coax from different plantstuffs.

The general rule of thumb is to toss your dye materials into a pot that’s large enough to later hold the fabric you’re planning to dye. ONLY use a stainless steel or glass pot for this, as copper or aluminum can affect the color outcome. Cover the plant matter with a generous amount of water, bring it to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer it for about 40 minutes. Allow it to cool before dyeing! If you toss natural fibers like wool or cotton into hot water, you risk shrinking it.

Red

Sumac Berries

Those bright red berries aren’t just great for making lemonade—they can create a vibrant pink-red hue. Crush the berry cones or put them through a food processor, then simmer in a pot for about half an hour with some vinegar added to it. Add your pre-soaked fabric to the pot and simmer for another half hour.

Red Onions

Onion skins are ideal because they don’t need a mordant. The skins create their own tannins that’ll act as fixatives for you. Just fill a pot with red onion skins and water, boil, and simmer for about half an hour until the water is stained well. Add in your fabric, turn the heat off, and let everything sit for 1-2 days.

Orange and Yellow

Yellow Onion Skins

One of the most readily available bits of plant matter to work with, and one of the easiest to work with as well. Pre-mordant your fiber (i.e. soak it in a water bath with the mordant added to it first, and wring it out slightly before dyeing). Fill your pot with as many yellow onion skins as it will hold, add water, bring to a boil and simmer for about half an hour. Add your fabric and simmer for another 20 minutes, then remove from the heat and allow to soak overnight. Rinse under cold water.

For a bright yellow color, use alum as a mordant. For bright orange, use tin.

Green

Green lettuce

There are so many different varieties of lettuce, and their leaves can create hues ranging from pale apple green to olive, so be sure to experiment with small batches, using different mordants. Iron will create a really wonderful green, but you can get widely differing results using tin, vinegar, blue vitriol, etc. You can also add other leafy greens like spinach, chard, purslane, dandelion greens, or sorrel for different variations in hues.

Related: Silkworms munch mulberries and dye to create naturally fluorescent silk

Blue

Blueberries

It’s an incredible waste of good fruit, but you can make a pale blue dye with blueberries that have been simmered in water and then strained out. To get a blue pigment, you’ll have to let the dye cool completely and then immerse your damp fabric in it. If you put the fabric in while the dye is hot, you’ll get a more purple-ish shade instead. To create a more intense blue, you can simmer blueberries, black beans, and purple cabbage together, strain it well, cool it, and then soak your stuff in it. If you just have purple cabbage on hand, use baking soda in the water to amp its blue tones.

Pink

Pink berries

If you feel like sacrificing a bunch of delicious fruit, simmer raspberries, strawberries, or cherries in water until the fruit flesh falls apart. They’ll create a variety of different hues depending on whether you use them alone, or combined together.

Pickled Beets

Have you ever handled raw beets? Then you’re familiar with the bright magenta juice that’ll stain your hands pink for days. Guess what? That will dye fabric as well. The thing with beets is that if you just boil the root veg and then steep your fabric in it, you’ll get a slightly reddish brown hue. It’s PICKLED beets that will dye fabric bright pink. If you don’t feel like going through all the hassle of pickling these foods yourselves, ask friends and family members to keep the brine after they’ve eaten their share of pickled beets. Pour all of that into a pot, and steep your fabric in it. The vinegar, salt, and sugar all work together to bind the pigment into your fabric or fiber.

Related: How to dye Easter eggs naturally with leaf imprints

Purple

Purple cabbage

Chop the cabbage finely, toss into a large pot of water, and add a tablespoon of salt for every half cabbage you use. Bring this to a boil, then simmer for up to an hour. Strain it well, allow it to cool, and you’ll have a lovely purple dye: no mordant needed. If you add vinegar to this dye, you’ll get a lighter, pinker mauve shade. If you add ammonia to it, you’ll get blue. Experiment!

Brown

Chicory

Also known as Cornflower, this flower grows along roadways, ditches, and in abandoned parks all around North America and many parts of Europe, China, and Australia. Its long taproot can be used as a coffee substitute after being roasted and dried, and when used with chrome or iron as mordant, will produce a rich, warm brown dye.

Gray

Blackberry

You’d think that blackberries would dye a fabric purple, but newp. In fact, since people generally prefer to eat these berries than to waste them as dye, it’s actually autumnal blackberry leaves that are used to create a beautiful gray dye, but only once they have darkened to purple. You can toss some berries that are past their prime into the water as well: it’ll just make the color richer. Use iron as a mordant.

Remember that these color results are based on the assumption that you’re using white or unbleached natural material such as cotton, linen, wool, etc. The hues you get will vary greatly depending on the base color you’re working with, and whether you do more than one dip.

If you’re interested in exploring more about these kinds of dyes, I’d recommend picking up a book or two as reference material, or even scouring through online resources and taking notes as you go along. Be sure to experiment! You may find a new combination that yields the color of your dreams.

Lead image of colored yarn via Deposit Photos, others via Deposit Photos, Unsplash and Wikimedia Creative Commons, and by the author

You might not be aware but there are lots of things that you already have around the house that can be used to make natural dyes, which can be used for dyeing faded clothing and upcycling plain fabric. For years people have used natural materials to dye their fabric, starting with a variety of plant-based dyes, such as woad, indigo, saffron, and madder. Fruits and vegetables are also great for creating natural dyes. Best of all, the process of natural dyeing is fun too!

In this guide, I will walk you through the fruit dyeing process. We’ll use a variety of fruits, so that you get a sense for the spectrum of results available from different fruit dyes. We’ll talk about using bleached versus unbleached fabrics, and how frozen fruit might affect results. I chose to use berries as they’re naturally staining fruit that give strong results.

Interest in the technique of natural dyeing has soared as people look for more natural ways to dye their fabrics, since synthetic dyes can often be harmful to the environment. Indigo dyed fabrics are now regularly sold in haberdasheries. Independent designers such as Phuongmai Nguyen, who runs ethical business Indigo Sew and sells eco-friendly and handmade quilts and cushions in the UK, uses naturally dyed fabrics in her work. “Synthetic dyes can be harmful to factory workers because of long-term exposure to the chemicals involved,” she says.

Phuongmai first started using natural dyes because of their designs. “Naturally dyed colors look and feel more authentic than synthetic dyes,” she says. Then she realized how they were made, and the process appealed to her even more. “Each fiber would also have its own beautiful backstory, from the dedicated craftsmanship of the making of the dyes from plants and minerals.”

Frozen blackcurrants produce a lush color palette that can be created year-round.

Although any fruit, vegetable, or plant that can stain can be used as a natural dye, some do work better than others. I chose to use berries, as they stain quite easily—remember dripping those raspberries all over your t-shirt as a child? Different berries will produce different results, as I’ll show you below.

As fruit tends to be seasonal, it might not always be possible to have fresh fruit on hand all the time. In season fruit is better for the environment, which is a concern for a lot of people who are interested in finding natural ways to dye. If that’s important for you, be sure to plan your dyeing accordingly. It’s also possible to use frozen fruit for satisfactory dye results. If you have fresh fruit on hand though, the fruit can be used straightaway and won’t need to be defrosted before using.

As an aside, you can certainly dye with vegetables; beetroot, onion skins, and spinach give strong colors. This tutorial, however, will only cover dyeing with berries.

More ideas

If you’d like to experiment with other natural dyes, here are other fruits and vegetables that will produce strong colors:

  • Beetroot
  • Onion skins
  • Spinach
  • Orange peel
  • Kale stalks
  • Damson

You Will Need

• 1 cup berries*
• ¼ cup salt
• Saucepan (note the dyes may stain your saucepan)
• Pegs (for hanging finished fabric up to dry)
• Fabric (I used unbleached calico, unbleached muslin, dyed cotton, dyed muslin, a few printed cottons, and several cotton blends)
• Gloves

*Depending on how much fabric you’re dying, you may need more fruit.

Note: I used five different fruit dyes for the samples in this article: fresh raspberries, frozen blueberries, frozen cherries, frozen blackcurrants, and frozen mixed fruits (redcurrants, blackcurrants, and strawberries). As you’ll see below, the different berries produce a spectrum of results.

A Word about Fabrics

Fruit dyes will produce a range of results on unbleached muslin. Raspberry, blueberry, cherry, blackcurrant, mixed fruits (left to right).

Generally speaking, natural fabrics take dyes (natural or synthetic) the best, and will therefore produce the strongest colors. Furthermore, unbleached fabrics will produce stronger colors than pre-dyed fabrics, although you may have fun overdyeing pre-dyed fabrics to see what kinds of results you come up with. Depending on whether you prefer a soft, pale palette or like to sew with darker, more vibrant colors, you will want to select your fabrics accordingly. Also keep in mind that you can soak fabrics in the dye bath for a longer period of time to produce a brighter, deeper result. If it’s a rich color that you’re after, best to start with natural, unbleached fabrics like unbleached muslin or unbleached calico!

Prep

  1. Put ¼ cup salt in 4 cups water. Add your fabric. If the water does not cover your fabric, continue adding water and salt in a 16:1 ratio until your fabric is submerged.

  2. Bring the mixture to a boil, then let it simmer for about an hour. This creates a fixative that will help your fabric hold the color better, and which helps set the dye in the fabric.

