Fun Summer Activities: Natural Dyeing

Tie-dyeing is a super fun summer activity and a good way to repurpose that old white t-shirt that you don’t wear anymore or those boring pillow cases. One fun way to take advantage of natural resources around you and repurpose potential waste is by replacing traditional tie-dyeing with natural dyeing! Natural dyeing uses plants, veggie scraps, fruit scraps and other natural resources to create beautiful hues. It is a great way to rejuvenate your pillow cases, t-shirts, socks, bandana’s, yarn skeins and so much more. Here is your guide to natural dyes.

Things to Know Before You Start:

Natural dyes stick best to natural fabrics, like cotton, linen, wool, hemp and silk. It won’t be absorbed by a material that is synthetic or chemically treated. Wool is a natural absorbent, antimicrobial with wicking property, which makes it a great fibre for dyeing. Plus wool is a renewable resource and can be produced organically. Stash Lounge in Inglewood, Calgary sells specific yarn for dyeing. 

The colours won’t always be exact, there are a lot of variables based on the resources you’re using to how you make the dye and how it reacts to your fabrics. Natural dyeing encourages you to have fun with experimentation! It is useful to keep notes of your experimentations in the case of good results that you’d hope to replicate later. It is also a good idea to do a test batch before dyeing any beloved item, just in case the colour isn’t quite what you’d like.

You’ll need a large space, room for several buckets and containers, as well as your supplies including fabrics, dye materials, spoons, tongs and a drying rack or clothesline. If possible dye outside or in a space away from the kitchen because of the possible odours and messes.

Thrift your materials! You might be able to find fabric or garments to dye and the tools you’ll need in thrift or second hand stores.

Tools:

  • Stainless Steel Pot – specifically designated for dyeing as to not contaminate the pots that you cook with. Aluminum or copper pots will act as natural mordants.
  • Tongs
  • Wooden Spoon
  • Rubber Gloves
  • Sieve or Strainer
  • Measuring Spoons and Cups
  • Notebook and Pen
  • Soda Ash, PH Neutral Laundry Detergent or Scent-free Dish Soap
  • Mason Jars – to save dye and dye materials.
  • Types of Mordants: Salt & Baking Soda, Vinegar or Alum (found in spice aisle, see here.)

Steps:

#1 Scour – Prep your Fabric

It is important to clean your fabric thoroughly before dyeing it. It helps to remove the oils and chemicals that develop on the fabric either naturally or in the manufacturing process. Cotton and linen can be scoured with soda ash, by using hot water and a PH neutral laundry detergent in your washing machine or scent-free dish soap in a pot on the stove.

When using soda ash, wear gloves and use a big stock pot to dissolve a few tablespoons of regular fabric detergent per gallon of boiling water. Add fabric and turn on the heat, letting the concoction simmer for about two hours while stirring occasionally. Drain and rinse the material after two hours. For wool, you will want to scour it in a pot on the stove to avoid felting it.

#2 Mordant – Treating your Fabric

This step is important in further enhancing the fabric’s absorbency and encouraging the fabric to accept the dye. For wool and silk, you’ll soak not boil. Boiling will cause the fabrics to felt.

If using alum, wear gloves and stir a few teaspoons of alum into a cup of boiling/warm water and pour that into the stainless steel pot of cool water. Stir in the fabric and bring to a simmer for an hour. Then rinse your fabric.

If using salt & baking soda, fill your stainless steel pot with 1.5 to 2 gallons of water, bring water to a boil and add 1 tablespoon of salt and 1 tablespoon of baking soda, and stir to dissolve. Add fabric to the pot and simmer for about one hour. Then rinse and strain fabric.

Alternatively, if you are using veggies scraps for dye, you can try using 1 cup vinegar to 4 cups water solution and for fruit scraps 1/4 cup of salt to 4 cups of water.

#3 Dye Baths – Making the Dye

When making your dye it is best to follow the 2:1 rule. A 2:1 ratio of water to dye materials. Alternatively, you can use a 1:1 weight ratio of dye materials to fabric, for example one kilogram of veggie scraps per kilogram of fabric. There is lots of room for experimentation in creating your dyes, so feel free to improvise with the amounts and types of dye materials you use. Depending on the type of resources you use for dye, you’ll have to prepare them differently. For example, black beans need to soak in lots of water overnight and then remove the beans from the dye.

Bring dye materials to a simmer – not a boil. Simmer for about an hour; you’ll usually start seeing colour extraction around 30 minutes. If you want, you can simmer for an hour, turn off the heat (but leave the dye materials in the pot on the stove), and then simmer again until you see the colour you want. Some people prefer to separate the dye source from the dye bath before placing the fabric or material into the dye bath. This is when you can use the sieve or strainer to remove the materials. You can compost the now pale food bits and set aside the liquid till you’re ready to dye. You could also put your dye materials into muslin or tea balls to make it easier to remove from the liquid. Depending on the extraction of colour from the dye material, you could also store them in mason jars for later use.

#4 Dyeing the Fabric

If your fabric has dried since the mordant phase, simply rinse in cold water. Pour the food dye liquid into a large vessel, either a bucket or stock pot from earlier, and dunk the fabric in it. There should be enough dye so that the fabric can swim around freely; if it’s bunched you’ll get a tie-dye effect. Allow the fabric to sit in the dye bath overnight, or until you’ve reached your desired colour – this could be anywhere from one hour to six hours. Alternatively, you can heat the pot slowly and bring it to a low simmer for about an hour, for wool and silk only soak. Once you’re happy with the colour, rinse with cold water and dry on the drying rack or clothesline. The colour will lighten somewhat, but will remain.

#5 Caring for Dyed Materials

A few days after dyeing, wash your fabric in cold water, with a natural or PH neutral detergent and on gentle-cycle, or ideally by hand. Wash with like-colours and inside out. Avoid tumble dryers.

Further Reading and Resources:

  • The Modern Natural Dyer: A Comprehensive Guide to Dyeing Silk, Wool, Linen and Cotton at Home – Kristine Vejar
  • Natural Colour: Vibrant Plant Dye Projects for Your Home and Wardrobe – Sasha Duerr
  • Botanical Colour at Your Fingertips – Rebecca Desnos
  • Harvesting Colour – Rebecca Burgess
  • A Weaver’s Garden – Rita Buchanan
  • Wild Colour – Jenny Dean
  • Eco Colour – India Flint
  • The Complete Guide to Natural Dyeing – Eva Lambert & Tracy Kendall
  • The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes — Sasha Duerr
  • A Garden to Dye For – Chris McLaughlin
  • Wild Colour – Jenny Dean
  • Naturally dyeing wool with Plants she Grows! Full Garden tour + Mini Documentary.
  • https://rebeccadesnos.com/pages/natural-dyeing

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