I have been studying and experimenting with natural dyes for over a decade (yes, I am old now).
The mixture of science and magic that are natural dyes just blows my mind daily. Every time I think I've figured out the formula and that I know exactly what my results will be I am surprised. Why does this happen? Every dye is different because it depends on the environment that the dye source was grown in. The exact shade of color that comes from any given dye plant depends on soil quality, and the endlessly variable amounts of rain, sun, pests etc. that might come into contact with that plant before harvest.
While our consumer culture is focused on repeatability and consistency, natural dyes are an artist's dream. I can't formulaically pour X grams of dye into X gallons of water and know 100% what color I will create. I have a pretty good idea after many, many dye pots worth of tests but I can't say for sure. This unpredictability creates a relationship between me and my materials. Instead of 'plug & play' mentality, I am constantly adapting, shifting, and maneuvering through my materials. This breeds creativity and innovation and it never gets old.
What is a natural dye?
The word 'natural' gets thrown around a lot. It's important to recognize what it is and what it isn't and what it COULD be. In this case, natural simply means that the dye sources grow in our environment. They are not created in a lab. Cultures around the world have been using natural dyes to create colorful textiles since the beginning of civilization.
Natural dyes are extracted from plants, insects, fungi and kitchen waste. Some examples of dye plants are indigo, marigold, hollyhock, madder root. There are two main insects that produce great color; lac and cochineal. Fungi dyes are something I'm just starting to learn about. I have one mushroom in my freezer waiting to be tested. Stay tuned. Food waste sources are the most easily accessible for anyone. You can use onion skins and avocado pits and so much more.
How do natural dyes work?
Most natural dyes are created by extracting color from a plant source through a 'tea steeping' kind of method and using a mordant to create the chemical bond between the fabric and color. There are many variables within this simple-sounding structure. For example, you could start with the raw plant material (flowers, roots etc.) and extract color before prepping fabric and adding it to your dye pot. There are now several other forms to find your dye sources in. They can be purchased as liquid or powder concentrates.
Indigo is its own breed of natural dye. Chemically it works completely differently than most natural dyes. Indigo is actually a stain that sets into the fabric, versus a chemically-bonded dye. The color is extracted from the leaves of the indigo plant, is chemically reduced in order to be a viable dye. Indigo was most common traditionally in India, Japan and Mexico. Today, many people are growing this in the United States including Rowland Ricketts and Rebecca Burgess. You can even grow indigo in your garden and dye with the fresh leaves! Learn more about indigo in the documentary Blue Alchemy. (watch the trailer)
How long does natural dye last?
I get this question a lot and I'm always testing my textiles to see what practices can lengthen their color life. The short answer is that not all natural dyes are created equal in terms of life span. I use the most colorfast dyes: cochineal, madder, weld, indigo etc. Other dyes such as onion skins, beets, and turmeric are great for learning and experimenting with the caveat that their color will fade more quickly.
I love silk, because as long as it is well cared for, it will keep its color for years. Functional items such as kitchen napkins are more likely to see color fade within the first year because of the amount of washing and light exposure they have. You can learn how to care for your naturally dyed textiles on my Care Instructions page.
One of the things I've found is that A LOT of people who try natural dyes complain about quick fading or lack of color depth. This is almost always user-error. While natural dyes seem simple, it's important to remember there is chemistry at play and that minutiae matters. Small details mean the difference between gorgeous color and drab tones.
How can natural dyes help the environment?
Natural dyes have a lot to offer anyone who chooses to dip their toes in. These dyes encourage mindful engagement with the environment around us. Recognizing, understanding and appreciating plants is at the core of natural dyeing and this awareness brings us into relationship with our planet. Keeping our sense of wonder for the natural world inspires care for it daily.
From a scientific instead of social perspective, natural dyes are just one piece of the huge sustainability situation with all textile industries. These dyes work well for a small scale maker like myself but are likely not a solution for big box stores. Some amazing innovations are coming out of the fashion sector right now and I'm sure there's more to come.
For me, as a maker, I know I can feel good about composting my dye materials. The dyes I use are renewable resources that are fully biodegradable so I'm not adding my maker waste to the landfill. I can also grow and harvest my own dye plants. I enjoy the self-sufficiency aspect of this and it can reduce the carbon footprint of my craft.
The environmental drawbacks with natural dyes are the amount of wastewater it creates in the rinsing process. Living in Colorado has made me acutely aware of how much water I use. This year, I have 3 new ideas for reducing wastewater: direct application of dyes, steam-setting and washing machine rinses. We do also capture rain water that I use for rinse water. Stay tuned for updates on my journal as I explore these process options.