Natural dyes can be an amazing way to add eco-friendly color to silk fabric, and a perfect opportunity to learn more about the plants that grow in your area. There’s a huge amount of variation in natural dyeing recipes and each one produces a different result. This is an overview of the most common techniques.
I would not recommend this method if you’re seeking a specific color – more if you’re happy with a color range and looking to experiment with the process. For more reliable ways to dye fabric, read my article on the best ways to dye silk.
- How does natural dyeing work?
- What can you use as a natural dye?
- What supplies you need
- How to dye silk fabric naturally (step-by-step)
- After I naturally dye my fabric, will the color be permanent?
How does natural dyeing work?
Generally speaking, natural dye recipes consist of two parts: a “dyestuff” and a “mordant”. A “dyestuff” is the root, leaves, skins, or petals of the plant which produce the color. A “mordant” is the fixative that helps the color produced by the dyestuff stick to the fabric.
There’s a long list of mordants that you can use with natural dyes: alum, cream of tartar, and tannic acid, and various metals like aluminum, copper, and iron to name a few.
Natural dyes are also much more affected by environmental changes. For example, the water temperature, the type of metal the dye pot is made from, the salinity of the water, and even the growing conditions of the dye.
All of this is to say, the best attitude to approach natural dyeing with is one of experimentation. Your results might be unexpected, but the process is still magical!
What can you use as a natural dye?
You can purchase natural dyes in powdered or dried forms from websites like Dharma trading, but you can also find sources of dyestuff much closer to home.
Onion skins, avocado pits, and pomegranate skins are all things we usually throw away, but they can be saved and dried (or frozen) until you’re ready to use them.
Depending on where you live, you may also have plants that produce dye growing nearby. Marigolds, chestnuts, and weld grow across large geographic areas and may be growing in your backyard!
What supplies you need:
- Dyestuff of choice: try avocado skins and pits, pomegranate skins, onion skins, or look online for dried dyestuff like henna, kamala, or madder.
- Mordant: Alum and cream of tartar.
- A dye pot made from stainless steel or enamel. Aluminum is a mordant, so although you can dye in aluminum pots, be aware that it’ll add an extra variable to your dye recipe!
- Rubber gloves.
- Set of teaspoons.
- Tongs, a stirring spoon, or something similar to stir your dye bath.
- Optional: Kitchen scale (gram increments).
How to dye silk fabric naturally (step-by-step):
Step 1: Pre-wash your fabric
Pre-wash your fabric, paying special attention to stains if required.
Step 2: Prepare the mordant solution & add your fabric
Prepare the mordant solution by mixing 1 ¾ teaspoon of Alum and 1 teaspoon of Cream of Tartar in your dye pot. Dissolve it in water, then add your fabric and more water until the fabric moves freely.
Step 3: Stir for 1 hour
Bring the temperature to 185 degrees Fahrenheit (just below boiling) and hold it here, stirring occasionally, for an hour. This is 85 degrees Celsius.
Step 4: Remove your fabric
Allow the fabric to cool in the mordant water, then remove and squeeze out the excess. You can set your damp fabric aside in a bowl while you replace the mordant solution in your dye pot with the dyestuff.
Step 5: Replace the mordant water with dyestuff
Make a note of the amount of water in your dye pot before you dump it out. Then drain your pot and replace it with as much fresh water as you originally had. Add your dyestuff (chop up large pieces if required).
Step 6: Simmer for 1 hour
Allow your pot to simmer for 1 hour. After an hour, you may wish to strain the larger chunks out of your dye pot, especially if your fabric is delicate and may snag on rough edges, but this isn’t required.
Step 7: Add your fabric & simmer for 1 hour
Add your fabric, and simmer for an additional hour before allowing the fabric and pot to cool together.
Step 8: Remove your fabric & rinse it in clean water
Once the fabric and pot are cool, rinse the fabric in cool water until the water runs clear. Use a bit of hand soap.
Optionally, you can save the dye bath for future fabric, but the first batch will yield the most intense color. This is great if you’d like to dye multiple shades of colors!
Step 9: Dry your fabric
Some natural dyes can be particularly light-sensitive, so dry your fabric in the shade, and store it out of direct sunlight.
After I naturally dye my fabric, will the color be permanent? Will it bleed when washed?
It depends on which natural dye you choose.
For example, Indigo creates an extremely strong dye, but it’s still ultimately a surface dye, not a chemical bond. That’s the reason jeans get that lovely worn-in look after years of wear! Turmeric dye creates a vibrant golden yellow, but fades over time.
Using different mordants can increase the color-fastness of natural dyes, but each one is so individual that it’s best to look up the treatment methods for the natural dye you plan to use.
What to read next…
- How to Dye Silk from Start to Finish (4 Ways)
- Will Fabric Dye Stain my Pot, Sink or Bathtub? & How to Fix
- What to Sew with Silk: 19+ Sewing Project Ideas
- How to Sew Silk: the Complete Guide
This article was written by Kat Waters and edited by Sara Maker.
Kat Waters (author)
Kat has been sewing since her feet could reach the pedals, starting with quilts she made with her mom and eventually graduating to garments. She now makes everything she wears, occasionally teaches classes, and shares her projects on social media. Highlights include her wedding dress, shoemaking, and a love for almost any fabric that comes in hot pink! Read more…
Sources referenced in February 2022.