We were a couple months into quarantine when my best friend announced to me that they had started dyeing their clothes with things they found around their kitchen.
First there was a cropped knit dyed a brilliant yellow by turmeric root, then a button-up turned pink with the help of some beets. When we met up in a park to wave hello at our first socially-distant hangout, they picked a few small fistfuls of green grass to take home and experiment with, too.
While the grass dye didn't have quite the effect intended (it turned a white T-shirt "the faintest faintest brown," they later told me), their interest in it helped me to start seeing all kinds of plants around me — from my kitchen waste to the flower petals strewn on the ground in the nearby cemetery — as potential natural dye materials. Of course, that attitude is nothing new to experts in the space.
"That is one of the many aspects of natural dyes that I love — the wide range of fruits and vegetables that would otherwise go into the waste cycle which can be reused to make natural dyes," Keila Tirado-Leist, the natural dyer behind Vida Botanicals, told me via email.
Tirado-Leist first started exploring the world of natural dyes when she was going through a medical emergency, and she touts the health benefits of working with natural rather than synthetic dyes, since the latter can contain endocrine disruptors. There's a planetary health component, too: Synthetic dyes are often petroleum-based, which means they're literally made from fossil fuels.
Natural dyes aren't just worth using to avoid the bad stuff that can show up in synthetics, though. According to Tirado-Leist, the process of working with natural dyes can also have a meaningful spiritual component.
"It has been a whole mind-, body- and soul-healing experience to connect with plants in this way," she explains. "I also honor my Indigenous ancestry throughout this process and that has been invaluable. Natural dyes have been used by the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island and Africa for millennia."
Whether you're motivated by connecting with your family history, diverting food scraps from the waste pile or just plain needing a creative outlet, you might be surprised at how easy it is to get started dyeing clothes using scraps you already have around the house. Read on for tips from Tirado-Leist and other experts.
First, gather your dyestuffs
Chances are there are plenty of potential natural dyes already lying around your kitchen. According to the design team at Ética, an indie label known for its botanically tie-dyed pieces, some of the best materials to start with include:
- pomegranate skins (for yellow tones)
- red onion skins (for pink-reddish brown tones)
- yellow onion skins (for yellow-brown tones)
- rosemary (for yellow-green tones)
- avocado pits and skins (for a range of pink tones)
- black and rooibos teas (for a range of colors that will vary based on the kind of tea)
- red wine (for red-purple tones)
Liz Spencer, creator of the Dogwood Dyer, adds that purple cabbage, black beans, turmeric and carrot tops are also great places to start, while dye expert Ocean Rose notes that the walnuts in your pantry can be used to create "tones of deep earth."
Next, decide what you're dyeing
In the spirit of doing what's best for the earth, start with things you already own or with secondhand clothing. (The latter can be easily purchased online, even if thrift stores in your area aren't open yet.) But note that not all pre-loved materials are created equal when it comes to serving as a canvas for natural dyes: While plant-based (or cellulosic) textiles will work, animal-based materials like wool and silk allow for the most vibrant color.
"Protein or animal fibers have a different structure that allows them to receive more natural dye than plant or cellulose fibers," Spencer explains. "This is why they seem to take up more color, so I always recommend trying protein fibers first to see the incredible color possibilities that natural dyes have to offer."
Of course, finished clothing isn't the only thing that can be dyed at home. Ocean Rose is a textile artist in addition to being a natural dye expert, and she often dyes whole skeins of yarn that can later be knitted by herself or her customers into fluffy sweaters or cozy socks. "I work with natural protein fiber yarns, which include wool, alpaca, silk, angora [and] camel, all ethically sourced with non-mulesing practices," she says.
Whether you're dyeing a completed garment, uncut fabric or a skein of yarn, synthetic fibers should be avoided because, as Tirado-Leist put it, "natural dyes rarely adhere to them."
Prepare your fabric or yarn
If you're mostly experimenting with natural dyes as a form of play, you can jump right into the dye-making process. But if you're interested in creating the longest-lasting color possible, it's wise to start by preparing the fabric or yarn you intend to dye.
"Soak your fibers in a warm bath with bubbles and water and scour your fibers as they may have spinning oil or vegetable matter that will affect the color if not removed," Rose notes.
From there, Spencer adds, you can soak your fibers for anywhere from a few hours to a whole day in a bath that has a non-toxic salt called alum (available at any craft or art store) dissolved into it. Doing so "helps set the color and bind it insolubly to the fabric," she says.
Now you're ready to start making the dye itself.
Make and use your dye
Ética designer Jordan Service and creative and design director Sage Matthews recommend using an aluminum pot to submerge whatever scraps you're using as dyestuffs under water.
"Heat your pot on the stove with the lid on for at least one hour with low heat to release the color from the plant without overcooking it," they wrote via email. "Add more water as necessary as it begins to evaporate, and continuously check the color of the liquid while heating until you reach desired saturation." (Rose adds that you can play with the amount of water dilution at this point as a method for making dyes more or less intensely pigmented.)
Once the dye has reached the desired level of saturation, let it cool and then strain the plant matter out of the water using cheesecloth. From here, the Ética team recommends re-heating the dye for another hour, then leaving it in the pot to rest for a day before using it.
Once your dye and fiber is prepared, submerge your fiber in the dye and heat it on very low heat until you reach the desired color. After you're finished dyeing, hang your fibers or fabric to air-dry away from direct sunlight.
Care for your naturally-dyed pieces
The way you wash your pieces can have as big an impact on their vibrancy as the dyeing process itself.
"Care of naturally dyed clothes is important if you aim to preserve the color for as long as possible," Spencer says. "This is knowledge we've lost over decades of a prioritization of convenience over care and consideration when it comes to clothing."
Washing with cold water and a natural detergent (she likes Ecos) and pre-dissolving powdered detergent is smart, says Spencer. Washing with like colors, turning garments inside out and avoiding tumbler dryers are also good tips.
Ultimately, there's no one perfect method for working with natural dyes — Tirado-Leist has a quick how-to video on her own Instagram page for working with avocado pits, which differs slightly from a how-to Spencer shares from the Sustaining Life blog. But that room for individuality and experimentation is part of the fun. And since you'll be starting with things you already have around the house, you have very little to lose.
"I particularly find there to be such a depth of beauty and magic when botanically dyeing," says Rose. "It's intuitive and ancestral, helping to connect with the land... Find your vibe and see what resonates!"