Imagine opening your closet and finding your entire wardrobe devoid of any color. No more vibrant socks or bright, white shirts. We often take for granted the pigments that allow us to have that lucky red sweater or go-to jacket. It’s hard to imagine how our ancestors got by without synthetic dyes, but you might be surprised to learn how colorful the ancient world was. As far back as 2600 BCE, dyes were made with water, oil, and natural pigments derived from local resources, including exotic plants, insects, and sea life. Some fabric dyes, such as purple made from shells of crushed mollusks, were literally worth their weight in gold.
Today, 90% of clothing is dyed synthetically, so it’s sometimes fun to take a look back to our roots and go the natural route. Whether you’re hoping to revive an old t-shirt or make use of some leftover greens, here’s how to make natural dyes work for you.
What You’ll Need:
- Small saucepans
- Large mixing bowl
- Measuring cup
- Glass jars
- Wash buckets (or old pot)
- Rubber bands (optional, for tie-dye)
- Plant ingredients (see below)
Pick a color, any color:
Depending on the color you’d like to create, your ingredients will vary and experimentation is always key. Always use ripe, fresh, and mature plant material — never dried.
- Red / Pink: Pomegranates, beets, raspberries, blueberries, cherries, red and pink roses, avocado skins and seeds (weird, but true!), lavender
- Orange: Carrots and carrot roots, orange peels, yellow onion skins
- Yellow: Lemon peels, celery leaves, turmeric, paprika, marigolds, sunflowers
- Green: Spinach, parsley, peppermint leaves, artichokes
- Blue / Purple: Blackberries, red cabbage, grapes, blueberries, red mulberries, hibiscus
- Brown: Dandelion roots, oak bark, walnut hulls, tea, coffee, acorns
- Gray / Black: Blackberries, walnut hulls, iris root
Time to Prep:
Cover your work area with newspaper or plastic sheeting to prevent dyeing counter tops. To avoid dyeing your hands, be sure to wear gloves.
Chop your chosen plant material into small portions to increase surface area. If the plant is tough, smash the root with a hammer to make it fibrous.
Now, you’ll want to get your fabric ready. When dyeing with natural ingredients, using natural fabrics such as muslin, silk, cotton, and wool produces the best results. The lighter the original fabric color, the brighter your dyed fabric will be.
Wash your fabric, but don’t dry it! The fabric needs to be wet for the dye to stick. Prepare a fixative or “mordant” — from the Latin mordere meaning “to bite” — to help the dye stick and avoid fading over time. For fruit dyes, simmer the fabric in ¼ cup salt and 4 cups of cold water. For vegetable dyes, simmer in 1 cup vinegar and 4 cups water. Boil for one hour and then rinse with cool water.
Now Let’s Get Started:
Add your chopped plant ingredients into a small saucepan and cover with twice as much water as fruit or vegetable. Place over medium heat and bring to a simmer for one hour.
Turn off the heat and let the water return to room temperature. Pour the cooled dye through a strainer and into a mixing bowl. Then funnel the dye into a glass jar or directly into wash buckets.
Soak cloth in a wash bucket with dye until it reaches your desired color. Next, place the fabric in a microwave-safe plastic bag and seal. Heat in the microwave for two minutes on high on top of paper towels or a microwave-safe plate. Remove the bag from the microwave carefully and allow to completely cool overnight.
The next day, rinse under cool water and hang to air dry. To further heat-set the dye, run the item through a drier on high for about one hour.
Launder only by hand in a very mild detergent and separate from other items of clothing to avoid staining.
Juliette Donatelli, “The History of Fabric Dye,” ZADY, https://zady.com/features/the-history-of-fabric-dye.
Amy Grant, “Fruit and Vegetable Plant Dyes: How To Make Natural Dyes From Food,” Gardening Know How, https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/vegetables/vgen/fruit-vegetable-plant-dyes.htm.
Debra Maslowski, “How To Dye Fabrics Using Natural Materials,” DIY Natural, https://www.diynatural.com/natural-fabric-dyes/.
“Natural Dyes From Plants and Vegetables,” Martha Stewart, https://www.marthastewart.com/1518254/natural-dyes-from-vegetables-and-plants.
“Wednes-DIY: Making Natural Dyes,” Bldg 25 Blog, https://blog.freepeople.com/2011/08/diy-natural-dyes/.