Natural Dyeing 101 – How to Use Natural Dyes!

Natural dyeing 101 - how to dye fabric and clothing with natural dyes // Closet Core Patterns

We’ve covered some dyeing basics in the first post in this series, and now we are going to start digging a bit deeper into the finer points of natural dyeing, something that has grown increasingly popular in the last few years. Whether it’s fashion designers using natural dyes exclusively for their collections, quilters creating hand-dyed masterpieces using plants from their garden (#goals), or sewists and makers turning to natural dyes to customize the fabric and materials they create with, natural dyes are having a MAJOR MOMENT.

It’s easy to see why. Many of us start sewing because we don’t want to participate in the toxic nature of the fast fashion industry, and few elements of fashion are literally as toxic as the dyeing process (I highly suggest reading these articles from Fashion Revolution and Vogue Australia to learn more about the impact industrial dyeing has on the environment). While natural dyes in and of themselves are gentle to the earth, it is important to note that they do require mordants to set (more on this in a moment). From my research, using alum or tannic mordants are quite safe; it is the tin or copper mordants used industrially that may pose a danger when used in large quantities. Using alum or other gentle mordants, it is perfectly safe to dispose of dye vats down the drain, but be mindful if you have a septic system. It’s important to maintain the proper pH in a septic tank, so you’ll either want to dilute your exhausted dye baths with water, or neutralize the pH with an acid before disposal.

Napkins dyed with indigo, Quebracho red and cutch.

As I mentioned in my introductory post, I LOVE the colours you can achieve using natural dyes. So far I’ve experimented with five extracts, and there is a tonal depth and richness to them that would be tricky to recreate with a commercial dye. Used straight up, it’s possible to get deep reds, rich yellow, vibrant indigo, soft greens, pinks and earthy neutrals; more advanced dyers can experiment with mixing, overdyeing and using various mordants to get even more shade variants (I was blown away by the palette of colours Kristine and Adrienne were able to create in their latest book – highly suggest picking it up if you’d like to see just what is possible with natural dyes!)

Example of shade variations achieved in Journeys in Natural Dyeing

Since you are dependent on dyes that naturally occur, you may never get the truly endless tones achievable with commercial dyes, but the quality of colour possible with natural dyes is so seductive I don’t think you’ll mind!

SOURCING NATURAL DYES

A selection of natural dye extracts available from Maiwa

While you can get started right away using easily accessible ingredients from your grocery store or garden, there are also a variety of commercially prepared natural dyes you can purchase in powder or liquid form. Here are a few sources:

Powder and liquid dye from A Verb for Keeping Warm and Botanical Colors

Most shops will include sample photos to illustrate how dye will react to various fibers. Personally, I love cutch (shades of earthy terra cotta), madder (deep, vibrant red), indigo and weld (a deep Closet Core yellow). If you’re purchasing extracts, I suggest starting  with a sampling of dyes that speak to you; you can build a pretty extensive range of shades by mixing a few basic colours.

Colours achieved with Quebracho red, cutch and madder

That said, one of my favorite things about getting started with natural dyeing is that you don’t need to look very far for ingredients, whether you’re foraging from the garden, your pantry or the grocery store. You will likely be surprised what can be used as a dye, from plants, roots, bark and nuts, to more unorthodox items like mushrooms and lichens.

Time for a disclaimer; I’ve seen lots of tutorials online claiming you can use all sorts of random foods to dye your clothes. What they often fail to mention is colorfastness; just because beets stain fabric doesn’t mean that stain will survive exposure to UV rays or your washing machine. Regardless of whether you use commercially available natural dyes or something from your garden, you MUST scour and mordant before applying if you want your dye to last. Even with proper preparation, some dyes are naturally more colorfast than others, and as you experiment you’ll discover which last longer over time. 

