Welcome to the World of Natural Dyes
Natural dyeing is an ancient practice, we regard as alchemic. Every dyer has their own techniques, methods and recipes for many reasons but the primary reason one should focus on is we all live on different land. Natural dyeing is a craft connected to the land, connected to the seasons, connected to the water and interpreted by the dyer and how successfully they can read, feel, see and sense their immediate natural environment.
A dedicated craft that guides my life with planting, watering, harvesting, drying, soaking, stirring, smelling, feeling, seeing, recording and listening. The deeper I go the more peaceful I live in tune with nature.
Natural dye has extremely limited impact on the environment. Heating of vats - gas/electricity/fire, water consumption for vats but that can be recycled onto gardens or water consumption for garden maintenance - rain water collection can support this as well for vat water.
To be realistic all these uses create very limited impact and can be reduced to zero with focus and effort.
Our Dream of Growth and Development
The intention of our project is to develop alongside our textile cluster a natural dye project. That is farming and creating our own natural dye to ensure transparency, create additional sustainable employment and revive the ancient knowledge of village artisans in rural Bihar, India. Initially we are buying the bulk of our dyes from a supplier in India with view of slowly creating our own dyes for ourselves and the international market.
Our Cochineal comes from the Canary Islands from Canturex and we will always support and buy from Lorenzo Perez and his family run business. Their dedication to the Cochineal industry in Grand Canary is exemplary, encompassing setting certification standards, industry guidelines and awards for achievements.
Weld we stock right now comes from France but we will soon have our own growing in rural Bihar.
Sustainable employment and artisanal livelihood is the soul of our work, not everything can be achieved instantly, specially with natural dye and working with nature, but we have begun and look forward to sharing this journey of growth and empowerment with you.
Natural Dyes fade. Yes they do. Celebrate it
Yes it does fade.
The expectation of guarantee in our modern world has far reaching ramifications silently building in the background of our lives. Nothing is permanent and nothing is perfect is a breath taking and empowering realisation.
The best way to describe colour fading is its the journey of natural dye, not a blatant fade as with chemical dyes, it goes on a journey of colour breaking down the hues and shades that nature has built within all she provides.
The wonderful thing not many realise is that if mordanted correctly at the beginning you can re dye multiple times over the garments lifetime without having to re mordant.
The one issue with naturally dyed cloth is its relationship to pH levels. pH is a massive component in natural dyeing, it impacts on the colour in many ways, changes colour, strips colour, intensifies colour. This is where the chemistry component comes into play and I really wish now I had paid a lot more attention in science at school…….not always looking out the window!
Your Personal Journey
Best advice is to keep an open mind and read and research from multiple sources as you will take a little from each to establish your own dye practice. There are some books that are more informative than others, you shall find them listed in resource section. You will learn most from actually doing your own experiments with multiple dye sources, always important to record what you do and add a small sample to recorded information.
In recorded information list:
- source of dye or any added history of dye stuff
- tannin used for cellulose
- mordant for protein and cellulose fibres
- process followed
- time in vat
- WOF and WOD (weight of fabric & weight of dye and tannins/mordants)
observations & thoughts on outcomes.
We recommend safe practices when mixing both dyes and mordants and minerals. Advised to always wear a mask to cover your mouth and nose to prevent inhalation of particles.
Our information is to support you with the dye we are supplying, we aim to include all relevant information for a successful experience with your dyeing. The knowledge we share is purely a guide and an insight into how we approach the practice of natural dyeing.
We can share our percentages and techniques yet implore you to research, experiment, listen and learn from an endless wealth of knowledge and inspiration. Natural dyeing has its basic rules but ultimately it is a very personal journey. An individual interpretation on an ancient craft that twists and weaves throughout the rivers, trees, plants, soil, heat and humility of the dyer and their skill to listen and be at one with nature.
