When we last visited Colonial Williamsburg I spent a good hour talking with the weavers about natural dyes. She laughed and said, “Oh yes, we got all the crunchy granola types who come in and claim to know all about natural dyes. Then they go on to list fruits and vegetables. When you’re struggling to get enough food on the table you don’t waste food to create dyes.” I’m telling you this because the easy things to gather to try natural dyes for fabric are going to be fruits and vegetables. As a matter of fact, our original attempt to dye fabric with naturally was 100% food-based. I’ll tell you how we did our attempt at natural dyes, and then I’ll tell you more about how it really would have happened. It does make for a great history lesson.
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Our original attempt at natural dyes, in first grade
I take you back to 2011 Ticia:
So, a few weeks ago we set about learning how the colonists made their clothes and got the different colored cloths they got.
We gathered some different items that had been suggested and boiled our materials for 30 minutes or so and pulled it all out.
Then we pulled it all out and separated it out into the different fibers and observed them.
Do you see what we discovered? Here’s what we used: blueberry tea, red onion skins, yellow onion skins, and cayenne powder.
What did we get? Brown, brown, blue-tinged brown, and brown.
We also discovered that canvas dies quite well. The tight woven cotton did not, the bubble gauze cotton (very loosely woven) did, and the wool roving also took the dye well.
So, has anyone used a natural die and gotten a color aside from brown?
Materials to gather for natural fabric dye
Dyes we tried: yellow onion skins, red onions, purple cabbage, strawberries, blueberries, coffee, tea (I have a subscribe and save set up for this tea, so I’ll totally admit I didn’t use the tea I actually drink, but some cheaper versions I’d been giving that I didn’t like the taste of)
Other dyes you could try: turmeric, walnut shells, flowers with strong colors (I wanted to try roses)
How to dye with natural fibers, the preparation stage
I learned from the last time. I did some research into how to dye fabrics.
First I bought about 3 yards of undyed, unbleached muslin. It’s a simple cotton fabric that takes a dye well.
Next, I started collecting my natural dyes: onion skins, purple cabbage, strawberries, blueberries, coffee, and tea
Here are my tips for gathering materials:
- When purchasing onions at the grocery store, you know how there are usually some extra little bits of onion skins in the bottom of the bin. I spent a few weeks beforehand gathering as much of those onion skins as I could, and asked my friends to save their onion skins.
- Once I decided to do this, I started saving the tops of the strawberries I cut off, and those occasional gross strawberries you throw out because they’re gross in a Ziploc bag in the freezer. This meant our process took a little longer to gather enough to dye the fabric, but I hated “wasting” strawberries. Two-quart bags full were enough to get a good supply of strawberries for creating the dye.
- I did this during spring when berries were ridiculously cheap. I kept an eye out for sales on berries and picked them up at that time.
Once I had enough materials, I prepared the fabric.
For the onions, coffee, tea, and cabbage I prepared the fabric by boiling it in 2 cups of vinegar mixed together with 8 cups of water. Boil it for one hour, let the water cool, then rinse it out.
For all of the berries, 1/2 cup of salt for 8 cups of water. Boil it for one hour, let the water cool, then rinse it out.
Prepare your dye
For all the berries, put them in a bag, and pound them. This allows the dyes present in the berries to be released.
Side point, while my picture is of us just pounding away at an entire pound of strawberries, I’ll admit that is just a picture we took, because I forgot to get a starting picture.
Do the same thing with the purple cabbage and the red onions.
Now add your dye material to a pot of water and boil it for anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour. The longer you allow the materials to steep, the darker the color will be.
Turn off the heat, and allow it to cool down, remove any of the plant materials from the dye you’ve created. I’ll admit, I sometimes left the materials used to create the dye in the pot because it created unusual concentrations of color on the fabric.
Dye your fabric naturally
Add your fabric to the dye, and start boiling it. Once it’s heated up, you can turn it down to a simmer, and the longer you leave the fabric in the dye, the richer the color will be. I experimented with a couple of different pieces of fabric and sometimes left it in for an hour or so, and other times I left it in overnight.
VERY IMPORTANT NOTE: NOTICE I’M USING METAL POTS. THE METAL WILL NOT STAIN AS BADLY AS OTHER TYPES OF POTS. I HAVE HEARD MANY TIMES FROM JEFF THE STORY OF A ROOMMATE WHO USED HIS BRAND NEW POTS TO DYE LEATHER, AND HOW FOR WEEKS AFTERWARD THEY ATE FOOD THE COLOR OF THE DYE.
Once you remove the fabric from the dye, allow it to dry, and then run it through the dryer. This will heat set the dyes, and keep it in the fabric longer.
If you go on to make a project with this, make sure you wash the fabric in cold water and wash it separately from anything else because over time the colors will come out.
That’s our fabric dyed with blueberries, and it turned out a light purplish-blue color.
Why I like this project
As you can see, from the many ages my kids were in the pictures, we’ve dyed fabric naturally a couple of times. I’ve learned a bit more each time we’ve done this, and I like the simplicity of it.
The materials don’t have to cost a lot, if you plan ahead, it won’t add to your bottom line in the least bit because you can use food scraps gathered over months.
It’s also an impressive project that has cool results and can be used in something for real. My fabric is sitting upstairs waiting to be made into doll clothes.
It doesn’t take a lot of hands-on time. Unlike other hands-on projects, it’s a lot of fix-it-and-forget-it time. There are a lot of leave it sitting on the stove for a long time. I like projects like that.
If they didn’t use fruits and vegetables to dye fabric, what did they use?
They used all parts of a plant that you can’t eat and a few bugs. In particular, the color red came from an insect found in the Americas. The Phoenicians grew insanely wealthy making purple dye out of fermented snails.
And if you want to gross yourself out, just know the cochineal is still used to create a red or pink color in foods today, in particular yogurts.
All in all, a super fascinating lesson, and one that I’ve repeated a few times with the kids.
More great hands-on history lessons
Originally published September 29, 2011