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 materials to use for dye
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, day lilies, 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
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 dye 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 dyeing process
Before you start, cover the surface of your work area with newspaper. I use plastic sheeting too, because I don’t want to dye my counter tops. Be sure to wear gloves so you only color the fabric, not your hands. Then, prepare your dye.
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.
Fill pot with twice as much water as plant material.
Simmer for an hour or so, until you get a nice dark color.
Strain out the plant material and return the liquid to the pot.
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.
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 fabric to sit in the warm water as long as needed.
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
Dry as usual.