(And nine ways to get it right)
You are here because you looked at those beautiful Pinterest graphics using cabbage and black beans. You tried it with excitement, feeling all green and sustainable. After one wash your funky T-shirt looked like something that was left in the compost for a month.
The truth is; natural dyeing is very simple, but not as simple as they make it look in those nifty videos. It takes knowledge, planning, the right materials and time.
Chances are you will have quite a few failures before hitting the jackpot.
Natural dyeing is not quick, but it will give you a satisfaction not many other DIY projects will give you so do not be put off!
Here are nine pointers to take into consideration before you get started;
1 You used the wrong material.
Natural dyeing requires natural materials. At least 85% of the fibers in your fabric should be cellulose or protein fibers. Trying to dye polyester will give you poor results that will wash out in the first washing.
If you work with yardage you can easily perform a burn test. You can tell the fiber according to the flame, the smell and the look of the ashes.
We have plenty of amazing fabrics on the website, but when starting out I would recommend whatever cheap stuff you can find to experiment.
Do a burn test (safely)
Download your free burn test file here:
2 You did not scour your fabric.
Especially when dyeing cotton, scouring is essential! Scouring means you are stripping the fabric from pectine, grease and sizing used for weaving. Many fabrics are being stored for years in huge warehouses before being turned into garments, to keep bugs at bay, they are treated with many unwholesome concoctions. If you would not remove all of this, the mordants and dyes can not connect themselves to the fabric.
There is a PDF download on scouring and point 3 here.
3 You did not mordant your fabric.
Mordanting is the backbone of almost any natural dye project. You can see it as the glue between your fabric and your dye. Most dyes need a mordant to stay permanent, these are called adjective dyes. The dyes that do not need a mordant, are substantive dyes. You can read about the difference here. No mordant will glue a fugitive dye! See also point 6.
4 You did not use the right mordant for your fabric.
Protein and cellulose fibers do not use the same mordant! Also; vinegar is NOT a mordant! To read exactly what a mordant is and is not read this blog.
You have to know what you are working with and what mordant to use.
If you have not used mordants before, we have a kit with different mordants and recipes included.
For protein fibers the most basic mordant is Alum at 15% Weight Of Fiber; 15 grams of Alum per 100 grams of textile.
Cellulose fibers use either Aluminium Acetate or a combination of Alum and tannins.
To make home made aluminium acetate I use the recipe from my teacher and mentor David Santandreu;
20% WOF Alum
10% WOF Soda Ash (Na2CO3, (also known as washing soda, soda ash and soda crystals, read more about all those salts here)
Per 100 grams WOF use 15cl Acetic Acid (vinegar 5%)
Use a stainless steel pot.
1 - Dissolve the Alum in water at a temperature of at least 60ºC.
2 - Add cold water to this that will cover your fabrics.
3 - Dissolve the Soda Ash completely in a bit of warm water and add.
3 - Add the Acetic Acid to this mixture.
Add your pre-wetted cellulose textiles and slowly start heating to 90ºC. This should take around 90 minutes.
Leave the textiles in this hot mixture at 90ºC for around 90 minutes.
Let the fabric cool down in the pot.
5 You used the wrong mordant for the shade you wanted.
Remember this blog? Different mordants will influence your final results, you will never get bright yellow if you use ferrous sulfate with your onion skins! Make sure you read up on the different effects of mordants before you use them to avoid disappointment.
6 You used the wrong natural dye.
Beets are not a dye, they are a fugitive colorant. Black beans and cabbage are from the same category, do not waste your time on these! The world famous avocado pits will turn brown over time, if you want pink, there are better alternatives!
Your dyes should be light fast, wash fast and rub fast, and lucky for you there are plenty out there that fit the bill.
If you want to use a dye stuff from the pantry you can take a look at turmeric (not the most lightfast, but good enough for a child-proof dye project), gather eucalyptus windfall leaves or save up all your onion skins. For anything else I recommend looking at the natural dyes available on the website.
7 You did not use enough natural dye powder for your project
Know your materials, I can not say this enough!
Read how much powder or extract is needed according to WOF. In my opinion it is better to use a little more and re-use the leftovers then to be sorry about a flimsy shade.
For natural dye powder you need more than when using extract made of the same material. Some powders are extremely strong, others (most barks for example) need up to 100% WOF for deep shades. Know your dye stuff and act accordingly! On the website, the dyes all have an indication of the right WOF and dye ratio, so you can always check.
8 You did not dye your textiles long enough.
60 minutes is the absolute minimum in a hot solution if you are dyeing a fine silk. The longer the better, those dyes need time to fully penetrate the fibers. Thicker textiles need more time, larger textiles need more movement. Letting your textile cool down in the dye bath is the cherry on top.
Pro-tip; start with a cold dye bath and start heating up slowly, in increments of 30 ºC per 30 minutes to 60ºC, while turning regularly. Hold the fibers at this temperature for 90 minutes, let cool down in the dye bath. Keep an old plate on top of the textile so there are no bits sticking out of the dye, which would get you lighter spots.
9 You are washing your textiles like there is no tomorrow.
Very little home-dyed fabrics will stand the brute force of todays’ washing machine. Wash less (airing in between is a great way to refreshen your garments), wash by hand if possible and use a gentle or hand wash cycle when using a washing machine if you must. Only wash with a Ph neutral detergent, or try soap nuts as an alternative.
10 Bonus tip!
The amount of information you will absorb from reading and experimenting is endless! (And conflicting sometimes.) This can lead to confusion. Stick to one or two trusted people you read information from, and invest in a good book on natural dyes for reference. When dyeing, always dye little swaps extra to keep as a reference and write down exactly what you did and what you used. That way you will be able to check and trace your steps later, because you will not remember!