Every dyer approaches this craft with a personal view and intended outcome, this in itself releases the constraints of formality. Learn the rules and have the courage and imagination to test them, turn and experiment with them in mind. Once you practice natural dyeing you will look upon our precious world through completely different eyes. The earth you walk will become a wonderland of opportunity, an ignition to a part of your brain that has laid dormant for too long. You will have a greater understanding of the seasons and the abundance they share, the harmony and companion of plant life will allow you to view growth from a new perspective.
When foraging always consider the timing of your actions in harmony with the season - can you leave this until the seeds have fallen to replenish the crop? Take what you really need and know you will use and consider the ramifications of what you take. Learn to identify what you discover so your knowledge is comprehensive and you understand the plants requirements for survival and regeneration.
Also acronyms and words to be familiar with :
WOF - Weight of fabric
WOD - Weight of dye
Scour - To cleanse fibre of natural oils, waxes and sizing
Mordant - Alum and Alum acetate
Tannin - tannic acid used with cellulose fibres to aid mordanting and dyeing
Vat/bath/pot - where you dye
Non reactive pot - stainless steel or enamel not chipped
Simmer - 60-70 degrees no more!
Submerge - keep fibre UNDER the water level
Cream of Tartar - Potassium bitartrate. Mostly used to soften wools and brighten shades of some colours. Not used on cellulose fibres and rarely used with silk 4-6% WOF.
Ferrous Sulphate - Iron. An interesting mordant with several applications. First is to sadden colours as a post mordant. Used with tannins to create a variety of greys. If used in initial mordant process vs post yet another dimension of its properties. Any use of iron enhances the light and wash fast properties of your dye. Best used on cellulose at 2-4% WOF, be careful with protein fibres as it can make their handle brittle. Also Iron can be very contaminating in a dye studio. Make sure to clean thoroughly after use, many dyers will have iron only utensils and buckets due to its contaminating nature.
When foraging always consider the timing of your actions in harmony with the season. Could you leave it until the seeds have fallen to replenish the crop? How much do you really need? What are the ramifications to birds, insects, other plant life if you take something? Learn to identify what you discover so your knowledge is comprehensive and you understand the plants requirements for survival and regeneration.
Low Impact to the Environment
Heating of vats - gas/electricity/fire. Water consumption for vats but that can be recycled onto gardens or water consumption for garden maintenance - rain water collection can support this as well as vat water. Vats can be reused many times over either by exhausting the dye pigment or even topping up the dye pigment content. To be realistic all these uses create very limited impact and can be reduced to zero with focus and effort.
“Everything is temporary; emotions, thoughts, people and scenery. Do not become attached, just flow with it.”
General opinion and comment - “oh but natural dye fades” our response
The expectation of guarantee in our modern world has far reaching ramifications silently building in the background of our lives. Nothing is permanent and nothing is perfect is a breath taking and empowering realisation. The best way we describe the light and wash fastness of natural dye it goes on a journey of shade and colour, slowly and gently revealing all the beautiful hues nature has built within her spectrum.
If the dyer has prepared their cloth with attention to detail and efficient technical practices the colour will hold up to realistic expectations. When cared for with respect and valued by the owner this too will impact on the life of natural dye. The wonderful thing not many realise is that if mordanted correctly in fibre/fabric preparation you can re dye multiple times over a naturally dyed item’s life without having to re mordant.
The most important issue with naturally dyed cloth is its relationship to pH levels. pH is a massive component in natural dyeing, it impacts on the colour in many ways, changes colour, strips colour, intensifies colour. This is where the chemistry component comes into play and things get really interesting. Ideally when caring for naturally dyed cloth you aim for a pH neutral soap/detergent, around 6.5 - 7.5 is the safest zone. Wool washes are highly alkaline and to be avoided at all costs. At the opposite end of the spectrum is lemon - highly acidic - not good if you want to preserve the colour you have.
A massive area of natural dye practice and well worth experimenting with changing your pH in and out of dye baths for a greater understanding.
