Natural dyes are such a fun way to create color using ingredients that are available in your backyard. I often see natural dyeing as an experiment. I find it’s more enjoyable if I’m not tied to creating an exact shade. Instead, I approach the project with a desire to understand what range of colors can be produced. There are many variables involved in natural dyeing, especially if you’re just starting out, so it’s best to take your time and enjoy the process.
While it’s possible to achieve a deep, near-black color on a wide variety of fibers without artificial dyes, the process is quite involved. It can take a few weeks to steep plant material like walnut hulls to get the full range of color out of them, and the mordanting and dye process will require a few overnight soaks.
Additionally, and unfortunately, natural dyeing does come with its own host of chemicals that require safety measures to be taken. If you’re pursuing the natural dye route because you believe it’s “chemical-free”, I’m sorry to tell you this isn’t the case. Conventional dye chemicals may be different, but any reaction that puts color on fabric is a chemical one, so be sure you’re taking the right safety precautions!
- How to make black fabric dye at home
- Preparing dyestuff for a natural dye bath
- The components of a natural dye bath
- Tips for working with natural dyes
- How to dye fabric & clothes black using Walnut Hulls or Oak Galls
- Will the natural black dye be permanent?
- How to dye different colored fabrics black
- Can you use natural dyeing methods on all types of fabric?
How to make black fabric dye at home:
Black is one of the most difficult colors to dye, let alone dye naturally, so if you’re new to natural dyeing I highly recommend dipping your toe into the world of natural color with a color like yellow, orange, or green.
Additionally, depending on how specific your definition of ‘black’ is, there are no natural dyes that can achieve a “true black”. These colors almost always have a red or blue undertone, or are an extremely dark, desaturated brown that is commonly referred to as “near black”.
What items you can use to create black dye:
That said, there are a handful of natural dyestuffs (that is, materials that produce pigments) that can produce colors that look black to most folks, when combined with specific mordants. There are a few you might find in your backyard or online:
- Walnut husks (backyard option)
- Hawthorn (backyard option)
- Iris roots (backyard option)
- Carob pods (online option)
- Logwood (online option)
- Oak galls (online option)
For this post, we’ll focus on two options that are more readily available and produce high color intensity: oak galls and walnut husks. In addition to these, you’ll need a mordant and a modifier, which we’ll cover more in the “Components of a natural dye bath” section below.
Different dyestuffs are available in different parts of the world, so if you don’t have access to these plants in your backyard, look online for a natural dye supplier in your country. When you’re working on a natural dye project with a plant from your backyard, you’ll most likely be using equal weights of fabric and dyestuffs. However, natural dye suppliers often sell dried or powdered dyestuffs, so you’ll want to pay special attention to the weight and quantity requirements for the specific dyestuff you purchase.
Some countries have restrictions around sending plant matter internationally so it’s best to shop as locally as possible! In the US, Dharma Trading Company is a great option for natural dyes. They have powdered dyes along with mordants and other supplies.
Running multiple dye baths
One of the most common, and in fact oldest, ways of achieving a color as close to black as possible is to run multiple dye baths to achieve a compound color. Throughout history, dyers have used indigo for its rich, dark blue base and augmented it with various dyestuffs that produce reddish browns, as this is a readily available color. You can do this by dyeing your project first in indigo, and then with a more readily available reddish-brown dyestuff like cutch, brazilwood, hibiscus, or sandalwood.
Preparing dyestuff for a natural dye bath
Some natural dyes available for purchase come in the form of extracts – that is, concentrated pigments that have already been processed to extract the color. If you’re working with a concentrated extract, you can skip this section and follow the instructions it comes with. If you’re working with a dyestuff that is a root or nut – like oak galls or walnut husks – you’ll need to process it to get the pigment you need to dye your fibers. You can choose to process them with a hot or cold method, depending on what you’re using.
- Start with a weight of dyestuff equal to the weight of fabric you wish to dye.
- Crush larger items. Walnut hulls and oak galls should be broken down into pea-sized pieces or so.
