The Beginners Guide to Natural Dyes – What you need to know!
Hey Creative mamas! I am so excited to share with you how to work with natural dyes! In the Ultimate Guide to Natural dyeing I shared the overall process of natural dyeing with all it’s different steps and methods that are required to achieve beautiful colors naturally.
But in this post I am doing a deep dive about the different natural fabric dyes and how well they work when using them both in fabric and in yarn.
My natural dyeing practice is focused on experimentation and transformation of my materials that I will then use in my creative slow sewing projects. In this post I want to share with you some specifics about natural dyes and the amazing possibilities that they offer to the creative sewer and fabric crafter. I will cover the different types of natural dyes and how to transform a dyestuff to a dye bath.
Natural dyes are the oldest way of dyeing. Our ancestors used to dye all their cloth naturally using plant materials, leaves, roots, bark and flowers, as well as veggies, fruits and insects. Even though natural dyeing takes longer and the results cannot always be predicted, this method allows you to produce the most magical, intense and bright colors ever! This is you Beginner’s Guide to Natural Dyes and your intro to the world of dyeing your own fabric and yarn.
Natural dyes versus acid dyes
I started my dyeing practice more than twenty years ago with acid dyes. I used to dye my own fabrics and used them in my fashion brand. I loved dyeing so much that I started dyeing silks and cottons for other designers back in the day. I loved the process but I didn’t love the side effects that came with it (I was using acid dyes).
I was constantly suffering from eye infections and skin problems so I had to have a break. Needless to say, I became increasingly aware of the toxicity produced by industrial chemical acid dyes.
When I celebrated my thirtieth birthday, I became a mom and in my new protecting role I started searching for better options in terms of clothing for my kids. When my kids were babies I made sure I only used white or cream natural fibers to avoid their sensitive baby skin to be in contact with harsh chemicals.
My research took me to a place in which I needed to practice what I was learning. This started a long and beautiful natural dyeing practice that started ten years ago. The best part is that I was able to make it part of my every day mama routine and I also got my kids involved with natural dyes and their color possibilities.
What is Natural Dyeing?
Natural Dyeing is the process of using natural dyes that are extracted from natural sources, such as plants, minerals and insects. You can extract beautiful colors from leaves, flowers, bark, roots as well as rocks, fruits and veggies.
Types of Dyes
There are different types of dyes which means that you need to treat them slightly different. Every dye will bond to the fibers in different ways , some of them fix to the fibers easily and others need some xtra help. this is when we use mordants. The dyes can be classified in four categories:
- Substantive dyes
- Adjective dyes
- Vat dyes
- Fugitive dyes
The substantive dyes are the easiest dyes to apply because they will adhere to the fiber without the assistance of any other substances. They are ususaly dyes which are rich in tannins including barks and the leaves and fruits of trees, such as walnut, sumac, eucalyptus and oak.
Substantive dyes do not require the fiber to be mordanted prior to dyeing. check out this article about the importance of mordants in natural dyeing.
These dyes need the help of a mordant in order to adhere permanently to the fiber. Most dyes follow in this category. Examples are cochineal and nettle.
Vat dyes are not soluble in water, therefore they require a more complex process. Indigo is an example of a vat dye and it doesn’t require a mordant.
These dyes produce non lasting results and I personally don’t consider them dyes. They produce stains which will fade with time, however if your intention is to embrace their ephimeral nature you can have lots of fun with them. these include beetroot, turmeric and blackberries.
This post contains affiliate links, which means I receive a small commission, at no extra cost to you, if you make a purchase using this link. Click here to read my full disclosure policy.
My favorite natural dyes:
Check out how these dyes produce amazing color in this chart I use to teach my Natural Dyeing Workshops. I have used all the dyes in the list above to create this sample chart.
Where to find natural dyes?
I like to divide my dyes into bought dyes and found dyes. As mentioned before, I use my natural dyeing practice as a way to connect with my environment and I love to gather my natural dyes from the physical world around me.
However, there are times in which I want to get a specific purple or a bright pink and I just don’t have access to those dyes here in New Zealand. So I keep my natural dyeing little studio well stocked with my favorite bought dyes and I regularly harvest my dye garden as well as.
Bought dyes can include:
- Dye powders or extract powders (Logwood)
- Wood chips and shavings (Fusticwood)
- Roots (Madder, Alkanet)
- Insects (Cochineal)
- Flowers (Dyer’s Chamomile, Safflower)
Illustration from left to right: Cochineal insects(pinks), Fusticwood bark shavings (yellows, greens), Madder root (terracota, reds)
- Leaves (eucalyptus, oak tree, avocado leaves)
- Fresh flowers (marigolds, hollyhocks)
- Roots (dandelion and madder)
- Nuts (acorns, chestnut hulls and walnut husks)
- Bark (oak)
- Food waste (avocado skin and pits, onion skin, black tea, coffee.
Illustration: Acorn dye (gold and grey/black colors)
Best natural dyes
In my years of dyeing practice I have discovered what works and what doesn’t work. Here is a list of plants, flowers, bark, roots, insects, veggies and fruits which work beautifully. I suggest you stick to this list which is broad enough and will give you the full spectrum of color.
