Learn how to natural dye fabric using waste and foraged foods

Using food scraps and natural materials to dye fabrics in beautiful pastel shades is a growing craft movement. We asked an expert how to get started with natural dyeing at home. 

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We’re all familiar with composting and recycling to reduce food waste, but have you ever thought about using your leftovers from dinner to dye your clothes?

According to the most recent report by charity Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), the UK produced around 9.5 million tonnes of food waste in 2018, and 6.6 million tonnes (that’s 70%) was from households. As a result, a steadily growing movement of people have turned to natural dyeing, which sees them coaxing out colour from food scraps and even growing their own plants in dye gardens and using them to stain fabrics in beautiful pastel hues. 

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It’s an ancient art. In the UK, before 1856 when the first synthetic dyes were developed, ‘hedgerow dyeing’, or using plants growing freely nearby to dye clothes was commonplace, according to the Heritage Crafts Association. Now, as we become more aware of our impact on the environment, more and more people are returning to this old time craft to reduce waste or reinvigorate their wardrobes in an ethical way.

“Natural dyeing is endlessly fascinating,” says Christine Lewis, who discovered the practice 10 years ago after coming across a magazine article on the subject. “After reading it, I grabbed an old saucepan and made my first dye pot with some carrot tops from the garden.”

Christine went on to launch her own natural dye studio and lead dyeing workshops. “There are so many common foods and plants out there that give colour and you never quite know what you’ll end up with,” she says. “You can put something into the dye pot, like a red chrysanthemum, and expect one colour only for it to turn out lime green. It’s constantly amazing – I only wish I’d discovered it sooner.”

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While brands and fashion houses become more and more au fait with using natural dye, it’s a craft that can easily be done at home with very basic equipment. It’s also a quick and satisfying way to reinvigorate old clothes or take a craft project a step further by dyeing the elements for yourself.

“It’s a labour of love, but it’s so rewarding,” says Christine. “People’s lives are so busy, natural dyeing is a way of slowing down and focussing the mind. Like yoga, once you’re doing it, you can’t think about anything else. It’s so relaxing.”

“At the core of its popularity is a greater awareness of what we’re doing to the planet,” she adds. “People are more conscious of what they’re eating, the clothes they’re wearing and the waste they’re producing. Long may it continue.”   

If you want to start natural dyeing yourself, follow Christine’s beginner’s guide, which uses pomegranate rinds to create a rich, ochre yellow dye. 

How to dye fabric naturally using pomegranate rind

What you’ll need

  • The rind of 3-4 large pomegranates, chopped
  • Natural fabric (organic cotton, linen, hemp, silk or wool)
  • Camping stove or electric hob
  • Stainless steel saucepan (6-8 litres)
  • 2 wooden spoons
  • 2 or 3 buckets (for mixing and soaking)
  • Small tea towels (or muslin cloth)
  • Rubber gloves
  • Face mask
  • Washing soda 

How to dye fabric using pomegranate skins

1) To make a vibrant and even dye, the cloth you’re using needs to be scoured. “This is not the same as washing fabric,” says Christine. “This will remove grease and oils from the fibre.”

To scour the fabric, fill a stainless-steel pan with water. Add one teaspoon of washing soda to five litres of water. Bring this to a boil and simmer for an hour. If the water is yellow or a dirty brown, repeat the process. 

2) Rinse the scoured fabric carefully.

3) The night before dyeing the fabric, remove the seeds from the pomegranates, take off the pith and chop the rind. Soak the rind in half a pan of water overnight.

4) Soak your scoured cloth in water overnight or for at least two hours. This opens up the fibres in the cloth and helps the dye absorb evenly. It is also worth soaking some small swatches of cloth for testing your dye bath.

4) Simmer the pomegranate rind in for an hour, being careful not to let it boil.

5) Dip in a section of your scoured cloth to check the colour. For a deeper colour continue simmering or add more pomegranate rind.

6) Strain out the rinds by pouring the dye into a bucket through a tea towel or a muslin cloth.

7) Put the dye back in the pan and add your wetted piece of cloth. The cloth must be wetted or it will go patchy.

8) Simmer the dye very gently or let the cloth soak off the heat. Keep stirring it regularly. Soon you’ll see the colour appear on your cloth. You can leave the cloth in the dye for as long as you like to achieve different shades.

9) Take out the cloth when you’ve achieved the colour you want. Allow it to air dry and, if possible, let the dye rest on the cloth for at least a day to allow it to absorb in.

10) Rinse the cloth and wash it with pH neutral washing liquid.

11) Leave it to dry in the shade.  

Christine’s expert tips for natural dyeing at home

Safety first

There are a few important safety rules when it comes to natural dyeing. Christine advises always working outside if you can, or in a well-ventilated area: “Use a mask, gloves and put a lid on the dye pot. Try to avoid breathing in the vapours.”

