[ The Art of Dyeing Naturally: How to Make Natural Dyes from Plants ] ~ from Monterey Bay Herb Company
Making Natural Dyes Shadow Header
The use of color as creative expression says a lot about who we are, both as individuals and as members of the human tribe. We are surrounded by colors of our choosing, evidenced by the painted walls in our homes and the assortment of threads in our wardrobes.
Our ancestors didn't have color wheels or swatches to compare, however. Instead, they looked to nature to supply the inspiration and materials to color their world. Now you can learn some of their secrets to give new life to the art of dyeing. Here's how to make natural plant dyes for fabric!

[ The Art of Dyeing Naturally: A Fishy Start ] ~ from Monterey Bay Spice

a. a fishy start

The earliest written record to document the use of natural dyes dates to 2600 BC China. Archeological evidence indicates that only a handful of plants and animals were initially used to extract natural dyes, which meant there was a limited selection of muted colors.

By the 4th century, it was discovered that certain shellfish found along the Mediterranean coast was a source of dark purple ink-like fluid from which an eye-popping purple dye could be made. However, because it took the sacrifice of 8,500 crustaceans to produce a single gram of dye, fabric of this color was literally worth its weight in gold and strictly reserved for royalty, often under the penalty of death.

[ The Art of Dyeing Naturally: Gastropods to Guilds, Malaria to Mauve ] ~ from Monterey Bay Spice

b. gastropods to guilds,
malaria to mauve

Between the 10th and 12th centuries, recognition of dyeing as a skilled trade was established with the Wool Dyers' Guild in Germany and the Dyers' Guild of London, the latter of which still exists today as a charitable organization known as The Worshipful Company of Dyers.

But fast forward to the mid-1800s: 18-year old William Henry Perkin, a chemist tasked with making a synthetic quinine to treat malaria, accidentally ended up with the first artificial dye instead, which he called mauveine. The creation of the color we know today as mauve sparked a new industry and revolutionized fashion, but also marked the end for the hand dyers' craft.

mauveine was the first
synthetic organic chemical dye
Middle Spools

[ The Art of Dyeing Naturally: Dyeing Devotions ] ~ from Monterey Bay Spice

c. dyeing devotions

Making natural dyes at home requires enthusiasm above all else, and also a commitment to safety and the dedication of certain tools. For example, wearing gloves is a good idea to prevent potential skin irritations—and to avoid having to explain blue hands.

You will also need to dedicate a large, non-reactive pot of stainless steel or glass to your projects. Ditto for utensils, like stirring spoons and tongs. Avoid wooden spoons, though, because these take on and may leach dye colors.

keep your hands gloved
to prevent irritations and
discolorations on your skin

[ The Art of Dyeing Naturally: Material Matters ] ~ from Monterey Bay Spice

d. material matters

There's no shortage to the textiles you can tint—spools of ribbon, napkins, yarn, t-shirts, pillowcases, tablecloths, scarves, placemats, wooden beads for making jewelry...you get the idea. The materials that work best with natural dyes include cotton, linen, hemp, muslin, wool and silk.

Wash—but don't dry—your fabric of choice. It will eventually go into the dye bath damp, but first needs to be introduced to a mordant to help "fix" the dye color. You can achieve a wide range of colors with iron, alum and other mordants, but their use is beyond the scope of this article and there are scores of books that provide such details. Also, some plant materials yield color without any mordant.

simple mordant solution
To keep things simple, plan to make a mordant solution of ½ cup salt to each 8 cups of cold water when using berries as a dye source, and 1 cup white vinegar to each 4 cups of cold water for everything else. Soak the fabric in this solution for an hour, then rinse well with cold water.

[ The Art of Dyeing Naturally: Pick Your Palette ] ~ from Monterey Bay Spice

e. pick your palette

Whenever possible, use fresh botanical material to prepare the dye bath. You can use dried herbs and flowers, but more time in the dye bath will be needed and the color result will likely be more subtle. The general exception to this is some ground herbs and spices, such as powdered madder root, turmeric and beet root powder.

The following is a short list of possible dye colors from herbs, remember hues and shades will vary:

various hues of RED
Dandelion Root,
St. John's wort,
Madder Root Powder

various hues of PINK
Rose Hips,
Beet Root Powder,
Birch Bark,
Lavender Flowers (pale, grey-pink)

various hues of ORANGE
Chili Powder,
Annatto Seed Powder,

various hues of BROWN
Black Tea,
Black Walnut Hull Powder,
Juniper Berries
(or Coffee Grounds)

various hues of GREEN
Hyssop Leaf,
Plantain Leaf,
Nettle Leaf,
Comfrey Leaf

various hues of YELLOW
Calendula Flowers,

various hues of BLUE & PURPLE
Cornflowers (for blue-ish),
Hibiscus Flowers

Look to your own landscape for natural materials and perhaps forage (legally, with permission) from your own neighborhood. For example, fresh flowers from goldenrod and Queen Anne's lace (aka wild carrot) yield a yellow dye, while fresh Black-eyed Susan blossoms, stems and leaves produce a green dye. If you have a spruce or pine tree on your property, collect the cones to make a red dye. Explore and experiment!

[ The Art of Dyeing Naturally: Kitchen Scraps ] ~ from Monterey Bay Spice

f. kitchen scraps

Certain materials otherwise destined for the trash or compost heap can also be used to make natural dyes. For instance, the skins from yellow onions create a gold-to-burnt orange dye, while red onion skins produce a yellow-green dye. The same goes for avocado skins, although the result is an unexpected light pink dye. Next time you make summer slaw, buy an extra head of red cabbage to make a vibrant purple dye—no mordant needed.

more dye-producing veggies/fruits
Strawberries, raspberries and cherries (rosy pink)
Grapes (purple)
Blueberries (purple)
Spinach (light green)
Celery Leaves (pale yellow)
Beets (purple...and messy!)

[ The Art of Dyeing Naturally: Dyeing it Yourself ] ~ from Monterey Bay Spice

g. dyeing it easy, 1-2-3

Ready to create your first hand-dyed project? Then put on some old clothes and grab an apron and gloves, ‘cause here we go!

Spool Gif
Wash—but don’t dry—your fabric of choice. Soak the fabric in your mordant solution (see simple mordant solutions above) for an hour, then rinse well with cold water.

Spool Gif
Place the botanical material into your dedicated pot and add twice as much water as herb. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 1-2 hours until a good color develops.

Spool Gif
Carefully strain out the herbs (this is easier if you use large muslin bags or cheesecloth to hold the plant material).

Spool Gif
Place the fabric (still damp from the mordant solution, remember) into the pot with the reserved liquid.

Spool Gif
Bring to a boil again and simmer for about an hour, stirring occasionally. Turn off the heat and let the fabric rest in the dye bath as long as needed to achieve the desired color.

Spool Gif
Rinse fabric in cold water
until water runs clear.
Allow to line dry.

[ The Art of Dyeing Naturally: Notes on Natural Dyeing ] ~ from Monterey Bay Spice

h. final tips

The longer the fabric stays in the dye bath, the more intense the color will be. In some cases, especially when dried herbs are used, it may be necessary to leave the fabric in the dye bath for several hours or overnight. Keep in mind that the fabric will be lighter in color when it dries.

Natural dyes are not colorfast. In fact, some dyes, such as turmeric, are referred to as fugitive dyes because the color mellows with time and exposure to sunlight.

When laundering, treat hand-dyed fabrics to hand-washing (or the delicate cycle) using cold water and natural soap – not detergent. Allow to hang dry.

Turmeric and Natural Dye middle image