- Add them to a pot with enough liquid to cover them. Since our dyestuff is hard and dense, it’ll need some cold-soaking time to allow the water to penetrate. Allow at least 24 hours – but up to a week – for the dyestuff to soak in the water.
- Once this is done, you can heat it to release the last of the pigments. In most cases, you’ll need to simmer this pot for at least an hour to release all the color. Some dyestuffs take more or less time to extract. You’ll know you can stop once the liquid isn’t getting any darker.
- At this stage, strain the dyestuff out and discard it, retaining the liquid to use for your dye bath.
For items like leaves, berries, bark, and flowers – cold processing can yield richer color, so it’s best not to apply heat. Again, break down larger pieces into pea-sized pieces, but this time soak your dyestuff of choice in cold water for several days. This is enough to release the dye required for your dye bath, but if you’d like, you can re-process the dyestuff using the hot method for a second dye bath.
The components of a natural dye bath
As many variables as there seem to be in conventional dyeing, there are so many more in natural dyeing. Here are the puzzle pieces that make up a natural dye project, and some of the ways each one might impact the final color of your fabric:
Dyestuff: We’ve discussed this already, but keep in mind that in natural dyeing, the dyestuff starts as a living organism. How and where it’s grown has an impact on the color it produces, so your results with a walnut tree in California may vary greatly from those in Virginia!
Mordant: The easiest way to think of a mordant is as a fixative. It helps to make the bond between the dyestuff and the fabric permanent, but depending on the dyestuff it can also shift or intensify the color. There are dozens of mordants available – salts of metals like copper, aluminum, and iron, as well as natural mordants like oxalic acid in rhubarb leaves and tannins found in sumac. For our purposes of dyeing fabric black, we’ll need an iron mordant which you can purchase from a dye supplier, or even test out the results with a diy solution by mixing water and vinegar together and leaving some rusty nails to soak in it for a few weeks!
Modifier: Modifiers are additives that are used to shift the color of dyestuff to different hues. They can turn red hues pinker, yellows greener, and they can darken assorted colors as well. They’re not always required, but in the case of our black dye, we’ll be using iron as a modifier to darken the hues of our walnut hulls (or oak galls). You can purchase Ferrous Sulfate from a natural dye supply store, or make your own ‘iron water’ by soaking a solution of 2 parts water to 1 part clear vinegar with as many rusty nails as you can find. Keep in mind your science may be a bit less exact if you go the diy route!
Dye Pot: when you’re dyeing with natural dyes, the metal that the dye pot is made from can also impact the dye color. Aluminum, in particular, is not a good choice for natural dyes as it can dull the color. Cast iron is also not a great choice, but unless you’re really leaning into the cauldron aesthetic, it’s unlikely you’ll come across an iron dye pot! Look instead for a stainless steel or enameled pot, as these materials are non-reactive. Like conventional dyeing, you should never re-use your dye pot for food.
Temperature: In addition to the ways we process dyestuffs, the temperature of your final dye bath can also impact color. Although most natural dyes don’t require heat, the ones that we’re discussing here to get black colors do benefit from a simmer and from a longer period of time in the dye bath.
Water: The acidity or alkalinity of the water you use will impact the color of your dye. The target is a neutral pH of 7. To increase pH, add washing soda or ammonia and to decrease, add vinegar or lemon juice. While I usually dye with tap water, some natural dyers I know will only dye with rainwater!
Fiber: The content of the item you’re dyeing is the last variable in your natural dye puzzle. Silks and wools accept dye differently than cottons and linens, but as a rule, plant fibers are a little easier and less picky in the dye they absorb. Silk and wool are also more easily affected by heat, so if you’re dyeing these fibers be careful not to turn up the heat beyond a very gentle simmer! For more on fibers you may choose to dye, see the section on types of fabric below.
Tips for working with natural dyes
Although your dye products may be sourced from your backyard, you’ll still be working with chemicals that require a couple of precautions. Here are some tips to keep safety in mind, as well as ensure a successful result!