  3. Once finished, rinse your fabric in cold water and squeeze the excess water from it.

Dye

  1. Put 1 cup of fruit and 4 cups of water in your saucepan. Bring the water to the boil, then add your fabric. If you have several yards of fabric, you will need to keep increasing the recipe, in a 1:4 fruit to water ratio, until your fabric is fully submerged.

  2. Simmer gently for at least 20 minutes (I took mine off the heat after 30 minutes and left it to cool).

  3. Take the saucepan off the heat and put it, with the fabric and the dyed water still in it, aside to cool.

  4. Once the water is cooled you can take your fabrics out or leave them to soak up more color if desired. The longer the fabric is left in the water, the more of the color it will take on.

  5. Your fabric can even be left in the cooled water overnight if you want. Remember that the final fabric will be lighter than what appears in the dye bath.

  6. Once you are happy with the color of your fabric, put on gloves, take the fabric out of the water, and hang it outside to dry.

Individual Fruit Dye Results

I’ve detailed the color each fruit dye produces below, in general order of lightest to darkest. To help you understand the way dyes take to different fabrics, I’ve shown each dye in a variety of fabrics.

Raspberries

Raspberry dye on (left to right): unbleached calico, unbleached muslin, unbleached calico,
cotton blend, dyed cotton.

In general, raspberries will produce the palest colors of all the fruits mentioned in this article. They produce a very pale pink color on unbleached, pale fabrics. If you want a stronger color, soak the fabric in the dye mixture overnight.

Cherries

Cherry dye on (left to right): cotton blend, unbleached muslin, unbleached calico.

Cherry dye gives a lovely pale red color that is close to raspberry dye; as with the raspberry dye, fabrics dyed with cherries should be soaked overnight if you’d like a more vibrant result. Again, this dye takes the best to unbleached, pale fabrics.

Mixed Fruits

Mixed fruit dye on (left to right): dyed cotton blend, dyed cotton, unbleached muslin.

This combination is a bit of a wild card. A mixture of redcurrants, blackcurrants, and strawberries will produce a variety of colors on different fabrics. Colors will range from a pale pink to a dark pink, depending on the type of fabric used (unbleached fabrics tend to produce better results than dyed fabrics, for example). Great results overall! You may want to experiment with different fabrics and different combinations of fabrics. For example, if you want a paler pink, try swapping in some cherries or even raspberries. If you wish to add a purple tint to the fabrics, look to blueberries or blackcurrants (below).

Blackcurrants

Blackcurrant dye on (left to right): dyed cotton, unbleached muslin, unbleached calico,
dyed muslin (base color mustard).

Black currant dye produces a range of colors, depending on the fabric, from a mid-range pink to a dark red on the unbleached muslin and calico fabrics. You’ll notice that the colors look similar to those produced by the mixed fruits dye, but blackcurrants are able to dye a wider variety of fabrics than the mixed fruits (for example, you can use this dye on already-dyed fabric and it will still turn out well, in contrast to the mixed fruits, which is best reserved for unbleached fabrics).

Blueberry dye on (left to right): unbleached muslin, unbleached calico, cotton blend, dyed cotton.

The blueberry mixture produces the strongest color of all the fruit dyes listed in this article. The difference between the raspberry and blueberry dyes, for instance, is quite obvious—the blueberry dye produces a darker plum color and a 30 minute soaking time is enough to create a strong color on a variety of fabrics.

Caring for Naturally-Dyed Fabrics

Since the fabric has not been dyed synthetically, the color will fade in time. However, there are several steps you can take to minimize this. Natural dyes are more likely to fade from using detergents, so it’s best to hand wash them if possible. This will ensure that the color lasts longer. If you have to wash your fabric in a washing machine, use a non-bleach based detergent and set the machine to a cold wash setting. Some natural dyes can also fade in the sunlight, so keep the fabric away from the sun!

With warm weather coming to the northern hemisphere, now is the perfect time to experiment with fruit dyes. If you’re in the southern hemisphere, a number of winter fruits and vegetables are great candidates for dyeing, as well. Depending on the fabric and fruit you use, the result may be soft and subtle or lush and vibrant. Either way, you’ll have a one-of-a-kind fabric ready for your next sewing project.

Additional Resources

  • For those interested in using vegetables for dyeing, check out this article by PopSugar.

  • A great tutorial on dyeing for children by Planet Science.

  • A list of plants you can use in natural dyeing and the colors they give.

  • If you wish to purchase garments made from naturally-dyed fabrics, Isabel Knowles uses indigo-dyed fabric in her work.

About the Author

Aneira Davies is a journalist from the UK with an unhealthy addiction to Pinterest. When not writing, you can find her behind her sewing machine, making a new dress or two to add to her collection, or getting lost in a classic Jane Austen novel. Follow her on twitter or on her blog.

A Short History of Food Dyes and the Law

In recent decades, there has been mounting concern over the safety of food additives. In addition to artificial flavors and preservatives, much of the concern is focused on artificial dyes. For this reason, Viveri Food Colors (a division of the Day-Glo Corporation) has launched the Natural Red Food Color Challenge. With a prize of $100,000, this incentive-challenge is looking for a clean, safe, and natural alternative to the most common dye on the market – red food dye #40.

Naturally, these concerns about what we put in our food did not arise in a vacuum. In fact, there is a long history when it comes to food additives, concerns over public health and government regulation. For centuries, human beings have been relying on natural additives to color their food. Since many of these additives contained poisonous substances – like arsenic, mercury, and copper – by the early 20th century, synthetic ingredients began to be created.

However, these additives were largely derived from coal tar and petroleum by-products. While they were created for the sake of food safety, many posed health risks of their own. This led to laws like the Pure Food and Drugs Act (aka. the “Wiley Act”) in 1906, which was intended to prevent the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded or poisonous or deleterious foods, drugs, medicines, and liquors, and for regulating traffic therein, and for other purposes.”

Artificial colors are pervasive, showing up in everything from food and supplements to condiments. Credit: theglobeandmail.com

In addition to being the first law to legislate certain drugs, the law was also the first restriction enacted by the United States government against food additives that could be shown to be unhealthy. By 1930, these tests and enforcement of the Pure Food and Drugs Act became the responsibility of the National Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – which had previously been named the Bureau of Chemistry and was part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Over the next three decades, many synthetic colors were deemed illegal because they were shown to cause adverse health effects. By 1938, only 15 synthetic colors were still legal, which were subsequently divided into three categories – those suitable for foods, drugs, and cosmetics; those suitable only for drugs and cosmetics; and those suitable only for cosmetics. Eight of these have since been banned, due to public health concerns and medical tests that have shown a conclusive link between consumption and adverse effects.

For instance, after Halloween in 1950, there was a rash of reports where children had become ill after consuming candy. An investigation traced the illnesses to consumption of candy that contained Orange #1, which led to a government ban. In the 1970s, Red #2 was banned after tests showed a link between its carcinogenic properties and intestinal tumors. Several yellow dyes have also been banned, leaving only seven dyes on the FDA’s approved list – the most popular of which are Yellow #5, Blue #1, and Red #40.

With an incentive of $100,000, Day-Glo is looking for a safe, natural alternative to the most common food dye. Credit: HeroX

In recent years, six food dyes were identified as having a possible link to hyperactivity in children – aka. The Southampton Study of 2007 – which included Red #40. This has since led to legislation in the E.U. that requires that food containing these additives come with warning labels. It has also led to companies like Kellogg, Kraft, McDonald’s and other American companies that do business in Europe to adopt natural colorings for the European market.

However, many of these same companies continue to use artificial food coloring when doing business in the US. The reason for this is because the FDA remains on the fence about the six artificial food colors identified in the Southampton Study. Citing conflicting results from various studies, they have insisted that further testing is required. In the meantime, there remain no FDA-approved natural alternatives, owing to problems of stability, cost, and effectiveness.

Hence, why Gay Glo is offering a prize of $100,000 for anyone who can develop a safe, natural dye to replace Red #40. With a viable alternative to the most popular coloring on the market, the ongoing deadlock between the food industry and food safety groups in the US might finally be broken. And with the deadline for registration coming up (June 1st), there’s still time enter!

So if you’ve got ideas on how natural dyes could replace synthetic food colors, then register for the Natural Red Food Color Challenge for a chance to win the $100,000 prize!

Top Image Credit: amoils.com

Look closely at the ingredients listed on the back of your M&Ms package and you’re sure to see Blue No. 2 there. Those versed in the chemistry of colorants will realize that’s the same chemical that’s in your blue jeans: indigotine.

We now know that natural red dye comes from bugs, but what’s the story behind all the blue food we put into our mouths?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved seven artificial colorings for food, including two blues: Blue No. 1 and Blue No. 2—which are often combined in food products like M&Ms.

Blue No. 1 is called “brilliant blue” and, as is typical of modern dyes, was originally derived from coal tar, although most manufacturers now make it from an oil base. Blue No. 2, or “indigotine,” on the other hand, is a synthetic version of the plant-based indigo that has a long history as a textile dye.

