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How-To: Plant-Based Fabric Dyeing at Home

How-To: Plant-Based Fabric Dyeing at Home

Cochineal fabric swatches and raw materials
Natural plant based fabric
Photo: © Dieter Pregizer

Why try natural plant-based dyeing? Natural dyeing is a wonderful and less harmful alternative to conventional chemical dyeing. Anyone can learn how to create naturally dyed fabrics at home, and it is an incredibly enjoyable process that produces uniquely beautiful results.

There are endless plant and insect-based substances that you can dye with. Some of the most popular materials that are best for beginners include Indigo, Madder Roots, Logwood, Birch, and Cochineal bugs. Many of these widely-used natural dye items can be bought either in whole form or also as powdered extracts. Depending on the colors you are looking to achieve, you may want to investigate each individual plant and it’s dyeing capabilities. Every material is unique, and many factors in the dyeing process can influence the end color results.

1. PREPARING FABRIC FOR DYEING

Photo: © Emily Bertovich
Photo: © Emily Bertovich
plant based fabric dyeing mochni
Clockwise starting left, Logwood, Indigo, and Birch leaves. Photo: © Emily Bertovich

Adequate preparation of your fabric is essential for successful dyeing with plants. It is also required to use natural fiber fabrics such as cotton, wool, or silk. Wool and silk are the easiest to use and will yield the best color results, plant dyeing with cotton is a bit more complicated.

Natural dyeing is a sensitive process, and your color results can vary wildly depending on a multitude of factors, including water PH. Before dyeing, you may want to test your tap water to measure it’s “softness” or “hardness”, as this will influence your color. Remember to always do tests with fabric scraps before every new dye project.

2. SCOURING AND MORDANTING FABRIC

natural dyeing mochni
Photo: © Emily Bertovich

Madder typically creates reddish hues however my result with this dye bath yielded more purple colors. Cochineal color can range from fuchsia to scarlet reds. To prep your fabric, you will first need to wash or “scour” it to remove dirt and oil from the fibers. One of the reasons you may not achieve a good end result color is from poor scouring. To scour wool, fill a large stainless-steel pot with warm water and washing liquid and soak for 2 hours or overnight.

Cotton requires a slightly more aggressive scouring method that also calls for the use of Soda Ash. For cotton fabric, you will need to boil and simmer on a stovetop for about 2 hours. Once this is completed you will see that the leftover water is brown and murky from grease that was in your fabric.

Mordanting is next after scouring, a crucial step in ensuring your fabric holds it’s color. Mordants are substances that adhere to the fibers and dye to set the color permanently. Different mordants are also used to influence the color achieved from your materials. Several common mordants are Iron, Copper, Cream of Tartar, and Aluminum Acetate. The process differs depending on the type of fabric used, with cotton and plant based fabrics being more intensive.

3. THE FINAL RESULT AND BEYOND

natural plant based dyeing
Stainless steel pots work best for plant dyeing. Photo: © Emily Bertovich

Beginners may find it easier to use dye extracts instead of whole plants, which can simply be dissolved in warm water prior to dyeing. Pre-soak your scoured and mordanted fabric before adding to the dye pot. Simmer for 1-2 hours, stirring occasionally and let sit overnight if you wish. Rinse well, hang dry and enjoy your new sustainably dyed fabric or clothing!

See Also

Much of the beauty in the art of plant dyeing lies in the unpredictability of the end results. It’s challenging to achieve a consistent color in different dye pots even if the same materials and methods are used. However, this is what gives natural dyeing it’s excitement and potential for experimentation.

plant based natural dyeing
Left 2 swatches dyed with Madder, right 2 swatches dyed with Cochineal. Photo: © Emily Bertovich
Cochineal fabric swatches and raw materials
Dyeing with Cochineal; Photo: © Emily Bertovich
Dyeing with Cochineal; Photo: © Emily Bertovich
Dyeing with Cochineal; Photo: © Emily Bertovich

Recommended reading:
Wild Color, Revised and Updated Edition: The Complete Guide to Making and Using Natural Dyes

What are your thoughts on the plant dyeing process? Is this something you have the interest in trying yourself? Leave a comment below

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