- Keep separate utensils. Anything used for dyeing should never be used again to prepare food with!
- Many of the items used to make dye or mordant with are toxic if ingested, or may irritate the skin. For example, rhubarb leaves can be used as a mordant but are toxic if eaten. Also, put a lid on any simmering pots, and don’t inhale the steam or fumes directly.
- Ferrous sulfate (iron water), which is used as a mordant and which we’ll also be using as a modifier, is also harmful if ingested.
- The warmest your dye bath or mordanting process should ever need to be is around 88 degrees celsius (190 fahrenheit) – this is the simmering point. Heating above this temperature may damage some colors, and it also increases the amount of steam produced unnecessarily.
For best results:
- Test first! The first time you use a new dye, test the entire process on scrap fabric before committing to a full dye bath. Record your water’s pH levels, type of mordant, lengths of times, and temperatures, as well as the weights of all elements of your dye bath. With so many variables, there are a lot of different things to control and record here.
- Try out different mordants and modifiers. These work differently on different dye plants as well as fibers, so it’s possible to get an entire range of colors from a single plant with various mordants and modifiers.
- Test and adjust the pH of your rinse water as well. If your rinse water is particularly acidic or alkaline, rinsing a freshly dyed item may cause it to color shift in a direction you don’t want. The easiest way to ensure you don’t get any surprises is to make sure that the pH is ideally neutral, but importantly as close to the pH of your dye bath water as possible.
- Take it slow. This is perhaps the most important tip in this entire article. Natural dyeing takes time. Aside from gathering dyestuffs, the process of extracting dye, preparing and mordanting the fibers, as well as actually dyeing the items, can take weeks. Be prepared to take your time, don’t rush things, and go with the flow.
How to dye fabric & clothes black without artificial dyes: Walnut Hulls or Oak Galls
- Dye pot (stainless steel or enamel, not aluminum!)
- Tongs or utensils to stir and manipulate fabric in the dye
- Rubber gloves
- pH test strips
- Dyestuffs: Oak Galls or Walnut Hulls (equal weight to the fabric you’re dyeing, processed as discussed above)
- Cream of tartar (if using animal fibers)
- Washing soda (sometimes, if using plant fibers, see step 7.5)
- Ferrous Sulfate crystals or iron water (see “modifier” above)
- Begin by preparing your dyestuffs following the instructions in the “preparing dyestuff” section above. If you’ve purchased powdered dyestuff, follow the instructions on the label. It will most likely need to be mixed with water, allowed to stand for half an hour, and then strained to remove any stray particles. Make sure your dye liquid is cool before you proceed to step 2.
- Wash the garment or fabric to be dyed thoroughly in pH neutral washing liquid, paying special attention to stains. Even if your fabric or garment is new, it should be washed to remove sizing or other finishing chemicals from the fabric. You don’t need to dry it after this wash – it can go straight to the mordanting phase.
Mordant for animal fibers (wool, silk, alpaca, etc.):
- Mordant your item in Alum. Add 1 ¾ teaspoon of alum and 1 1/2 teaspoon of cream of tartar per 100g of fiber weight to a small measuring cup and dissolve them in hot water.
- Add this mixture to a large pot of cool water, stir thoroughly, and add your item to be dyed.
- Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally, and keep the heat constant for one hour. Then turn off the heat and allow the item to cool for at least two hours and then remove and rinse thoroughly in cool water. If your item is temperature-sensitive (like silk satin, which can lose its luster if exposed to heat), you can skip the simmering stage and leave the item to soak in the solution for 12-24 hours instead.
Mordant for plant fibers, a note: Generally, plant fibers are mordanted with a tannin followed by the dyestuff, but our dyestuff (oak galls or walnut husks) are already extremely tannin-rich, so we’re essentially mordanting and dyeing all at once!
- To create your dye bath, add the extracted dye liquid from your oak galls or walnut hulls to a pot, fill it with enough water for your fabric to swim freely, and add your fabric. Bring the temperature up to a simmer and maintain it for one hour, stirring occasionally.