Although toxicology studies have demonstrated that both of these dyes are relatively safe, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and other advocacy organizations have long argued that these and other artificial colorings may be linked to attention deficit disorder (ADD). In September 2007, a study in the U.K. medical journal The Lancet came to a similar conclusion, leading the European Parliament last July to order such products to carry a label warning consumers of the potential risk. Such concerns are behind the decision by the Nestlé–Rowntree candy company in England to pull its blue Smarties—an M&M look-alike—from shelves in 2005. In February 2008, the company brought them back, using spirulina, a bluish mixture of two species of cyanobacteria, in lieu of the chemicals.

To find out more about the origins of blue food colorants used today, we spoke with Hamish McNab, a chemist at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland who specializes in the heterocyclic compounds used to produce a range of dyes.

What are the natural sources of blue dye?
Indigo, which comes from the indigo plant (Indigofera), has been used for probably at least 4,000 years. There is a written recipe for dying wool with indigo on a Babylonian cuneiform tablet dated to the seventh century B.C. There is evidence that it was used in neolithic Europe and in pharaonic Egypt. It also comes from the woad plant (Isatis tinctoria), and was used by the Celts in Scotland to dye their faces.

If you speak to experts in the dying industry, they will tell you indigo is not colorfast: It washes out, fades rather rapidly—more rapidly than a designed synthetic dye. For the past 30 or 40 years faded jeans have been the uniform of students, and when I lecture I can be sure that at least half out of 100 undergraduates will be wearing indigo.

Indigo appears to be licensed for use as a food dye in the U.S., but most are synthetic and of broadly similar chemical constitution to those used as textile dyes.

Also, there are shellfish dyes, which are purple. They are quite interesting, because in Roman times there was a penalty of death if somebody outside the ruling elite was seen using these purple dyes. They had to use masses of these shellfish—hundreds of thousands of shellfish—to dye a relatively small piece of cloth.

When did people start synthesizing blue dye?
Up until about the middle of the 19th century all of the colorings were natural coloring. Then William Perkin came along and made his mauve. That was a color you couldn’t get naturally and it took the world by a storm. It was the first synthetic dyestuff to really take off.

The chemical constitution of indigo was worked out by Adolf von Baeyer in 1883. The first commercial synthesis was achieved in 1897 and was improved in 1901.

Do you think it’s dangerous to eat blue food dye?
My own view is that any chemical should be regarded as potentially harmful when ingested. Note that naturally occurring chemicals can be just as harmful as synthetic ones—strychnine is no less poisonous because it occurs naturally!

Pinsker: I want to talk more about the earlier days of dyeing foods, back when safety was a concern—lead compounds were being used to make milk creamier, and dyes used in some candies turned out to be poisonous. Sometimes, people actually died from eating them. How could dyes get so popular while also being so dangerous?

Hisano: As you said, there were many instances when dyes, especially red dyes, killed people and many people became sick. I assume many consumers in the early 20th century were frightened by those bright-red foods. But one reason consumers liked them is because they were excited about these colors they had never seen before. And one reason they thought they were safe was because of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, when the government endorsed certain dyes as safe, even though some of them turned out to be unsafe. Food companies were advertising that they were using approved dyes for their foods, so consumers were seeing that. I think that the government’s endorsement helped companies to market dyed foods as safe, but as you said, there were real dangers.

Pinsker: You grew up in Japan and studied at the University of Tokyo. When you started living in the U.S., what impressions did you have about the colors of American foods?

Hisano: When I first came to the United States, the very bright, vivid colors of cake frosting and cupcakes were really shocking to me. It was more than 10 years ago. And still I don’t quite understand why that brightness makes people hungry. Maybe it’s primarily for eye appeal rather than for taste.

Pinsker: What era did that come from? When did it become popular to make bright blue cakes?

Hisano: That goes back to the 19th century, as far as I know. In the late 19th and early 20th century, companies started selling food coloring for household use, and many cookbooks and women’s magazines introduced recipes for “dainty dishes”—visually appealing foods that had been heavily decorated. These included not only cakes but also some other desserts and sometimes sandwiches, and in a way, making dainty dishes was a way of displaying femininity and women’s creativity. And this was mainly for upper- and upper-middle-class women, because it was still expensive to make colorful dishes. After the 1920s, the introduction of cheaper dyes and Jell-O made it easier and cheaper for many women to make colorful dishes.

Pinsker: Can you tell me about the book you’re working on?

Hisano: I’m writing a book specifically about the color of foods in the U.S. Many historians have studied how businesses changed the way people thought about their surrounding world by, for example, looking at the history of railroads, electricity, and the telegraph—technologies changed the concepts of time and space. But this was also a time when people’s sensory experience changed fundamentally, and that hasn’t been studied as much. In the mid- to late 19th century, companies began developing technology that could measure and define sensory perceptions—things that are thought of as subjective and intangible—by assigning numerical values to different colors and analyzing scents based on their chemical components. The book I’m working on now is about the color of foods, but this is what it’s about more broadly.

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Joe Pinsker is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers families and education. Connect Twitter

Asian Textile Studies

By 1879-80 annual imports of aniline dyes into British India were increasing so much that they were causing concerns about the future of indigenous vegetable dyes (Review of the Maritime Trade of British India 1880, 34). Likewise, weavers in British Burma seem to have been relatively open to the acceptance of imported dyes – although Michael Howard may be a little early in suggesting that aniline dyes first appeared in lowland Burma in the mid-nineteenth century (Howard 2005, 27). On the other hand Punvasa Kunlabutr’s (2004, 91) suggestion that they were introduced in 1880 is probably too late. German aniline dyes were already ousting native vegetable dyes during the 1880s (Colquhoun and Hallett, 1888, 75).

The situation was summarised in an 1896 monograph written by J. D. Fraser on Burmese natural dyes and dyeing (see Scott and Hardiman 1900, pt. I, vol. 2, 377-399):

‘Unfortunately native dyes are being rapidly ousted by the common aniline dyes of European manufacture, which give a bright and gaudy colour, instead of the subdued and artistic tones obtained from native ingredients. Besides the meretricious results most of the aniline colours give, they have not the important merit of permanence, but fade rapidly when exposed to the sun.’

Aniline dyes were cheap, available in every bazaar and far easier to use than the complicated and time-consuming native processes. The use of local dyes was still practised in out-of-the-way parts, but only for domestic use. In the silk-weaving centre of Mandalay, aniline dyes had already displaced all but a handful of traditional dyestuffs – annatto, turmeric, lac and safflower.

Aniline dye imports to Burma were recorded as 19 tonnes (42,044lbs) in 1890-91 and 24 tonnes (53,350lbs) in 1895-96. By 1899-90 imports of chemical products and dyestuffs had reached just $4.15 million (£30,404) (Nisbet 1901, vol. 1, 351 and 451). In John Nisbet’s opinion, native vegetable dyes had only been displaced by ‘gaudy’ aniline dyes ‘to a certain extent’.

The situation in the remoter Shan States had already been reported by Holt Hallett who discovered that German aniline dyes were already displacing traditional vegetable dyes, the preferred colours being indigo, orange, maroon and reddish-brown (Hallett 1890, 87). This situation in the Shan States was corroborated by H. G. A. Levenson, who found that aniline dyes were being imported in considerable quantities in the late nineteenth century and were in use in all parts of the country (Scott and Hardiman 1900, part I, vol. 2, 391). Even as far east as Kengtung, tins of dyes of all colours were available at every large bazaar. Even in Muang Sing, which had become part of French Indo-China, aniline dyes were in common use in place of native dyes. Natural dyeing tended to be restricted to the hill tribes and the more remotely located Shans. It seems that in some isolated communities like the Burmese Naga, access to aniline dyes did not occur until after the 1920s (Howard 2005, 34). A similar delay appears to have occurred with the Jingpho of Upper Burma, who only later substituted their natural indigo for black commercial dyes (Howard 2005, 177).

Aniline dyes were probably introduced into China in the 1860s (Hawley 2012). Not long after they probably travelled south, down the trade routes into Lan Na (Conway 2002, 180). The first record of aniline dyes arriving in Chiang Mai from Bangkok dates to 1893 (Warrington Smyth 1898, 289). However independent Siam may have been more resistant to the use of chemical dyes than the other colonial parts of Southeast Asia. In 1907, Siam imported only $1.22 million (133,409 ticals or $49,361) of dyes from eight foreign countries (US Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce 1918, 394). During the following six years the average yearly import value was just $1.2 million (130,862 ticals or $48,419). Aniline and synthetic indigo imports were mainly from Germany.

By 1898 in Laos, German aniline dyes were already being sold on the market at Luang Prabang (Lefèvre 1898, 135). By 1906, German powdered aniline dyes had already been in use for 15 years (Reinach 1906, 107). Aniline dyes were being used in many households for dyeing home-woven cloth (L’Asie Francaise 1907, vol. 8, 354). In Cambodia, sampot weavers were already obtaining ‘boulettes’ of German aniline from the pharmacies of Phnom Penh to dye their silk yarns (Valat 1913, 59).

In Malaysia natural dyes were already gradually being replaced by German and British dyes as early as 1900 (Mohamad 1996, 157). Some colonial officials looked on the increasing use of a rainbow of aniline dyes as a curse (Papers on Malay Subjects 1911, 1). By 1909 the British colonial official, Richard Winstedt, was so alarmed by the decreasing use of natural dyes in the Malay States that he advocated instant dismissal for the use of aniline dyes in every government institution (Winstedt 1909).

