Learning How to Make & Use Natural Dye
One of the big reasons I wanted to start Acre was to challenge myself to try new things with what I grow or forage. This could be how to make sourdough bread or how to grow a winter squash or how to identify edible wild mushrooms - there are so many things to learn!
One of the things I was most excited to try and learn was the art of natural dyeing. Being a knitter, I am obsessed with finding the perfect color, feel and look of yarns for my projects. My husband can attest to the fact that I have stood in front of a rack of yarn for an exceptionally long time, holding multiple skeins trying to pick the perfect shade. Natural dyeing seemed like a fun way to use things I grow or forage to create new and unexpected colors. There also seems to be something so amazing about the process of creating color, and as a graphic designer, I yearned to give it a try.
Natural Dye Books
So I started by doing a bunch of research on what felt like the right process for what I hoped to accomplish. I wanted to keep my dyeing process as natural as possible, not using any chemicals in my process. I am not a purist by any means, just learning and wanting to dip my toe into the natural dye space.
I ended up landing on Botanical Colour at your Fingertips by Rebecca Desnos, which broke down a plant-based and natural way to dye. I would highly recommend her book as a great place to get all the details on how to create and use natural dye. I also came across @botanical_threads on Instagram and love her results (give her a follow- she creates beautiful work!) I will go through my own process any time I make my own dyes, but would still suggest getting a book to reference as well.
The first thing to consider about natural dyes is what plants will give you the best color. I was most surprised to learn that it is not the plants you would think! Plants that work best for dyes tend to have a sent, like herbs, certain roots, bark, nuts, etc. This is not always true, but a good place to start when picking dye plants. I am choosing to use plants that we would not eat or parts of the plant we would otherwise throw away or compost, so I want to try materials like onion and garlic skins, foraged walnuts, carrots tops, etc. There are plenty of books out there that share what are the best materials for plant dyes - here are a few of my favorites: The Modern Natural Dyer: A Comprehensive Guide to Dyeing Silk, Wool, Linen and Cotton at Home and Wild Color, Revised and Updated Edition: The Complete Guide to Making and Using Natural Dyes.
Always do a bit of googling before using a plant to dye with, to make sure it will not be toxic when turned into dye. Even though plants are natural, the process of cooking them down can release toxins, and you will want to know what is safe and what is not.
The other important piece in dyeing plants is the need for a mordanting process. A mordant is used to help the dye particles bond to the fibers, making the color deeper and last longer. In most dyeing processes, alum is usually used as the mordant, but as this is a chemical, I wanted to try and find a natural alternative. Turns out that soy milk can be used as a natural mordant! Soy helps coat the yarn in protein that the dye particles need to bond to. Soy milk will help you achieve a richer color, and make the color last longer.
Ok, now that we know what plants work best and the mordanting process, let’s pick the best yarn! I am focusing on yarn dyeing as I am a knitter, so if you are interested in different fibers or fabrics, I would check out the Botanical Colour at your Fingertips book for more ideas.
For yarn dyeing, the best types of yarn to use are 100% wool yarns. There is naturally more protein in wool yarn, making it better suited for bonding with the dye. You can use plant-based yarns, like cotton or bamboo, as the soy milk mordanting will bond protein to these fibers. I love wool yarn, and will mostly stick to using wool for my natural dyeing projects.
When selecting the wool, make sure it is uncolored and unbleached wool. The natural fiber is what you will want, as it will not have any other treatment done to the yarn prior to you dyeing it.
I am so excited to start foraging and growing plants for my own dyed yarn! There are so many types of plants within my garden and the woods that could be perfect for creating dyes. I will share more of the step by step process of dyeing as I start my first dye project: foraged black walnut dyed yarn. Read the next post to learn more about gathering the materials for my first dye project.