Dyeing Fabric with Natural Dyes: What You Need to Know

A few years ago I visited Old Sturbridge Village (a living history museum in Massachusetts) with the kids and was fascinated by the costumed interpreters demonstrating how to hand dye fabric with horse chestnut hulls. I tried it myself at home, but limited success–probably because I tried to speed up the process and didn't follow the instructions I found on the Internet.

hand dyed shirt by india flint
Hand-dyed shirt by India Flint.

I've had better luck dyeing with onions–I love the golden color they produce!

The next time I try dyeing fabric with natural dyes, I'll have India Flint's book Eco Colour: Botanical Dyes for Beautiful Textiles by my side for reference. India is a designer, artist, writer, and sheep farmer who lives in South Australia. Her work has been greatly influenced by her extensive travels–from Melbourne to rural Austria to Montreal.

She is known for developing the highly distinctive eco-print, an ecologically sustainable plant-based printing process that gives brilliant color to cloth. India has worked with plant dyes for more than 20 years, and her art resides in collections and museums in Australia, Latvia, and Germany.

Here is an excerpt from her interview with Pokey Bolton when Eco Colour was first published.

Q. Why did you choose to go the eco-friendly route of dyeing? Was it purely for ethical or health reasons, or are there artistic advantages to natural dyeing using plants?

A. Correct on all counts. What we do to the earth eventually impacts on us as well (sometimes sooner than later). I like to be sure that if I make a blanket for a baby no poisons are going to rub off onto its skin. I also like the fact that when I process plant material, the remaining matter can be safely returned to the garden (or the forest) as relatively neutral compost which is therefore quite safe. (If anything is strongly acidic, I simply add a little ash to balance the pH.)

I find the colors from nature to be exquisite and that they "sing together" no matter what the shades. I should add here that I work exclusively with bio-regional dyes (what grows around where I happen to be working at the time) and avoid the importation of dyes unless I can be absolutely sure that their cultivation and harvest is ethical and sustainable. For example, I would not use Logwood under any circumstances as the entire tree is felled to obtain the heartwood from which the dye is made.

Q. How did you develop your sustainable coloring process?

A. By experimenting and keeping notes and reading as much as possible. Dyeing with plants is an art and a science informed by ethno-botany, medicine, history, and geography.

Q. What is your favorite plant or combination of plants to dye with, and why?

A. Essentially I like to dye with whatever is to hand, and my preference is for windfalls so that I'm not actually picking anything–unless it's from the trees I have planted on our farm as a dye resource.
I have to say that eucalyptus is one of the most spectacular plant families to use in the dye bath and a strong favorite, but it's a bit like having to choose a favorite child!

blueberries are natural dyes
Blueberries produce a lovely
purplish color on fabric.

Q. What is the most important thing the person new to using natural dyestuffs needs to know?

A. Learn the names of plants. Many are poisonous, some are rare or protected, many have been used before for dyeing. By knowing their botanical names you'll be able to find out a lot of information about the plants. Knowing their "common" or vernacular names can tell you curious folkloric information.

It's also very useful to give yourself the freedom to play, take your time, and keep notes (a digital camera very useful for this) in case you want to repeat something.

Eco Colour is a gorgeous book that will give you all the information you need to use natural dyes with confidence. For a limited time, we are offering it together with some of our other best resources on dyeing. The Adventures in Fabric Dyeing Collection gives you a comprehesive assortment of  information on how to dye with natural and chemical dyes using shibori techniques, resist dyeing, and many other methods. PLus, you get project directions for using your new hand-dyed fabrics.

P.S. Have you tried dyeing with plant materials? What were your results? Leave your tips below.

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Fabric Painting & Dyeing, Quilting Daily Blog

4 thoughts on “Dyeing Fabric with Natural Dyes: What You Need to Know

  1. I already own this book, although I have to confess I haven’t done any eco-dyeing as yet. I do have a question about one of the points made by India Flint in this interview: Ms Flint says that she wants to be sure no ‘poisons’ [from chemical dyes] will rub off on the skin of a baby for whom she has dyed a blanket, but I know, as do most people, that many plants are toxic in themselves, some even to just a touch. How does one get around this problem? I would be interested in hearing from other dyers whether they think this is a problem or not, and if so, how they deal with it.

  2. I have avoided natural dyeing because it was my understanding that you had to use a mordant (not so friendly) to retain the color. Can anyone tell me if I’m all wet on this?

  3. Blueberries do indeed produce a lovely color – but no one has been able to tell me what mordant to use to make it washable. Anyone with an idea out there?
    Love India Flints book and her attitude towards the environment.