In the Dutch East Indies the first aniline dyes had already come into use by 1890 (Rodgers, Summerfield and Summerfield 2007, 31 and 120). They were introduced into Borneo in the late 1800s (Kreifeldt 2006, 110). Traude Gavin believes they arrived in Sarawak no earlier than 1880 (Gavin 1996, 92). They probably reached parts of the Lesser Sunda Islands not long after, especially those ports that were serviced by Dutch steamers – Pabean on Bali, Apenan and Labuan Haji on Lombok, Ende and Larantuka on Flores, Waingapu on Sumba, and Kupang and Atapupu on Timor, as well as the islands of Roti and Savu (A Manual of Netherlands India 1920, 80, 382 and 387).

KPM (Koninklijke Paketvaart-Maatschappij) steamships unloading cargo at Cilacap Harbour, South Java, around 1899

It is likely that the batik workshops of north coast Java were the first to recognise the commercial advantages of aniline dyes (Maxwell 1990, 370). Dyes like alizarin offered a much faster and cheaper way of producing red than natural morinda. They undoubtedly appeared on Java during the late nineteenth century, but exactly when remains unclear. McCabe Elliot (2013, unnumbered) suggests they only began to be used in 1898, while several other authors claim that they began to be used around 1900 (Veldhuisen and Hiang 1993, 114; Brenner 2012, 258). Even so, we wonder if these dates are a little on the late side. As early as 1904 one Dutch writer was complaining that traditional batik-making had been corrupted with European designs and dyes (Fock 1904, 108-109).

The adoption of chemical dyes was not all plain sailing. Some batik workshops soon encountered major technical problems and reverted to using vegetable dyes (Veldhuisen and Hiang 1993, 114). Unconstrained by Javanese traditions, the Peranakan Chinese batik-makers in Pekalongan seem to have been the first to fully exploit them (Maxwell 1990, 265). One writer has suggested this was because the Chinese had a preference for brighter colours (Veldhuisen 1991, 166). Chemical dyes quickly replaced all natural dyes in Pekalongan although in the other main batik centres such as Surakarta and Yogyakarta aniline dyes were adopted selectively and used alongside the important natural brown dye, soga jawa (Brenner 2012, 258). Jasper and Pirngadie recorded how aniline dyes were being used alongside or mixed with natural dyes to produce stronger colours (1916, 45-48).

On Bali aniline dyes seem to have been quickly adopted by local endek producers. By 1908 they were already using aniline to dye their weft ikat (Jasper and Pirngadie 1912, 186 and 288). In that very same year Dutch officials at Buleleng were complaining about the loss of quality caused by the use of ‘gaudy’ aniline dyes (Hauser- Schäublin, Nabholz-Kartaschoff and Ramseyer 1991, 21). By 1916 silk kain pelangis were being entirely dyed with aniline on both Bali and Lombok (Jasper and Pirngadie 1916, 239).

Even in central Sulawesi, imported aniline dyes were readily available by the end of the nineteenth century, and were used for decorating barkcloth (Adriani and Kruyt 1901, 158).

Trade statistics just before the First World War give an indication of the flow of dyes into Asia in the early twentieth century. In 1913 China imported $96 million ($4 million) of aniline dyes and $167 million ($7 million) of synthetic indigo, mainly from Germany and Belgium (The National Review China 1915, 406). In French Indo-China imports in 1913/14 were a mere $0.6 million (14-16,000 Tls – Tientsin or Chinese dollars) (Pamphlets on Forestry in Indo-China 1918, 613).

Some 333 tonnes of aniline dyes were imported into the Netherlands East Indies in 1913, virtually all through Java (see table below). Although the batik industry was probably the largest consumer, aniline dyes were also appearing in the outer islands. In the Batak region of Sumatra, European missionaries were encouraging local weavers to adopt aniline dyes (Joustra 1914, cited by Philips and Steiner 1999, 163). A few years later Herman Visser complained about the bright aniline colours and imported yarns that were now used to weave Toba Batak textiles (Visser 1918/19, 22).

Brilliantly colored labels played an important role in the marketing of the dyes. Bayer dye packaging for the Chinese market in about 1900 above, and after 1912 below

Shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, Germany instituted a ban on the export of synthetic dyes to Britain and its allies. The British responded with a naval blockade of Germany. The impact was immediately felt in Java, where prices rocketed – the price of a barrel of alizarin jumped from 63 to 2,000 guilders (Van Dijk 2007, 365). Batik producers attempted to switch back to natural dyes. After the Netherlands Indies agreed to ban the re-export of synthetic dyes, Berlin allowed dyes to be exported to Java in line with 1913 levels of demand. In 1916 the British Consul-General in Batavia became dissatisfied with the way that Dutch firms on Java were distributing (re-exporting?) their artificial dyes, and shipments were temporarily confiscated. The British Navy forced several Dutch steamers to discharge their cargoes of aniline dyes. One was carrying 1,400 cases (The Argus, Melbourne, 6 June 1916).

Report on the US 1915 ‘dye famine’
(Image courtsey of the Hagley Museum & Library)

After the war, imports of aniline dyes began to recover. The German dye industry emerged from the war intact and although it faced tariff barriers and stronger domestic competition in North America and Europe, it faced no similar obstacles in Asia. Meanwhile the US chemical industry had responded to the blockade on German exports by moving into the production of synthetic dyes. By 1920 over one hundred US plants were manufacturing almost $100 million of dyes (Mock 2002, 81). They too were beginning to export to Asia:

US Exports of Aniline Dyes in 1920

Country

$000s (1920 Values)

$000s (2016 Values)

China

5,074

63,425

British India

2,774

34,675

Thailand

French Indo-China

1,163

Philippines

1,138

Dutch East Indies

23 (137 in 1919)

288 (1,713 in 1919)

(Source: US Bureau of Statistics 1921)
A black aniline dye from Philadelphia sold by Venus Commercial, Manila, Philippines
(Image courtesy of Yale Peabody Museum, New Haven)

In order to re-establish its former dominant position, the German dye industry decided to consolidate. In 1925 AGFA, BASF, Bayer, and Hoechst – along with six smaller manufacturers – merged to form Interessen-Gemeinschaft Farbenindustrie A.G. (‘Dye Industry Syndicate’), headquartered in Frankfurt. In important territories like China, local sales agents were replaced by direct sales offices. By 1933, 50% of I. G. Farben’s dye exports were destined for Asia (Tammen 1978, 367).

Chinese label for the I. G. Farben diazo dye, Black MO

In Siam it was reported that native vegetable dyes were being displaced by imported aniline dyestuffs, although the important Bangkok industry for dyeing black (with ebony) remained unaffected (Drug and Chemical Markets 1917, vol. 4, 14). Yet in 1923 Siam imported only 212 tonnes of foreign dyes valued at £46,000 – 25% from China, 22% from Denmark and 13% from Germany, the Danish imports probably being of German origin (Chemical Trade Journal and Chemical Engineer 1924, vol. 74, 350). By 1926 there was even a German agent in Chiang Mai authorised to sell imported synthetic dyes (Pasqual cited by Conway 2002, 233). By 1941 Thomson complained that cheap, gaudy and multi-coloured aniline dyes had penetrated everywhere and that demand for foreign dyestuffs was still increasing (1941, 443).

Branded labels for German dyes sold by U. Guan Kee & Co., Bangkok

In French Indo-China, Germany aniline dyes had been replaced during the war by dyes from Britain (Textile Colorist 1918, vol 40, 119). In 1918 the principle demand in Saigon was for aniline dyes for colouring cotton.

Demand was growing strongly in Singapore and the Malay States, the best-selling colours being violet, dark green, magenta and scarlet – although there was also demand for pink, blue, light green, orange and yellow (Far Eastern Review 1919, vol. 15, 244). By the 1920s indigenous knowledge about the preparation of natural dyes was being lost in many of the Malay States although some – such as Kelantan and especially Pahang and Pekan – remained firmly resistant to change (Mohamad 1996, 158-159). In the latter region the district officer refused to sell any sarongs that were not vegetable-dyed. By the 1930s however, even tiny Pekan had succumbed to the use of chemical dyes.

In the Dutch East Indies German dye manufacturers had been held in high esteem and many of their exports were channelled through Holland. Imports dropped precipitously during the war, especially at the end in 1918. They only began to fully recover in 1920.

(Source: Markets for Chemicals in the Netherlands East Indies and British Malaya, US Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce 1922, 4-5)

It was not long before German suppliers regained their pre-war position (Report on Economic and Commercial Conditions in the Netherlands East Indies 1922, 38). By 1923 the Dutch East Indies was importing 246 tonnes (245,673kg) of aniline dyes and 426 tonnes of synthetic indigo (Report on Economic and Commercial Conditions in the Netherlands East Indies 1938, 45). Dutch East Indies imports of dyes in 1925 were valued at 4,832,978 florins, of which alizarin dyes totalled 792,568 florins, aniline dyes 2,748,125 florins and synthetic indigo 1,392,285 florins (Chemical Trade Journal 1928, vol. 81, 275).

