These days, plant-dyeing seems to be popping up everywhere, from Martha Stewart’s DIY projects to the Instagram feeds of bloggers interested in all things organic and ethically sourced. It’s even become the premise for parties: Oakland-based natural dyer Sasha Duerr has routinely hosted a series of communal meals called “Dinners to Dye For,” where participants eat together, then color fabric using leftover onion skins, avocado pits, and carrot tops. Meanwhile, Brooklyn-based writer Julia Sherman, who penned the book Salad for President (2017), recently threw a plant-dyeing shindig in her backyard.
Instructional books abound, too. In 2016, Duerr published Natural Color: Vibrant plant dye projects for your home and wardrobe,and this year, Franziska Ebner and Romana Hasenöhrl released Natural Dyeing with Plants: Glorious Colors from Roots, Leaves, and Flowers. Both provide accessible, vibrantly illustrated introductions to the processes and possibilities of plant-dyeing, using ingredients found in or close to home.
For their part, Ebner and Hasenöhrl begin by laying out the materials and space you’ll need to get started. As they explain, setting up a dyeing studio is easier than you might think. You’ll need a space that is large enough for several buckets and containers, as well as supplies including fabrics, plants, spoons, tongs, and a drying rack or clothesline. The authors recommend dyeing outdoors or in a dedicated room as opposed to in the kitchen, due to the odors and messes that some plant pigments can create.
When it comes to choosing the fabric you’ll dye, many textiles are game—from wool, silk, and cotton to nettle fiber and hemp. But know that each will respond to a given dye differently; some might saturate more easily, and others less. No matter what the material, it should be washed before the dyeing process begins. This allows the cloth to better absorb the colors they’re dunked into. (If you’re unsure if a fabric is machine washer–safe, wash it by hand. Also, note that after you complete the plant-dyeing process, the resulting garment should only be washed by hand.)
Next, you’ll need to prepare your cloth through a process called mordanting, which will further enhance the fabric’s absorbency. There are numerous approaches, but a simple option is to purchase mineral-based aluminum mordant, which is available online and in most pharmacies. First, dissolve 100 grams of aluminum mordant in warm water, then pour the concoction into a bucket, filling it with up to five liters of cold water. After, submerge your cloth in the mixture for at least three hours (longer won’t hurt), then rinse and wring out your material. (Make sure to wear gloves when handling the mordant; most varieties of it are natural, but they can still irritate the skin and shouldn’t be ingested.) Now, your fabric is ready to take the plant dye.
Ebner and Hasenöhrl detail many dye recipes, each of which achieves different levels of saturation and effects, but they recommend a basic version for beginners. To create your dye, use one kilogram of dyestuff (the plant you choose to dye your cloth) per kilogram of dyeing fabric—say, one kilogram of dried hibiscus flower for one kilogram of silk. Soak the dyestuff in a large pot filled with enough water to also fully submerge your fabric.
The following day, heat the mixture slowly on a stove or portable burner, letting it boil for one to two hours. Allow it to cool, then use a strainer to remove the plants from the liquid, called the dye bath. Immerse your fabric, then heat the pot slowly again, this time bringing it to a boil for about an hour. Then, carefully remove the fabric, rinse it, and hang it to dry. Voilà!
(Another step, known as post-mordanting, can be added, but is not necessary. This consists of removing your cloth from the dye bath, adding a shot of iron-infused water into the pot, mixing, then adding your cloth back in. This will deepen the hue of your cloth.)
Of course, a wide range of natural materials can be used as dyestuff, and each achieves a different hue, depending on the particular plant you use. Below, we excerpt some of our favorites from Ebner and Hasenöhrl’s tome—all easily sourced from your home or local market.
“Cut five times the amount of red cabbage in proportion to dyeing fabric into strips and layer it with the pre-mordanted dyeing fabric in a pot. This means a layer of red cabbage, a layer of fabric and again a layer of red cabbage. Then fill the pot with water warm to the hand and let everything soak overnight. The next day, heat the dye bath carefully to a maximum 80°C, leave it at this temperature for one to two hours and finally let it cool. Then take dyeing fabric out of the dye bath; after you let it dry it will get a rich purple hue. In my experience, red cabbage dyes silk very well, while you only get very dull gray-purple hues on wool.
