How To Use Natural Dyes To Safely Dye Fabrics

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Nature provides a rainbow of colours, and you can use those colours to dye fabrics naturally so that you avoid harmful chemicals. Read on to learn more about natural dyes and how to use them!

Have you ever thought about dyeing your own fabric? There was a time when I hadn’t because It sounded complicated and like it would certainly be a disaster (not to mention the mess-no thank you).

However, before making a drastic decision about whether or not natural dyes were for me, I decided to dip my toes into dyeing fabrics to learn more about it.

And, I have to say… I couldn’t be more pleased that I did! The process is SO much easier than I thought it would be.

There are so many things that can be used to make natural dyes; from a wide range of plants and flowers to barks to food. I personally prefer using food scraps for my natural dyes because they are super easy to obtain.

Instead of composting or throwing away food scraps, what if you took those scraps of food and used them to naturally dye fabric, yarn, clothing, pillowcases, and sheets, etc?

Wouldn’t that be wild? And, yes. It’s possible to not use any harmful chemicals!

Stack of muslin dyed with different natural dyes against a bright white background.

Natural Dyes vs Chemical Dyes

Unlike synthetic chemical dyes, natural dyes don’t turn out the exact same way every single time. That means that when you use natural fabric dye made with food or food scraps, you will likely need to experiment a little to achieve the saturation level or shade that you want.

And, I highly recommend having an open mind when working with natural dyes. Don’t expect to achieve the exact colour you are aiming for because there are a lot of factors that determine the resulting colour.

Your fabric might turn out more blue than grey or it might look pink instead of purple. The unpredictable results are half the fun of using natural dyes!

They all look beautiful (and unique), even if they don’t look the way you envisioned.

Seven strips of fabric that were dyed using natural dye made from onion skins. Each strip is a different shade, ranging from brown to yellow to pink.

What Types of Fabric Can Be Naturally Dyed?

Not all fabrics work well with natural dyes. Synthetic fabrics such as polyester, for example, may take some of the dye but will usually end up having a lighter colour than what a natural fabric would usually look like.

Fabrics made from natural materials are the best to use with natural dyes.

These fabrics, specifically, will take dye the best:

  • Cotton
  • Wool
  • Linen
  • Silk

If you are unsure about the fabric (synthetic or natural) that you want to dye and have a scrap piece, I recommend dyeing your scrap to see how it fares before potentially sacrificing the main article.

Pro Tip: Muslin is a good fabric to use to test your dye strength before dyeing your clothing or other articles of fabric.

Strips of 100% cotton that have been coloured using a natural dye made from grapes. The colour is rich and vibrant, showing that natural fabrics take dyes very well.

Extracting Natural DyeS From Food Scraps

Be sure to provide as much colourant surface area as possible to get the deepest dyes. That means that you’ll need to chop up your food into small pieces, especially for any tough foods.

Make your natural dye using this process:

  1. Collect your leftover fruit or vegetable pieces. Chop them up into small pieces for greater dye saturation and then put them in a large non-reactive saucepan.
  2. Cover with at least twice as much water as the amount of food (ex: 2 cups of scraps would need 4 cups of water).
  3. Bring the mixture to a boil. Then, reduce the heat and let the mixture simmer for at least one hour (or until your dye gets to your desired colour).
  4. Turn off the heat and let your dye cool to room temperature. 
  5. Strain out the fruit and vegetable pieces and store your dye in an airtight container.

Note: You always want to use fresh, ripe, and mature food material. Dried foods and vegetables will look more muted or sometimes provide no colour at all.

Don’t Forget About Mordants

It’s time to chat for a second about mordants. The definition of mordant is simply a “dye fixative”. Mordants help the dye stick to the fabric rather than simply running out.

You’ll want to prepare the fabric before dyeing it.

To prepare your fabric, you’ll want to:

  1. Wash the fabric but don’t dry it (you want it wet for dyeing).
  2. Then, prepare your mordant and soak your fabric in your mordant for an hour.
  3. After an hour has passed, remove your fabric and rinse it before dyeing.