On Java the supply of German aniline dyes soon came under the control of influential local Chinese merchants (Abushouk and Ibrahim 2009, 147; Larson 1987, 36). Thanks to these imported dyes, by the early 1920s the Chinese had gained a dominant role in the batik-dyeing business (Dobbin 1989, 116). When the former ethnographer to the Dutch East Indies government, Tassilo Adam, surveyed the Javanese batik industry in 1934 he found that in some parts the traditional batik-making process had been completely replaced by aniline dyeing (Adam 1934, 14).

Imports of aniline dyes into Java reached 1,064 tons in 1931, but then stabilized due to a prolonged depression in the Javanese batik trade:

Imports in tons

Aniline dyes

1,064

Alizarin

Synthetic indigo

(Economic Conditions in the Netherlands East Indies 1927?, 64)

By 1937 imports of the first two categories combined had climbed back to 1,300 tons, roughly in line with 1931 imports (Report on Economic and Commercial Conditions in the Netherlands East Indies 1938, 31).

It is hard to find historical references indicating the speed of uptake of chemical dyes in those parts of Indonesia beyond Java and Bali. In his review of ikat-making in the Dutch East Indies, Charles Iklé made the general comment that ‘the beautiful old vegetable dye process now exists in a few localities’ (Iklé 1931, 10). A decade later Raymond Kennedy likewise observed that in the East Indies the ‘locally made coloring materials were disappearing since the importation of aniline dyes’ (Kennedy 1943, 39).

Timor is one of the few outer regions of Indonesia where synthetic dyes appear to have taken an early foothold (Kahlenberg 1979, 38). One report suggested that the important colonial trading port of Kupang resulted in chemical dyes being introduced to Timor as early as the 1870s (Hali 1983, vol. 6, 205). No supporting evidence was given. These new dyes quickly came under the control of Kupang’s enterprising Chinese merchants (Art and Asia Pacific Quarterly 1998, 45). It is possible that the trade in aniline dyes was modest. Even in the 1990s there was only one supplier in Kupang and availability was sporadic (Yeager and Jacobson 2002, 63). The import of chemically dyed yarns may have been more significant, given the propensity of Timorese weavers to decorate their cloths with brightly coloured warp stripes.

Bottom half of a mid-twentieth century tais feto from Biboki, Timor Tenghah Utara Regency, West Timor. The plain black is synthetically dyed, but the ikat has been dyed with indigo

In East Sumba the adoption of aniline dyes was fuelled by the foreign demand for decorative hinggis in the early decades of the twentieth century. They soon became an article of trade for enterprising local Arab and Endenese merchants. By 1920 the artist Nieuwenkamp was complaining that imported aniline dyes were being used to speed up their production (Nieuwenkamp 1920, 374). However the adoption of aniline dyes at that time must have been a fairly recent development (Wielenga 1925, 14). There is one report that small cans of German dyes were being sold in Waingapu prior to the Second World War (Adams 1969, 186). In Laboya, West Sumba, Geirnaert-Martin noted that the import of synthetic dyes had only increased since the late 1950s (Geirnaert-Martin 1992, 111).

Black chemical dye on sale at the market for weavers and dyers, Maumere, Sikka Regency
Chemical black dyes are used extensively across Sikka Regency today

Not every region was swamped by synthetic dyes. Despite their early use on Bali, synthetic dyes were only first utilised on remote Nusa Penida in the 1930s, where they were used for the monochrome border stripes (Hauser-Schäublin 1997, 99). It was not until the 1950s that they completely superseded natural dyes on that island. In Sarawak the pacification drive by Charles Brooke meant that in many areas pre-dyed commercial yarns became available to the Iban at the end of the nineteenth century (Heppell 1994, 131). The Iban, especially in the southern Saribas region, began to incorporate these yarns into the borders of their pua cloths – but no earlier than 1880 (Gavin 1996, 17 and 92). However thanks to firm resistance by the older women, the adoption of aniline dyes did not occur until after 1949. By 1990 even dyers in remote longhouses in Kapit district were using tins of commercial dyes to dye their pua cloths red and black (Berma 1996, 265). In Jambi, Sumatra, synthetic dyes were only introduced in the late 1970s (Kerlogue 1997, 141).

Today there remain just a small number of enclaves scattered across Southeast Asia and the Indonesian archipelago where natural dyes continue to be valued and preserved. However natural dyeing is laborious and, faced with competition from synthetically dyed alternatives, the financial rewards are not high. While many mothers still pass on their knowledge to their daughters, many youngsters show no inclination to maintain the traditions of the past. In our view the outlook for the future of natural dyeing in fast-developing Asia remains precarious.

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Bibliography

Böhmer, Harold, 2002. Koekboya: Natural Dyes and Textiles, REMHÖB-Verlag, Ganderkesee.

Burkill, Isaac Henry, 1966. A Dictionary of the Economic Products of the Malay Peninsula, vols. I and II, Governments of Malaysia and Singapore.

Cardon, Dominique, 2007. Natural Dyes: Sources, Tradition, Technology and Science, Archetype Publications, London.

Clark, Matthew, 2011. Handbook of Textile and Industrial Dyeing: Principles, Processes and Types of Dyes, Cambridge.

Janick, Jules; and Pauli, Robert E., 2008. The Encyclopedia of Fruit and Nuts, CABI.

Jansen, P. C. M., and Cardon, D., 2005. Dyes and Tannins, PROTA Foundation, Wageningen.

Kajitani, Nobuko, 1980. ‘Traditional Dyes in Indonesia’, in Indonesian Textiles: Irene Emery Roundtable on Museum Textiles 1979 Proceedings, Textile Museum, Washington, D.C.

Lemmens, R.H.M.J., and Wulijarni-Soetjipto, N., 1991. Dye and Tannin Producing Plants, Prosea, Bogor.

Liles, J. N., 1990. The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing: Traditional Recipes for Modern Use, University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville.

O’Neill, Charles, 1862. A Dictionary Of Dyeing And Calico Printing: Containing A Brief Account Of All The Substances And Processes In Use In The Arts Of Dyeing And Printing Textile Fabrics, London.

Subagiyo, Puji Yosep, 2007. Indonesian Natural Dyeing Recipes, Jakarta.

Tab, Nilanidhi, and Rabieb, Prachankadee, 1963. Active principles of Diospyros mollis, Proceedings of the Ninth Pacific Science Congress, vol. 5, pp. 52-54, Bangkok.

Vankar, Padma S.; Shanker, Rakhi; and Wijayapala, Samudrika, 2009. Dyeing Cotton, Silk and wool yarn with Extract of Garcinia Mangostana Pericarp, Journal of Textile and Apparel, Technology and Management, vol. 6, issue 1, pp. 1-10.

Zollinger, Heinrich, 2003. Color Chemistry: Syntheses, Properties, and Applications of Organic Dyes and Pigments, Zürich.

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Publication

This webpage was first published on 24th April 2016.

Money Crashers

It may be hard to fathom, but we didn’t always use chemicals to dye fabrics. For millennia, people used plants, roots and berries to color cotton, muslin, linen, silk and other fabrics.

These days, of course, we can pop into a store and buy an entire rainbow of fabric dye; but it’s actually great fun to dye fabric the old-fashioned way. Not only does it give you a new appreciation for Mother Nature, it’s also a free and fun way to get craft-y and explore your creative side.

As an added bonus, using natural dyes can lead to a lot of great, frugal home decorating ideas; the results can be very chic, and far more interesting than anything you’d get out of a box of RIT dye.

What Can Be Dyed?

Any light-colored (preferably white) natural fibers will take dye. Here are a few ideas:

  • Curtains
  • Towels
  • T-shirts
  • Sheets and pillow cases
  • Handkerchiefs
  • Baby clothes
  • Paper

Yes, paper! It’s actually easier to dye than fabric. I just take regular, bright white card stock and soak it in various dyes until I get the shade I want, then hang it up to drip-dry in my basement. The end result? Paper that is way cooler than anything you can buy at the stationery or art supply store!

What Can Be Used as Natural Dyes?

The coolest thing about natural dyeing is that the ingredients you need are likely right in your backyard, or at the grocery store – especially when summer rolls around.

Here are just a few materials you can use (and the colors you’ll get with each).

For even more natural dye ideas, there’s a wonderful list over at Pioneer Thinking you should check out. There are also four pages of reader additions at the bottom of the page, so don’t miss that valuable resource!

How to Get Started Dyeing

Step 1: Prepare the Dye
Chop your plant or berries into small pieces, measure them, and put them in a medium-to-large pot. Add twice as much water as ingredients. So if you put in two cups of plant material, add four cups of water.

Bring to a boil, and then simmer for one hour. Strain off the hard materials and keep the “dye.”

Keep in mind that the longer you let the materials sit in the water, the stronger your dye is going to be. If you have the time, you can even let it soak overnight (without heat) to get a really concentrated solution.

Step 2: Prepare the Fixative
Once you’ve picked out what you want to dye and you’ve got your dye all ready to go, you have to prepare a fixative for your fabric. This will “fix” the dye into the fibers so it won’t wash out.

