A Step by Step Tutorial to Eco-Friendly and Natural Dyes


There is something so genuine about natural dyes.  Their muted, romantic earth tones and pops of dreamy color feel so close to nature.  And while synthetic dyes can try and imitate this close bond, nothing out of a bottle can come close.

Though the convenience of commercial dyes might lure you with convenience, if you are going to go DIY, why not go all the way?  Especially when Natural Dyes are actually rather easy to get the hang of with just a few easy steps!  This tutorial is aimed at dyeing fabric, but the same basic principals also apply to the dyeing of yarn.

Step 1) Choose Your Dye Material

For this tutorial I’ll be demonstrating natural dyes using Red Cabbage.  This is one of the easiest and more affordable natural ingredients to use.  No hunting and gathering required!

But there are of course a myriad of choices out there.  Some take more work than others.  Here are just a few to consider!

Red: Cranberries,  Beets, Crab Apple Bark, Red leaves

Pink: Strawberries, Raspberries

Orange/Yellow: Turmeric , Dandelions, Onion Skins

Green: Grass, Artichokes, Spinach

Purple: Red Cabbage, Blackberries, Grapes

Brown: Oak Bark, Tea leaves, Walnut shells, Coffee grinds, twigs

When I wonder whether something will be a good dye I tend to break up a little in between moistened fingers, if it dyes your skin, chances are it’ll dye fabric.  Collect enough of your ingredient to dye your fabric.  This varies wildly depending on the natural properties of your selection, so this will be a bit of trial and error.  But generally speaking the darker the shade you desire the more you need.  Pretty basic.  I used one head of Red Cabbage for my dye bath.

Step 2) Treat your Fabric

First off, know that when using natural dyes you need natural fabrics.  100% Cotton or 100% wool work best.  If they are blends the different fibers will dye at different rates giving you a more mottled look than you might want.   And obviously a white or natural fabric dyes better than an already dyed piece.  Try to avoid fabric that is harshly bleached as the dye won’t take as well.  Consider checking out Dharma Trading for fabrics specifically meant to be dyed at fairly reasonable prices.  It will take a lot of the guesswork of it!  In each fabric description it will tell you if its suitable for natural dyeing.

Think about how you are going to finish the edges of your final piece.  If you want those edges to match the rest of the fabric, for instance if you are serging them, now is the time to do it so it gets dyed too.  But don’t forget to make sure its 100% cotton thread!

Now fabric that is going to be dyed with natural ingredients requires an extra step that you don’t need with commercially made dyes.  Treating the fabric, or applying a mordant, helps the dye adhere to the fabric and gets you a long lasting dye that doesn’t wash out nearly as easily and is a richer color.  There are several options out there, but my favorite is Alum.  It’s a lot safer than some other options out there, and is pretty easy to come by.  It’s even available in the spice aisle of some grocery stores.

So get your giant pot filled and add 1 tsp of Alum for every gallon of water.  Wet all of your fabric with regular, cold tap water.   This makes it easier for the Alum infused water to absorb into it.  Once its wet throw it into the mordant water bath and bring the water to a simmer for one hour.

Once the time is up rinse out the fabric in cool water and let it sit until you are ready for it.  You can dump out the mordant solution.

IMPORTANT! MOST MORDANTS ARE TOXIC IF INGESTED.  SO PLEASE USE A POT THAT WILL NEVER BE USED AGAIN FOR FOOD PREPARATION. If you don’t have an old pot to sacrifice, I suggest hitting up the thrift stores for cheap options.

Step 3) Make your Dye Solution

Regardless of which ingredient you’ve selected in step one they’ll need a good coarse chopping.   Basically you want a good amount of surface area exposed to the water and able to seep its color into the water.

Add your Red Cabbage to the pot and add twice as much water.  Bring to a simmer.  Now, depending on the ingredient you’ve chosen it will take between 30 minutes and an hour for it to leach out all its color.  So check the dye bath routinely and inspect the color of the water keeping in mind that the actual fabric with fade a shade or two.  You’ll know when you’ve gotten all the color possible out when the plant material looks faded and pale.  Once you’ve reached your ideal shade turn off the heat.   In the photos I’m showing the Red Cabbage simmered just over 30 minutes.

Using a slotted spoon, or any other creative solution you fancy, pull out all the chunks of Red Cabbage.

You have a dye bath!

Step 4) Dyeing the Fabric

Take all of your cooled fabric and dunk it in your newly acquired purple dye.  Make sure to only use as much fabric as will fit your pot!  The fabric should be able to move and be stirred easily.

Bring your pot back to a simmer and check it ever 10 minutes or so.  Again, you are going to simmer for between 30 minutes and one hour.  Check the fabric’s color and see where you are.  When you are happy with the result (keeping in mind that some gentle fading will occur) you are done dyeing!

Step 5) Dry

Dump out your dye and hang your fabric somewhere it can drain.  Now, this is one of those times when I learned my lesson the hard way.  I dumped my giant vat of purple dye right in my old, finish-worn, vintage, claw foot tub.  Yea.  It was purple and streaky for about a month.  Luckily it eventually came out but just a heads up!

While drying make sure the fabric isn’t wrinkled up on itself or it will end up with streaks of a darker color lined throughout it.

I like to wash it once in cool water and line dry it once more before working with it.  That way you get most of the excess dye out without overly stripping it either.

Voila!  Natural Dyed fabric!

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  • I have a pot of red cabbage boiling right now, and two tee shirts boiling in vinegar water as a mordant…. If I’m using vinegar, won’t the pot still be usable for food in the future? It’s my only stainless steel stock pot! Next, what was the color of your cloth like after several washes? I have seen several websites that say red cabbage is a waste of time as a dye. Pretty discouraging when I’m just getting started…

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