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Intro to the World of Natural Dyeing

Need a way to hide that stain on your fave white tee, give your old white dress a new life, or just bring some rad colours into your wardrobe? You can make all of that happen with simple, everyday things you can find in your kitchen!

What started out as a small experiment to simply pass some time, turned into a project that would transform some old clothes that were in need of some serious luvin', into completely one of a kind pieces!

"Embrace the slight variations in knowing your garment is truly unique." - HARA

One of the things I have been trying to work on throughout my sustainability journey has been to join the slow fashion movement and work towards developing a sustainable wardrobe. For me, this means shopping less, thrifting, up-cycling items I already own, and filling my wardrobe with timeless items that I love and will have for a long time. When I do decide I need to purchase something new, I do my best to support local businesses and make sure that the company has ethical and sustainable work practices. So for my dye projects, I am focussing on giving some new life to clothes that have not exactly gotten the love they deserve. In this blog post, I will cover the basics to natural dyeing: choosing your fabric, choosing your plants to dye with, scouring, how to use soy milk as a mordant, and how to properly care for your dyed gems. We have created separate blog posts covering the full step-by-step process for dyeing with avocados, onions, and black tea. So take a look to see how our natural dyes turned out!

Before I dive in, I thought I would give a bit of background information on natural dyeing. I was first introduced to this art by Rebecca Desnos, the author of Botanical Colour at Your Fingertips. I stumbled across her Instagram account and was quickly sucked in to her page. I couldn't believe the vibrant earthy colours she was able to create from different plants. I began to learn about the benefits of natural dyeing and how you can make use of your kitchen waste to get some insanely vibrant colours. Who knew you could get earthy pink colours from avocados!? After learning that natural dyeing was not only better for my skin but also for the environment, I couldn't resist trying it out for myself. Before I knew it, I was diving into my own closet to find some clothes I could dye and I began collecting my food scraps.

One thing I will suggest before you jump in with both feet, is to keep a journal while you experiment with natural dyes. This way you can take note of what works and doesn't work for you. Remember, every dyeing process is unique! For example, by noting how many avocado stones you used or how long you soaked your fabric in the dye pot, you can learn how to get similar colours time and time again!

Please remember, this blog is based on my own experience. Many different factors play a role in the dye results, but half the fun is not knowing how everything is gonna turn out!

1. Choosing Your Fabric

Choosing your fabric is important! Although some synthetic blends will work alright, natural materials work best for this process. Their are two categories of natural fibers: protein-based animal fibers (this includes fabrics like silk and wool) and cellulose-based plant fibers (this includes fabrics like cotton and linen). Materials like cotton and linen react with dyes differently than fabrics like silk and wool do. I have used only cellulose-based plant fibers for my dyeing experiments thus far. So for this blog we will be focussing on dyeing procedures for fabrics like cotton and linen.

2. Choosing Your Dye

Tannin-rich dyes will bind best to your cellulose-based plant fibers so that your colours last longer and are more vibrant. Tannins occur naturally in some plants and act as a natural "mordant" (will discuss this more coming up). Avocado stones and skins, black tea, pomegranate skins and yellow onion skins are all naturally rich with tannins so they work great when dyeing fabrics like cotton and linen. Choose plants that you would commonly find around your home and don't be afraid to experiment with different dyes too!

3. Scouring the Items You're Dyeing

Before starting the dyeing process, it is very important that what you are dyeing is clean. In the fabric world, this is called scouring. This process ensures that any waxes and oils are removed prior to dyeing so that the colour penetrates the fabric and is evenly distributed. For cellulose-based plant fibers it is suggested to scour using soda ash. For the experiments I've done up to this point, I have not used soda ash for scouring but just pre-washed my items. However, one of my tops had darker dye spots under the arms (likely from deodorant stains) so next time I experiment I will properly scour.

4. Soy Milk Mordant

Mordanting is something that is done after scouring the fabric. Mordants are used to essentially help the dye bind to the fabric, and improve the colourfastness to give the best possible results. Alum (potassium aluminum sulfate) is the most widely used mordant. However, after following Rebecca Desnos' dyeing journey, I was really interested in trying her soy milk mordanting technique. The soy bean protein coats the fabric and helps the cellulose-based fibers bond with the plant dyes. I liked the idea of sticking with plant based, common kitchen items. There are also some safety questions about using Alum so I decided against this as a mordant. For my experiments, I will therefore be using soy milk as a mordant. It is important to note that after mordanting with soy milk, your clothes should sit for about a week before dyeing. If you do not wish to use a mordant before dyeing your clothes, that is totally fine! You can still get great colours! Just know that you might need to soak your clothes longer in the dye bath and your colours may fade quicker over time. Below is the step-by-step process I followed to pretreat 5 of my tops with soy milk before the dyeing process.