If you’re using berries to dye your fabric, you have to use a salt fixative. Put 1/2 cup salt in 8 cups of water. Put your fabric in here and boil for one hour.

If you’re using plants to dye your fabric, you have to use a vinegar fixative. Combine one part vinegar and four parts water, and boil the fabric in the mixture for one hour.

When your fabric is done, rinse it out under cold water.

Step 3: Dye the Fabric
All you do now is place your wet fabric into the dye bath and simmer until the fabric has reached the color and shade you want. Remember, the color is going to be a bit lighter once the fabric dries out.

Then, wash the fabric separately and you’re good to go!

Final Word

Naturally dyeing fabric at home is an especially fun thing to do in the winter months because, let’s face it, we’re stuck indoors and need activities! Plus, we probably all have many of the dyes, like onion skin and celery leaves, on hand as “waste” anyway. So if you’re not into vermicomposting to help save the environment, this is a great way to use these materials up instead of just throwing them out.

I’d love to hear back from all of you on this. Have you tried natural dyes before?

(photo credit: luckywhitegirl)

Natural Dyes

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How To Dye Fabrics Using Natural Materials

Natural dyes for fabric of many kinds can be made from nuts and berries, and it’s not hard to get fabrics any array of beautiful colors you want, naturally!

Note: Look here if you’re searching for homemade hair dye.

It’s January. Cold, windy, snowy and just plain miserable in many parts of the country.

During the winter break from school, when I’m cooped up in the house for days on end, I like to have projects to work on. Specifically, I’m a soap maker, but even that gets to be old hat after a while. So I started looking for new things to work on and came across an old book that told of natural dyes for fabric made with nuts and berries. Intrigued, I started doing some research and found that it’s not that hard to make fabrics the beautiful color you want.

Types of Fabric to Use

Not all fabric can be easily dyed with natural materials. The best ones to use are those made from natural materials themselves. Cotton, silk, wool, and linen will take the dye the best.

Synthetic blends will take some dye, but will usually be lighter in color. If you’re not sure and can risk the item you’re planning to dye, go ahead and do it. If it’s something valuable, try to find a similar scrap of fabric and try that first. I use a piece of muslin to gauge my color saturation before I dye my clothes. You can find muslin at any fabric store or online here.

Natural Dyes for Fabric

We use natural dyes for fabric because we want something non-carcinogenic and not harmful to our environment.

Natural dyeing is gradually making its way in the global market and the production of naturally dyed eco-friendly textiles itself is a boon to save the environment from hazardous synthetic dyes.

Not all natural materials will produce a dye, and some produce colors that are nothing like the original plant it came from. Here’s a list of colors and the plant material that will give you shades in that color.

  • Orange: carrots, gold lichen, onion skins
  • Brown: dandelion roots, oak bark, walnut hulls, tea, coffee, acorns
  • Pink: berries, cherries, red and pink roses, avocado skins and seeds (really!)
  • Blue: indigo, woad, red cabbage, elderberries, red mulberries, blueberries, purple grapes, dogwood bark
  • Red-brown: pomegranates, beets, bamboo, hibiscus (reddish color flowers), bloodroot
  • Grey-black: Blackberries, walnut hulls, iris root
  • Red-purple: red sumac berries, basil leaves, daylilies, pokeweed berries, huckleberries
  • Green: artichokes, sorrel roots, spinach, peppermint leaves, snapdragons, lilacs, grass, nettles, plantain, peach leaves
  • Yellow: bay leaves, marigolds, sunflower petals, St John’s Wort, dandelion flowers, paprika, turmeric, celery leaves, lilac twigs, Queen Anne’s Lace roots, mahonia roots, barberry roots, yellowroot roots, yellow dock roots

Note: You want to be sure to use ripe, mature plant material and always use fresh, not dried. Dried plant material will usually give you muted colors and sometimes no color at all. Chop the plant material very small to give you more surface area. If the plant is tough, like yellow dock roots, smash the root with a hammer to make it fiberous. This will also give you more exposed surface area. If you know you won’t need it for a while, but the plant is at its peak, like nettle, you can chop it up and freeze it for a few months. Just be sure to label it.

Prepare your Fabric for Natural Dyes

Before you start the dyeing process, you’ll want to get your fabric ready. First, wash the fabric. Don’t dry it though – it needs to be wet. Then prepare your fixative or “mordant.” This is to help the fabric take up the natural dyes more easily. For berries, you’ll want to use salt and for any other plant material, you’ll want to use vinegar. Here are the measurements:

  • Salt: dissolve ½ cup salt in 8 cups cold water
  • Vinegar: blend 1 part white vinegar to 4 parts cold water

Place your damp fabric in the fixative solution for an hour. Rinse with cool water when done. Then, it’s time to dye the fabric.

The Process for Natural Dyes for Fabric

Before you start, cover the surface of your work area with newspaper. Also, I use plastic sheeting because I don’t want to dye my countertops. Be sure to wear gloves so you only color the fabric, not your hands. Then, prepare your dye.

The Process

  1. Place the plant material in a large non-reactive pot (like stainless steel or glass). Remember the dye could stain some pots and spoons, so use these only for dyeing.
  2. Fill the pot with twice as much water as plant material.
  3. Simmer for an hour or so, until you get a nice dark color.
  4. Strain out the plant material and return the liquid to the pot.
  5. Carefully place the fabric in the dye bath and bring to a slow boil. Simmer for an hour or so, stirring once in a while.
  6. Check your fabric. Remember, it will be lighter when it dries. An hour should produce nice color, but darker hues can be achieved by allowing to sit longer, even overnight. Turn the pot off after an hour and allow the fabric to sit in the warm water as long as needed.
  7. When you get the color you want, take the fabric out and wash in cold water. Expect the color to run some as the excess dye is washed out
  8. Dry as usual.

That’s all there is to dyeing your own fabrics. I’ve done sheets, curtains, shirts, towels, and even undies!

Have you ever used natural dyes for fabric? How did it turn out?

Note: Look here if you’re searching for homemade hair dye.

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Sources

  1. Yusuf, Mohd et al. Natural Colorants: Historical, Processing, and Sustainable Prospects. Pubmed. January 2017.

When we were first developing our organic cotton grocery and produce bag range we really wanted to release a range of colours. However, we were unable to find a manufacturer that used non-toxic or organic dyes – which was an absolute must for us!

A while back we read about the process of fabric dying using dyes derived from natural foods and food scraps. With a rainy weekend ahead of us, and a DIY itch that needed to be scratched, we grabbed a few reusable organic grocery bags from our store room and got stuck in.

What is natural fabric dye?

Natural fabric dye is dye made from common fruits, vegetables and berries. Most natural dyes are vegetable-based, derived from plant sources such as roots, berries and leaves. Most natural fabric dyes are not as strong or intense as store-bought chemical dyes. Instead, they produce a beautiful pastel colour when used with the right fabrics and with the correct preparation. Due to the nature and preparation of plant-based fabric dyes, it’s almost impossible to replicate the results from batch to batch – but we think that’s part of the magic!

What vegetables and plants can be used to make fabric dye?

We were surprised at the range of colours you can create using even the most basic ingredients found in your fridge and pantry. Below is by no means a comprehensive list of all foods that can be used, however it’s more than enough to get you started on your plant-based fabric dye journey!

Colour

Plant/Vegetable/Fruit Source

Red

Beetroots, bamboo shoots.

Orange

Brown onion skin, paprika

Yellow

Turmeric, celery leaves

Green

Spinach

Blue

Red cabbage (add baking soda)

Purple

Beetroots, red cabbage

Pink

Red cabbage (add vinegar)

What are mordants and fixatives?

Because plant-based dyes are not as strong as commercially available dyes, it is recommended to hand-wash under cold water to preserve natural colours. Although, mordants and fixatives can be used to increase the ability of the fabric to take on the natural dye.

Chemical mordants are used for protein fibres like silk and wool to ensure colour fastness. Common mordants are: Alum, Iron, Copper and Tin.

Fixatives are what is used to set natural dyes for cottons and linens. Common fixatives are: Salt, Tannins, Vinegar and Baking Soda.

Recipe

We had two red cabbages, a bunch of beetroot and about 8 brown onions lying around the kitchen, so we decided to put them to good use rather than head to the shops for different ingredients. After some research we found out we could make an orange/yellow, purple, pink and blue dyes from just these common ingredients. We also had lots of white vinegar and so used this is our fixative. In hindsight we would have gone with a salt fixative as the vinegar affects the PH of the red cabbage dye and increases the pink hue.

Fixative (This process must occur before dyeing)

Ingredients

4 parts Water

1 parts White Vinegar

Method

We used white vinegar for our fixative as we have a lot on hand from making natural cleaning products – the general rule of thumb is 1 part vinegar to 4 parts water.

Combine the water and vinegar. Quantities will depend on the amount of fabric to be dyed. You want the items to be relatively loose in the fixative solution to ensure even absorption. Slowly bring to a low simmer, stirring occasionally, and simmer for an hour. Squeeze as much of the solution out of the fabric as possible before immersing the fabric in the die bath while still wet.

