Cultivating colour: making textile dyes naturally

Natural textile dyes (when made with plants from biological cultivations, correctly harvested and preserved) are an ecological alternative to synthetic colours because they derive from renewable and biodegradable resources.

Ingredients and colour palette

  • Dyers chamomille (Anthemis tinctoria) By flowers you can get shades of yellow, bright gold, grey-green and dark green; by leaves and stems: from light to bright green and grey-green shades.
  • Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) By leaves you get light and dark green.
  • St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) By flowers you can get light brown and yellow tones; pink and green.
  • Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) By berries: shades of violet, dark blue and gray.

  • Mint (Genus Mentha) By leaves you can get colours from acid green to blue tending to green.
  • Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) You can obtain shades from green to brown.
  • Blackberry (Rubus fruticosus) By fruits, leaves and stems you can obtain tone from light pink to dark blue-grey.
  • Turmeric (Curcuma longa) Even without the use of mordant you can get a bright yellow, which with some heat becomes darker and tending to orange.

Curcuma, a simple ingredient for natural textile dyes

  • Red onion (Genus Allium) By the skins you will get bright yellow, green and pink-orange.
  • Red cabbage (Brassica oleracea) It yelds shades of colours ranging from lavender to deep blue; with salt you get blue shades, with lemon colour tends to pink.
  • Avocado By the skins you can get a flesh-pink shade without making use of mordant.
  • Carrot (Daucus carota) By the ends you can obtain a shade of yellow.
  • Tea By sachets and leftovers you can realize shades of brown.
  • Coffee (Coffea arabica) Using coffee grounds or roasted coffee beans you can achieve different shades of brown.
  • Grape (Genus Vitis) By the skins of grapes you can obtain blue-violet tones.

Grape berries to make a textile dye

  • Olive tree (European olea) By leaves or by fruits and kernels: shades from light salmon to dark blue-green (depending on the mordant used).
  • Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) Using flowers, leaves and stems: from bright yellow to dark green.

  • Walnut (Juglans nigra) By husks you can create brown; without mordant you can get a light brown.
  • Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) By the dark red leaves you get a light pink without the use of mordant.
  • Bamboo (Genus Bambusa) By pruned or fallen leaves and branches: golden yellows and shades of cream.
  • Poplar (Populus) By leaves you can get gray and black.
  • Larch (Larix pinaceae) Using larch needles you can obtain brown tones.
  • Spruce (Picea abies) By cones you get shades of red.
  • Oak (acorns) Without mordant use: light beige.
  • Wild apple tree By bark: tones from pink to orange.

  • Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) Using both flowers and leaves you can get shades of yellow and green.

The dandelion, an ingredient for natural textile dyes

  • Marigold (Calendula officinalis) You can get shades of yellow.
  • Wood sorrel (Oxalis pes-caprae) By flowers and leaves: colours from bright yellow to gold, dark green.
  • Dahlia (Genus Dahlia) Shades of yellow.
  • Lavender (Lavanda angustifolia) Antique pinkish grey; by leaves and stems: shades of yellow.
  • Jasmine (Jasminum officinale) Light yellow and pale greens.
  • Rosehip (Genus Rosa) Rosé beige.
  • Amaranth (Amaranthus retroflexus) Pink.
  • Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) Shades of blue-violet.

Natural textile cornflowers and dyes

Extracting colours from nature

In this process, place plant material in a stainless steel container, with enough water to cover the fibres. Approximately 4 litres of water are used every 100 grams of dry fibre.

You can opt for rainwater collection (it contains few minerals and favors bright colours rendition), putting a bin under your gutter and then transferring it into a tank.

Rainwater, excellent for natural textile dyes

If you want, you can also use seawater. The alkalinity of salt water is in fact a modifier agent or an additive for all those recipes of tinctures requiring alkalinity.

What to dye

Once you have extracted dye, you can colour almost everything that is made of natural fibres.

Dye is suitable for many types of natural fibres, both plant and animal, in particular silk, linen, cotton and wool.

Vegetable fibers

  • Hemp
  • Linen
  • Organic Cotton
  • Organic Bamboo

Animal fibers

  • Alpaca
  • Angora
  • Cashmere
  • Silk (cruelty free)
  • Sheep wool

It is also possible to experiment on knitting yarns, paper, lampshades and carpets, and other objects such as wood beads, shells and leather, or shoes and clothes (old or new). You can also try to renew or restore the colour of old synthetic garments.

Keep a diary, a cookbook and a sample book

The success of a natural dye depends on several variable factors, including:

  • Lenght of procedure
  • Amount of used heat
  • Freshness of plant materials
  • Parts of plant used
  • Dyeing method
  • Type of water and mordant used

A cookbook for natural textile dyes

If your result is satisfactory, just write down the whole process in the recipes book, inserting a sample result, so that you are able to reproduce the same colour shade next time.

To create samples you can hold pieces of fibre or fabric and pin it on cardboard. On the back you can write recipe, date of the experiment and some notes on the used method.

Samples also allow to check colour, once washed or exposed to light.

Materials

Tools that can be used are often kitchen tools, but once destined to colour dyeing are no longer usable to prepare food.

Pots must be sufficiently large: dipped fabrics must be able to be “stirred” easily and without any danger.

Lids help to boil quickly and prevent odors and fumes from dispersing.

Stainless steel is the material of choice because it does not harm dye’s colour or modify it.

Cold dyeing method

Preparation phase is important with animal fibres: at least one hour (or even all night long) they should remain immersed in water. Then proceed with dyeing bath.

Dyeing baths can last from one night to several days, depending on the desired colour gradation.

Vegetable fibres are very well dyed at room temperature, but must be immersed and kept in dyeing bath for several days.

Lavender is one of the ingredients that can be used to make a natural textile dye

Insights

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