“If you want to continue to dye the dyeing fabric used in the first process, you can also obtain blue tones. To do this, add a tablespoon of salt to the pot with the red cabbage, and the selected dyeing fabric is returned to the dye bath. There it is heated again to 80°C and left to cool down afterwards in the dye bath. Take the dyeing fabric out when it has taken on the desired blue tone.”
“Coffee is found in almost every household and sometimes you find a kind that isn’t particularly to your taste or was left in a corner of the cupboard and forgotten. These leftovers can be used in the dyer’s studio. For dyeing, I use the same amount of coffee as dyeing fabric; if you use more coffee, the results are correspondingly darker. Boil the ground coffee for about half an hour, let it cool and filter it. Then add the pre-mordanted dyeing fabric to the dye bath. It isn’t a problem if any coffee grounds were left in it, because it is easy to shake them off the fibers after drying. Carefully reheat the textiles and simmer for about half an hour; then take them out of the dye bath and you get the typical coffee brown. On silk the results are much lighter than on wool, going in the direction of beige. Add a shot of iron water to the dye bath for post-mordanting, and then put the selected dyeing fabric in the dye bath until you get the desired hue. This ranges between brown-green and dark green.”
“I myself dye exclusively with fresh carrots, because for me this is the quintessential dye for June, when the first fresh carrots come on the market. I pick up the greens in the market and at an organic farmer, where they are trimmed off when the vegetables are sold. For dyeing, I use double the quantity of carrot greens in proportion to the dyeing fabric, heat it in the dye bath and let it boil for about two hours. Then I strain out the greens and add the pre-mordanted textiles to the dye bath, heat it carefully, and simmer for half an hour or an hour. The result is a bright spring yellow. It is possible to do a second dyeing, which yields a very light yellow. Post-mordanting the carrot-dyed fabric creates an appealing green on silk, which can best be compared to lime green; on wool the green color isn’t as pronounced, but rather tends towards a yellow-green. Here, too, simply add a shot of iron water to the dye bath and re-immerse the previously removed dyeing fabric, which doesn’t have to be heated any longer. For those who enjoy experimenting, it is also a good idea to post-mordant the second dyeing, which results in very light green tones.”
“For dyeing, both the commercially available dried flowers and fresh flowers can be used, but the same thing applies for these as for all blossoms from the dyer’s garden: It is rare that you are able to harvest the quantity of fresh flowers you need for an entire dyeing all at once. Thus it is necessary either to dry them yourself or to resort to using purchased goods. The hibiscus flowers used for these dyeings actually come mostly from Egypt. Use double the quantity of dried flower sepals by weight in proportion to dyestuff and soak these for a few hours, but you can also leave them in the water overnight. After soaking, boil the dye bath for half an hour, let it cool and strain the flowers into a dye bag. Add this with the dyeing fabric to the dye bath and heat it slowly to simmering.
“Leave the dyeing fabric in the dye bath for a half hour to one hour. As with most plants that dye red, as an exception, I don’t use a cold mordant, but rather pre-mordant with alum and tartar, since this makes the red dyestuff act with greater effect. The dyeing creates a soft pink on wool, and a rich dusky rose on silk. You cannot do a second dyeing with hibiscus flowers, since the color is almost completely exhausted after the first dyeing. Here you can really see the limited dyeing power of flowers, which have already exuded their brilliance into the world. It is however certainly possible to post-mordant; add a shot of iron water to the dye bath, and immerse the dyeing fabric you want to post-mordant. On silk, you can expect intense dark gray shadings of color, which have a slight tinge of red. I’m not impressed by the results on wool, which tend towards gray-green.”
“Onion skins are very light and it takes some time until you have collected enough for a dyeing. If you have a farmer nearby who still grows onions, you can ask him for the skins. You can also ask for skins at organic stores and markets. Onions from the supermarket are usually already peeled so well that there are hardly enough pickings for dyeing. The skins should be soaked overnight and boiled one to two hours the next day. Then let the onion skins cool, and either strain them into a dye bag which is then returned to the dye bath, or use contact dyeing, that is, just leave the skins in the dye bath. Put the onion skins, about the same amount by weight as dyeing fabric, in the dye bath, that is, the dyeing fabric is to be treated with 10% alum by weight. Thus, for one kilogram of dyeing fabric, dissolve 100 grams of alum in warm water and add this to the dye bath. Now add the dyeing fabric, heat the dye bath again slowly and simmer it for half an hour to an hour. Post-mordanting with iron water yields green hues in various shades.”