Natural Dyes You Can Find at the Grocery Store or in Your Garden

  • Onions skins (yellow skins create gold, red skins are more pink/brown)
  • Pomegranate skins (golden yellow)
  • Avocado skins and seeds (warm pink and terracottas)
  • Rhubarb roots (earthy yellow)
  • Walnut shells (earthy browns)
  • Hibiscus flowers/tea (bright pink)
  • Marigold flowers (bright yellow)
  • Eucalyptus (earthy yellow brown and green)
  • Black tea (warm ochres, cream, brown)
  • Turmeric (warm gold)
  • Red cabbage (pink to purple tones)
  • Beets (purpley red)
  • Rosemary (soft greens)

DYEING TOOL KIT

Whether you are dipping your toe into dyeing for the first time, or have become so obsessed with dyeing you have non-stop fantasies about creating a “wet” studio and growing an organic dye garden (Um, just me then?) you will need to gather supplies for a dyeing tool kit. Most of these supplies you may already have laying around the house; otherwise a visit to your local dollar store should fill in the gaps.

Natural Dyeing Tools & Supplies

  • A stainless steel pot big enough to hold your fabric (they need to be able to circulate freely). This should be a dedicated pot for dyeing, not something you are also using for cooking (because *safety*). A variety of pots is helpful – I have a small pot I use for small batches, and a big stock pot that can fit a few yards of fabric.
  • Plastic buckets. Helpful for storing wet fabric, mordanting and rinsing. I use the big ones you can get from Home Depot.
  • A notebook/journal. I stressed this in my last post, but it’s SUPER important to track all your steps with each project, both to recreate results and form a deeper understanding of how various dyes, mordants and ratios work.
  • Measuring spoons and cups. Again, these should be exclusively for dyeing – don’t use your baking stuff!
  • Mixing spoons and sticks to stir your cauldron like a good witch.
  • Tongs to move goods around.
  • Rubber gloves and a mask to protect your skin and lungs (you should always wear a mask when you’re handling dye powders!) Thankfully there is no shortage of masks in our homes these days.
  • Thermometer – It’s important you bring your water to specific temperatures, so get a thermometer you can use just for dyeing. My favourite is the instant-read Thermapro.
  • Timer (I use my phone).
  • Heat source. More than likely you’ll be using your stove, but in my wet studio fantasy, I have a fancy hot plate.
  • Digital kitchen scale – you’ll be creating your dye recipes based on the dry weight of the fabric you’ll be dyeing. It needs to be able to measure small quantities like ounces and grams, so your bathroom scale won’t cut it.
  • Cheese cloth is helpful for straining dye extracts and making mordant bundles (if you’ll be creating a wheat germ bath, for example).
  • Protective sheets for your work surface – I use a garbage bag to make sure I’m not accidentally getting dye on my butcher block counters.
  • Dye, either extracts or whole dyestuffs.
  • Mordant – alum potassium sulfate or aluminum acetate (cellulose only).
  • Soda ash, for use in the scouring process.

THE DYEING PROCESS

The dyeing process can be quite complicated; people write volumes of books on the subject, and there is a tremendous amount of variation that you can expect based on dye source, water quality and hardness, temperature and fiber source. It would be impossible to cover everything in one blog post, but I can provide a few basic guidelines to help you get started. Below I cover the main steps in brief. For more detail, I highly suggest checking out Maiwai’s free guide to natural dyeing or The Modern Natural Dyer;  both are great resources although each has their own guidelines and preferences. Experiment and see what you like best!

The following is a basic order of dyeing operations. Please keep in mind, this process does not apply to indigo, which has its own unique process we hope to cover in the future.

1. PREPARE

Before you start dyeing, measure your fabric while dry so you know what dye to water ratio you’ll need in order to prepare your goods. Once your goods are weighed and you’ve recorded the number, soak the fabric in water until it’s thoroughly wet before moving to the next step.

