From avocado pits to onion skins, beets to bluebell petals, the variation of colourways that can be drawn from these everyday essentials is as fascinating as it is intriguing. The idea that you can breathe new life into old fabrics (think tablecloths, cushion covers, napkins, etc.,) with something foraged from your own backyard is pretty inspiring; Who knew that such endless possibility lay deep within an avocado pit?
We have been interested in homemade natural dyes for some time now, so we decided to reach out to our friend and collaborator, Bess Piergrossi, who is much more familiar with the process than we are. Together, we’ve created a step-by-step guide for you to follow along with. And who knows? Maybe you’ll think twice before getting rid of the avocado pits and onion skins the next time you make guacamole!
WHAT YOU’LL NEED:
FOR THE DYE:
Linen / cotton / wool / silk
For this particular project, I used sumac berries, goldenrod, and avocado pits.
Other popular materials used for natural dyes are onion skins, blueberries, beets and dandelion, but the possibilities are vast. Fruits and vegetables can be found at your local farmer’s market or grocer while the most common plants could even be harvested from your own backyard.
This is used to clean / scour the fabric prior to dyeing it. It can be found at art supply stores or online.
This is a mordant that allows dye molecules to bind to the fibre. Alum is a spice that can be found in grocery stores, art supply stores or online if you’re looking for larger quantities.
Iron Powder (Ferrous Sulfate)
This is used as a colour shifter to make the tones darker and more somber. You might be able to find it at an art supply store or online.
FROM YOUR KITCHEN:
Below are materials that are commonly found in the kitchen, however, it is important to have a separate set of the specified items to use for natural dyeing. The ones you use for dyeing should only be used for such and should not also be used for cooking.
2 – 3 large pots
1 – 2 large mixing bowls
NOTES BEFORE GETTING STARTED:
Natural dyeing is all about experimenting! It’s hard to know exactly what colour is going to come out of the process, as there are many variables that can affect the colour of the dye bath (the source of the plant material, PH balance of the water, etc.) so it is best to treat the process as an exploration with limited expectations.
For example: Sumac berries are supposed to produce a rich, red dye bath whereas mine produced an amber brown tone – beautiful nonetheless! Measurements of mordants and additives are all approximate. There is a science to the measurements that has to do with the weight of the fabric, plant material and mordants, but since I do not need to reproduce these colours again, I find it helpful as a beginner to just approximate the measurements and chalk it up to experimentation!
The thing to pay the most attention to is how much fibre you are dyeing. If you are dyeing a set of napkins, you may only need a tablespoon or mordant, yet if you’re dyeing a set of sheets, you’ll need to increase your quantities. For the below project, I am using approximate measurements that correlate to dyeing 2 napkins. Similarly, choose a dye pot that is big enough to give your fabric lots of room to move around in the pot.
Finally, natural dyeing includes solutions that have high acidity and high alkalinity; wear gloves while measuring additives and handling solutions to protect your skin.
There are many approaches to natural dyeing. It’s a very personalized process once you find your preferred method. There are hundreds of fabulous resources about natural dyeing that I would highly recommend exploring: books, websites and bloggers. It’s always fun to see the different approaches and range of results!
LET’S GET STARTED
Since the process of natural dyeing spans several hours, it’s best to save time through multitasking. Try to proceed with Step 1 + 2 at the same time, if possible.
STEP ONE: SCOURING
Scouring is the act of cleaning the material thoroughly before dyeing. It improves colour adhesion by removing oils and dirt from the fibre that occur during production and storage. Even if you think your fabric is clean, even if it is brand new, it’s still a good idea to scour the material.
1. Fill an empty eye pot half full with water. Add two tablespoons of Soda Ash to the dye pot and gently stir until dissolved. Add your fabric to the pot and submerge.
2. Place your pot on the stove and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce to a simmer for 45 – 60 minutes. Continue to stir the fabric every 10 minutes to make sure the fabric stays fully submerged.
3. After the 45 – 60 minutes is up, remove the dye pot from the stove and allow the fabric to cool until it can be safely removed from the water with tongs. Rinse the fabric thoroughly in cold water. Soda Ash has a very high PH, so I suggest adding a splash of vinegar into the dye pot to neutralize the PH before emptying the solution into the drain.
STEP TWO: PREPARING THE DYE BATH
1. Fill a dye pot about half full with plant material. This varies depending on what plant material you are using and the concentration of the tannins in the source, but in general for leafy / flowery material, it’s best to fill the pot about half full. For the avocado dye bath, I only used around 11 avocado pits since that was all I had on hand. More avocado pits would have produced a richer colour.
