I have been studying and experimenting with natural/botanical dyes for over a decade.
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. 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. 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 quickly. Many natural dyes that are washfast are still easily faded by extended exposure to direct sunlight. 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 large companies. 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 reduces the carbon footprint of my craft.
The environmental drawback of natural dyes is the amount of wastewater it creates in the rinsing process. Living in Colorado has made me acutely aware of how much water I use. Over the past year I have reduced my water use enormously by using reclaimed water where pH isn't an issue, and by setting indigo dyed fabrics with vinegar in the first rinse which reduces the total number of rinses. I've also reduced rinse wastewater by using a washing machine and a commercial textile detergent. The agitation of the washing cycle combined with the detergent pulls excess color out with less washes.