A couple of weeks ago I was contacted by a college student who was working on a paper and presentation for her knitting class. Part of the assignment was an interview and she asked me to answer a couple of questions about natural dyes. There are some general questions about the process itself and dye plants. But I also answered some questions about my personal experience with natural dyeing and shared a couple of favorites. Since I thought this might be of interest for you as well, you can find the complete interview below. Thanks again, Charlotte, for letting me share the interview!
Do you find that natural dyes have been more durable than artificial dyes?
Natural dyes have a bad rap for being less colorfast than synthetic dyes. From my experience, it highly depends on the specific dyestuff and the dyeing process conditions. There are natural dyes that are fugitive which means the colors will fade and wash out quickly. Examples of fugitive dyes are black beans, red cabbage and numerous berries. Then there are natural dyes that have a good colorfastness which means they will last a long time. Mordanting (= treating the fibers with a metal salt) the fiber before the dyeing process can further increase the fastness of the natural dyes.
Annotation: You can find a blog post about the differences and commonalities between natural dyes vs. synthetic dyes that goes into a lot more detail here.
Would you consider natural dyes easy to make? What is your process?
There are definitely plant materials available that are fairly easy to dye with. For example, onion skins, avocado skins and pits as well as herbs like rosemary are suitable for beginner natural dyers.
Natural dyeing is a slow and multi-step process that takes several days. In short, the process consists of
1. Prepping the yarn or fabric
3. Mordanting (if applicable)
4. Extracting the dye
5. Filtering off the dyestuff (if applicable)
If you want to know more details about the process, there is a blog post on my website called “How to Dye Yarn with Natural Dyes”. In this post I walk you through the natural dyeing process of dyeing a skein of yarn with onion skins step by step.
What are the downsides to natural dyes? Upsides?
If you use natural dyes, you never completely know how the final colorway is going to look like. It is up to you to decide whether this is an up- or a downside. To me, the unpredictability is part of the charm of working with natural dyes.
In addition, I really enjoy the fact that you can use a number of plants from your garden and surrounding area and even kitchen scraps for natural dyeing.
Natural dyeing is a rather slow process. In today’s fast-paced world, it makes more sense to use synthetic dyes which not only produce faster and more consistent results but can also be used on a large scale.
What are the best plants for natural dyes? What about your favorites?
In my opinion, the best plants for natural dyeing are the ones that grow nearby. While it is fun to experiment with natural dye extracts like madder, cochineal and logwood, there is something special about utilizing plants that grow in your garden or are even considered weeds in your area.
There are a lot of plants I like to dye with. To name just a few:
- Goldenrod (very vibrant yellow, can be used for solar dyeing in the summer with no additional heat source besides the sunlight)
- Avocado (creates the most beautiful dusty pinks)
- Nettles & Rosemary (yield stunning shades of green when used fresh in early spring and treated with iron sulfate after the dyeing process)
What got you interested in making natural dyes?
Back in 2015 I started reducing the waste and ecological footprint of my family. At that time I became interested in knitting and sewing to create a handmade wardrobe. Avoiding yarns and fabrics containing synthetic material (e.g. nylon, polyester) has always been important to me. However this proved to be a challenge with ready-made clothing and conventional yarns. This is why I started dyeing my own yarns. Through that, I was not only able to choose the fiber content of the yarn but also opt for a sustainable dye source by utilizing plants for dyeing.
Annotation: If you would like to know more about this, I wrote a blog post about creating a handmade wardrobe. You can find it here.
Was there any science you had to learn to start natural dyes?
You should definitely familiarize yourself with the scientific background of the natural dyeing process beforehand. For example, a lot of natural dyes require the use of a mordant such as alum if you want to create a colorfast colorway. While I don’t think it is necessary to be aware of the process on an atomic level, it does make sense to understand what a mordant is and why it is used. And you should always be aware of the necessary safety precautions.
Personally, I am a chemist by training. Therefore it didn’t take a lot effort for me to understand the science behind natural dyeing.
What is your favorite part of the process?
I especially enjoy the moment when I take the yarn out of the dye solution. Getting a first impression of how the yarn will look like once it is washed and dried is always exciting.
Another step that I really like is the preparation of the dye solution. Especially if I work with an aromatic dye plant like rosemary.
Are there any plants (or type of plants) that can not be used?
Not every plant is a dye plant. You can only use plants that contain dye pigments for natural dyeing purposes.
Dye pigments can be present in the leaves, berries, bark and roots of plants. Other natural dye sources are fungi and insects.
I have once read a tip from India Flint for identifying potential dye plants that has stayed in my mind ever since: Look out for plants with a scent. The presence of aromatic oils (which create the scent) is often an indicator for the presence of dye pigments.
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