Experimenting with Natural Plant Dyes
This project marries two of my recent obsessions: upcycling and natural dyes. I set out to upcycle some old white tshirts and make a latch hook rug turned piano bench cover. To give the cloth color, I decided to avoid the petrochemically laden RIT dye in favor of the subtle natural colors that come from leaves, roots, berries, bark, and seeds, and to experience the methods for dyeing cloth that humans have used for thousands of years.
Natural dyeing involves the following basic steps:
- Decide on a color and how to achieve that color from plants.
- Prepare the fabric — scour and mordant.
- Soak the fabric in dye bath.
- Wring out the fabric and dry.
1. Decide on the color.
I poured through the references in books and online to decide what plant source to use to result in what color. With cotton, it’s a bit harder because cotton doesn’t take dye as well as wool or silk. No matter what I use, it will come out in a pastel shade. Based on what seemed to work for others, I decided to try coffee to achieve a brownish tint. I collected our spent coffee grounds in a jar for about a week, plus some freshly brewed coffee.
2. Prepare the fabric.
I cut about a dozen of my husband’s old white cotton tshirts plus some more purchased at the Salvation Army, into strips about 1 inch wide by 5 inches long. I’ve since learned about a step when dying fabric — scouring. I washed the fabric with a few drops of Dawn dishwashing liquid to remove the wax, oil, and other additives in the cotton.
Meanwhile, I read some more about the dyeing process and learned a new term called mordanting. Doesn’t quite trip off the tongue, does it. Mordants facilitate the bonding of the dyestuff to the fibre. There are many mordants and many ways of using them. For cotton, the recommendation is to use potassium aluminum sulfate or “alum.”
I found some alum in the Etsy store Brush Creek Wool Works. I dissolved the proscribed amount in boiling water (based on a formula of the weight of the fibre that you can find online). I used rain water because it’s supposed to have the ideal Ph for dyeing. I then added more rain water and put the pot on the stove to simmer. I added the fabric strips to the pot and let it all simmer for about an hour stirring occasionally.
3. Soak fabric in dye bath.
I pulled the “mordanted” fabric from the water and put it in the washer on the spin cycle, then the dryer. I put the coffee water into the pot and added a bit more rain water. I wanted the ratio to be heavy on the coffee side. The fabric strips went into the pot and again on the stove to simmer. Then, I took the pot off of the stove, set it aside, and let the cotton soak overnight.
Result? Meh. I thought it may be a more chocolate brown but it’s just “dingy.” Instead of bleaching the fabric and starting over, I decided to start over with two old cotton toddler bed sheets.
Fast forward to the dyeing process. After more research into different dyes, I ended up buying some dye powder from the quebracho tree from South America, again from Brush Creek Wool Works. I know you’re probably thinking I’ve really gone mad and why don’t I just resort to the range of beautiful hues by “RIT,” but I wanted some serious tannins this time.
Just look at that color!
(By the way, I have two big pots dedicated to the dyeing process. Once you use a pot for dyeing, you cannot use it for cooking food. Same goes with the stirrers. Oh, and the metal the pot is made of can affect the dye. I used enamel and stainless steel, which should have little effect.)
The fabric sat in the dye for a good part of the day. I stirred the fabric around once in a while and admired the nice toasty color emerging.
I have to say, I love it. It’s subtle, but a nice shade of coral and rust.
4. Wring out the fabric and dry.
I put the fabric on the spin cycle again in the washer and on a short drying cycle. Then, I started the latch hook “piano seat cover.” For this, I bought a 36″ by 60″ blank latch rug canvas and some vintage latch hook rug tools from (where else) Etsy. I’m mixing some of the coffee-dyed fabric (left) with the quebracho-dyed fabric (right).
I have the muscle memory of making latch hook rugs from the 70s, so I didn’t have any trouble making the loops. It’s a good project to do sitting on the front porch with a cold beer while the kids run around. You’ll see the reveal in a few weeks, if all goes well.
Some recommended natural dye resources
There are many books and online resources you can tap into to learn about using natural dyes. The two books I found most useful are:
- The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes
- Harvesting Color: How to Find Plants and Make Natural Dyes
- I also like the post on the blog red2white on using dyes from kitchen. She’s my inspiration for using coffee in the first place.
There’s so much you can do with natural dyes besides coloring fabric or yarn. It’s fun to forage for plants in your neighborhood that provide natural color or you can plant your own dye garden. In the spring, Nadja and I made a “plant pounding” picture using the dyes from spring flower petals. I also loved Katie’s naturally dyed Easter eggs.