Natural Dyes

Blue/Purple/Pink

Ingredients

1 Red Cabbage (whole)

8L Water

Baking Soda (for desired shade of blue)

Vinegar (for desired shade of pink)

Method

  1. Finely chop the whole red cabbage, making sure to remove any green leaves still attached. Add the red cabbage to a large pot and add water until the chopped cabbage is covered (about 5-8L depending on the pot)
  2. Bring to the boil, reduce heat and gently simmer for an hour. You should notice the water starts to take on an intense purple hue after 20 minutes or so.
  3. Drain the cabbage, taking care to collect all the coloured water.
  4. Return the water to the pot. If you’re after a purple dye, you can add the fabric straight from the fixative solution. For a blue dye, add baking soda – a little goes a long way – until you reach your desired colour. For a pink dye, add small amounts of white vinegar until you’re happy with the colour.
  5. Immerse the fabric in the dye solution and bring to a low simmer. Take off the heat after an hour and leave fabric in the dye solution for between 12-24 hours.
  6. Drain the fabric and gently hand wash in cold water before hanging up to dry.

Orange/Yellow

Ingredients

10 Brown Onions

5-8L Water

Method

  1. Remove the skins from the onions and add to a large pot. Add water until the onion skins are covered (about 5-8L depending on the pot)
  2. Bring to the boil, reduce heat and gently simmer for an hour. You should notice the water starts to take on an intense orange/yellow hue -depending on the onions – after 20 minutes or so.
  3. Drain the onion, taking care to collect all the coloured water.
  4. Return the water to the pot and immerse the fabric in the dye solution and bring to a low simmer. Take off the heat after an hour and leave fabric in the dye solution for between 12-24 hours.
  5. Drain the fabric and gently hand wash in cold water before hanging up to dry.

Red/Purple

Ingredients

5 large Beetroot

5-8L Water

Method

  1. Remove the skins and chop the beetroots into large chunks. Add water until the beetroots are covered (about 5-8L depending on the pot)
  2. Bring to the boil, reduce heat and gently simmer for an hour. You should notice the water starts to take on an intense orange/yellow hue -depending on the onions – after 20 minutes or so.
  3. Drain the onion, taking care to collect all the coloured water.
  4. Return the water to the pot and immerse the fabric in the dye solution and bring to a low simmer. Take off the heat after an hour and leave fabric in the dye solution for between 12-24 hours.
  5. Drain the fabric and gently hand wash in cold water before hanging up to dry.

Our results – not as simple as it seems!

We were thrilled with how our dyes looked after boiling the vegetables – such incredible vibrant colours. After soaking our bags in the dye for 24 hours we thought we would try machine washing one batch (the beetroot) on a delicate cycle to see what would happen. Unfortunately, the dye completely came out and the bags were pretty much back to how they started. The next three batches we gently hand washed/rinsed in cold water before hanging them out to dry. Without really thinking, we placed them folded over on the line to dry. I believe this is why the pink and blue turned out a little tie dyed ~ however the yellow was fine! Next time we will definitely hang them by their handles with pegs to dry but I kind of like that no bag looks the same!

You can buy a limited edition KAPPI naturally dyed organic cotton grocery bag here

We would love to know if you have any experience naturally dyeing fabrics ! Comment below 🙂

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The Ultimate List of 85 Natural Colors

There are a multitude of naturally dyed yarns, rovings and fabrics out there and sometimes it is hard to imagine where the natural color may have come from!

Natural color from dried hibiscus flowers

But nature is an amazing thing and with a little chemistry you have a unlimited array of natural colors to choose from, for your next knitting or sewing project.

There are many naturally occurring plants, minerals and crustaceans from which you can extract color and produce natural dyes. From soft pastel to strikingly rich natural colors, your yarn or fabric will thank you for it.

As with everything in life, some work better than others and produce stronger and longer lasting color.

This list is far from exhaustive but will give you a good idea of which natural sources produce which colors. Experimenting with whatever you have on hand is recommended and is half the fun of producing dyes. You never know what you will discover!

Some substances will give different colored dyes, depending on what mordant you use or how long they are processed for. For example logwood mordanted with alum produces a mauve color, yet when mordanted with chrome gives a lovely blue. Many yellow dye baths will give a greenish hue if used with an Alum mordant, but using chrome or tin will brighten them to a much clearer yellow. Using iron will produce a golden hue of yellow to brown.

We recommend you use test pieces of yarn or fabric to ensure you get the color control you want, before embarking on a major dyeing spree.

The most commonly used resources for making dyes are highlighted in bold.

Reds

When making red dyes be sure to slowly raise the temperature of the dye vat. Reds have a tendency to go brown when too much heat is applied. The maximum temperature for red dyes is 180c. Never boil!

Cochineal – a small insect found on nopales or paddle cactus (don’t happen to have these running around your back garden? Check them out here)
Lac – insects
Hibiscus – flowers
Madder – roots
Red Elderberry – berries
Sumac – berries
Beetroot – root vegetable
Brazilwood – wood
St John’s Wort – whole plant
Sycamore – bark
Cadmium – mineral
Avocados – fruit

Or, if you’re time poor, and the thought of extracting dye from plants seems completely impossible – yet you still want to try out natural colours – take the easy route and simply order some madder powder online!

Redish Purples

Who can resist the deep, natural color of purple? Purple used to be the color of Kings and Queens during medieval times – since at the time the only known source of the dye was a particularly rare molusck, of which 9000 were required to make just 1 gram of Tyrian purple. If only they had known the same results could be achieved with simple hibiscus!

Red Basil – whole plant
Dark Red Hibiscus – flowers
Daylillies – flowers past their prime
Vermillon – mineral
Lac – insect

Pinks

Who would have thought that avocados – something that you would not think of as anything other than green – could be the source of such a wonderful, subtle natural shade of pink?

Likewise, the heart stopping color of cherries could be used to make your next winter scarf!

Avocados – fruit
Roses – flower
Lichens – whole plant
Cherries – fruit
White Bedstraw – roots

Yellows

Check out how wonderful my winter socks look when dyed with turmeric! The colors of nature give any artificial, chemical dyes a run for their money and win hands down each time!

Turmeric root socks!

Bayleaves – leaves
Saffron – stamens
Marigold – flowers
Queen Annes Lace – flowers
St John’s Wort – plant
Golden Rod – flowers
Tumeric – roots or powder
Osage Orange – inner bark or shavings
Tea – leaves
Brown Onion – skins
Larkspur – plant
Chromium – mineral
Lead – mineral
Titanium – mineral
Annato – seeds

Oranges

One of the simplest materials you can extract the color from naturally, is the humble brown onion. Do not under-estimate the rich and varied shades that this everyday vegetable can impart to your clothing!

Brown Onion – skins
Tumeric – roots
Giant Coreopsis – any part of the plant
Bloodroot – roots
Barberry – any part of the plant
Eucalyptus – leaves

Browns

If you haven’t experienced the color of natural coffee, then you don’t know what you are missing! The richness and complexity is simply warming to the heart. Just like a good cup of java!

Oak Bark – bark
Walnut – Hulls
Dandelion – roots
Coffee – grinds
Yellow dock – plant
Ivy – woody stems
Golden Rod – shoots
Tea – leaves
Sumac – leaves, powder
Birch – bark
Brown Clay – clay soil
Limonite – clay
Octopus/cuttlefish – ink

Blues to Bluish Purples

The humble mulberry can produce the most sublime shade of purple you can imagine!

Dogwood – fruit
Hyacinth – flowers
Indigo – foliage
Red Maple Tree – inner bark
Woad – leaves
Mulberries – fruit
Elderberries – fruit
Blueberries – fruit
Cornflower – flowers
Blackbeans – dried bean
Cobalt – mineral
Copper – mineral
Murex Snail – trunculus

Again, if you don’t happen to have any of these things growing near you, or you simply don’t have the time, space (or inclination) to go hunting for them – you can take advantage of the modern world and have indigo dye delivered to your doorstep!

Greens

Once again, sometimes the best sources of a particular colour come from exactly where you wouldn’t expect them to! Something with such a striking ocher red as sumac actually produces a wonderful green colored dye!

Tea Tree – flowers
Spinach – leaves
Larkspur – plant
Red Onion – skins
Yarrow – flowers
Chamomile – leaves
Black-eyed Susans – flowers
Nettle – leaves
Dyer’s Broom – plant
Chromium – mineral

Grey to Black

And lastly, don’t neglect the often overlooked shades of grey and black. Whilst you might regard store-bought garments in unappealing black and grey as dull, their naturally dyed counterparts are capable of having a completely different and vastly more appealing quality!

Oak Galls – Galls
Sumac – leaves
Walnut – hulls
Iris – roots
Black Beans – dried bean
Titanium – mineral
Carbon – mineral

Extracting natural colors to make your dyes can be a long and sometimes difficult process.

However you do have the option to buy natural dyes online, where the extraction process has been taken care of for you!

If your yarn is not turning out the way you expected then “try try again” or have a look at some online stores that sell natural dyes. This selection below has a set of 5 colours and comes from a company that has great reviews.

Remember, when embarking on your natural coloring adventures, take care of the environment and keep sustainability in mind!

Consider how many natural color resources are available and only remove a portion of those in any one area!

Lastly, if the choice seems just a bit overwhelming, consider my Natural Dyeing Bootcamp, where I’ll hold your hand through the whole thing.

