Dyeing Fabric with Culinary Herbs

Rosemary adds a natural flair to yarn and fabric.


| August/September 2004



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Natural dyes appeal to those with a passion for color. “With natural dyes, it is as if the colors breathe like the plants from which they bloomed,” natural-dye enthusiast Meghan Sayres says. James Liles, a natural-dye expert, believes natural dyes attract our eye because they originate in living things. “I sometimes feel that some of that life is still there,” he says in his book The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing (University of Tennessee Press, 1990).

People have an intrinsic love for color. Although the earliest use of natural dyes remains lost in prehistory, perhaps the first dyes were simple stains from plants or rusty iron. Some cave images painted with mineral colors date to 15,000 b.c. It is tempting to imagine that early humans also used natural dyes for the first woven and felted textiles, although we have no proof of them doing so. However, archaeologists in India have found fragments of dyed cotton textiles more than 2,000 years old.

All dyes were “natural” until 1856, when the English chemist William Henry Perkin developed the first synthetic dye. By 1915, synthetic dyes — brilliantly colored and inexpensive — had replaced natural dyes in the textile industry. Crafts revival movements in the 1920s and 1970s spurred the renewed interest in natural dyes enjoyed by crafters and fiber artists today.

The Dyeing Process

Natural dyes are organic particles derived from animals, vegetables or minerals that can impart color to fiber. Dyes are distinct from pigments, as they diffuse from a water solution into the substance of a fiber. Pigments, on the other hand, consist of larger, water-insoluble particles held on the surface of a fiber.

Three elements that play critical roles in natural dyeing are dye, mordant and type of fiber. Natural dye particles from different plants, animals or minerals produce different colors. The earliest natural dyes were probably substantive dyes. That is, they were dyes that could not bond with textiles without mordants, chemicals that help dye particles combine with fiber to form insoluble colors.

Mordants not only help fibers absorb dye more readily, they often change the colors a dye produces. I have used three mordants — alum, iron and ammonia. Alum deepens colors, iron dulls or mutes colors and ammonia brightens colors.





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