- Turn the heat off, cover your dye pot, and leave it undisturbed overnight, for 12 to 24 hours. At this stage, it will be a moderate to dark brown. If it seems light, you can repeat the process with more dyestuffs without re-mordanting.
7.5 – in some cases, you may choose to post-mordent a plant fiber with Alum at this stage. If you’re dyeing cotton, linen, or hemp and it’s not reaching a chocolate brown by this stage, follow the process in steps 3-5, using 4 teaspoons of alum per 100g fabric, and 1 1/2 teaspoon of washing soda (soda ash). This is not required in all instances, but useful if you’re not seeing the results you want.
- To turn it black, we must add our iron modifier. Dissolve 1 1/2 teaspoon of ferrous sulfate per 100g of fabric in hot water, then dilute with about a cup of cool water. Stir this mixture directly into your dye pot, being careful not to pour it directly on the garment. Allow it to sit for no longer than 30 minutes. Prolonged exposure to iron mordant can deteriorate fibers, especially animal fibers like wool.
- Remove your dyed item from the pot and rinse thoroughly, then wash with a pH-neutral soap.
Will the natural black dye be permanent?
The benefit of mordanting your fibers, in part, is dye permanence! The mordant allows the dye to create a more permanent bond, which means that in this case, the resulting dyed item will be light and wash fast within reason. Almost any pigment will fade when exposed to direct sunlight, so take care to store your dyed items away from the sun’s harmful rays. I also prefer to wash my hand-dyed items in cooler washing machine cycles to keep them brighter for longer. These dyes are unlikely to bleed onto other items in your washing machine, but it’s not impossible. Be sure to wash them separately first, and use a color catcher to gauge whether all of the dye truly has been rinsed from the fabric before you wash it with other items.
It’s slightly more likely with natural fibers that your dye may fade over time, but taking care to wash in cool water and store away from direct sunlight will keep colors brighter and more vibrant for many years.
How to dye different colored fabrics black (naturally):
Starting with a colored fabric or garment can actually be quite beneficial for a black natural dye project! Throughout history, dyers have been combining multiple dye baths to “mix” colors on fabrics.
Unfortunately, due to some unfavorable cross-reactions, it’s almost never recommended to combine multiple dyestuffs in a single dye pot. You can’t just mix red and blue to get purple the way you can with conventional dyes. You’ll achieve the mix by dyeing one color and then overdyeing the next.
- If your starting garment has reddish, orange, or brown tones, you may be able to overdye it with indigo to create a deep, rich blue that will appear near-black on these colors.
- For other colors (greens and blues) you may wish to dye your item with a dark brown dyestuff (such as sandalwood) to add a bit of warmth to the resulting color.
Many different shades of black can be achieved in this way, though all (much like the methods mentioned above) will still show a bit of the base color through.
Can you use natural dyeing methods on all types of fabric?
Natural dyes are most commonly used on plant fibers (like cotton, linen, and hemp) and animal fibers (like wool, silk, and alpaca).
While most natural dyers also focus on natural fibers, it is possible with some dyestuffs and mordants to achieve permanent color on synthetic fabrics. For example, nylon commonly takes up dye in the same way that animal fibers do, and sometimes plastic buttons will absorb even brighter than the fabric they’re attached to.
This is very much a trial and error scenario, and it’s best to test first before committing to a full dye bath. Personally, I’ve never had a successful natural dye bath with synthetic fabrics, but it’s also not something I’ve tried extensively to work with, so you may well have better results!
What to read next:
- The Best Fabric Dyes for 23 Fabrics
- The Best Fabrics for Dyeing
- Will Fabric Dye Stain my Pot, Sink or Bathtub? & How to Fix
- How to Dye Fabric with Tea
- How to Dye Linen
- How to Dye Wool
- How to Dye Silk from Start to Finish (4 Ways)
- How to Dye Silk Fabric with Natural Dyes (Step-by-Step)
- Fabric Dyeing Techniques
- 18 Realistic Things to Tie-Dye at Home (+ Tips from a Pro)
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 April 2022.