BEFORE YOU COMMENCE :
The Natural Dye process differs depending on what type of natural fibre you are working with. So to commence you need to ascertain what type of natural fibre you are working with:
Cellulose - any fibre grown from the earth. Cotton, hemp, linen, ramie, jute, nettle or
Protein - any fibre grown from an animal. Wool, silk, alpaca, angora, cashmere, camel, mohair, yak.
PREPARING YOUR CLOTH/TEXTILE/FABRIC
Step 1 - SCOURING
There are 3 steps to prepare your cloth/textile/fabric for natural dyeing 1)scouring, 2)tannining & 3)mordanting.
To begin, we must scour your cloth.
We can’t emphasise enough how important scouring is, it is the beginning and most important part to successful natural dyeing. Scouring cleanses and prepares the fibre for thorough and even absorption.
Cellulose fibres need particular attention due to the structure of the fibre strand and its low liquid absorption. By scouring you are stripping any matter such as waxes and oils that may hinder absorption of tannins, mordants and dyes.
Protein fibres need a lot less processing throughout scouring but a more gentle approach.
Scouring also removes any dirt, oils, pectin or sizings.
You will need:
Stainless steel pot/vat or enamel that is unshipped or cracked.
Soda ash/washing soda
A good natural washing detergent that is pH neutral or as close as possible. 6.5-7.5 range.
Very first thing before you do anything is to weigh your fabric/fibre when it is dry and record weight - VERY IMPORTANT!
Fill pot with enough water for the fabric/fibre to move freely and remain covered, using hot tap water at this stage is good as you are wanting to boil this pot.
For each 100g of fibre add 1tsp/5g of soda ash/washing soda and 1/2tsp/2-3g of detergent
Dissolve soda ash/washing soda in warm water and add to pot, add detergent and stir well.
Carefully add fabric/fibre and keep stirring for at least 10 mins and then regularly at 10 -15 minute intervals. It is best not to let the fabric above water line after submersion. You can add lid to pot between stirring.
Once boiling reduce heat and simmer for 1 - 2 hours. If thick, coarse or excessively dirty fibre you can boil even longer.
Once done allow fibres to cool in pot for safe removal and rinse. You can proceed straight to mordanting now or dry thoroughly for future use.
You will be amazed at how dirty you water is after this process even though it looked clean to start with.
Often if the water is excessively dirty we repeat the whole process as obviously there is a high oil and wax content in the fibre you are scouring and for successful results it has to be removed. Scouring is more about remove natural protectants within cellulose fibres, such as oils and waxes - even pastes used by hand weavers, than it is about dirt.
Very first thing before you do anything is to weigh your fabric/fibre when fabric/fibre when it is dry and record weight - VERY IMPORTANT!
Silk often needs little scouring so often a hot wash is sufficient yet we give instructions if you require them for heavier weight silks.
Fill pot with enough COLD water to move freely and remain covered.
There is no need for soda ash for protein fibres, just the pH neutral detergent. 1 tsp per 100g WOF.
We do not want the water to boil when scouring protein fibres as you can either felt wool or high temperatures can damage silk, please remember this.
Raise heat of water in pot to just below a simmer, recommend 60 degrees and hold for 1 hour. Stir very gently throughout this time.
Allow fibre to cool in the pot for safe removal and rinse in water of same temperature so as not to felt you wool.
You can proceed straight to mordanting now or dry thoroughly for future use.
You may find slight variations to this process but this is one of the rules that can’t be broken if you are wanting an enjoyable successful natural dye outcome and experience. All dyers basically use this technique maybe with ever so slight variations.
Scouring is essential and it is essential you do it well.
Now you are ready to tannin.
