Dyeing Fabric & Clothes with Turmeric – the Complete Guide

Dyeing with turmeric can be an incredible introduction to natural dyeing. Turmeric was one of the first completely self-guided natural dye journeys I went on, and although it was a great experience, it’s not a dyestuff I go back to regularly as it’s quite quick to fade. There are other natural dyes like Weld that are similar in color but more permanent, but that’s not to say that a turmeric dye bath isn’t worth trying!

The fade patterns you can develop on a turmeric-dyed garment that’s worn out in the sun can be quite beautiful, and turmeric is one of the dye processes that’s the lightest on chemicals, so it can be a great choice if you want to involve some curious kids in your project. Additionally, because it’s a fairly straightforward process, it’s a great project to work on with a group.

What’s covered in this article:

silver teaspoon with bright orange-yellow turmeric powder.
A teaspoon of turmeric powder. Photo credit: Pexels.
hands closing a mesh grocery bag with turmeric plants inside.
Turmeric in plant form. Photo credit: Pexels.

Can you use turmeric to dye clothes?

Turmeric can be used to dye clothes, but the color is likely to fade quickly (in my experience, anywhere from 1 day with sun exposure to 8 months).

Turmeric is what’s called a fugitive dye. In this case, fugitive means that this dye doesn’t chemically bond with the fibers and permeate their structure. Instead, it sticks to the outside of the fiber in a bond that isn’t as strong as the alternative. My turmeric dyed fabric faded significantly in about 7 or 8 months, but for some projects, that’s just fine.

One of the cool things about dyeing with Turmeric is that it doesn’t require a mordant (a fixative that helps the color stick to the fabric). You can use a mordant if you want to alter the yellow hue from your dye bath. But if you’re looking for a low-setup, low-chemical option to get started with natural dyes, it can provide an afternoon of great fun!

Precautions to take before you start dyeing:

  • Protect your countertops with a sheet of plastic and old newspaper on top. The plastic will keep everything contained, and the newspaper will absorb anything that does happen to spill. You can wipe down the plastic and reuse it next time.
  • Immediately wipe up any spilled dye powder before it has a chance to become airborne or land on something it might stain.
  • Protect your hands with long kitchen gloves. You can use surgical gloves in a pinch, but they’re not as long so you might get dye on your forearms. I also suggest an apron to protect your clothes.
  • When you’re agitating dye baths, try to vary your mixing methods to get an even result. Use tongs, and carefully tease apart layers of fabric that are pinched or stuck together. Keep pushing any parts of the fabric that float to the surface back down. 
  • Write everything down! At a minimum, record the weight of your fabric, weight of dye, weight of fixative/mordant, and the amount of water you used. You can also record the temperature of the dye bath and the length of time it spent in the dye. You never know when you’ll come up with the perfect dye recipe that you’re just *dyeing* to recreate!

In addition to the standard tips I use to ensure a successful dye bath (that includes not getting dye anywhere it shouldn’t be!), there are a few additional things to keep in mind specifically for turmeric.

  • Turmeric, and other fugitive stains, are even more quick to stain anything they touch than commercial dye powders. Powders are usually quite easy to wipe up until they’re mixed with the soda ash or citric acid in those dye baths. But Turmeric will stain nearly anything it touches instantly. Be prepared for your dye pot (even a stainless steel one!) to have a yellowish tinge when your dye bath is finished. 
  • Although turmeric is a food product and the turmeric powder you’re using is safe to eat, it’s still not a good idea to inhale powders into your lungs. Be sure you’re using a dust mask until the powder has been dissolved in water.

What supplies you need:

  • Dye pot (stainless steel or enamel, not for food) or a plastic tub for cold-water dyeing.
  • Tongs or utensils to stir and manipulate the fabric in dye.
  • Rubber gloves.
  • Turmeric (you don’t need to order from a dye supplier – powdered turmeric from the spice aisle is all good). You can use fresh turmeric here as well. If you do this, use ½ the weight of the fabric you’re dyeing. But personally having done this, I don’t recommend it as the bits get everywhere, and you’ll need to simmer it for a few extra hours to release the color.
  • Scrap of muslin cloth to strain the dye.
  • Measuring spoons (in this case, your regular kitchen spoons are fine).

Tutorial: How to dye with turmeric (recommended method)

Step 1: Wash your fabric or clothes

Before you start the dyeing process, wash your fabric, yarn, or garment thoroughly. This is extremely important especially if the item you’re dyeing has been worn, as deodorant and sweat stains will shift the color in those stained areas to an orangey red, or cause it to fade entirely (more on this below, in the “dyeing with turmeric and baking soda” section).

Step 2: Add water and turmeric to the dye pot

Prepare your dye by adding a small amount of water to the bottom of your dye pot. Accuracy isn’t important here – perhaps an inch or two of water in the bottom of the pot is plenty.

Then add approximately 3 tablespoons of turmeric per pound of fabric. You can choose to add less if you’d like a lighter hue, but more is unlikely to create a darker or more vibrant color.

Step 3: Simmer for 1 hour

Turn up the heat and allow the turmeric powder to simmer for 1 hour.

Step 4: Strain the liquid

Strain the liquid through a scrap of muslin cloth (note: this will stain) or a disposable coffee filter. This prevents the small granules of ground turmeric from embedding themselves in the fabric you’re dyeing. 

Step 5: Add the liquid & fabric to the pot. Simmer.

Rinse your dye pot and return the strained turmeric liquid to the pot. Bring the heat up to a gentle simmer. Add enough fabric (or clothing) so that they can swim freely.

Allow the liquid to simmer until the desired color has been achieved. This may take more or less time depending on the fiber you’re dyeing. For example, wool tends to absorb dye quite quickly, while cotton and linen can take longer.

Step 6: Remove the item. Rinse.

If you’ve achieved your desired shade and don’t wish to go any darker, remove the item from the dye and rinse it in hot water, progressing to cool water until it runs clear.

If you’re hoping for a shade as vibrant as possible, or you’re dyeing something that may suffer a temperature shock (for example, wool yarn may felt if removed too quickly from hot water), you can allow the item to cool in the dye bath before rinsing.

Tips: Remember to wear gloves even when rinsing – turmeric will stain anything it touches. And be sure to use a pH neutral soap when washing the item in the future, as the turmeric can at any point be color-shifted by exposure to alkaline pH.

Dyeing with turmeric and cold water (method 2):

It’s possible to dye with Turmeric without heat, and in many cases, it’s more convenient. There’s only one major drawback: this method involves adding your item to be dyed directly to the dye pot with powdered turmeric, instead of simmering the dye and straining it. Simmering the dye first allows you to extract the color from the powdered turmeric and avoid filling your item to be dyed with granules of turmeric. This is less of an issue with a hearty fabric like canvas or linen, but the turmeric granules can be extremely difficult to get out of softer items like yarn or handknits.

Here’s an easy trick: Think about what would happen if you buried your item to be dyed in sand at the beach. Would you be able to shake the sand out, or would it stay trapped in the item even after a good shake? If it’s the latter, dyeing in a cold dye bath may not be the best idea.

Additionally – this is a minor observation – it may take longer for some fabrics to absorb the dye in a cold bath rather than a hot one. On the other hand, this method can be great for resist dyeing or tie dyeing, or any other method where you’re worried that heating an item might damage it.

If you’re going ahead with a cold turmeric dye bath, follow the instructions above but skip the pre-simmer and straining step – just add everything to your dye vessel at once. You also won’t need a dye pot since you’re not using the stove. A plastic bucket will work just fine, as long as you’re okay with staining it.

Dyeing with turmeric and baking soda (method 3):

One of the biggest variables in natural dyeing is pH levels. Changing these levels in any natural dye experiment will yield vastly different results, and Turmeric is no exception. In this case, baking soda is alkaline, and adding it to a turmeric dye bath will cause it to turn a bright scarlet color. This is a fantastic introduction to chemistry for kids, but it does have some limitations as far as dyeing garments or fabric is concerned.

