a white undyed hank of yarn and a yellow skein of yarn laying on a wooden table, next to some onions and onion skins

Are Natural Dyes Sustainable?

In this blog post we will explore an interesting question: Are natural dyes sustainable?

The first and most obvious intuitive answer would be yes, of course they are.
And since I am a natural dyer myself and my interest in natural dyeing was born out of a desire to live a more sustainable life, you can imagine that I stand behind this point of view.

But as it so often the case in life, there is actually no hard yes or no. It really depends on the situation. Let’s explore the question in more detail.

What is Sustainability

First off, we should start by clarifying what sustainability even means. According to Wikipedia, “sustainability is a social goal for people to co-exist on earth over a long time. Specific definitions of this term are disputed and have varied with literature, context, and time.
Experts often describe sustainability as having three dimensions (or pillars). The dimensions are environmental, economic, and social, and many publications emphasize the environmental dimension.
In everyday use, sustainability often focuses on countering major environmental problems, including climate change, loss of biodiversity, loss of ecosystem services, land degradation, and air and water pollution”.

It is interesting to note here that sustainability is not solely about the environmental impacts. It also takes social and economic issues into consideration.  
However, if we decide to focus on the environmental dimension, several areas come to mind when thinking about dyeing fiber.

The Dyeing Part of the Equation

Let’s start with the obvious and compare the use of natural dyes with synthetic acid dyes. If you are interested in a detailed comparison of these two ways of dyeing fiber, you can have a look at this blog post:

Natural Dyes vs. Synthetic Acid Dyes

six mini skeins of yarn in different shades of peach, apricot, mauve and dusty pink

Manufacturing of Dyes

If you think about the production part of the process, synthetic dyes seem to be less sustainable due to the chemical syntheses that are required to create them. Natural dyes, on the other hand, are created by nature itself.

Here is my take on the situation: You can use dye plants from your own garden. You can forage for them in your surrounding area – collecting of course only plants that grow in abundance and taking only small amounts. Or you can use kitchen scraps (like onion skins or avocado pits and skins) to dye yarn or fabric. This is for sure a sustainable way to create color compared to the alternative of using a synthetic dye that had to be manufactured and then shipped to you.
But if you decide to use natural dyestuff that does not grow in your local area, you have to take the dye extraction process as well as shipping into consideration.

basket full of garden plants for natural dyeing

The Dyeing Process

Thinking about the dyeing process itself, natural dyeing is generally more energy-intensive compared to using synthetic acid dyes. The fibers often have to be mordanted before the natural dyeing process can take place, the dyestuff usually needs to be preprocessed (heated) and the duration of the dyeing process also usually takes more time if you opt for a natural dye (more heating).
Washing out excess dye when using natural dyes is also more elaborate and requires a higher use of water compared to synthetic acid dyes.

kitchen towel in an avocado skin dye solution

As you can see, this is not a black-and-white situation.

The Fiber Part of the Equation

The next topic we will take into consideration is what kind of material is going to be dyed. In general, there are two types of fibers available: synthetic fibers and natural fibers.

Synthetic Fibers

Synthetic fibers are manufactured by chemical synthesis. Natural fibers, on the other hand, are derived from living organisms like plants or animals. Common synthetic fibers are nylon, acrylic and polyester. Their dominant disadvantages are that they are non-biodegradable and the fact that they consist of plastic which in turn leads to microplastic pollution during the washing process. [1]

Natural Fibers

Natural fibers are derived directly from nature. They are less resistant to sunlight, moisture and oils from the human skin compared to synthetic fibers. The fact that they are biodegradable makes them more sensitive. But they are often wonderful water absorbents and are generally comfortable to wear. [2]

If you are interested in a detailed overview about all of the different natural fibers a yarn can be made out of, you can have a look at this blog post:

Natural Fibers in Yarn

If you think about the sustainability of natural dyes, I think it is utterly important to consider the kind of fiber you want to dye. Generally speaking, natural fibers are more sustainable than synthetic fibers when thinking about the environmental impacts of biodegradability.

But not all natural fibers are created equally. The cotton plant, for example, has a high need of water. When cotton is grown conventionally (instead of organic production), it is also a rather fertilizer and pesticide intensive process.

Or take Merino yarn, for instance. Merino wool is very popular due to its softness and is mainly made in Australia nowadays. If you don’t happen to live in Australia, the environmental impact of shipping has to be considered when talking about the sustainability of Merino wool.

As you can see, there is for sure room for discussion when it comes to the question whether natural dyes are sustainable or not.

Conclusion: Are Natural Dyes Sustainable?

To me, it comes down to this: We have to take a mindful approach towards where our clothing comes from and how it is made. One person can have a walk in closet full of naturally dyed clothes in various fibers that come from all over the world. They wear only 10% of it while everything else doesn’t get used and ends up in the trash and then the landfill someday.
Another person could own a very minimal amount of clothes that all get worn until they fall apart. They were purchased secondhand from conventional brands and are a mixture of natural and synthetic.
What is more sustainable?

handmade garments folded and lying on a wooden floor

I would love to hear your thoughts on this controversial topic in the comments!

If you want to learn how to dye yarn with natural dyes, you can check out this step by step tutorial on my Youtube channel:

a woman holding a yellow skein of yarn. a second picture is showing a basket filled with colorful skeins of yarn. a text saying: How to dye yarn at home with natural dyes

Pin It For Later: Are Natural Dyes Sustainable?

two pictures, one close up of a white sheep and one of an undyed and a yellow dyed skein of yarn next to some onions and onion skins. a text saying are natural dyes sustainable

Further Reading:

[1]         https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synthetic_fiber

[2]         https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_fiber

Want to learn more about the fascinating topic of natural yarn dyeing and connect with nature at the same time?

I have created a beginner’s guide to natural dyeing that contains everything you need to know to get started. And the best thing: it is available for free!

four hand dyed skeins of yarn in shades of purple and blue on a wooden surface and a text saying beginner's guide: www.rosemaryandpinesfiberarts.de. natural dyeing. everything you need to know to get started dyeing yarn with natural dyes


I am a yarn dyeing artist, writer and educator.
I am also an avid knitter and love to create something with my hands every day.
Read more about me here:

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  1. Teyana says:

    Thanks for your thoughts on this! What would you say about the sustainability of using mordant salts (I’m thinking alum and ferrous sulphate)? Especially when it comes to discarding used mordant baths down the drain? What is the ethical method of disposing of these mordant baths?

    1. says:

      Hi Teyana, Thank you for this valuable question!
      To be absolutely clear that we are talking about the same substances (since it can happen that different countries use different terms), when I talk about alum I refer to aluminum potassium sulfate dodecahydrate. If you have a look at the material safety data sheet, you will find information about disposal considerations under section 13. Here in Germany, alum can be disposed down the drain. It is even used in various medications and in baking products.
      Ferrous sulfate has to be disposed as hazardous waste – at least here in Germany – if the iron bath is not fully exhausted after use.
      I hope this helps!

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