Playing With ‘Natural’ Dyes

Playing With ‘Natural’ Dyes

Have you tried ‘natural dyeing’ or dyeing with things you commonly find around the house such as tea, beetroot or food dyes? I had a bit of a dabble this week. I made some camera cases out of felt which was made with natural white/cream coloured wools and fibres. I wanted to blanket stitch them with natural thread, but only had enough for one case and didn’t feel like spinning any more up. The white cotton perle 5 thread and white embroidery floss I had was super bright white. This is the Perle cotton with my handspun natural thread.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI had lots of white embroidery floss, so I thought I’d see if I could colour them with what I had available. The first thing I tried was tea, I put a couple of used tea bags in a tub with boiling water and put the thread in. It looked too pinky, I rinsed out as much as possible but it wasn’t right. The next thing I tried was coffee, I left some ground coffee ‘brewing’ in hot water for a few minutes, then sieved out the grounds.  I just left the thread in a short time and rinsed well, it was more of a beige, but still on the pinkish side. The Coffee is on the left and the tea on the right, with a bright white for comparison.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI left another skein of floss in coffee for longer then tried some onion skins. I’ve been saving red onion skins for a while so I thought I’d give them a try since I was making a mess anyway 🙂 I broke up some of the papery skins and added hot water, I put the thread in and left it while the skins ‘stewed’ for a while. It turned out a nice light pink. The onion skins is on the left and coffee on the right.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI also left a skein of yellow in the brewed coffee for a while, to take some of the brightness off. There’s a skein of the original colour for comparison.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe next thing I tried was turmeric. I know from making curries and dahls that turmeric stains plastic containers, so hoped a small amount would tint my thread. I sprinkled a small amount in a tub and added hot water, it seemed to dark, so I added more. And more. I dipped the end of some cotton perle 5 into the tub and rinsed immediately, but even this quick in-and-out stained it a bright yellow. I put the whole lot in and  left about 30 seconds and rinsed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe turmeric was a gorgeous colour, nice and bright, but much more natural than the dyed bright yellow, the turmeric is on the top, the bottom is the bought dyed yellow:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI don’t know what to try next. I tried bleach on a cotton thread the colour of sweetcorn silks, but it didn’t change. I might just have to get the spindle out, but does anyone have any ideas for what I could try? Actually, any tips at all for ‘natural’ dyeing would be great, it’d be nice to be able to make some custom colours now and again 🙂

Coming up on Monday we have a guest article from rosiepink about what running a small fibre business entails.

16 thoughts on “Playing With ‘Natural’ Dyes

  1. Zed, I wonder if the treatment that makes cotton pearl cotton is effecting the colour you are getting. But the simple solution is to spin yourself some fiber. I know, I know you want to dye some. :O)

    1. I don’t know, the floss and perle cotton are both mercerised, but I don’t think I tried the same thing on each. Maybe I’ll spin a huge amount for future use 🙂

  2. Great experiment! If you really wanted to make a mess beets and tomatoes are great stainers. I love the turmeric color. I wonder if you scoured the cotton beforehand and used a soda ash soak like with an MX dye if the cotton would color better. s Ann mentioned, the mercerized threads have probably over processed the cotton to make absorption harder. Good luck! Keep us posted.

    1. Thanks Marilyn 🙂
      They seem to take colour alright, it was bleach that made no difference. I was only going for pale colours and didn’t boil or anything. The turmeric is great isn’t it!

  3. I went on a fantastic natural dyeing course with ClaraBella at the start of the year. We covered lots of different things from “proper” natural dyes such as indigo & woad, logwood and madder, to more household things such as onion skins, walnuts, coffee & marigold flowers. Another fun thing she mentioned (but we didn’t get to try) was the water from soaking black beans (it gives a lovely soft blue shade). Avocado stones, tea & red cabbage can be used too. She actually advised against beetroot because though it initially stains well, it isn’t colour fast. Mordanting is important too for making things light fast.

    It felt like alchemy watching all these fabrics turn different colours after a dip in different potions and is very much something I’d like to experiment with it myself. Commercially dyed fabric looks so flat and artificial in comparison.

  4. This lady does awesome classes on natural dying but I cant travel to America or Portugal 🙁 but some of the pieces I saw in her emails recently used water with rusty iron in and Cotinus leaves wrapped in the felt before dying, looks really interesting, didn’t know if anyone had tried these ideas out? Beetroot fades to grey over time too, tried that in school. what is mordanting? ive heard of mordant dye, its an acid dye just for wool isn’t it?

    1. I thought Clasheen was in Ireland? Of course that might be too far aswell 🙂 Are you in the UK? Clara Bella who Louisa mentioned above has workshops in West Yorkshire

      A lot of my felting and flickr friends have been doing natural dyeing and printing for a while now, Terrie gets some really great results
      A mordant is something which helps set dyes on fabric, usually metals and/or salts. I don’t know much about it but I think using different mordants with different dyes gives different results. People often use bits of metal, rusty stuff.

  5. Fascinating trip into the world of experimental dyeing!
    I like your handspun thread and the quality is impressive.

    Had a giggle though – you only started this because you didn’t feel like spinning some and I kinda think it would have been quicker if you had!

    1. Thanks, Lyn 🙂
      That’s exactly what I was thinking! It just got too hot again, I didn’t feel like having wool and fluffy stuff touching me and the fan probably would have made a mess 🙂

  6. Love the experiments Zed. I like the coffee colored one myself. But it’s hard to get an exact shade especially the first time you’ve tried it.

  7. The soaking water from black beans is a winner, but you get the best results on silk and you need to leave the fabric soaking in a jar in the fridge for weeks. We get a mauve color – sometimes the chemicals in your water affect the results.

    Mordanting is a pre-treatment to help the natural dye adhere chemically to the fiber molecule. Usually cotton and other plant fibers are mordanted with aluminum sulfate by heating it in a pot of water to about 150 degrees F and holding for 30 minutes. Then it will accept more color from whatever dye material you are using. Onion skins usually give a wonderful yellow.

    Kool Aid is a simple kitchen dye that works best on protein fibers like wool and silk. Use the kind without sugar. Lots of tutorials for that on the net.

  8. Have you tried walnut shell? The brand of tea makes a difference, in the UK red bush tea gives a good non orange stain.

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