Here at Balance, we’re producing ethically and sustainably made clothing, made from natural fabrics and dyes which were sourced with care and concern. We’re in an age of great worry about the environment, our planet, and the natural world in general – so we saw it fit to create beautiful garments that don’t contribute to the harm already affecting our world.
We think it’s imperative to help educate, about the negative effects of mass-produced synthetic clothing, especially when it affects multiple factors such as the environment, factory workers, the value of well-made clothes, etc. When you’re spending money on clothing or other manufactured goods, you’re essentially casting a vote for who you think should be setting the standard in the industry. By using your buying power to support ethically made clothing, you’re increasing the demand for it – and vice versa.
As such, we’ve put together this piece to help you understand the benefits of natural clothing dyes, and even try a few simple dyes yourself! These are great, fun projects for a creative weekend, and even more fun if you get some little ones involved (just remember – some of these dyes are rather effective! So keep those white linens safely hidden away).
First, let’s take a look at what Natural Dyes are and where they come from.
What is Natural Clothing Dye and Why is it Preferred?
In places like China, natural clothing dye has been found to have existed as long as 5000 years ago or more – that’s a very long time. These dyes were made from things like bark, insects, flowers and berries.
Discovering dyes could almost be considered one of the natural steps of transition from nomads into tribes. They have huge anthropological significance, allowing humans to identify one another based on colourful patterns or markings adorned on their bodies. This has allowed us to tell apart friends from foe, socially superior from inferior, and even in some cases – where the pigment was one never seen before in a territory – discover travellers from foreign lands.
Natural dyes have been preferred throughout history primarily because they’ve always been there. However, today, most of those advocating for their use are doing so because of the many harmful effects of synthetic dyes and ingredients in the textile industry.
In some cases, heavy metals like lead and mercury are used in synthetic dyeing processes – not to mention a myriad of other chemical compounds we simply don’t want ending up in our lakes and oceans in large amounts. As a result, the pushback against synthetic dyes has been ever-increasing in recent years, with even some large synthetic dyeing plants in places like India and China reverting to ancient, and far more sustainable natural sources of pigment.
A Short History of the Use of Natural Colours
For as long as humans have understood pigments (coloured materials that stain, or dye effectively), we’ve used them to paint, decorate, and bring a visual spark to just about anything we could. In South Africa, for example, one can drive only a few hours out of any major city to find rock paintings many thousands of years old – still visible and, in some cases, bright as the day they were painted.
These rock paintings have stood the test of time, using a primitive paint created from things like berries, ash, bone or rock dust and blood. They give us great insight into how important pigments like this may have been in the past for recordkeeping (or purely creative) purposes.
As such, it begs the question – why does the modern world feature an abundance of harmful, unnatural dyes which end up polluting our water systems, or causing over-harvesting in certain environments around the world?
Well, as one can imagine, the answer often boils down to costs. Synthetic dyes, while often harmful to the workers handling them, or polluting to water supplies; are cheaper and quicker to manufacture at scale, allowing the supply to meet the massive demand for garments that exists in the world today.
However, as we all know by now, these kinds of shortcuts or spendthrifts never bode well for our environment. Any money saved, time spared or profits increased will almost surely result in double that – if not more – being expended on repairing the environmental damage done further down the line.
4 Natural DIY Dyes for Cotton & Other Fabrics
Now that we’ve covered some of the natural and cultural history of plant-based natural dyes, let’s take a look at some which are simple and easy to attempt as a creative outlet at home. We’re going to be using three common ingredients you can find at almost any grocer – black beans, blackberries, and coffee grounds.
For the fourth dye, we’ll be using the slightly less common Sumac berries. These are most often around the Mediterranean and regularly used in Turkish cooking – you may be more likely to find them at your local spice shop.
One thing to note, with natural fabric dye, is that the colours will often be a little more subtle or muted than their synthetic counterparts. For this reason, we would highly recommend using white cotton or yarn for your first attempts so you can get a good idea of the exact shade of dye you’ve produced.
After this, go ahead and experiment with upcycling old clothes or thrifts that might already have some pigment of their own! The world is your oyster.
Black Beans: The Best Natural Blue Dye
Dried whole black beans make for a fantastic royal blue dye, which you can easily dilute to get just the shade you’re looking for. They’re also incredibly nutritious and can still be eaten after making dye with them – and they’re cheap too. Possibly the cheapest way to dye clothes at home.
For this recipe, you’ll need 500g dried Black Beans, cold tap water, baking soda (optional) and some free time.
How to Make Black Bean Natural Dye at Home
- Soak the dried whole black beans in just enough water to cover them.
- Add a teaspoon of baking soda for a slight green tint (Optional).
- Leave the beans to sit for a day or more, topping up absorbed water as you go. Stir periodically, but leave them to sit untouched for at least an hour before straining.
