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How to Create Natural Fabric Dyes Using Food and Plants

Using plants, fruits, and more to create natural dye is both creative and environmentally friendly. Here's an introduction to the ancient practice.

natural fabric dye using food scraps and plants
Written by
Angelica Papio
Published
The environmental effects of
fast fashion
are inspiring some consumers to slow down. Clothing is responsible for
3% to 6.7%
of global human-caused carbon emissions, a sobering statistic that has sparked a 71% increase in the popularity of searches for sustainable merchandise over the previous five years.
So what's the next step when
thrifting
and investing in eco-minded items become second nature? Learning to craft and mend your own clothes—and make your own natural dye.

What Is Natural Dyeing?

Natural dyeing is an art form that has been throughout history used in virtually all
traditions across the world
, from ancient Rome and Egypt to North Africa and India.
The process of natural fabric dyeing dates back to 2600 BC, when pigments were mixed with oil used to color clothing and jewelry. The invention and popularization of synthetic dyes
in the mid-1800s
brought with it lead, mercury, benzene, and more harmful chemicals that are still used today, where they ultimately leach into landfills and waterways.
“I got into natural dyeing about 10 years ago because I was searching for a way to make non-toxic and healthy dyes," says natural dyer
Rebecca Desnos
. "After some initial experiments, I realized that the colors from plant dyes were exquisite."
For Desnos, what started as an eco-minded challenge has become a decade-long investigation into plants—and the striking hues that they can produce.

Types of Natural Dyes

There are two types of natural dyes. Additive dyes are the most common and need a mordant, or chemical, to bond with the fiber. Natural mordants include simple ingredients like vinegar and salt. The textile is simmered in a mordant solution before dyeing or added to the dye bath.
Substantive dyes, on the other hand, bond with fibers without the use of a mordant and are usually high in tannins. Some of Among Desnos' favorite tannin-rich plants are avocado pits and skins, pomegranate skins, tea, and nettles.
Before you start brewing your own natural dye, understanding colors and where they come from is key.

A Quick Primer in Natural Color

The ingredients for natural dyes are all around you—even your
food scraps
make the cut. This list may inspire you to look at the natural world with new eyes (or at least cones).
  • Red: Beet
  • Pink: Avocado pit and skin
  • Orange: Onion skins
  • Yellow: Lemon peel, turmeric, pomegranate skins
  • Gold: Chrysanthemum
  • Green: Spinach, parsley, nettles
  • Blue: Red cabbage

How to Naturally Dye Fabric Using Plants and Food Scraps

Ingredients:
White vinegar
Plant material of choice
Instructions:
Note: Dye can stain pots and spoons, so use stainless steel or glass and remember to protect surfaces.
1. Pre-wash your fabric for a clean start.
2. If you're using an additive dye, soak your fabric in your mordant. For botanicals and veggies, the measurement is 1/2 cup for every 8 cups cold water; for fruit, 1/2 cup salt to 4 cups cold water.
3. Fill a large pot with twice as much water as plant material—the general rule is a 2:1 ratio. Bring to a boil.
4. Simmer for an hour, or until you get the rich color of your choice. Strain out the plant material and return the liquid to the pot.
5. Submerge your fabric in the dye bath and return to a simmer. Let simmer for an hour, stirring occasionally. If you're after a darker hue, turn the stove off and let your fabric sit as long as desired—even overnight.
6. Remove clothing and hang to set and dry overnight.
7. Handwash in cold water and let air dry. (These steps will keep colors vibrant for future washes, too!)