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:
- Sheets and pillow cases
- Baby clothes
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).
- Onion skins (yellow/orange)
- Lilac twigs (yellow/orange)
- Butternut squash husks (yellow/orange)
- Dandelion roots (brown)
- Coffee grounds/tea (brown)
- Walnut hulls (brown)
- Boiled acorns (brown)
- Strawberries/cherries (pink)
- Roses (pink)
- Lavender (pink)
- Red cabbage (blue/purple)
- Red maple tree bark (blue/purple)
- Black iris (dark blue/purple)
- Hyacinth flowers (blue)
- Beets (deep red)
- Crab apple bark (red/yellow)
- Any red leaf (reddish brown)
- Iris roots (gray/black)
- Daylily blooms (red/purple)
- Artichokes (green)
- Red clover (gold)
- Queen Anne’s lace (yellow)
- Celery leaves (yellow)
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!
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
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!