- Strain the liquid from the beans using a sieve and / or cheese cloth. Be sure to set the soaked beans aside, as they’re ready to be cooked and eaten!
- You now have a blue dye which can be stored in a jar or pot until it’s ready to be used.
Sumac Berries: A Natural Red to Dye For
Aside from being a delicious addition to any shawarma or falafel spice mix, sumac berries were historically used as a red dye in places like Italy and Turkey. It is often also found growing as a common shrub along the roadside in the North-East US. If you’ve not used sumac as a spice before, be sure to set some aside for grinding when you get your hands on it – it truly is a special plant, offering such stunning pigment and unique flavour.
In addition, the colour produced from the dye is known to set incredibly well without any additional ingredients like baking soda or alum. This makes it great for first attempts or newbies – but also means that it stains extra easily! So, be careful.
To make a red dye from sumac berries, you will need: 500g or more sumac heads (the flower buds covered in berries), and water.
How to Make a Natural Red Dye from Sumac Berries
- Place the sumac heads in a pot of hot water, outdoors in the sunlight.
- Leave it to soak for a few days (Up to 72 hours, or whenever the water stops getting darker with pigment)
- Strain out the sumac heads with a fine sieve ensuring nothing is left in the water.
- Your red dye is now ready to use!
How to Dye Clothes a Modern Grey with Blackberries
While your first few natural dyeing attempts will surely be focused on bright, striking colours – the subtleties of colour play an important role in fashion too. Grays, beiges, and other low-hue pigments can make a gorgeous complement to a minimalist look, but at a first glance you might be thinking, “How can I make a grey dye when no fruits or vegetables are really all that grey?”.
Well, let’s just say it’s lucky that names don’t always correspond to colours. Blackberries happen to be the perfect source of a natural grey pigment – the same way avocado seeds or red cabbage produce beautiful pink dyes.
Ingredients: Half a kilogram of fresh (or slightly old) blackberries, 125g table salt, and tap water.
How to Make Blackberries into a Grey Dye
- Soak your fabric in cold water and salt before dyeing – leave it in there for at least an hour, and rinse with cold water afterwards.
- Add the blackberries to twice the amount of hot water, and simmer for an hour on a stovetop.
- When the liquid stops darkening or after an hour, remove from the heat and strain the fruits out of the liquid.
- Add your dye back to the empty pot, and you’re ready to dye the world the perfect shade grey.
Coffee Grounds for Dyeing Fabric Brown & Green
Once you’ve attempted a few of the simpler dyes listed above, coffee grounds are a great way to start getting a little more complex and creative with your pigmentation. A basic coffee dye produces wonderful, warm and familiar yellows and browns (depending on its strength), as we’ve all likely experienced from an accidental spill here or there.
If you add a little iron water to your soaking fabric, however, your coffee dye mixture will start to turn an iron-oxide green – adding a whole new facet of creative opportunity to your dyeing process.
Ingredients: Coffee Grounds (1:1 Weight with the Fabric you’re Using), Iron Water (Optional, for a green tint), and water.
How to make a Natural Dye from Coffee
- Add the coffee grounds to a pot and simmer for 5-10 minutes, not that differently to how you would make coffee.
- Strain the grounds out and optionally save them to add to your next batch
- Add iron water to the dye mixture, if you’re looking to go more green-than-brown
- Finally, you’re ready to dye!
Tips & Tricks: How to Dye Fabric with Plant-Based Dyes
Now, you’ll notice we left out instructions on the actual dyeing method on the above items. This is because largely the same rules apply across all of them, with a few tips to make your natural dyes extra-effective.
For each of the above, using the dye immediately, when it’s hot, is preferable. You want to submerge or boil the clothes in the dye for at least an hour, but more if you’re looking for a stronger and deeper tint. However, make sure to note that sumac berries are lightly related to poison ivy, so you might not want to boil a pot of them indoors. For this pigment, you can simply leave the garment to soak in the dye, in the sun, for a few days.
In addition to the methods listed above, preparing the dye with a dash of vinegar can really help the pigment to set. This will help the colour get deeper into the threads of the fabric, and make it harder to fade due to sunlight or machine washing.
Finally, when you’ve finished the boiling process, don’t be shy to leave the garment sitting in the dye for a few hours, or even days after. This is especially the case if it’s your first time, or if you’re looking for the darkest shade possible. You can additionally add salt towards the end of your dyeing process, which will work with the vinegar to help the colours set.
Now that you’ve got a good history on natural dyes, and a handbook guide to match, it’s time to get creative! We’d love to see what you come up with, so feel free to send us some pictures of your pigmentation experiments, or alternative plants and vegetables you’ve gotten a good colour from, over on instagram at @balance_the_label.
Stay conscious, stay sustainable, and stay educated.