Types Of Mordants FOR NATURAL DYES

There are several different mordants you can use for natural dyeing, and depending on which mordant you use, it can really change how the dye behaves. That’s why I wrote this entire post all about which mordants to use.

For now, here is a list of common mordants for natural dyeing:

  • Alum
  • Iron
  • Copper
  • Tin
  • Chrome
  • Salt
  • Tannins
  • Vinegar
  • Baking soda

Alum is the most common mordant because it saves time as it allows you to mordant and dye at the same time. Salt is another mordant, but it works best with berries while vinegar works with other food scraps.

Five bowls of natural dye made from red cabbage. The bowls are labelled; vinegar, alum, baking soda, iron, and no mordant, and each dye is a different colour; pink, dark purple, light blue, navy blue, and light purple.

How to colour fabric with Natural Dyes

Now comes the good part!

Here’s the process for dyeing any fabric you choose with food scraps:

  1. Pour your dye into a large, non-reactive saucepan. 
  2. Place your fabric into the dye and bring the dye to a slow boil over medium heat. 
  3. Reduce heat, if needed, to a simmer and allow the fabric to simmer in the dye for at least an hour. Be sure to stir it around every now and then.
  4. After simmering for an hour, your fabric should now be a nice colour. However, you can achieve deeper hues by letting it sit longer – even as long as overnight. Turn off the pot and let the fabric just sit in the dye bath.
  5. Once your fabric reaches the colour you desire, take it out of the dye bath and rinse it in cold water. It is normal for some of the colour to run out due to excess dye washing out.
  6. Dry your fabric on an outdoor line (or in a dryer to help set the dye even more).

What to Use to Create Natural Dyes for Fabric

Now the part that you’ve been waiting for! Here are the food scraps and pieces that you can use for each colour of dye that you want to make. I also put together this list of flowers that you can grow specifically for natural dyes.

How to Dye Fabric Blue Naturally

When you want to naturally dye blue fabric, try using:

  • Indigo
  • Red cabbage
  • Elderberries
  • Red mulberries
  • Blueberries 
  • Purple grapes
A bowl of purple grapes about to be used to make natural fabric dye.

How to Dye Fabric Green Naturally

When you want to naturally dye green fabric, try using:

  • Artichokes
  • Spinach
  • Red onion skins
  • Peppermint leaves
  • Plantain 

Closeup of rough linen dyed green.

How to Dye Fabric Pink Naturally

When you want to naturally dye pink or reddish-pink fabric, try using:

  • Cherries
  • Beets
  • Avocado skins and seeds (it’s true!)

Note: Reds can turn brown if allowed to get too hot or boil.

Fabric soaking in a bowl of pink natural fabric dye. Avocado skins and pits sit on the table beside the bowl.

How to Dye Fabric Orange Naturally

When you want to naturally dye orange fabric, try using:

  • Carrots
  • Brown onion skins

How to Dye Fabric Yellow Naturally

When you want to naturally dye yellow fabric, try using:

  • Turmeric 
  • Yellow onion skins
  • Celery leaves
  • Dandelion flowers

A blouse soaking in yellow fabric dye.

How to Dye Fabric Brown Naturally

When you want to naturally dye brown fabric, try using:

  • Walnut hulls
  • Tea
  • Coffee grinds
  • Dandelion roots
  • Acorns 

How to Dye Fabric Purple Naturally

When you want to naturally dye purple fabric, try using:

  • Basil leaves
  • Huckleberries
  • Red sumac berries

Important Tips to Follow When Using natural dyes

  • Always use different sets of pots, utensils, and containers from the ones you use for preparing edible food.
  • Wear rubber gloves when dyeing fabric do you don’t end up with stained hands.
  • Dye your fabrics in a well-ventilated area.
  • Safely dispose of any used dye baths or mordants (or store them in a garage or shed, away from the kitchen or bathroom).

There you go! Now you know all the basics about dyeing fabrics naturally. It’s a fun activity that always yields amazing results, even if you get something you don’t expect!

A fabric dyer's hands stained blue with natural dyes.

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