Natural dyeing has become quite popular as a hobby. Since two batches of the same dyestuffs can vary, each dyeing adventure produces a truly one of a kind experience. The natural colors are more limited in range and more muted than commercial dyes and give a soft, earthy glow to knitted or woven yarns that many people love.
Beginning with Natural Dyes - How to Dye with Tea
Natural dyes give a soft, muted light to your wools and fibers. Learn some basics about natural dyeing and start with a simple tea dye.
What to Dye
There are books on natural dyeing full of plants, methods and gorgeous pictures of dyed fiber. Most directions are for protein fiber. That is fiber from animals such as sheep, goats, rabbit or even dog. Silk dyes beautifully too. Cotton, linen and plant fibers will need some treatment before it can be dyed. Acrylics and synthetics do not dye well
Fibers can be dyed right after washing, after carding or after spinning into yarn. Each method gives a slightly different coloration.
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Until the mid nineteenth century, all dyes were natural. Synthetic dyes were discovered by accident while trying to make synthetic quinine. At first, dyes were made from aniline dyes and then benzidine or o-dianisidine. Certain cancers were linked to exposure to the dyestuffs. Today, while synthetic dyes are made from coal tar and petroleum, they are much safer.
Commercial operations were concerned not only with safety, but the vast amounts of water and plants needed to produce natural dyes. In areas where land is scarce, growing food takes priority over growing dye plants. These are some reasons that commercial dyers have moved to synthetic dyes.
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Many people think that because the word “natural” is used, that means it’s also safe. Not as much as you might think. Many natural dyes require the use of a mordant to bind the dye to the material. Mordants are heavy metals, such as copper, iron, and chrome and can be quite toxic. In addition, some of the plants themselves can be toxic. The sap of bloodroot, for example, has been used for hundreds of years as a natural dye for red, a rare color from a natural dye. It can cause death if ingested, but, more commonly, can cause severe irritation to moist membranes even after it has dried. Rita Buchanan wrote about her experience in her book, A Weaver's Garden, Growing Plants for Natural Dyes and Fibers.
Some natural plants, however, are perfectly safe. The same alum used to make pickles, can act as a mordant. Hobbyists and fiber artists may find the art of natural dyeing very satisfying.
Natural Dye Books
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Do not use any pots or pans that you will want to use for cooking. Save them for your dyeing projects. Stainless steel is a good neutral pot to use. Some other metals may impart a change in color which may, or may not be what you want. Iron pots are often used to darken a color, called saddening.
Other chemicals such as ammonia or vinegar may brighten a color and can be used in the dye bath or as a dip after dyeing. Rusty nails will add iron, and short lengths of copper pipe will add copper.
Some dyes, called direct or substantive don’t require the use of a mordant or a special pot if made from edible dyestuff. Dyes of this type can be tea, coffee, vegetables or onion skins.
Dyeing with Tea
You can use coffee instead
Save your tea leaves or bags. You'll want about twice as much tea or as you have wool to dye, less if you're using fresh tea. Put in your pot and bring to a boil. Simmer about 30 minutes or less if the color is what you desire. Strain the tea out. Wet the clean wool and use just a drop or two of liquid soap to help it absorb the dye. Gently push the wool into the dye bath. Agitating or shocking the wool (going from hot to cold) will felt it. Handle it gently
.Simmer for about an hour, or, as I did, leave in a glass jar in the sun for a day or until it is as dark as you want. Rinse gently with warm water until it runs clear. Squeeze and lay out to dry.
There are so many plants you can use for dyeing. You can get yellows and golds from onion skin and dandelion, green from carrots, radish and lettuce. Grey from roses and spinach, and orange from marigolds. Spices give good colors too.
All photos by Lana Pettey