As a mom I like to keep things super simple and very efficient so I have developed a list of dyes that give me the a big variety of colors, the pinks, reds, yellows and browns. In this Beginner’s Guide to Natural Dyeing For Moms I have created a list of dyes that will work for you. These dyes will dye your fabric beautifully and if you follow my method the color will stay in your fabric forever.
- Cochineal bugs for pinks. Check out this tutorial on how to get pink dye for fabric and yarn from cochineal
- Madder root for reds
- Logwood for purples (I normally buy these dyes from the supplier and keep them in stock in my workroom)
- Fusticwood for yellows
- Alkanet for purples
- Eucalyptus for golds and mustard yellows
- Red onion skins/yellow onion skins for bright yellows
- Dyers Chamomile for bright yellows
- Avocado skins and stones for soft pinks. Check out this tutorial on how to get pinks and blush from avocado dyes.
- Acorns for browns and golds. Make natural black dye from acorns too!
All these dyes will produce different tones depending on the mordant you use and if you modify the color after the initial dye process.
Download your Free 10 Best Natural Dyes List plus get access to my entire Resource Library
How to get started with dyeing your fabric?
These are the five steps you must always follow.
- Fiber classification (We will be dyeing with protein fibers such as wool and silk). you must do a Fabric Burn Test to be sure you you have 100 % natural fibers. Natural dyeing will only work on natural fibers
- Dye Extraction
- Dye Process
Types of fabric and yarn to use
For this tutorial we are going to focus on protein fibers such as silk and wool. the important thing to remember is that natural dyes will only bond when used on natural fibers such as 100% cotton, linen, hemp, flax, wool and silk.
What materials do you need for natural dyeing?
- Natural Dyes
- Mordant agent: The only mordant I like to use is Allum, (Alluminium Sulphate) since it’s the safest option for myself and for the environment
- Cream of tartar
- Stainless steel pots (whatever you use it can never be used to cook food again!)
- Stirring wooden spoons
- Neutral PH soap
- Heat source, I used this one for years and years!
- Plastic jug
- Rubber gloves and face mask
- Plastic bowl and bucket
- Silk and or wool
Tutorial: How to dye fabric using natural dyes?
Step 1 & Step 2
We need to scour because it’s very important to ensure all fibers are clean from oils, dirt and industrial processes. We need to mordant because we need to prepare the fiber to open up and receive the color dye.
How to make fabric dye?
Now that you have gone through the scouring and the mordanting steps you need to extract the dye from your natural dye.
Step 3: Extracting the dye to create a dye bath
Fill a big pot with water and your chosen flowers, leaves, bark or bugs. Choose your natural dye.
For this example I am using avocado skins and pits as my natural dye. Avocado yields beautiful blush and pink tones. Read here for the full recipe of natural dyeing with avocados.
Bring to a simmer. Simmer for 1 hour.
Turn heat off and let it cool naturally. You can leave cooling overnight.
Strain and use as dye bath. Basic rule is 100% WOF (weight of fabric) but higher percentages may be used for deeper color results. If in doubt I use up to 300% WOF and if I feel the color is too dark I will dilute the dye bath with clear water.
PRO TIP: It’s always better to soak your leaves, flowers, bark or bugs overnight before you start the simmering process. This will help start the dye extraction and will give you a better result!
How to dye fabric?
Step 4: Dyeing Process
Add the mordanted and pre wetted fiber to the dye bath. Slowly raise temperature to a simmer. Simmer for 1 hour. Remove from the dye bath. Rinse fiber in lukewarm water. Make sure the water runs clear of dye. Hang it to dry away from sunlight.
How to dye yarn naturally
Dyeing wool yarn naturally is a bit different than dyeing fabric because you need to be careful not to felt it. To avoid felting the yarn must be handled with care to avoid friction and sudden changes of temperature.
The main thing to consider when dyeing yarn naturally is to immerse in the cold dye bath and slowly increase the heat until you reach a simmering point. Never allow the dye pot to reach boiling point when dyeing wool yarn.
If you are dyeing silk or cotton yarn you don’t need to worry too much because both fibers will be able to withstand higher temperatures.
The silk may loose its shine when exposed to high temperatures for a longer period so better to keep dye pot at simmering point.
Natural dyes recipes:
What can you do after dyeing your own fabric and yarn?
I use my natural dyeing practice to create my own colors to use in my slow sewing crafts. The possibilities are endless. You can dye your own yarn and knit with it, you can crochet or weave as well. I like making fabric collages with my dyed fabrics and wools as well as embroidery with my dyed yarns and threads.
Illustration: My own creative process starts with color. Once I have the colors and textures around me, they turn into a story and the story turns into a fabric craft of some sort.
In this example below I made a cute tea cozy using lots of naturally dyed yarn. I used a lazy daisy embroidery stitch and then made some pom poms with the yarn as well! The colors were obtained using cochineal, logwood, madder and dyer’s chamomile.
I use this tea cozy every time I host a nice afternoon tea for my friends! Read the full tutorial here.
Download your Free 10 Best Natural Dyes List plus get access to my entire Resource Library
I teach in person Natural Dyeing Workshops within my local community. I am lucky enough to be able to share this amazing craft with groups of creative and crafty women. We use all dye material that surrounds us here in New Zealand and these are some of the results at the Selwyn Community Education.
Check out these cool Natural Dyeing books!
If you have any questions about Natural Dyeing please reach out and I will be happy to answer them Also if you like this post please share it with your other creative mama friends!