What You'll Need

  • Soy milk (I used 1.5L original Silk Fortified Soy Beverage Organic)

  • Water (I used 7.5L filtered water but tap water also works)

  • Large mixing pot or bin

**Use about a 1:5 ratio for soya milk and water mixture

Let's Get to It

1. Dilute Soy Milk

Mix 1 part soy milk with 5 parts water in a large pot or bin. I first started by adding 1 litre of soy milk and 5 litres of water. It is important that there is enough liquid to cover the fabric and to allow it to move freely. I realized I needed more liquid to cover my 5 shirts so I added another 500mL of soy milk and 2.5L of water. My mordant mixture therefore contained 1.5L of soy milk and 7.5L of water.

2. Add Your Clothes

Add the clothes you are dyeing to your soy milk mixture and stir them around with a wooden spoon (or your hands if ya wanna get crazy). Ensure they are all covered in the liquid and then place your pot in a cool spot. Let this sit for 12 - 24 hours. I left mine to soak overnight in my garage.

3. Dry

After letting your clothes soak in the diluted soy milk, put them in the washing machine for a quick spin cycle to remove excess liquid. If you immediately let hang dry, any drips will cause colour variations when you start dyeing. Do NOT add soap to this cycle. Now hang your clothes to dry fully. Keep your soy milk mixture (in a cool place) as you will use it again.

4. Quick Dips

Once your clothes have completely dried, dunk them into your soy milk mixture again. I let mine soak for about 30 minutes. I then put them in the washing machine on a quick spin cycle again and hung to dry fully. I then repeated this step once more. The point of doing multiple soy milk dips is to create multiple "protein coats" on your clothing to aid in the dyeing process. You can skip the quick dips if you'd like and just soak overnight.

5. Now Wait

Let your soy milk-soaked clothes hang dry for a week before you start dyeing. I know you're anxious to start dyeing (as was I), but masterpieces take time!! Letting the clothes "cure" for a week after soaking in the soy milk mixture will give you the best possible results.

5. Preparing Your Dye Pots

Now for the fun part. Creating your dye generally consists of a series of steps that can be used for all of your plants. Combining your collected kitchen scraps and water in your pot and then gently adding heat to slowly extract the colour is the first step. Slow is key during this phase. It is important to know that the more "dye stuff" you use, say avocado stones, and the longer you let the colour seep out, the darker the dyes will become. Your next steps will then consist of you straining your dye stuff from your dye pot, wetting your fabric and submerging it into your dye pot. Heat will be gently added again to aid the dye in binding with your fabric. You do not need to watch the clock and be exact with your timing of everything. Keep an eye on your dye pot and frequently test your colour as each dye pot you create will be unique. It is then up to you when you want to take your items out of the dye pot! The longer you leave your fabrics in the dye, the deeper the colours will be. We have fully explained the process we used for dyeing with avocado stones, yellow onion skins, and black tea in separate blog posts. Check those out if you want to get started on your own dyeing journey and see how we made out!

6. Care Instructions

Now after all of that work you put into dyeing your clothes, it would be a shame if they were ruined after one wash. How you pretreated your clothes prior to dyeing, the things you chose to dye with and the technique you used will all play a role in how your naturally dyed clothing will last. After I dyed my clothes, I let them hang dry for a few days before rinsing them to make sure the colour set. I put them on a delicate cold cycle with no detergent first to rinse them. I have not yet washed my dyed clothing as it is best to wash them as little as possible to prevent fading. However, when it comes time to wash them I will use a gentle PH neutral detergent. It is a good idea to wash your naturally dyed clothing separate from other laundry to prevent any colour leakage. Another important thing to remember is to hang dry your clothes in the shade. If they are constantly exposed to sunlight the colours may start to fade.

And that is it for my intro on natural dyeing! I had so much fun experimenting and I look forward to trying out some different dyeing techniques in the future. One thing that I've learned is to never underestimate the power of some kitchen scraps. I will never look at an avocado stone or onion skin the same. Thank you so so much for following along and, if you made it this far, WELL DONE! I would love to see all of your experiments on natural dyeing and see how you brought some new life into your wardrobe. If you give it a try, make sure you let us know how it went! And if you have any other suggestions or questions about natural dyeing, for sure leave them in the comments below!


Much love, TGH xx

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