2. Add enough water to cover the plant material so the pot is around ¾ full. Bring the pot to a boil and then reduce the heat to a low simmer for about 45 – 60 minutes. Continue to stir the plant material every 10 minutes. Some materials may release their colour sooner than others. For example, the goldenrod produced a rich yellow dye within 15 – 20 minutes and did not need the full hour.
3. After 45 – 60 minutes is up, remove the dye pot from the stove and let the plant materials cool until they can be safely removed from the water with tongs.
4. Compost the material and strain the dye bath into an extra dye pot or mixing bowl to ensure all plan material has been removed.
5. Pour the dye back into the dye pot and add 1 tablespoon of alum to the dye bath. Stir until dissolved. Your dye bath is now ready for your fabric. If too much water has evaporated from your dye bath, it’s okay to add a cup or two of water back into the dye bath so that you are able to submerge your fabric completely.
STEP 3: DYEING
1. Give your fabric one final rinse in cold water and then place the fabrics into the dye bath.
2. Bring the bath to a low simmer, stirring every 10 minutes. The amount of time in the dye bath is correlated to the depth of colour taken on by the fabric. It’s up to you to decide when the fabric colour is to your liking.
3. Once you are happy with the colour achieved in the dye bath*, remove the dye pot from the stove and allow the fabric to cool until it can be safely removed from the pot with tongs. Rinse thoroughly with cold water. Hang to dry. I usually like to line dry before giving my fabric a final wash in the washing machine, to ensure I am happy with the colour and the way it has dried.
ALTERNATIVE STEP: IRON
If you are interested in using iron powder to change the colour of your dye bath, remove the fabric from the dye bath once it is cool enough to touch and then place in the mixing bowl. Turn off the heat under your dye bath. Add ½ teaspoon of iron powder into your dye bath and stir to mix. A little bit of iron goes a long way. Place your fabric into the dye bath. Within seconds you should see a colour shift of your material.
If you want to deepen or darken the colour, remove the fabric from the dye bath and add an additional teaspoon of iron powder. It is important to remove the fabric from the dye bath before adding more iron because if the powder comes in contact with the fibre before dissolving it will result in dark, uneven splotches. Continue this process until your fabric has reached its desired colour. Remove from the dye bath and rinse the fabric thoroughly with cold water. Hang to dry.
*Keep in mind that the fabric will appear darker when wet than when it has been rinsed and dried. For example: the goldenrod only soaked for about 20 minutes, while the avocado soaked for about 2 hours. You can also turn off the heat and leave your fabric to soak in the dye bath overnight to achieve an even deeper tone.
Notes on this particular exploration:
I made little linen fabric ribbons to test the dye baths before committing to the colours I wanted to use to dye my linens. This is an easy way to experiment with colour shades. I decided to dye my linens with the following approximate recipes:
Sumac with Alum – produced an amber brown colour (despite expecting it to be red)
Sumac with Alum and Iron – produced a grey/blue colour
Avocado with Alum – produced a peachy pink colour
Avocado with Alum and Iron – produced a dusty lavender
Goldenrod with Alum – produced a citrus yellow colour
Goldenrod with Alum and Iron – produced pine green colour
Green cushion cover – dyed with goldenrod, alum and iron
Grey/blue cushion cover – dyed with sumac, alum and iron
Dusty lavender napkin – dyed with avocado, alum and iron
Blue spruce napkin – dyed with sumac, alum and iron + goldenrod, alum and iron mixed together. I placed the white linen napkins directly into this bath for 45 – 60 minutes. It produced this beautiful blue/green colour that I love. The colour doesn’t have the same depth as it would have had I dyed it first and then dipped it into the iron bath, but I personally love the ‘washed’ appearance.
Caring for your linens:
I recommend washing your naturally dyed linens alone, with no other fabrics in cold water after you initially dye them. After the first wash, they should be just fine to wash with other like linens. The colours will fade a bit over time, but shouldn’t release enough dye to be concerned about staining other garments. Avoid washing them with whites if possible and use a mild detergent. Another thing to avoid using are oxi-cleans or other stain removers as this could impact the colour.
So it turns out that there’s a lot you can do with those old avocado pits… and all sorts of other garden treasures, right from your own backyard. Let us know how the process turns out for you; we can’t wait to see what kind of beautiful experiments you create!
Shop tools for the task: