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Want to Customize Your Clothes With Natural Dyes? Let an Expert Tell You How

You can make dyes from insects, plants, and food. But, guides on other sites leave out lots of information. The process isn't as easy as they make it seem.

waxflower dyeworks tee
Waxflower Dyeworks

Naturally dyed garments are increasingly commonplace for fledgling and established brands alike. Older Brother uses kelp and algae from the coasts of Ireland and Argentina to make a pastel green button-up. Wellen dyes their T-shirts with pomegranate skins. Lululemon makes basic tees in colors created by plant waste from the agricultural and herbal industries. All of these are interesting, and dedicated, attempts at weaning their brands, and thus their customers, off petroleum-based dyes.

According to The World Bank, 20-percent of the world's water pollution problem can be traced back to the textiles industry, which cites over 8,000 different chemicals in its dyeing processes. Seeing bigger brands take stabs at switching from less eco-conscious dyes to ones derived from plants, food, insects or roots and woods is a step. Each release is further proof that natural dye processes work. But vloggers, bloggers, and social media personalities, each eager to show how natural dyes work, are downplaying not only how hard it is to make them but use them, too.

two people dying clothing
Waxflower Dyeworks

Hannah Cornish Edelstein, a natural dyer, textile artist, and owner of Waxflower Dye Works, feels the art of natural dyeing faces ongoing misinformation issues. "There is a big problem in the natural dye world of folks being mislead into thinking they can easily make a permanent dye from their kitchen waste, and without proper fabric prep. Scouring and mordanting is essential," she says. "Then, when their projects fail or fade very, very quickly, they assume that all natural dyes are like that — when they aren't."

Scouring: cleaning or preparing textiles with an abrasive tool or detergent

Colorfastness: how well a dye color holds up to repeated washing (wash-fastness) and exposure to natural light (lightfastness)

Mordanting: the process of soaking fibers in a metal salt in order to increase colorfastness and allow for dye molecules to form a permanent bond with the fiber.

Fugitive: dyes that are quickly degraded by everything from water, washing, and sunlight to just plain exposure to the air

WOF (Weight of Fiber): expressed as a percentage. Ex: Use yellow onion skins at 100% WOF means that if your fiber weighs 200g, you need to use 200g of onion skins

Natural dyeing a white cotton T-shirt isn't as easy as boiling red onions, black beans, matcha powder, beets or blueberries in a vat of water, letting the mixture cool, dipping the T-shirt in, and letting it dry. In fact, there are far more steps — and only a shortlist of ingredients you should really use. Edelstein uses Madder Root to make red; Marigold for yellow; invasive insect Cochineal for a pinkish purple; and avocado pits for a pale pink. It's the insects, plants, flowers, and foraged roots that work best, she says.

dyeing a shirt with flowers
Waxflower Dyeworks

"To be honest, food and food waste are really poor sources of natural dyes. Chemistry is at the core of this craft, and it dictates which dyestuffs (sources of dye: plants, insects, etc) are and are not suitable for use in textiles," Edelstein says. "The important thing to remember is that just because a food produces color doesn’t mean that color can be used as a dye. The colors you get from pretty much all foods and most flowers — those pretty blues/greens, purples, and reds/pinks from red cabbage, beets, black beans, and berries — are notoriously fugitive, meaning they don’t stick around. Fugitive colors are really not even dyes. They are stains, and they are temporary."

Got that? No food or food waste (except for avocado pits). I know. That YouTube video on natural dye you just watched tricked you into thinking this whole experience would last about an hour. Wrong! Let Edelstein answer some of the questions I know you're dying (get it?) to ask.

Why won't food or food waste work?

"The primary pigments in those foods are Anthocyanins. Most fruits, veggies, and flowers that are some shades of red, blue, or purple/black owe their color to Anthocyanins. Anthocyanins are not colorfast. They will fade or completely disappear very rapidly no matter what preparation you do to your fibers.

Natural dyers spend years researching chemistry, performing our own tests of colorfastness, and experimenting with preparation. We care about giving our craft a future, and we don’t recommend dyeing with kitchen waste unless you are looking for a temporary color — like a craft with kids where it doesn’t matter that the color disappears rapidly."

food for dye
Waxflower Dyeworks

"Anthocyanins are great for coloring food and can be used to dye things like Easter eggs, where longevity isn’t required... You can’t use rotten food, because the phytopigments have already begun to decay, so the results will be even more muddy and short-lived if any results are achieved at all."

What if I'm okay with it fading?

"If you are dead set on dyeing with food, you can get some nice shades of yellow, gold, or beige from things like yellow or brown onions and turmeric. Both of those are still relatively fugitive, but not nearly as bad as anthocyanin-based foods. Boiling 100 percent WOF (weight of fiber) of yellow or brown onion skins can create a vibrant yellow-gold color that can last anywhere from a few weeks or months to a year or more depending on the amount of washing and light exposure it gets. Turmeric is less stable and will fade with washing and exposure to air and light. But, both of these yellows will fade into paler yellows, which is the goal. You want a natural dye that fades into a paler, lighter shade of the original color — not something that goes grey.

Yellow/brown onion skins can contain, among other chemical compounds, Quercetin and Luteolin, which give [off] yellows and are more colorfast than anthocyanins. The same compounds are found in traditional dyestuffs like Weld and Oak."

Wait a second. How exactly do I even dye then?

"It depends on what kind of fiber you are working with. Natural dyes can only be used on natural fibers: protein fibers like silk or wool or cellulosic (plant) fibers like cotton or hemp, or bast fibers like linen. Protein fibers are much easier to dye than cellulose fibers and require less prep. Silk, assuming it is already degummed to remove sericin, can be scoured using Orvus Paste Soap, or a very small amount of pH-neutral detergent like Synthrapol. Some say that degummed silk does not need to be scoured, but I always do it anyway to remove dirt and manufacturing residues."

yellow cardigan soaking in water
Waxflower Dyeworks

"Cotton always needs to be scoured to remove dirt, waxes, residues, etc. Cotton should be scoured in boiling water with 5-percent WOF (weight of fiber) Soda Ash and 1-2-percent pH neutral detergent (synthrapol). It should then be rinsed thoroughly, and repeated if the scour water was at all yellow or brown. Sometimes this must be done several times. If you don’t scour properly, it is like painting on a canvas covered in olive oil — nothing is going to stick to it.

After scouring, you need to mordant. Mordanting is the process of soaking fibers in a metal salt in order to increase colorfastness and allow for dye molecules to form a permanent bond with the fiber. Aluminum is the most common and most safe of all the metal mordants. Protein fibers are mordanted with Alum (Potassium Aluminum Sulfate, or pickling alum) at a rate of 15-percent WOF. Cotton is first soaked in a tannin bath, and then in Aluminum Acetate (AA). Using AA alone on cotton is okay, but the tannin step is recommended to help the AA bind to the cotton fibers. Tannin has a natural affinity for cellulosic fibers, and aids in creating the strong molecular bond we are after."

What kinds of clothes can I use?

"Natural fibers are the only kind that will even accept natural dyes. Synthetics like nylon or polyester are not dyeable with natural dyes. It just won’t color at all. The exception is Viscose (rayon), which is a semi-synthetic fiber manufactured with regenerated cellulose (wood pulp, etc). So while it is technically man-made, it is done so with cellulosic (plant-based) materials and can be dyed using a cellulose method. Same with bast fibers like flax."

yellow dyed clothing
Waxflower Dyeworks

"Protein fibers (from animals) like wool and silk are the easiest to dye, and what most natural dyers work with. They are easier because dye molecules have a greater affinity for protein fibers — they molecularly bond better — than they have for cellulosic fibers. Silk and wool present their own challenges when it comes to being more delicate to handle, more susceptible to damage from high temperatures or temperature shock, and with wool [especially], you have to be super careful not to agitate it when wet or it will felt (why sweaters shrink in the washer/dryer)."

Any other common errors I can avoid?

"The most common mistake is trying to take shortcuts. Natural dyeing has been documented and practiced for thousands of years. If there were any shortcuts, we would have found them by now. That’s why synthetic dyes were invented — scalability and speed.

Natural dyeing is not fast, and it isn’t really a rainy day activity. The simplified versions of natural dyeing aren’t really dyeing. It is basically just staining, in which case you are better off just pouring red wine on your shirt and saving yourself the hassle of extracting the same color from a food. Natural dyeing done properly takes many many hours of preparation and a lot of research — and trial and error. There aren’t any shortcuts."

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