Now that summer is in full swing, the vivid colours found in flowers, plants
and garden veggies are buzzing all around us. Why not try to capture those beautiful
jewel tones on fabric and wear them around? Experimenting with natural dyes is a great way
to add a little more earthy colour to your life and have fun seeing what hues come from
plants found in your own backyard, your kitchen or your local plant shop!
Natural dyeing is an age-old way to produce beautiful, subtle shades using plant materials and a few other supplies. You can use a wide variety of plants for natural dyeing, and there are lots of different ways to play around with the design. In this blog post I tested out two methods, one called solar dyeing which uses the heat of the sun over a prolonged period of time to dye the fibre material instead of heating it on the stove. The other method is known as immersion dyeing, where the plant material is submerged in water, heated and then filtered out leaving only the dye. This are only a couple of many techniques, and I encourage you to explore other methods (e.g. bundle dyeing, shibori) found on the web.
THINGS YOU WILL NEED
- Natural fabric or yarn for dyeing; linen, cotton, wool or silk is ideal
- Collected plant material – can be gathered leaves, flower petals, etc.
- Stainless steel or aluminum pot
- Large jars
- Some sort of mordant such as vinegar, Aluminum sulfate (aka alum) or soy milk (unflavoured)*
- Access to a stove
*All commonly sourced in grocery stores. A mordant is a substance used to set dyes on fabrics.
In this blog post I use alum since that is what I had available on hand.
IMPORTANT SAFETY NOTE
Whatever materials used for dyeing should NOT be used again for cooking! Check out your local thrift shops
to hunt down some bargain pots. Plus, the more character your pot has, the more interesting your dye may
become as the steel and any rust will affect the end colour.
For this blog post I used two different plant materials to experiment with, one frozen and one that was fresh/dried
SOLAR DYEING WITH HYACINTH
The first dye was made from grape hyacinth flowers using
the solar dyeing technique, with scrap linen cloth as my test fabric.
Several hyacinth plants were sourced from Plant and once they had bloomed, we picked off all the flowers and buds and froze them in a freezer-safe bag. Flowers can be frozen to save until you are ready to start dyeing, which also allows you to stockpile enough for a large batch of dye.
When using frozen plants, you want to avoid using direct heat as this will often muddy the dye and you’ll end up with an undesirable brown colour. Start by putting all your plant material in a large jar, then cover with enough water to submerge your fabric in. Add some of your mordant of choice (I used 2 tsp. of alum) to the jar and stir well, then add your fabric to the jar and leave it in a bright sunny spot, uncovered, for as long as you desire.
After this, you can remove the dyed fabric and leave it to dry in a shaded spot. Placing the fabric directly in the sun once
it’s out of the dye may cause the colour to fade faster. Once it is dry you can give it a rinse and gentle hand-wash with a mild detergent (the alum may have made the fabric a bit sticky).
IMMERSION DYEING WITH EUCALYPTUS
For the second batch of dye, we used a mix of dried and fresh
eucalyptus leaves to dye a cotton tote bag.
Start by putting all your plant material in your steel pot, then add enough water to cover all of your material. Let simmer for about 2 hours, uncovered – you want to use gentle heat to coax the dye out. You may want to have a window open at this point as the pot will become quite fragrant as the leaves do their thing! You can check on the progress of the dye by lifting a few leaves out and smelling them – since eucalyptus has a fairly strong scent, you’ll notice that as the dye simmers the leaves will lose their scent. Once they lose most of this scent,
the dye will be ready.
Turn off your stove top and let the dye cool for a bit. At this point you can either strain out the leaves so just the liquid remains and add your fabric to the pot, or you can do what I did
and add the liquid to a large jar and place your fabric inside. At this point, I also added about a tablespoon of alum to ensure that the colour would bond to the fabric.
Let this jar sit for at least 24 hours before you take your fabric out. Be patient!
A beautiful, pale periwinkle blue came out of the hyacinth flowers! I left my jar for about 3 days and am pretty happy with the results, though I may leave
it sitting for longer next time to try and get a bolder shade.
In an unexpected turn of events, the eucalyptus leaves created a bright, sunny yellow. Although I thought it would create more
of a pinkish brown, the yellow makes me so happy! This colour has barely faded after a couple weeks, so I’m pretty impressed.
Experimentation is key, and you need to see what works best for you.
It’s hard to predict exactly what colour you’ll end up with, so just try it out and have fun with it!
A FEW EXTRA TIPS
- You can pre-mordant your fabric before adding it to the dye pot – just let it simmer in a solution of water and alum
or vinegar for about an hour prior to dyeing.
- Allow the fibres to sit in the dye bath for longer to see if you get a deeper colour. No need to rush.
- The type of pot you use can have an effect on your resulting colour, and naturally occurring minerals in your tap water may also encourage certain colours.
- Keep a notebook of which plant / mordant / fabric combinations produced which colours, write down what worked and what didn’t. By doing this you can build up a little
reference for your next natural dye adventure.
- Try out other fiber types to see what colours you get! The same dye processed on cotton vs. linen vs. silk may give completely different result
Until next time,