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How To: Dye With Natural Elements

Color Wheel Dyed on Wool with Acid Dye

One of the biggest problems with textiles is obviously the pollution that comes from the growing, weaving, and dying process associated with creating fabrics. There are many ways to cut back on the huge amount of waste created. Using organically grown or raised fibers is a huge step, especially with cotton. The large amounts of nitrogen based fertilizer used in regular cotton production is well-known to be a big contributing factor to the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. At home choose organic or natural dyes is a big step in the right direction. It is definitely possible to get beautiful rich colors using minerals, plants, and even insects as dyeing material.

One of the best part of natural dyes is collecting and harvesting all of the materials to dye with. Some you can find in your yard or grocery store, some are more exotic and do need to be purchased from reputable dealers. Before using these materials you want to chop them down to small pieces.
Most of these dyes work best when used on proteins, but can also be used on cottons. Blends are ok, as long as they’re in the same family, wool/silk or cotton/rayon. For depth of color experiment, there are many variables in the growing and harvesting of these plants. More material will usually give you richer colors, while less material will give paler pastel colors. A good rule of thumb when you are figuring out a basic quantity for dyeing is to use equal weights dyestuff to the weight of the material.

For some these natural dyes it is important to use a mordant, while you can use all natural dyes without the mordant, it helps the color to come out stronger. Mordants are a range of chemicals that the yarns or fabrics are treated with to help them retain the dye better. Mordants may have to be carefully disposed of depending on what they are made of. Some people prefer to forgo using mordents because they can be extremely toxic, but I prefer to leave the choice up to you, whether or not you will choose to use them. I prefer to try dying without the extra chemicals first see how the color comes out, and if it isn’t dark or vibrant enough then and only then use the mordant. If you do choose to use these extra chemicals always contact your state environmental agency to find out where to bring your waste materials. At the bottom of this post you will find three charts of Mordants.

The most wonderful thing about natural dye’s is that each time you dye, the dye pot will give you a slightly different color. I wish I knew all of this when I was a little kid creating concoctions of wild blackberries and trying to dye my mothers sheets and pillowcases in our back yard!

Here are the basic natural dyes.

Alkanet: Alkanna tinctoria, a root
. You use 1-4 oz per lb. of wool or use equal weights of dyestuff and fibers. It is an ancient dye that was used in later Egypt and
 Neo-Babylonian Mesopotamia. It gives a reddish to purple dye.

Method: Simmer dyestuff for at least one hour strain the fibers and simmer for at least another hour.
 Mordants: none gray/blue, Alum purple, Blue, Vitriol brown/purple, Copper purple/black, Tin deep mauve.
Eucalyptus leaves: over 600 species. 
Equal amounts of yarn and dyestuff. 
Rusty brown to dark red dye.

Method: Chop up leaves, cover with boiling water, simmer gently for at least one hour, then leave to soak overnight. Add fibers to be dyed and simmer gently for three to four hours. Deeper colors will result if the leaves are left in the dye bath with the fibers.

Turmeric: root/culinary spice. 
Not as wash or light fast as other dyes.
 Yellow dye.
 No mordant necessary.
 Use half the weight of dyestuff to fiber.

Method: Mix powder into a paste with a little warm water, stirring well to incorporate all the particles, add more water and simmer dye solution for one hour and then strain through a coffee filter before adding fibers.

Fustic: From the heartwood of the Chlorophora tinctoria or Morus tintoria
. Yellow Dye.
 Use at least half the weight of the dyestuff to the fiber.

Method: Pour boiling water over wood chips and leave to steep overnight. Strain off liquid into dye bath and dye wood chips to use again later ( when re-using wood chips, simmer them at least 45 min. to make dye bath).

Cutch: Kutch, Catechu Acacia, from heartwood
 1-2 ounce per lb. of wool, or half the weight of dyestuff to fibers
. Orange-brown dye
. No mordant necessary.

Method: Dissolve chunks or granules in boiling water. Mix powder into a paste with warm water and then stir into the water of the dye bath. No heat necessary. For deep colors, soak several days, or fiber can be gently simmered for an hour or so. It is a difficult dye to exhaust.
 Mordants: none rusty/ tan, Alum, rusty/ brown/ blue, Vitriol brown, Copper gray/ brown, Tin rusty/gold.

Brazilwood: From the heartwood of the Atmatoxylon brasiletto or Caesalpinia echinata
 Rich red and claret dye.
 No mordant necessary.
 1-6 ounces per lb. of wool or for really strong color, equal weight dyestuff and fiber.

Method: Pour boiling water over chips and soak 2-7 days, boil 1 hour, strain, add water to cover, dye 45-60 min. Chips can be dried and used in successive baths for paler (pink) color. 
Mordants: none pink-yellow, Alum salmon-rose/Blue, Vitriol brown/salmon rose, Copperas rosy brown/purple, Tin pink rose.

Alder Bark: Contains lots of tannin, can be used instead of oak galls for mordenting.
 No mordant needed.
 Pink-tan to olive-green dye.
 Use equal weight dyestuff and fiber.

Method: Soak for days or weeks in cold water, then simmer (do not boil) for one hour. Bark can be dried and potentially used again for a weaker solution.

Onion Skins:
 No mordant necessary, but it improves colorfastness.
 Shades of orange, yellow, rust and brown dye
. Use half weight dyestuff to fiber.

Method: Soak skins in water to cover for half an hour or more. Bring water to a boil and occasionally stir. The color will be released when the skins appear wilted and the dye liquor has a good color (about half an hour). Strain the dye liquor and add cold water and fiber to be dyed.

Madder: Rubia tinctorum, a root
 one of the most important historical dyes.
 Red, pinks, and orange dyes.
 3-8 oz per lb. of wool, or equal weight dyestuff to fiber for strong colors.