2. SCOUR

As you know, most new fabrics are coated with chemicals called “sizing”. This needs to be removed before you can start dyeing. Even if you’ve prewashed or pretreated your clothing or fabric, you still need to scour your goods to ensure there is no other residue that may affect the dye from penetrating evenly. Scouring protein (silk & wool) and cellulose (cotton, linen, rayon, hemp) fibers differ, but in general you want to mix the scouring agent with enough water to cover your fabric.  Protein fibers can be scoured with dishwashing detergent, while cellulose should be scoured with soda ash (also known as washing soda). A general ratio is 5g of soda ash for every 100g of cellulose fabric, or 1/2 tsp of dishwashing soap for every 500g of protein fabric. Over a half hour, bring the water to 180 F, ensuring it doesn’t do a hard boil. For the next half hour stir every ten minutes or so, and then let the water cool. 

3. MORDANT

Once the fabric has been scoured, it must be soaked in a fixative solution to help anchor the dye molecule to the fabric. This step should never be skipped. Generally the mordant is metallic salt; alum or Alum Potassium Sulfate is the most commonly used for protein and cellulose, and it’s the safest to use at home (if you need convincing, alum is the same ingredient used in those crystal deodorants, which is the only deodorant I use!) You can also use aluminum acetate on cellulose fibers only. Sometimes you’ll see advice to use tannins (like tea) or soya milk, but they are not true mordants, and for best results should be used in conjunction with alum for the best, most colourfast and reliable results.

To mordant cellulose fibers, add enough hot water in your bucket to cover the goods. For every 100g of fabric, add 1 tbsp of alum and mix well. Add the fabric and let soak for at least 2 hours. Then, gently squeeze out the excess mordant (you can reuse your mordant bath) and rinse before moving to the next step (failing to rinse results in super streaky colours, as I discovered on some precious vintage napkins, wahhhh!)

In The Modern Natural Dyer, Kristine also recommends a second soak in baths of chalk or wheat bran. This step removes excess mordant and helps shift colours in different directions. I like using wheat bran since it’s readily available, and make a little bundle with cheesecloth to prevent the particles from getting all over my fabric. More info can be found here.

4. DYE

The fun part begins! I’d like to quote from Maiwa’s guide here because they explain the ephemeral-ness of natural dyeing so well:


“Before beginning, keep in mind that dyes are not like paints: dyes combine with fibers to give character and personality, depth and texture. They do not produce a uniform, even, shade. It is these variations that give an added dimension and excitement to natural dyes. Like fine wines that change with the years to reflect the weather of the seasons, the conditions of the soil, and the tastes of the vintner; dyes will give slightly different shade each time they are used.”


The ratio for dye to water will differ depending on the type of dye you’re using, and whether it’s whole or an extract. We can’t cover each dye here, so do your research and/or consult the directions provided by your supplier. The dye will be mixed with water before adding your goods. The pot will be brought up to temperature (185F for silk, 195F for wool and 200F for cotton) and then held at that temperature for 1 to 2 hours depending on dye. The fabric should be gently turned and mixed every 20-30 minutes. Deeper colours can sometimes be achieved by letting the dye soak overnight.

5. WASH

Once you’ve dyed your fabric or garment, it’s time to wash it and remove any lingering dye. Since some dyes need time to set, it’s best to wash them without soap the first time. Give them a few weeks to set or cure, and then you can wash with a mild soap. 

Phew! As you can see, natural dyeing is a rich and complex subject. I hope this gives you a good overall picture of the natural dyeing process. Speaking from experience, it’s a delightful practice, filled with experimentation and discovery, and one that adds a richness to sewing. I love the idea of taking a raw, undyed piece of fabric and transforming it into a garment, from colour concept to final construction. So exciting!

Next week, I want to share an easy natural dyeing project you can do at home, so start making a lot of guacamole and saving your avo pits because we’ll be creating the perfect millennial pink with avocados!!

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Hi! I'm Heather Lou, a pattern designer and sewing educator for the modern maker. At Closet Core Patterns, we transform your imagination into step-by-step implementation that helps you create a wardrobe you love - not one you're limited to buying off the rack.

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