Natural Dyeing : How to dye fabric using eco-friendly dyes found in nature.

natural dyeing

Why Natural dyeing?

All the chemical dyes that color most of our store-bought clothes are toxic to our body and the environment. But this is unavoidable in today’s life. Who has the time and inclination to dye their clothes or want to wear undyed clothes? But what about when you are dyeing the clothes yourself?

When you are passionate about bringing color to your fabric, getting exposed to toxic chemicals in the process is a sure-fire deterrent to using these dyes. The poisonous nature of the chemical fabric dyes is reason enough for me to recommend natural dyes.


Natural dyeing is a labor-intensive process and colors may not be as bright or consistent. You can dye with natural dyes only on natural fabrics like cotton, linen, wool, silk etc. Most of the plants and food that you think will make good dyes turn out to be fugitive (the term used by experts for dyes that fade fast when exposed to washing, light and usage). You have to research and experiment and record and be extremely patient to discover the consistency that you really like and even then, may fail. These are the  reasons why synthetic dyes gained the market over natural dyes by the start of the 20th century. 

The thing is, if a person has once dyed with natural dyes, they become a follower. I am talking about me and also what I have seen of other people. There is something about natural dyeing that gives you a feeling of being in sync with nature. You feel you have done something significant. Decide for yourself.

natural dyeing
How to dye with natural dyes?
Step 1 Choose the fabric
To dye with eco friendly dyes derived from nature you need natural fabrics derived from nature. No synthetic fabrics or even blends. Cotton, wool, silk, hemp, bamboo, viscose, mohair, and alpaca are all made of natural fibers. Natural yarn (used for knitting) is also frequently dyed.
The fabric should be devoid of any sizing, any softeners or brighteners
My recommendation – Use untreated linen which is quite thin, and cotton voile – this fabric takes color nicely.
Step 2 Cleaning the fabric
This is called Scouring in technical terms. Use washing soda along with ph neutral soap to thoroughly clean the fabric of all oils and unwanted substances inherent in new fabric.
If you have a lot of fabric you can do the scouring in washing machine (upto 5 kg). Use a ph neutral soap and washing soda in the machine.
Step 3 Decide on the dye
natural dyeing on fabric
Choosing the dye depends on the color you want, whether you want long lasting colors or do not mind fading after some use/wash, whether you want strong colors or pastel colors.
Many people have this idea that you can use anything (fruit peels, flower petals, leaves) you have at hand for dyeing. Flower petals and leaves create beautiful dyes but they are mostly not permanent. If you want to dye as an experiment or just for fun, go ahead. 
Colours that fade quickly in sunlight or fade easily when washed – these are called fugitive dyes. If you want permanent colours on your fabric choose those dyes that will not wash away or fade away. All your efforts will be worthless if you do not get a colorfast natural dye.
What to use?
Dyes from roots of madder, insect based dye cochineal(red and orange colors), dyes from walnut husks, Lichens (green color), oakgalls, indigo bearing plants (blue color) like woad, tropical indigo (Indigofera suffruticosa) , and Japanese indigo (Persicaria tinctoria) are vouched by experts to be color fast. 
Red onion skins, walnuts (brown color) pomegranate skins ( a kind of yellow), henna leaves, dried avocado skins, and chestnut skins make good dyes and are easily available for you to start experimenting with – they generally stay put with the best practices. Bark and leaves of Eucalyptus, coconut husk, tea powder, spices, fresh turmeric roots are all favorites with dyers
What not to use ?
Dyes from different berries like blue berries, dyes from flower petals, red cabbage, leaves all fade very quickly especially when used without mordants. Stain from Turmeric powder fades after some washing and exposure to light (Unless you use a mordant like iron to turn it colorfast)
If you really want to dye with flower petals (they are all so pretty and colourful and can’t blame you for wanting to) you can use butterfly pea flower petals. To dye a substantial amount of fabric you will need a loadfull of these petals. You may also try to dye with Flower petals of rose and Marigold (immersed in vinegar solution for some time). The colours maynot last a long time, though. 
You have to use enough dye stuff for the amount of fabric you have and also depending on the depth of colour you need.
make natural dyes for clothing
Soak the material you are using for dye overnight in a 1:2 ratio with water to get the full colour. Boil this dye stuff solution and simmer them for about an hour.
You can make a fragrant dye – Put  chammommile in two cups of water. Soak for sometime. Simmer for one hour. 
This post on the website has a comprehensive list of plants that you can use for making dyes.
Step 4 Decide on the additives to be used 
If you are not concerned about the longevity of your dye, do not bother with this section. But if you want the dye on your fabric to be lightfast (color not lost when exposed to sun ) and colorfast (color not lost in the wash) you need to treat your fabric with a fixative that will help the dye to adhere for a long time. 
Mordant is a substance that creates a molecular bond between fiber and dye thereby fixing it. 
Alum is the most popular mordant. Alum is usually used for protein fabrics. You can get it as a powder form in shops. Or you can buy it as a stone and rub on the fabric. It is used in a proportion of about 5 to 15 gms for 100 g  dry weight of fabrics.
You can add aluminum acetate as mordant for cellulose fibres. It is used in a proportion of about 5 gms for 100 g dry weight of fabrics.
Other mordants used are soda ash and soya milk.
Alum is added alone or together with other additives like tannin (only for cellulosic fabrics like cotton). A combination of mordants like alum, copper and iron can also be used. You can add small copper pieces, iron nails immersed in vinegar. 
These are all dependent on the preference of the dyer and a clarity on what you prefer. This happens only when you have done several batches of dyeing.
You have to add the mordant to water and then immerse the fabric in this water. This will make the fabric more receptive to dyes. It maybe heated for about 20 minutes. Then let it all cool. Later take the fabric off and then dry (away from sunlight) if you are not dyeing soon. This ‘mordanted’ fabric can be stored and used for dyeing. Another way is to add the mordant and dye together.
Other additives
Cream of tartar is used to keep the soft touch of wool. Cream of tartar can be added to the alum mordant bath to brighten the color of dyes. It is used in dyeing wool and silk (protein fiber fabrics).
Modifiers are chemicals and minerals added to change the ph value of your dye bath (acid to alkali and vice versa) and to enhance the colors of your dyes.They are added in specific quantities dissolved in water.
Soda ash(sodium carbonate or washing soda) solution with warm water is added frequently as a modifier. Get pure washing soda, not commercial ones that may contain bleach or perfumes. Even baking soda is used by some dyers. Vinegar, citric acid and rust water are also also used as modifiers. All these should be used with caution as they can also damage fabric fibers, especially protein fibers.
If you dye without adding mordants or modifiers you may initially get deep colors, but this is deceptive. Usually this color will wash off or fade soon.
Step 5 Other supplies needed for dyeing
The colour you get depends on many factors like the amount of dye used against the dry weight of the fiber, amount of time and temperature you heat the dye and fiber, temperature and levels of humidity in your place.
The quality of water also matters in the final result of your dyeing. Distilled water is the best water to use in dyeing. Rain water is said to be good too but make sure it is uncontaminated and without impurities. Ensure that whatever water you use the water is not hard. Cream of tarter (.5 gm for 1 liter of water) is used to soften water.
If you want alkaline water add  ammonia, soda ash or wood ash. If you want acidic water for dyeing add vinegar or lime juice. These remedies are added to balance the ph level of your water if the ph is way off. Ph neutral water is preferred for dyeing (mostly), scouring and for the final rinsing.

