Dyes have been used since ancient times to add color to fabric or other items and to oneself. Before the 19th century, commercial dyes were not available, and dyes were primarily made from natural materials, generally whatever was available in a given region.
In America, plants were the most common source of dyes, although dyes from minerals and animal byproducts were also used.
How dyes work
The process in which a dye attaches to the material being colored is not completely understood, but it is commonly believed that a chemical reaction takes place between the dye and the material, permitting the dye to be absorbed. Whatever the reason, life would certainly be less colorful without dyes.
While commercial dyes can produce perfect and uniform results time after time, natural dyes have a certain character that commercial dyes lack. Subtle imperfections create an illusion of depth, and the rich, mellow, colors are a reflection of the earth itself. Color results will vary from batch to batch, making each dyed piece uniquely different and solely one of a kind.
Aesthetics aside, dyeing with a natural dye permits you to create something by hand from nature and is fascinating to do as you experiment with different dyestuff and different fabrics and materials.
Don’t be afraid to have fun and try different dyestuff. Sometimes the most beautiful colors are the result of an experiment. In this article, we will present some materials that are used for dyestuff. But don’t limit yourself to just these. Make dyestuff forays through forests and your garden, gathering material for experimenting.
Some enthusiasts grow and cultivate their own dyestuff gardens.
The first step in making your own dyes is to gather your dyestuff. If you are unfamiliar with plants, a good botanical field guide or a knowledgeable helper is handy to have along.
Flowers should be picked just after they have reached full bloom, while their color is full and lush. Nuts and fruit are better when they are completely ripe. And bark, branches, roots, or leaves should be gathered from mature plants.
Fresh dyestuff is usually used, but most can be harvested, then dried for later use if you wish. Store dried dyestuff in a cool, dry, and dark place. Fruit should be frozen instead of dried for best results.
Containers used for the dyebath and the mordant bath should be non-reactive and made of glass, stainless steel, or enamelware without any chips.
Some experienced dyers purposely use containers that are made from a reactive substance (like iron or copper kettles) to obtain a particular color since the metal will affect the final color.
Use large containers, 3 to 4 gallons in size to prevent overcrowding and unsatisfactory dyeing or mordant absorption. The container and amount of water should be great enough to permit swishing the material freely back and forth. Generally plan four gallons of water for one pound of material.
Soft water performs best, so if your water is hard or heavily chlorinated, capture rainwater and use it. Long-handled plastic or wooden spoons are needed for stirring, but a clean stick with the bark removed will suffice.
Cheesecloth, rubber gloves, stove, or means of heating, and a container or sink for rinsing the material are also needed. (Plastic containers can be used for rinsing.) After containers and other equipment have been used for dyeing, they should not be used for food preparation.
Fabric from cotton, wool, silk, or linen can be successfully dyed, as well as yarn, grasses, and reed. Fabric or other items made from man-made materials do not absorb dye as well. For best results, the material being dyed should be “scoured” to remove any oil or residue before placing it in the mordant bath.
To scour silk or wool, gently simmer over very low heat for 60 minutes in water to which a small amount of mild detergent has been added. Cotton or linen requires more vigorous simmering for 1½-2 hours. Stir occasionally, very slowly and gently. After scouring, let the water cool, then rinse until all traces of the soap are gone.
Grasses and reed should be soaked in plain warm water for 1 hour, and soap is not necessary.
If dyeing yarn, it should be loosely gathered and looped to prevent tangling. Tie loosely in several places so the dye can penetrate under the knot. If dyeing pieces of fabric or clothing, avoid folding or bunching.
The material is now ready for the mordant bath. Suppose time has lapsed since scouring the material, re-wet thoroughly before placing in the mordant. Placing dry material in the mordant or dyebath will cause streaking.
Natural dyes are generally divided into two types by practitioners of natural dyeing; substantive and adjective. Substantive dyes do not require a mordant, while adjective dyes do. Adjective dyes will rapidly fade or wash out unless a mordant is used, although some bleeding may occur, especially with berry or flower dyestuff. It is wise to launder dyed items in cold water until their colorfastness has been determined.
Mordant is a substance that penetrates deeply into the fibers of the material being dyed while the dye, in turn, bonds tightly to the mordant.
Some experienced practitioners mordant and dye at the same time, but it is usually best to mordant before dyeing unless you know what you are doing. The type of mordant used will affect the final color of the dyed product.
To make up a mordant bath, fill the non-reactive container with water, then slowly add the mordant to it. Avoid inhaling the fumes when working with a mordant, as some can be harsh, and store away from children and pets.
Stir until the mordant is completely dissolved over a low flame, bringing the mordant bath to room temperature before adding the fabric because you don’t want to add cloth (or whatever) to a really hot mordant bath as it might damage the material.
With some mordants, you have to heat it to boiling to extract the color (like beets, for example.) If you do this, then let it cool down somewhat before adding the material to be dyed.
Before adding the material to the mordant bath, make sure it is wet. Dry material will not absorb the dye evenly.
After adding the wet fabric or material, heat the solution to a simmer over low flame, frequently stirring gently and slowly. Continue to simmer for one hour, do not let the mordant boil. Remove the container from the heat and let cool, then remove the material and squeeze out excess.
The list below contains some commonly used mordant and general amounts. Some varieties of mordant can be found at grocery stores or pharmacies, while others may be obtained from chemical supply houses or specialty houses that cater to those who use natural dyes.
When mordant is obtained from a specialty house, follow the recommendations of the manufacturer as to the amounts to use.
Alum (potassium aluminum sulfate) is the most commonly used mordant. It can be easily found in most grocery stores and is the same preparation used in pickle making. Alum has little effect on the color of the finished material. Use 1½ ounces per gallon of water and rinse material before dyeing.