The process of turning turmeric scarlet is pretty straightforward. The addition of a small amount of baking soda at a time until the color changes will do the trick in a hot dye bath (some people report that it doesn’t work in cold water, while others say there’s no issue). However, the excitement is pretty short-lived. This color is fairly temporary. There are a number of things that will cause it to wash out of your fabric even more quickly than turmeric usually does. 

  • Adding too much baking soda will cause the color to over-oxidize, and you’ll be left with a dull color that’s not quite yellow and not quite orange. 
  • Washing out your fabric in particularly acidic water will reverse the color effect.
  • Even after the fabric is dry, any future exposure to an acidic environment (when being washed, or even exposure to other sources of acid, like spilling lemonade on your shirt) will cause the color to instantly fade.

Don’t get me wrong – it is possible to get a scarlet color to ‘stick’ to your fabric – but there are more reliable and permanent ways to achieve scarlet. While watching turmeric shift in color from yellow to scarlet can be pretty awesome, in most cases it’s a project best left for science class rather than garment dyeing.

  • If you’re looking for a similar scarlet, natural dyeing with Brazilwood could be a good option.
  • You can also involve turmeric in the process by overdyeing a turmeric-dyed item with cochineal. This particular recipe actually has a history in the Napoleonic war, where the red army coats were dyed with a mixture of turmeric and cochineal, although the resulting color has a deeper, more reddish hue than the orangey-scarlet color achieved with baking soda.

Do you need a mordant to dye with turmeric? If yes, what mordant?

Turmeric is one of the few natural dyes that doesn’t require a mordant, however, you may wish to use one anyway. Mordants are chemicals that are used to pre-soak items, and different mordants can change the color of turmeric. You can use iron oxide to shift the color to olive green, alum to achieve a bright yellow, or even an alkaline modifier (included in the dye bath, as above, to achieve reddish-orange tones).

In general, mordants do improve the colorfastness of a natural dye, but this isn’t the case with turmeric. Although it’s useful for color shifts, it won’t make the dye any more permanent.

To use a mordant, pre-soak your item to be dyed in a solution of the mordant you’re using for up to 12 hours. Instructions for how much mordant to use vary by type, so be sure to check the packaging for weight recommendations. Then remove your item from the solution and rinse gently before adding the item to the turmeric dye bath.

Fixatives for turmeric dye:

There’s a common fixative for traditional dyes called Synthrapol, but unfortunately, there’s no fixative specific to turmeric that will help it last any longer on your fabric.

If you’re not sure what fixatives are, they’re chemicals that strengthen the bond between a dye and a fabric. They vary greatly depending on the dye and fabric, but they’re always used as an after-wash to help “set” the dye and keep it from washing out in the washing machine.

If you just love the idea of a turmeric-dyed garment, one method for longer life is to schedule a yearly re-dye session. If you’re set on the perfect turmeric-dyed linen pants, refresh the color each year with a fresh swim in the dye bath, and watch the color fade naturally each summer! This is a fairly common practice with fugitive dyes like turmeric – especially historically, when other more permanent options weren’t available.

Does turmeric dye fade? How long does it last?

Turmeric dyes fade quite quickly. In my experience, in 7-8 months’ time, but some clothes will fade much faster. My turmeric-dyed beach shorts faded significantly in 1 day because of sun exposure.

How do you keep turmeric from fading? Can you make it permanent?

Unfortunately, turmeric-dyed items do fade more quickly over time – often in a matter of months. You can prolong the life and brightness of a turmeric-dyed item by hand washing with gentle detergent in cold water, and especially by keeping it out of direct sunlight. This includes storing the fabric before you stitch it up, and also making sure that the garment you’ve made (or dyed) is stored in a dark place.

The fabric I dyed with turmeric lasted about 7 or 8 months before it had faded significantly from the original color. And I made a pair of beach shorts from my turmeric dyed project, and they faded significantly after a single day in the sun, so it’s worth noting that turmeric dyed items will always fade, no matter what.

If you’re looking for a natural dye alternative to yellow that’s more colorfast, weld is widely available from dye suppliers and produces a very similar range of vivid yellows. Weld does require a mordant, so it will require a bit more setup than Turmeric, but the result will be much more permanent.

What to read next:

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…


These sources were referenced in May 2022.