Natural Dye Workshop Recap

Hi, guys!  Happy Monday!  I promised last week to give you more details about the natural dye workshop that I attended at the Etsy labs in DUMBO, Brooklyn.  It was SO much fun– I don’t have much experience with this sort of thing, but it was so fun that I can’t wait to try it again!

The class was taught by Isa Rodrigues, the studio manager of the Textile Arts Center.  If you’re in the NYC area, you should check them out!  They have classes in Park Slope and the Village, and I want to sign up for ALL of them (they also have a natural dye garden, where they grow plants they use for their textile dyes!).  We dyed small silk handkerchiefs.  You can dye any fabric with natural fibers using this technique, but silk and wool give the best results and the most brilliant color.

We started by selecting the dye materials we wanted to use and placing it on the handkerchief along with natural items for texture:

Here I’m using dried hibiscus and saffron, with some spiky pine leaves (?) for texture.  You can use many materials for dyeing– Isa suggested throwing the flower or plant into boiling water and seeing if it gives off color.  Of course, you’ll get varying degrees of color intensity, but you’ll get to feel like a plant detective!  You can also use bark, roots, or berries– you just wanna do a little research about the plants you’re using so that you dispose of your dye bath properly if the plant is toxic.  For texture– you can use twigs, bark, seashells, stones… anything you like!

The next step is to roll the fabric around a stick.  You could use a dowel rod, or anything similar.  I wanted to make sure that my fabric would be submerged equally, so I folded my handkerchief in half before rolling it around the stick.

Secure the fabric to the stick by wrapping thread, string, or twine around it tightly.  You want to make sure that it isn’t going to go anywhere!  If you use cotton string, you’ll dye it, too, which is kind of cool!

Next, we dropped our bundles into a dye bath.  We just used water heated with several tea bags in it, so the light tea stain will release the colors of the dye materials without interfering with them too much.   It’s important to use a stainless steel pot– copper, iron, or other materials will affect the color of the dye.  We simmered the fabric for 20-30 minutes, then removed it.  Your fabric will be much brighter if you wait 2-3 days to remove the string and open it up.  I placed mine in a ziploc bag and left it overnight.  Interestingly enough, you can actually leave it longer, or even bury it underground– the dye materials will get moldy, and you can rinse off fabric, but the greens and blues from the mold will stay in the fabric.  Crazy, right?

Another thing to talk about here is mordants.  To make the dye adhere better, and to make your colors more permanent, you can treat your fibers with what’s called a mordant before, after, or during the dyeing process.  Typically, you use alum (you can find it in the spice section of a grocery store or natural food store).  I plan to research this process a bit more.  I found a few books online about the natural dye process– The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes, Harvesting Color, and Wild Color, to name a few.  I’m sure these are a good starting point if you want to learn more!

Here’s the first handkerchief I dyed:

The color is even more vibrant in real life.  I didn’t really care about getting an imprint from the pine needles, so I didn’t roll it super tightly or carefully, but it’s possible to see the outline of your leaves or seashells or whatever if you take pains.

Here’s a second one that I dyed:

It’s a deeper color, too… the silk is hard to photograph.  I used onion skins, walnut shells, and hibiscus for this one.

So there you go!  I’m by no means an expert on the topic, but I thought I’d share with you what I learned.  Do you guys have any experience with natural dyeing methods?  I’m really interested– I like that it’s both creative and eco-friendly.

40 responses

  1. That’s so cool! I want to do this, now, it sounds fascinating. I have used dyes but always synthetic ones, so the idea of natural dying is fascinating. That would be so cool, the dye a bunch of silk and make it into a summer blouse! Quick, to the kitchen!


  2. Ooo, how interesting and very pretty!! Thanks for sharing the details! I’ve used natural dyes before but, never straight from the source. I’ll definitely have to try this in the future.


  3. It looks like fun – and fascinating to experiment with different plant materials. I did a bit of natural dyeing years ago but not with that technique. I used to dye handmade paper with onion skins!


    • In that case you would want to cover your dye materials in water and simmer it for about an hour. Then use that liquid as your dye bath (no need to bind up the fabric– you can just put it in loose).


  4. It’s something I’m definitely interested to try, though I haven’t yet! If I can find a good source, I’d really love to try it on yarn, since my extreme wool sensitivity means that I can’t use mostl of those cool hand-dyed things, so I’d like to try it myself on silk or cotton. I did actually do some research on it about a year ago in hopes of getting to try some, and the books I read had an interesting substitution for the alum– apparently you can do it naturally using the roots of the heuchera plant (otherwise known as coral bells).


  5. I love that you did this! I have an enormous bag of onion skins that I’ve been adding to for over 6 months now. I’m itching to dye some silk with them and then sew it into something! As you can imagine, it’ll take a lot of skins… Sigh! Your hankies are so pretty, I’ve got me so excited!


  6. These colors are beautiful!! Your pieces turned out lovely 🙂 Will we be seeing a natural dyed garment from you soon? You’ve got me itching to try it myself – I’ll have to hunt down a workshop and see if I can make something as pretty as your silk pieces!


  7. I’m a little late to the party, but I find natural dying very intriguing. Like Kat, though, I wonder how much of the dye will be left after washing. I once took a felting class and the instructor (also skilled in dying techniques, apparently) advised me to put salt in the water during the soaking. I think she said it made the fabric take up the dye better. I also soak my hand-dyed clothes in a water/vinegar mix over night, but in all honesty, the colors always faded over time anyway (I use the Dylon tins).

    I’ve been toying with the idea of sewing up a pussy bow blouse this Summer, so maybe I’ll try out some natural dying techniques while I’m at it =)


      • I’ve actually made a few garments that still aren’t put on the blog, its just that I never really seem to have the time/courage to get dressed up and have my picture taken. I had to write my BA thesis this semester and it took up a whole lot of my ‘free’ time (cause I’m one of those people who are never satisfied, apparently), so I’ve been a bit absent from the blogosphere. I’m also working on two dresses – my first! – at the moment (during study breaks :p), so I really hope to be able to put something on the blog soon!


  8. This is really interesting, thanks for sharing what you learned Ginger. After cutting up some cilantro the other night, my cutting board seemed to be stained a lovely bright green–I wonder if cilantro would make a good dye?! 🙂


  9. This looks so awesome. I’ve done a little bit of natural dyeing too, though not with something as nice as silk. At school I show the kids how to dye eggs using natural dyes and found pieces of nature — if you press a leaf onto an egg before dipping in dye, it leaves a white imprint, fun! The smell of hot onion skins lasts for a couple days though!

    I would love to make a silk tank and dye it, or maybe ten!


  10. I haven’t done much natural dyeing, save for a tea bath here & there. And the inevitable mistaken beet dye on a tea towel. Ha! Yet it’s something I’ve been wanting to explore a bit more when I have/make time. Your hankies are lovely 🙂


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