Never use the same pots, pans or spoons for food once they’ve been used with natural dyes. “It cannot go back in the kitchen or be used with food again,” says Christine. “So, label everything clearly.”

Christine advises doing some research about the plants you’re using to make sure you don’t use any toxic materials. “Lots of innocent-looking plants can be poisonous or are irritants, like daffodil sap,” says Christine. So make sure you educate yourself before diving into natural dyeing.

It’s also important to keep all chemicals and dye away from children and pets.  

Using mordants  

Pomegranate rind is one of a number of dyestuffs that will automatically stick to the fabric during the dying process. Other examples include:

  • Onion skins – purple skins give a green colour, brown skins give tan and gold
  • Avocado stones – pink
  • Acorns – golden brown
  • Tea – tan and brown

For many other dyestuffs a mordant is required as part of the dyeing process. Mordant essentially means soaking the fabric in a fixing agent, so the dye will attach to it.

“If you get really hooked and want to natural dye properly, you’ll need to use a mordant,” says Christine.  

It is worth noting that the mordanting process for cotton and cellulose fibres is slightly different to mordanting wool or silk.

Recipe for mordanting cotton and linen (cellulose fibres):

  • Alum acetate (2 teaspoons to 100g fabric)
  • Calcium carbonate afterbath
  • Small container 
  • Bucket or stainless-steel container

1) Wear a mask and gloves as alum acetate is an irritant. Mix the alum acetate with a little cold water then add to hot water to dissolve.
2) Fill a bucket or stainless-steel pot with hot water. Add the alum acetate and stir well.
3) Add fabric and make sure it is well submerged. Leave to soak for two hours or overnight.
4) Using gloves, remove the fabric from the bucket. Squeeze out any excess liquid and dip then into calcium carbonate afterbath.

Calcium carbonate afterbath

⦁1 teaspoon calcium carbonate or ground chalk to 100g fabric

1) Dissolve in a little boiling water.
2) Add to a bucket of cool water and stir well.
3) Add the fabric and leave to soak for 15 minutes. Then remove the fabric and rinse.
4) You can now add the fabric to the dyebath. 

Fugitive dyes

“Not everything is a dye, some are just stains,” says Christine, explaining that things like beetroot, berries, blackberries, red cabbage and some petals can give great colour to fabrics initially, but will quickly fade to grey.

“It can take a lot of trial and error to work out which natural dyes are fugitive,” says Christine.

Foraging and waste

Natural dyeing is a great way to use up kitchen scraps, such as avocado stones or onion peel. Or, you can use foraged materials around you. Natural materials like walnuts, acorns, nettles and dock seed make brilliant, vibrant natural dyes.

“I’ve got a dye garden where I grow the three primary dye plants: indigo, weld, and madder,” says Christine. “From those three plants, you can get any shade in the rainbow.”  

Experimentation is key

“You never know how a dye is going to turn out and that’s what keeps you hooked,” says Christine. Plants can produce different colours depending on the climate, the season or the soil. How you prepare your fabric or whether you use linen or cotton will also affect the colour.

“It’s a very slow gradual process,” says Christine. “There are some expert dyers out there that spend years and years experimenting. But, it’s all these variables that keeps it interesting.”

It’s also worth playing with the pH of your dye to create different colours and shades. “We use modifiers to shift the pH of a dye,” says Christine. “An acid or an alkali will give you more colours from one dye pot. You can dilute some lemon juice in water, pop a swatch of the dyed fabric in and see what happens. In another jar, use bicarbonate of soda – you will get different shades emerging”.

Don’t overboil

“Natural dyeing is all about coaxing the colour out,” says Christine. This means you should always be gentle when using heat as boiling your dye can destroy the colour.   

Recommended resources 

If you want to improve your natural dyeing skills or take them to the next level, Christine recommends these resources. 

Books

Wild Colour by Jenny Dean. “This is my go-to book and a real classic, Jenny has decades of experience.”

The Art & Science Of Natural Dyes by Joy Boutrup and Catharine Ellis. “I wish I had this book when I first discovered natural dyes.”

Websites

These websites give useful information on natural dyes for beginners and experts. 

  • www.wildcolours.co.uk
  • www.botanicalcolors.com
  • www.schooloftextiles.com

You can find more expert tips and tutorials on The Curiosity Academy’s Instagram page.

Images: Getty, Christine Lewis 

  • Christine Lewis, founder of Christine Lewis natural dyeing studio

    Christine has been using natural dye for nearly 10 years, founding Christine Lewis Studio and shop and running natural dyeing workshops. 

    She is currently researching the natural dyeing process and experimenting with wool dyes. 

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