In our previous post, Sustainable Textiles: Modern Fiber Farmers, we touched on the negative impacts of the garment industry. It’s not just synthetic fiber that causes pollution, synthetic dyes also play a role. Roughly 17 to 20% of industrial water pollution derives from industrial fabric dyeing. Naturally dyed fabric can be a great alternative, but isn’t always easy to find. Dyeing your own clothing, fabric, and yarn can be a fun family project that will reduce your environmental impact, while offering you an invaluable new skill.
Selecting and Preparing Your Fabric
Whatever dye method you choose, you’ll need to select a natural fabric. Knitters, crocheters, and spinners can try dyeing their own wool or yarn for projects. You can also choose to dye an existing garment or piece of fabric, just make sure it’s a natural material like linen, cotton, or wool.
Before dyeing your fabric or yarn, soak it in clean, hot water. This helps the dye cover the fabric evenly. This step isn’t necessary, if the process requires a mordant, or dye fix (see below).
To begin dyeing, you’ll need a medium or large stainless steel stock pot and a stainless steel spoon or wooden spoon you don’t mind being stained. Depending upon which dye method you choose, you’ll also need gloves, alum, glass jars or containers, baking soda, and a thermometer.
Black Beans (blue, green)
Place 1-2 cups of dry beans in a medium-sized pot of water. Let them soak for 24 hours, stirring occasionally. Then, pour the water off the top into nonreactive (e.g. glass) jars, leaving room for your material. Mason jars work great for this! Add your fabric or yarn to the jars, cover, and let soak for at least 24 hours. This will give you a light blue color. Adding a bit of baking soda to the water before soaking your fabric will change the pH and make the dye green. Rinse your fabric, and hang it to dry.
Yellow Onion Skins (yellow, orange)
You’ll need a lot of onion skins for this, so it’s best to start collecting them well ahead of time, or have your friends collect them, too. Fill a medium to large pot with onion skins, and then cover them with water. Bring to a boil and simmer for one hour. Strain out the onion skins, and simmer your fabric in the remaining dye bath for one hour. Let the dye bath cool with the fabric still soaking in it. You can leave it in for a few hours or a few days. The longer you let it soak the darker your fabric will be. Rinse your fabric and hang it to dry.
This is a seasonally available dye, a fun summer project. You’ll need to collect goldenrod flowers, enough to be about equal in weight to the fabric you want to dye. For this dye, you also need to mordant, or fix, your yarn or fabric. Start by adding one tablespoon of pickling alum to about three gallons of water. Simmer your fabric or yarn in this mixture for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. While your fabric is processing, place your blossoms in a separate pot and cover them with water. Simmer them for 45 minutes. Next, strain the blossoms out of the dye water. Take your fabric out of the mordant mix and add it to the dye bath. Simmer your fabric in the dye for about one hour. Let your fabric soak in the dye until it cools, and then rinse until the water runs clear.
Black Walnut Hulls (brown)
First, a heads up: black walnut hulls will stain your hands and clothing, so keep this in mind as you prep for dyeing. Boil 10-20 walnut hulls in a medium to large pot of water. Let them simmer for about one hour. Strain out the hulls, and simmer your fabric in the dye bath for 30 minutes to one hour. Once it has cooled, rinse your yarn or fabric until the water is clear, so it doesn’t stain other things. Hang it up to dry.
Madder Root (red, pink)
Madder root has been used as a natural dye for over 5,000 years! Archaeologists have even discovered traces of madder root dye in linen pieces retrieved from Tutankhamen’s tomb, dating back to 1350 BC. If you don’t want to grow your own, there are several online sources where you can purchase it. Just like goldenrod, you’ll need about the same weight in madder root as your fabric or yarn. Using fewer roots will create a lighter dye color.
Place your roots in a mesh bag, cover them in a couple inches of water, and soak them overnight. Mordant your fabric with pickling alum. Start by adding one tablespoon of pickling alum to about three gallons of water. Simmer your fabric or yarn in this mixture for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Take out the wet fabric and add it to the dye water and madder roots. If needed, add additional water so the roots and fabric float. Heat the mixture to about 90°F for 30 minutes. Then, increase the temperature to 180°F for 30 minutes. Rinse the fabric a couple of times, and let it dry, away from direct sunlight.
Just like choosing local food, learning about, creating, and purchasing naturally dyed items can help make a difference. Try your own dye project this weekend and opt out of fast fashion.