What pot to use for mordanting and dyeing

You can use ceramic, stainless steel, aluminium, wood and enamel (unchipped) vessels to dye. Copper and iron may change the look of the colors – copper will create a dull look to dyed colors, iron will give a darker look.

Do not use galvanised vessels. If you are not heating you can use plastic vessels.

But then whatever you use, do not use it for cooking or eating afterwards.It is recommended to have a dedicated pot for dyeing, as some plants in high concentrations are toxic. For eg Pokeweed berry, a favourite for dyeing is said to be poisonous if you eat it. You want to dye, not die.

You can use an old stainless steel pot like me.

how to dye fabric using natural dyes

If you have a ph imbalance you may permanently damage your fabric or will notice severe fluctuations in color. It pays to have a tool to measure the ph of the solution you are  using. If the solution is too alkaline the fabric will disintegrate. Vinegar is usually used as a ph balancer.

Step 6 Process of dyeing
Before you dye, the fabric has to be wet so that the dye will spread evenly and fast.
Place your dyestuff in the stove with enough hot water to dissolve and bring to boil and then simmer for about 1 hour. Strain the dyestuff in a thin cloth. This is your dye. Add enough water to immerse your already wet fabric in the dye. Boil in this dye solution for about 30 minutes. Simmer again for 30 minutes. Remove and then rinse in cold water.
Hang it out to dry. Preferably lay flat to dry.
Follow all the safety practises mentioned in this post on How to dye fabric.
Sometimes you may have to dye in many sessions to get the desired colour. 
At times, you find the beautiful pink you have got has turned to a dull beige you never wanted in a matter of a few days. Do not curse me, it is in the nature of the natural dyes to be unpredictable. You will have to change your course, experiment, record and then dye again. As I said, Patience! 
Caring  for natural dyed fabric
Exposure to sweat, detergents or any such PH changes on the colored area can change the colour, so be cautious with these. 
You need to be a little careful when you wash a fabric dyed with natural dyes. Use a neutral detergent. You can also wash the clothes in a gentle cycle in the washing machine with a mild detergent.
Dyeing with dyes found in nature may seem easy but extracting the best from these colors to your fabric needs a lot of diligence and expertise and practice. If you want to learn more in detail about natural dyeing of textiles you can read books by experts.
The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing: Traditional Recipes for Modern Use by J.N. Liles
Craft of the Dyer: Colour from Plants and Lichens by Karen Leigh Casselman
Colors from nature by Jenny Dean
A Handbook of Indigo Dyeing – Vivien Prideaux
Eco Colour: Botanical Dyes for Beautiful Textiles by India Flint
Botanical Colour at your Fingertips by Rebecca Desnos.

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Comments 2

  1. Hi – I read you article on Natural Dyes. My husband and I are fiber artists/dyers. We have done extensive research on dye products. Many of the mordants used with natural dyes are extremely toxic, and their disposal is tightly regulated. Metals in particular are harmful to the environment, and should be disposed of in water-tight containers. They do not remain in the fabric during washing and continue to leach out through use and repeated washing, thus continuing to pollute the environment.
    Fiber reactive pigments have come a long way. They are non-toxic, and require only vinegar, washing soda, and steam to set. You use less pigment than you have to with natural products, and when mixed, applied as directed, and set properly, they adhere to the fibers better, so they do not leach out as much.
    While all dye methods are potentially harmful, we found fiber reactives to be more eco-friendly than natural dyes overall.
    I do enjoy your posts. Thanks for sharing all your hard work.
    Dorita Reyen
    Reyen Design Studios

    1. Post

      Hi Dorita
      What you said about the eco-friendly label attributed to natural dyes is enlightening. So nice of you to share your expert knowledge. Thanks.

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