Mother Earth Living

Natural Dyeing: How to Make Natural Dyes from Plants and Other Materials

Dyeing fabric and fiber with materials found in the natural world is a family favorite and a wonderful project for all ages.
By Amanda Blake Soule with Stephen Soule
September 2011 Web
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These fabrics were naturally dyed with turmeric and tea bags.
Photo By Amanda Blake Soule/Courtesy Shambhala Publications

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The following is an excerpt from "The Rhythm of Family" by Amanda Blake Soule with Stephen Soule.

Use Natural Dyes 

Dyeing fabric and fiber with materials found in the natural world is a family favorite and a wonderful project for all ages. There are endless possibilities for color when we use the earth’s palette as our guide. We’re often surprised by what color a certain material yields when added to fabric—quite often it is so different from the original source. That’s part of the fun, so keep an open mind about your end results, and experiment with whatever you have available in your own backyard!

Natural Materials for Dyeing 

Red—dandelion root, beets, rose hips, chokecherries, blackberries, hibiscus

Orange—sassafras, onion skin, carrot root, turmeric, pomegranate

Yellow—marigold, burdock, celery leaves, tea, dandelions, sunflowers

Green—spinach leaves, nettle, red onion, yarrow, foxglove, sorrel

Blue/purple—mulberries, red cabbage, hyacinth, maple tree bark

Brown—oat bark, juniper berries, tea bags, birch bark, walnut hulls

Crafting Notes 

If you are dyeing yarn, open it up into a large circle while keeping it wound in its skein. Tie it loosely at several points to hold it in its skein while going through the dye process.

These instructions will work well for things that aren’t washed often—play silks, scarves, yarn for knitting, and other playthings. If you are hoping for the color to stay through many washes, consider using synthrapol as a prewash, as well as a postwash to help set the fabric a little more thoroughly.

The photographed projects are dyed with turmeric and tea bags.

What You’ll Need 

Vegetables, plants, or herbs for dyeing material
A large stockpot (I use an extra-large canning pot; 2 pots is ideal)
White vinegar
Blank fabric or undyed fiber (cotton, wool, and silk will work best; polyester is trickier to dye)
Mesh strainer

What to Do 

1. Fill a large pot with water and heat until boiling. Add 3 cups of white vinegar. Add your fabric or yarn to the pot (the fabric should be able to move freely in the pot—you may need to save the rest for another batch). Remove the pot from the heat. Let the pot sit until it reaches room temperature. Remove the fabric/yarn and wring it lightly to remove some water. Dispose of the vinegar solution.

2. Prepare your dye bath by once again filling the pot with water. Add your dye materials, and stir well. Heat to boiling, and maintain a boil for 30 minutes or so. Use the mesh strainer to remove the vegetable/plant bits that are in the water (if you are using a powdery material, or something contained, like tea bags, they can stay in for richer color).

3. A dd the vinegar-soaked fabric/yarn to the pot. Add another 1 cup of vinegar. Lower the heat to a simmer, cover, and stir often. Check the fabric/yarn periodically to check the color and determine when you think it’s done. Depending on what you’re using and how deep you’d like the color, this can be anywhere from 30 minutes to 1 hour.

4. When the color is saturated to your satisfaction, remove the pot (still covered) from the heat. If you’d still like the color to be a little bit deeper, leave the fabric/yarn in until it comes to room temperature.

5. Remove the fabric/yarn, and rinse it under cold tap water. Hang to dry.

Soule Family Favorite Natural Dyeing Books 

The Complete Guide to Natural Dyeing: Fabric, Yarn, and Fiber by Eva Lambert and Tracy Kendall

The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes by Sasha Duerr

Natural Dyes and Home Dyeing by Rita Adrosko

Wild Color: The Complete Guide to Making and Using Natural Dyes by Jenny Dean

Excerpted from THE RHYTHM OF FAMILY by Amanda Blake Soule, (c) 2011. Published by arrangement with Roost Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston. 

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