Method: crush and soak overnight, cool at less than a simmer 30 min or more. It should not be boiled! Boiling will dull the color. Leave root in pot while dyeing. Can be reused 2-3 times. Add one tablespoon of citric acid crystals to last dye bath for bright orange and tangerine. Another dye bath past the citric acid one will yield a pale yellow-orange.
 Mordants: none pink tan, Alum deep orange/blue, Vitriol dark tan, Copper brown, Tin orange.

Oak Bark: Acorns leaves and oak galls can be used for dyes.
 No mordant needed  full of tannic acid naturally
 beige, khaki dye

Method: Soak bark for at least one week, then simmer bark for one to two hours to extract more dye. Add fiber – can be dyed with or without heat. Best to strain bark or put bark in cheesecloth to reduce time spent cleaning yarn.

Osage Orange: bark, wood chips or sawdust from the heartwood of the tree.
 6 oz per lb. of wool, 3-8 oz of sawdust or half weight of fibers to be dyed. For extract, use one-quarter of the weight of fiber to be dyed.
 Yellow, yellow-green, gold dye.

Method: For extract, simply dissolve in hot water before use. From wood chips, first soak them overnight, then simmer for half an hour or more and strain. Chips can be dried and re-used for paler color. The yarn should be simmered for 45-60minutes.
 Mordants: none light yellow, Alum green/yellow, Blue Vitriol light olive, Copper olive, Tin bright yellow.

Henna: Powdered leaves of the Lawsonia inermis. 
No mordant required.
 Widely used as a body and hand colorant.
 Rust or brown dye. 
3-8 oz. per lb. of wool, or half the weight of dyestuff to fiber.

Method: Mix powder into paste with warm water, stirring well to incorporate fine particles. Fill with water to desired level, simmer for one hour, then strain through coffee filter or muslin to remove particles. Simmer fiber until desired depth is attained.
 Mordants: none brown, Alum brown, Blue Vitriol khaki/brown, Copper dark brown, Tin red-brown.

Coffee: You can use coffee grounds after they have made coffee. Coffee color dye. 
3 one lb. coffee cans of grounds to one lb.of fiber.

Method: Put coffee grounds in lightweight cotton bag, big enough for the grounds to be able to move around inside. Boil for one hour, remove bag, add yarn boil 30 minutes. Cool in dye bath.

Black Walnut Husks: Juglans nigra.
 No mordant required.
 Beige, taupe dye.
 Use at least half the weight dyestuff to fibers.
 Method: Soak hulls in water for 24 hours (if fermentation happens it great makes a better color). Simmer husks for one hour then strain. You can keep husks and dry them to use again. Put fiber in dye bath and simmer one hour. Leave in dye bath overnight ( without heat). Repeat for deeper color.

Logwood: Heartwood of logwood tree; woodchips or extract
. Bluish to reddish-purple dye.
 Prized for helping to make black. 
Extract or powder: use one-tenth of the weight of dyestuff to fiber (one and one-half oz per lb. of wool) Wood chips use half the weight of dyestuff to fiber.

Method: Dissolve in boiling water and stir into dye bath. Chips: pour enough boiling water over chips to make dye bath and soak overnight. Pour off dye liquor and use for first dye bath. Simmer one hour leave fiber to soak overnight. If color is to pale, simmer wood chips about 20 minutes to extract more dye. Strain off and add this to dye bath and re-dye fibers. Used wood chips can be dried and stored and re-used. A lovely purple results from alum, but fades fairly rapidly. 
Mordants: none blue-brown, Alum gray/brown/purple, Blue Vitriol gray/blue, Copper purple/gray, Tin dark purple.

Cochineal: Insect Dactylopius Coccus
Dye is made from the dried bodies of an insect which lives on cactus plants in Mexico and Central America.They are harvested by brushing off the plants and immersing the insects in boiling water. Often used as a food colorants.
 Red, pink, orange dye. 
1-5 oz per lb. of wool.

Method: Soak overnight, boil for 30 minutes, strain and dye.
 Mordants: none pink, Alum crimson/blue, Vitriol dusty purple, Copper gray/purple-black, Tin red.

So after you choose your dye, how do you dye your fabrics at home well and with get great color? It all starts out with great preparation.

-Make sure that your vessel for hot dyeing is either enamel or stainless steel, cold dying can take place in plastic tubs.

-Always try to use soft water, if you need to soften your water add 2 grams/liter of Calgon to the dye bath.

– Make sure your using the proper dye for your material. First check the labeled material and then double-check by burn testing.

– All materials that will be dyed need to have there pre-treatment removed. Usually in the processing of yarns or fabrics they add a treatment always wash your material before you die it.

– Before putting materials into dye bath thoroughly wet the material with water to create a more even dyeing.

-All additions (chemical) to the dye bath should be dissolved or diluted before adding to the dye bath. Do this before you add your materials.

– Rinsing the material is very important. All of the dye that comes out in washing is extra and has not affixed to the material. Rinse until water runs clear. This will brighten the colors and keep the material from rubbing off-color.

-Do not put too much material in the pot. You want the material to easily move around.

-Immediately clean all pots and tools after dyeing is complete. It gets harder to clean the longer you wait.


One thought on “How To: Dye With Natural Elements

  1. Lovely charts! Something that you may want to mention or explore: when I was working with a dyer from Southern California, I was getting quite different results in Montana. We finally checked the water Ph in both places and found that my Montana water was significantly more alkaline. The same amount of dye from the same batch would naturally be a different color in different places. I think this is something that people don’t understand and it could be what often frustrates dyers by giving inconsistent results. When in doubt, check your water’s Ph before you start adding dyes or mordants. You can correct or change the Ph before you add dyes or mordants, but remember to correct it in any water that will have dye or mordant.

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