Blue Vitriol (copper sulfate) can be used at the rate of 1 ounce per gallon of water. It is especially useful when green is the desired dye color. Rinse fabric well after removing it from the mordant bath.
Copperas or Iron (iron sulfate) is a mordant but is more commonly used as an additive to tone down colors in the dyebath. Remove material from dyebath, add a pinch, and return material to the dyebath if the desired color is too bright.
Tannic Acid will impart a brown tinge; therefore, it is useful when brown colors are desired. Use 2½ Tbsp. per gallon of water and rinse material well before dyeing.
Tin (stannous chloride) brightens colors, particularly reds and yellows. It is a harsh mordant, however, and can damage delicate fibers. It can be used as an additive, as with Copperas.
When using dyestuff in raw form, it should first be “prepared” to obtain the most color from it. Begin by cutting bark, twigs, and roots into small pieces, shredding or tearing blossoms and leaves, crushing nut hulls, etc.
Next, wrap the dyestuff in cheesecloth and extract the color as explained in the recommendations below or follow the directions when using purchased dyestuff. If using dye powder, make sure it is completely dissolved.
Generally, dye is extracted by soaking, simmering, or boiling in water. Refer to the list below for extraction methods for some common dyestuff. When experimenting with new dyestuff, you will have to try the various methods to find which works the best.
Continue drawing out the color until the dyebath has reached the desired hue or the dyestuff is exhausted. If the color of the dyebath is too pale, add more dyestuff and continue extracting. If the color is too rich, add water to dilute it.
A sample piece of the material that you wish to dye is useful in determining the richness of the bath.
After the dyebath has been prepared, add the wet material to it and simmer gently until the desired color is obtained.
Stir frequently, so the dye penetrates evenly, carefully swishing the material being dyed, back and forth.
Gently lift the material from the dyebath and squeeze out excess. Rinse until the water runs clear, and then allow drying.
Alum is the mordant used for these dyebaths. Times, amounts, and results are approximate since variables like the maturity of the dyestuff, type of material being dyed, water chemistry, etc., can all affect results.
As to how much water to use for extracting the dyes, you add enough water to cover the dyestuff by 1½ inches or so, adding more water as needed. Yes, this definitely varies from one dyestuff to another. After the color extraction process is complete, more water can be added to dilute the intensity of the co
Parts used and amount needed: Gather nuts that have matured and fallen (8 lbs.). Method of extraction and approximate time: Presoak in water 8-10 hours, simmer 3 hours. Approximate dying time and obtained color: 1½ hours, simmering gently. Medium brown.
Parts used and amount needed: 4-5 lbs roots. Wash and cut into chunks. Method of extraction and approximate time: Boil 30-40 minutes or until the color has bled out. Approximate dying time and obtained color: Simmer 30-40 minutes. Rich, vibrant reddish-purple.
Parts used and amount needed: 1½ bushel blossoms in full bloom. Method of extraction and approximate time: Presoak 1 hour in warm water, boil gently 30 minutes. Approximate dying time and obtained color: 30-45 minutes, simmering gently. Golden brown.
Parts used and amount needed: 1 lb. ground beans. Method of extraction and approximate time: Boil for 20 minutes. Approximate dying time and obtained color: Simmer for 30-40 minutes. Light brown.
Parts used and amount needed: 2 bushels blossoms in full bloom. Method of extraction and approximate time: Simmer for 45-60 minutes. Approximate dying time and obtained color: Simmer for 30-45 minutes. Rich gold color.
Parts used and amount needed: 2 lbs. blossoms in full bloom. Method of extraction and approximate time: Simmer 25-30 minutes. Approximate dying time and obtained color: Simmer 30-40 minutes. Yellowish-gold.
Parts used and amount needed: 1 oz. dried roots, 1 lb. fresh roots. Method of extraction and approximate time: Presoak in water for 8-10 hours, simmer 45 minutes. Approximate dying time and obtained color: Simmer 30-40 minutes. Reddish orange.
Parts used and amount needed: 2 bushels blossoms in full bloom. Method of extraction and approximate time: Simmer 50-60 minutes. Approximate dying time and obtained color: Simmer 30 minutes. Rich, warm brown.
Onion skins (dry)
Parts used and amount needed: Collect 2- 2½ lb. Method of extraction and approximate time: Simmer 15-20 minutes. Approximate dying time and obtained color: Simmer 15-20 minutes. Golden yellow or reddish.
Parts used and amount needed: 1-1½ lb. green leaves. Method of extraction and approximate time: Simmer 45-60 minutes. Approximate dying time and obtained color: Simmer 20-30 minutes. Greenish-brown.
Parts used and amount needed: 4 gal. ripe blackberries. Method of extraction and approximate time: Add 1 cup vinegar to bath, boil for 30-40 minutes. Approximate dying time and obtained color: Simmer 25-30 minutes. Reddish-brown.
Queen Anne’s Lace
Parts used and amount needed: 1 bushel fully open blossoms and stems. Method of extraction and approximate time: Simmer 30 minutes. Approximate dying time and obtained color: Simmer 30 minutes. Green.
Parts used and amount needed: 3 lbs. green leaves. Method of extraction and approximate time: Approximate dying time and obtained color: Simmer 30-40 minutes, boil 1 hour. Olive green.
Parts used and amount needed: 1 lb. cured leaves. Method of extraction and approximate time: Add 1 oz. cream of tartar, dissolve, boil 30 minutes. Approximate dying time and obtained color: Simmer 30 minutes. Warm brown.
Wash containers and equipment with warm soapy water after using. If you wish to save your dyebath for later use, store it in lidded containers in a cool and dark place.
Suggested prepping learning: