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How to Make Natural Dyes to Dye Fabric & Clothes – 3 Easy Steps to Dyeing Naturally at Home

By Heather Levin

Natural Plant DyesIt may be hard to fathom, but we didn’t always use chemicals to dye fabrics. For millennia, people used plants, roots and berries to color cotton, muslin, linen, silk and other fabrics.

These days, of course, we can pop into a store and buy an entire rainbow of fabric dye; but it’s actually great fun to dye fabric the old-fashioned way. Not only does it give you a new appreciation for Mother Nature, it’s also a free and fun way to get craft-y and explore your creative side.

As an added bonus, using natural dyes can lead to a lot of great, frugal home decorating ideas; the results can be very chic, and far more interesting than anything you’d get out of a box of RIT dye.

What Can Be Dyed?

Any light-colored (preferably white) natural fibers will take dye. Here are a few ideas:

  • Curtains
  • Towels
  • T-shirts
  • Sheets and pillow cases
  • Handkerchiefs
  • Baby clothes
  • Paper

Yes, paper! It’s actually easier to dye than fabric. I just take regular, bright white card stock and soak it in various dyes until I get the shade I want, then hang it up to drip-dry in my basement. The end result? Paper that is way cooler than anything you can buy at the stationery or art supply store!

What Can Be Used as Natural Dyes?

The coolest thing about natural dyeing is that the ingredients you need are likely right in your backyard, or at the grocery store – especially when summer rolls around.

Here are just a few materials you can use (and the colors you’ll get with each).

  • Onion skins (yellow/orange)
  • Lilac twigs (yellow/orange)
  • Butternut squash husks (yellow/orange)
  • Dandelion roots (brown)
  • Coffee grounds/tea (brown)
  • Walnut hulls (brown)
  • Boiled acorns (brown)
  • Strawberries/cherries (pink)
  • Roses (pink)
  • Lavender (pink)
  • Red cabbage (blue/purple)
  • Red maple tree bark (blue/purple)
  • Black iris (dark blue/purple)
  • Hyacinth flowers (blue)
  • Beets (deep red)
  • Crab apple bark (red/yellow)
  • Any red leaf (reddish brown)
  • Iris roots (gray/black)
  • Daylily blooms (red/purple)
  • Artichokes (green)
  • Red clover (gold)
  • Queen Anne’s lace (yellow)
  • Celery leaves (yellow)

For even more natural dye ideas, there’s a wonderful list over at Pioneer Thinking you should check out. There are also four pages of reader additions at the bottom of the page, so don’t miss that valuable resource!

How to Get Started Dyeing

Step 1: Prepare the Dye
Chop your plant or berries into small pieces, measure them, and put them in a medium-to-large pot. Add twice as much water as ingredients. So if you put in two cups of plant material, add four cups of water.

Bring to a boil, and then simmer for one hour. Strain off the hard materials and keep the “dye.”

Keep in mind that the longer you let the materials sit in the water, the stronger your dye is going to be. If you have the time, you can even let it soak overnight (without heat) to get a really concentrated solution.

Step 2: Prepare the Fixative
Once you’ve picked out what you want to dye and you’ve got your dye all ready to go, you have to prepare a fixative for your fabric. This will “fix” the dye into the fibers so it won’t wash out.

If you’re using berries to dye your fabric, you have to use a salt fixative. Put 1/2 cup salt in 8 cups of water. Put your fabric in here and boil for one hour.

If you’re using plants to dye your fabric, you have to use a vinegar fixative. Combine one part vinegar and four parts water, and boil the fabric in the mixture for one hour.

When your fabric is done, rinse it out under cold water.

Step 3: Dye the Fabric
All you do now is place your wet fabric into the dye bath and simmer until the fabric has reached the color and shade you want. Remember, the color is going to be a bit lighter once the fabric dries out.

Then, wash the fabric separately and you’re good to go!

Final Word

Naturally dyeing fabric at home is an especially fun thing to do in the winter months because, let’s face it, we’re stuck indoors and need activities! Plus, we probably all have many of the dyes, like onion skin and celery leaves,  on hand as “waste” anyway. So if you’re not into vermicomposting to help save the environment, this is a great way to use these materials up instead of just throwing them out.

I’d love to hear back from all of you on this. Have you tried natural dyes before?

(photo credit: luckywhitegirl)

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a freelance writer based in Detroit, MI. She's passionately committed to living green, saving money, and helping others do the same in their life.

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  • Ssanndlly

    Hi Dear;

    It seems very fun to dye fabric at home; I would like to try.
    I have question about dye process, could you please tell me whether my understanding correct?
    - First, fabric has to be done fixactive
    - Second, dye fabric

    Look forward to your advice.
    Sandy

  • Megarroz

    can the fabric sit in the dye without heat to dye effectively? Or is heat necessary? I would like to do this with an afterschool program but I only see them for a short time. I”m wondering if I can leave the fabric in the dye until the following week when we will meet again???

    I’m also wondering about batiquing. Any way to paint on these dyes without boiling them to have a more painted look. I’m worried that boiling the fabric with the wax will cause the wax to melt off.

    Thanks for the guidelines!
    I look forward to hearing back

    • Heatherllevin

      Megarroz, I’ve dyed several fabrics without heat, leaving them in to soak, and they turned out just fine. I dyed my curtains in cold water (using a Japanese tye-dying technique called Shibori) and they turned out AWESOME. And, I didn’t boil anything.

      Another time we dyed another set of curtains, and left them in the bucket for several days. We got a nice color, but it wasn’t extreme. I think once a maximum saturation is reached, it just stays level, you know?

      I think of you left it in all week you would definitely get a rich color, and the fabric would be fine. Good luck! -Heather

      • Kellyn

        If you leave them in to soak, do you still need a fixative for the shirt? Or can you just put them right in with the dye?

      • AW

        Hi Heatherlevin
        I have a medium purple silk polo neck which I would like to turn into a dark plum brown shade. I was thinking of using red cabbage or beetroot.
        I too would prefer to cold dye and am happy to leave it to soak for a week. I notice your reply is from 2 years ago, any extra tips?
        Also I have a vitamix super heavy duty blender so I am going to blend up the ingredients. Have you had any experience of using a blender?
        If I put garlic in a soup the longer it blends the more garlic flavor is released as the blending increases the surface area of the clove and thus increases the available surface area to release molecules of garlic. So I wondered if the same will apply to the dye components.
        Thanks for your great info. Best wishes
        Andi W

    • @yourservice

      It’s kind of like if you have a stain you want to get out of something, you want to use cold water to wash it out, but if you use hot water it’l just set the stain in…

  • vishal

    but how does salt helps in getting the dye out of the solution??

  • Shanns2131

    Is it possible to dye any type of fabric or just certain ones? and if a shirt or dress isn’t white can it still be dyed or won’t it work?

    • atyourservice

      if it’s a light color it can be dyed. but may not be the color you want it to be… as to diffrent types of fabrics, I’m not sure, If it’s not natural it may or may not work, I doon’t think fleece would dye well, but I’m not sure.

  • Dena

    I want to dye a king size bed cover and I would love to do it naturally using the methods described above. It is huge though, how can I boil it? Any advice?

    • Heatherllevin

      Dena…that’s a really good question! Perhaps you could make a really strong dye in a pot, and then soak the bedspread in the bathtub?

      Another option would be to make the dye in a metal washtub (like the old fashioned kind people used to wash clothes by hand in). If you have an in-ground fire pit, you could perhaps boil the bed cover that way.

      Those are the only two ideas I came up with. :) Best of luck!

    • Jules

      If you can find a top-loading washing machine large enough for your bed cover, you can pour the dye in it and let it soak. Just boil a large pot of dye, let it get really dark and then pour it into the machine, add the bed cover, fill the rest with hot water and set to soak. I’d turn the agitator by hand a few times, if possible, to mix it up a bit.

  • Ybvm

    Does the fabric run after use if one put it in the washine machine with other fabric items?
    Can i do wool jumpers? Or just jumpers?

    • Heatherllevin

      Ybvm, it can run a bit. I often put my fabrics in a vinegar bath to set the dye. However, you should wash items alone until you’re sure that any excess dye has been washed out. You might also experience some fading. So, it’s definitely an organic process!

      As to dying wool, I’m not sure. I don’t see why not. Good luck!

  • Brytni

    A friend of mine is getting married this weekend. I have a really pretty shirt I want to wear, but it’s a cream/white color and I’m SO NOT wearing white to someone’s wedding.. I saw this article and went into the kitchen and chopped a butternut squash husk and some onion peals I had in the panty and I can’t wait to see what pretty color I am going to have in the morning.. If I don’t like it I’m going to dye it darker with Tea/Coffee.. If I still don’t like it I’ll just go with Outfit B I had picked out :)

    • Heatherllevin

      Brytni,

      Oh, good luck! I’d love to hear how it turns out, and which dye you felt worked better. Let us know!

  • Dp Vicario

    I need to dye black pants. Years ago i heard that u cud cut up potatoes & when they turn black put them in water & add the clothes. Is this true cuz i need to dye some faded black pants.

  • Dp Vicario

    I need to dye black pants. Years ago i heard that u cud cut up potatoes & when they turn black put them in water & add the clothes. Is this true cuz i need to dye some faded black pants.

    • Heatherllevin

      Dp,

      I’ve never heard of that technique, but you might want to be careful here; the blackness could be mold, which might be harmful to breathe in, especially with steam. I did a quick search online but didn’t find anything about this technique.

  • Brenda Jackson

    I had good success using turmeric powder to dye 2 ladies shirts. I used rubber bands to make a tie dye pattern on one, but on the other I experimented with just twisting and folding over the shirt to make the pattern. One thing that I found helpful was using a 32 oz. empty yogurt carton for the dye bath. That way I didn’t have to worry about dyeing something I needed to use later.

  • Brenda Jackson

    I had good success using turmeric powder to dye 2 ladies shirts. I used rubber bands to make a tie dye pattern on one, but on the other I experimented with just twisting and folding over the shirt to make the pattern. One thing that I found helpful was using a 32 oz. empty yogurt carton for the dye bath. That way I didn’t have to worry about dyeing something I needed to use later.

  • vani

    how to dye light pink color cotton top with coffee

  • http://www.facebook.com/scott.benyacko Scott Benyacko

    Trying this today with blackberries. My wife is making an 1812 style doll dress, and wants hand-dyed. We will see shortly how things turn out.

  • Puppy

    I wanna pull a prank on my dad, is there any way I can make dye without boiling?

    • Colin Oosterveld

      yes there is a way you can make natural dye without boiling you can put lukewarm/warm water in a bucket or measuring cup (for a smaller amount) put your plant material or what you like for your natural dye (chopped or grated) in a piece of cheesecloth or an old stocking and soak it in the warm water and gently squeeze out the dye from it.. you can use beetroot and grate that too make a very nice bloodred dye (then it almost looks like you have slaughtered someone)

  • Mecanfield

    trying avocado skins right now :) a beautiful rusty pink!

    • Houston Joshua

      ill try

  • Lewis Clemence

    thx 4 tha info.

  • Marry

    You can put fabric in a pot of water with salt, while it’s boiling?

    • atyourservice

      yes. but from what I understand you have to be carefull, anything like polyester may lose shape or melt or something.

      • Mariana

        Yeah, but you can’t dye polyester, nylon, acrylic or any synthetic fiber with natural dyes, polyester IS plastic, so you need a special synthetic dye. Natural dyes only work with natural fibers. <3 <3 <3

  • Colin Oosterveld

    Hi there… I recently keep myself busy trying out natural dyes and also making egg tempera paint (which I used for painting a nice design on a big piece of silk) now my question is how can I protect fabric with natural dye and egg tempera paint from losing any of the color and design when washing by hand (either luke warm or cold)?

  • DarkElf

    Im really excited to have found this!!! I just finished chopping up a light cream colored Bugle Boy jean long sleeved button up shirt and made a cute vest :) but i would like it to be like a nice denim blue, what other material options are there for me to make it blue? Please and Thank you! :D

  • awsomeperson

    cool its really easy and fun!

  • disqus_aCpFDiBuWJ

    Boil the shirt in water for one hour to fix in the color? Won’t that make the shirt shrink?

  • PS

    Hi! I tried dyeing with red cabbage but the color I got was quite faint :(

  • Kitty

    Are you supposed to boil the fabric in fixative BEFORE you boil it with the color?

  • Rlm7

    I tried this it was fun but all the color came out and made it this really light blue,I used beets to make this color it was a dark magenta pink really cool but it came out I wonder if I should make the dye stronger?

  • Three boys n me

    What would be the best to make a very bright orange?

  • Anomallama

    How do you know how much plantstuff to use?

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