Natural dyes are obtained from natural sources. Most are of plant origin and extracted from roots, wood, bark, berries, lichens, leaves, flowers, nuts, and seeds. Others come from insects, shellfish, and mineral compounds. Natural dyes were the only source of color for textiles, leather, basketry, and other materials until synthetic dyes were developed in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Of the thousands of natural color substances, very few became significant commercially. Dyestuff refers to the plant or other material from which the dye is extracted. Complete palettes are achieved by dyeing in one bath and sequential dyeing in two or more baths.

There are two types of natural dyes. Adjective or additive dyes such as madder must use a mordant (a chemical that fixes a dye) to bond with fibers. These are the most common type and have been used for at least 2,000 years. Substantive dyes bond with a fiber without the use of a mordant or they contain tannin, a natural mordant. Examples of substantive dyes include safflower, cochineal, and black walnut. Mordants are chemical compounds that combine with the fiber and the dye forming a chemical bridge between the two. Madder, cochineal, and other commercially important natural dyes are poly-chromic, meaning that they yield different colors with different mordants. Common mordants are weak organic acids, such as acetic or tannic acid, and metal salts including aluminum ammonium or potassium sulfate, ferrous sulfate, and copper sulfate. Usually, the textile to be dyed is simmered in a mordant solution before dyeing (pre-mordanting). Other options include adding the mordant to the dyebath or treating with another mordant after dyeing to shift the color.

Current Use

Natural dyes are used in small quantities by artists and craftspeople. Some commercial use of natural dyes is a response to concerns about synthetic dyes and environmental pollution. Natural dyes are a renewable resource and contribute to rural economic development. However, in most commercial applications, natural dyes do not compete with synthetic dyes that are available in more colors, more uniform in composition facilitating color matching, and of known ratings to fading agents. Contrary to common assumptions, some natural dyes have excellent fastness to light, cleaning agents, water, and perspiration. Commercially available natural dye extracts facilitate color matching and make the dyeing process less involved.

Historic Natural Dyes

Evidence of well-developed dye works exists in many parts of the world. Ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Peruvians were known for their excellent dyeing. Italian dyers were among the best from Roman times through the sixteenth century. Dyers from India were supreme in dyeing cotton. Dyers in China specialized in dyeing silk. Natural dyes were major trade items throughout history until the development of synthetic dyes. By the early years of the twentieth century, natural dyes had been replaced in most applications. However, most of these dyes remain important for artists, craftspeople, and niche producers.

Yellow dyes are the most numerous natural dyes, but most are weakly colored with poor lightfastness. The most important yellow dye in Europe was weld (Reseda luteola), which had better lightfastness than the dyes imported from Asia: saffron (Crocus sativus), safflower (Carthamus tinctorius), and quercitron (Quercus tinctoria nigra). Osage orange (Maclura pomifera) is a contemporary dye extracted from wood and sawdust from a native North American tree.

Cochineal

Red dyes included madder, cochineal, kermes, lac, cudbear, and brazil wood. Madder is a fast, rich-red dye obtained from the root of the Eurasian herbaceous perennial Rubia tinctoria. It was used in a long and complex process to produce Turkey Red on cotton and wool. With different mordants, madder produces a range of colors. Insect dyes include cochineal (Dactylopius sp.) from Central and South America, kermes (Kermoccus vermilis) of the Mediterranean region, and lac (Lakshadia chinensis and communis) of Asia. Cudbear (from Ochrolechia, Lasallia, and Umbilicaria spp.) is a lichen dye from northern Europe. Brazil wood (Caesalpinia spp.) from Asia and South America produces red, pink, and purple. Of these, madder and cochineal were the most important and the most readily available to contemporary dyers.

Indigo is extracted from the stems and leaves of plants of the Indigofera species from India, Central America, and Africa and from woad (Isatis tinctoria) from Europe. Indigo, originally from India, is used for cotton, wool, and silk. Woad was an important source of blue in Europe until it was replaced by imported indigo. Indigo from all sources was fermented to produce the dye. The dye must be reduced to be absorbed by the fiber and the fabric exposed to oxygen to develop the blue color.

Log wood (Haematoxylon campechiancum L.) from Central America was one of the most important black dyes. It also was used for blue and purple. Black walnut (Juglans nigra) is used in the twenty-first century to produce substantive black and brown dyes.

Purple dyes have been among the most difficult natural colors to achieve in large quantities. Shellfish (or Tyrian) purple was removed from shellfish of the species Murex found in the Mediterranean Sea and Purpura found along the coasts of Central America. Orchil, another important purple dye, was derived from lichens.

Mineral dyes include iron buff, iron black, manganese bistre, chrome yellow, and Prussian blue. They were used primarily on industrial fabrics.

Dyeing with Natural Dyes

Natural dyes are most often processed in this way. The dyestuff is harvested or collected, soaked in water for several hours, and heated to a low simmer for approximately an hour or more to extract the dye. The extract is poured into another pot and water is added to achieve the desired dyebath volume. Wet, pre-mordanted textile is added to the dyebath, which is heated to a low simmer for approximately an hour. After the dyebath is cool, the textile is removed. Some dyers rinse before letting the textile dry. Other dyers prefer to dry the textile for several days before rinsing.

Contact dyeing is an alternate method in which the dyestuff, a tiny volume of water or other liquid, sodium chloride or mordant, and found materials like rusty nails or copper wire are placed in and around the textile that is sealed in a plastic bag or glass jar for several days, weeks, or months. Contact dyed textiles have unusual, one-ofa-kind patterns.

See also Dyeing; Chemical and Synthetic Dyes.

Bibliography

Casselman, Karen Leigh. Craft of the Dyer: Colour from Plants and Lichens of the Northeast. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980.

Gordon, P. F., and P. Gregory. Organic Chemistry in Colour. Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 1987.

Liles, J. N. The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing: Traditional Recipes for Modern Use. Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Knoxville Press, 1990.

Fruit And Vegetable Plant Dyes: How To Make Natural Dyes From Food

Many of us have used dye at home to enliven, renew or refurbish tired looking old clothes. Of recent history, more often than not, this involved using a Rit dye product; but before synthetic dyes, there were natural dyes made from food and other plants. Vegetable plant dyes (or fruit) have been around since ancient times and are enjoying resurgence today, as more and more of us try to filter out the use of synthetic products. Interested in making dye from fruits and veggies? Read on to find out how to make natural dyes from food.

How to Make Natural Dyes from Food

Prior to the invention of Rit dye in 1917, people dyed cloth with aniline dyes primarily supplied by Germany, but the advent of WWII severed this supply leading to Charles C. Huffman’s invention. Rit dye was a home dye that included soap that would dye and wash fabrics at the same time. Rit dye was not a natural vegetable plant dye, however, and included synthetic chemicals – including a fixative to help the garment retain the color.

Backtrack to ancient history and we can see that a lack of synthetics didn’t stop our forefathers, or mothers, from utilizing natural plant dyes. Making fabric dye with fruits and vegetables is fairly easy and inexpensive, especially if you have a garden or access to an area where you can

pick them easily.

So how do you go about making fabric dye with vegetables and fruits?

Making Fabric Dye from Fruits and Vegetables

First, you need to decide what color you want to dye your garment. This may be at your whim, or depending upon what fruits and veggies you have available. Fabric can be dyed a dizzying array of shades of brown, blue, green, orange, yellow, pink, purple, red, and gray-black. A few of the produce that can be uses as dyes are:

  • Plums
  • Red onions
  • Carrots
  • Beets
  • Grapes
  • Lemons
  • Red cabbage
  • Strawberries
  • Blueberries
  • Spinach
  • Savoy cabbage

There are many, many more options. The internet has some wonderful lists with specific names of a fruit or vegetable and what hue it will become when used as a dye. Some experimentation might be in order as well. For instance, if you are dying a garment that really matters to you, I would suggest practicing on a swatch of that fabric to test for color beforehand.

Once you have chosen your dye color and produce, chop it up and place it in a pot with two times the amount of water as produce. Bring the water to a boil, reduce heat and let steep for an hour. If you want a more vibrant, deeper color, leave the produce in the water overnight with the heat off.

Strain out the produce pieces and discard, or compost. The remaining liquid is your dye. Before you jump in and begin dying, however, you will need a fixative to help the fabric keep its color.

You can use either a salt fixative or a vinegar fixative.

  • Salt fixatives are used with berry dyes, while vinegar fixatives are used for other plant dyes. For the salt fixative, dissolve ½ cup salt in 8 cups of water, place the fabric in and simmer for an hour or longer.
  • The vinegar fixative needs one part vinegar to four parts water. Add the fabric and simmer for an hour or longer. If you want a deeper color, go ahead and simmer for longer than an hour.

Note: Use an old pot to dye in and wear rubber gloves when handling dyed fabric or you will likely have pink or green hands for days.

After you have achieved your desired hue, rinse the material out well with cool running water, continually squeezing out the excess. Wash the garment separately from any other clothing in cold water.

When dying with natural foods, natural fabrics such as muslin, silk, cotton and wool work the best. The lighter the original color of the fabric, the truer the desired color will be once dyed; white or pastel shades work the best.

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