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How To Use Natural Dyes

This tutorial explains how to dye any fibre material (yarn, fibre, thread, fabric, etc) with natural dyes. For more detailed information with lots of beautiful pictures, please check out our free ebook, Pretty Colors!

Principles of Natural Dyeing

  1. Most natural dyes need both a plant extract and a mineral mordant to make a permanent colour.
  2. The stronger the dye extract, i.e., the more plant used, the deeper the colour.
  3. Mineral (metal salt) mordants are always used in the same PROPORTION. One can use less for a pale colour, but NEVER USE MORE, as too much metal can harm the fibre.
  4. All recipes are given as PROPORTIONS. Typically, amounts are for 1 pound of fibre. If you are dyeing more, increase the amounts, proportionally; if less, decrease, always proportionally, i.e. if you are dyeing 1/2 lb, use only 1/2 the recipe amount.
  5. TIME – TEMPERATURE – CONCENTRATION are the variables involved in any chemical reaction. Higher temperature means less time needed for dyeing, as does higher concentration of dyestuff.
  6. Prepare your textile material for the rigours of the dyebath: put FIBRE in a MESH BAG; tie YARN IN SKEINS, using thin yarn ties; PRE-WASH FABRIC or garments to remove any sizing.
  7. NO RUSH. Work time is not that much, but process time can be several days.

Equipment and Materials

Use big pots with plenty of room for the material to move freely. Otherwise the colour will dye very unevenly.

Since these recipes use only alum and iron for mordants, and completely non-toxic dyestuffs, any type of pot is okay to use. If you work just with alum and iron, most dye work can be done in plastic buckets with the cold soak method below (except the dye extraction itself). Stainless steel or unchipped enamel are recommended. Aluminum pots will take more scrubbing to clean, and may stain permanently with dark dyes. Iron darkens colours, so iron pots should be used only with recipes that call for iron. Just make sure you scrub your pot thoughly after use or you may end up with pink spaghetti. If other mordants are used, use a stainless steel pot dedicated only to dyework because there will always be residue and you wouldn’t want to eat from these pots.

Step 1: Preparing material and dye

Mordanting your fibre material:

  • WEIGH your textile material. All recipes are proportional, just as in cooking.
  • ALUM: Divide the weight of the material to dye BY FOUR. Weight out that much alum mordant. A scant two tablespoons equals one ounce of alum. Add the alum to the pot, and almost fill with warm water. Leave enough room to add the wet textile material. Stir until fully dissolved.
  • OTHER MORDANTS: ½ oz (two teaspoons) per pound fibre for tin, chrome, iron and copper.
  • Wet out the textile in warm water.
  • Add the wet textile. Gently stir so that it is opened out in the solution.
  • HEAT until the pot is hot, stirring occasionally for evenness of colour.
  • Keep it HOT for about 1 hour. (180 – 200 degrees F)
  • Let cool overnight.

ALTERNATIVE: begin with hot tap water. “MORDANT” in a plastic bucket and let it soak 3 to 5 days. (Lower temperature = more time). Silk is ready after soaking overnight. Tin, chrome and copper need to be heated to mordant well. Iron can be done cold.

MEANWHILE, extract the dye:

  • in plenty of water, (enough to loosely cover by several extra inches,) BOIL UP YOUR CHOSEN DYESTUFF:
  • FLOWERS – boil 20 minutes; strain off the water to make the dyebath.
  • BARKS, ROOTS, DYEWOODS – soak overnight, boil 1/2 hour, pour off and save the extract (this is the dye solution), add more water and boil again. Do this boiling and saving three times to make the dyebath. -or more times, as long as dye continues to extract.
  • COCHINEAL – if ground, boil 20 minutes; if whole, proceed as for barks.

Step 2: Dyeing

  • Add enough additional water to the dye solution so the textile can move freely in the dyebath.
  • Add the textile and heat to hot. Heat 1 hour or until the colour is the desired depth. Remember, the colour will lighten after it is rinsed and dried.
  • If the colour is too light, use more dyestuff. (But do not use more mordant.)
  • Now is the time to modify the colour, if desired, with the additional mordant of iron. (See directions, below.)
  • Cool the textile, rinse and dry. Handle the fibre according to its form:
    • Fibre should be gently swooshed in several changes of water, squeezed out and removed from its mesh bag only after it is partly dry. Then pull it gently to smooth and groom the roving.
    • Yarn should be rinsed with an up and down motion to help remove tangles and smooth it. Wring thoroughly. Shake out and twist it while drying, to soften.
    • Fabric can be run through a wash cycle, without soap, in a machine; then tumbled dry to soften.

Step 3: Adjusting the Colour


Dissolve about 1 tablespoon of ferrous sulphate per pound textile. Add to the dyebath, or fill a bucket with warm water, add the iron and transfer the textile to this “after mordant” bath. 

This is an important technique to know, for iron will turn golds to moss greens, reds to plum and maroon colours, and will darken browns. Many leaves and plants will make grey with iron as the only mordant needed.

Always remember: have fun and treasure the unique.

For more detailed instruction and recipes for colors, please purchase the book Brilliant Colours with Natural Dyes.

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