Step 2 - TANNINS for Cellulose fibres
Tannins are an important part of the process when dyeing cellulose fibres as alum and alum acetate (Step 3) don’t adhere well to the external molecular structure of cellulose fibre. By processing with a tannic acid first creates a surface on the fibre that the alum/alum acetate readily adheres to. For successful results it is important to get this order of process right. In a way you are preparing the cellulose fibre to react to ordaining and dye the same as a protein fibre. Protein fibres on the other hand successfully connect with alum without the need of a tannic acid.
You can choose to use either Myrobalan or Gallnut as a tannin and you can use either Powder or Extract versions. Your choice of tannin will impact on your final dye results so consider this when starting on your dye process. Each tannin has their own colour and quality so experimenting with tannins is always advisable. Many tannins aren’t just tannins either, in their own right they are a dye just by using different quantities per WOF.
With your choice of tannin use percentage according to WOF and desired colour outcome. Recommended is usually 8 - 15% WOF.
It is best to add fibre that is wet to any tannin, mordant or dye bath. If you are using fabric/fibre you have scoured in the past and it is not wet it is best to soak overnight for a thorough even saturation. BUT don’t forget to weigh it whilst it is dry and record weight.
Water temperature for a tannin bath should be 60 degrees. Either water straight from hot tap, depending on heat of your hot water, or heat your pot to 60 degrees then turn off heat source. There should be enough water in pot for fibre to move freely and remain covered at all times.
In a bowl of warm water add you tannin to dissolve thoroughly then add to pot ( stainless steel, enamel - not damaged or cracked, aluminium )
Add fibre to pot and keep stirred for approximately 10 minutes. This ensures even distribution of tannin to fibre. Please make sure fibre stays under water level at all times. Stir regularly every 10-15 minutes, keep covered between stirring to retain heat. 1 hour is sufficient for fibre to remain in tannin bath but longer is better, even overnight.
Remove and rinse lightly, wring out excess water lightly as well, at this point tannin has not been thoroughly fixed to fibre so avoid any irrelevant handling.
Keep damp as you can now proceed to mordant bath or dry if you intend to commence Step 3 another day.
Step 3 - MORDANTING
The two main mordants are aluminium (alum) and aluminium acetate.
The purpose of mordanting is to coat the external wall of fibre to allow dye particles to adhere for a stronger, richer dye outcome.
It will also aids in light/wash fast properties of your finished natural dye.
There is a choice of 2 to mordant cellulose fibre, it is a personal preference or a choice due to availability.
Choose from either :
Alum 15% WOF or
Alum acetate 8% WOF
1. Use alum mordant at 15% WOF. Fill pot with hot tap water or heat to 60 degrees and turn off once at 60 degrees. No heat is needed throughout this process. Add dissolved alum then add fibre and stir for even distribution. Leave for 1 hour or up to 24 hours, stirring occasionally. Leave lid on pot to retain heat.
Remove and prepare a second fresh pot of hot water and this time add 10% WOF alum and/or repeat above process.
2. Or use alum acetate mordant at 8% WOF. Fill pot with hot tap water or heat to 60 degrees and turn off once at 60 degrees. No heat is needed for this process. Add dissolved alum acetate then add fibre and stir for even distribution. Leave for 1 hour or up to 24 hours, stirring occasionally. Leave lid on pot to retain heat.
Cellulose fibres require either a chalk (calcium carbonate) or wheat bran bath after the tannin bath to further open up the fibres to maximise the fixing of dye. Traditionally this process was called dunging as dyers used cow dung due to the phosphate content which aids in fixing the alum acetate to the fibre prior to dyeing.
Some dyers dry their fabric prior to chalk/wheat bran bath some don’t, again your preference.
Chalk bath - calcium carbonate
Per 100g fibre use 5g of calcium carbonate
Dissolve chalk in hot water and add to a bucket/tub large enough to contain your mordanted fibre comfortably, water doesn’t have to be hot - cold is fine. Dip fabric/fibre into chalk mix and move around gently. Leave soak for 15 - 30 mins, you can move around throughout this time for thorough distribution.
Remove and rinse thoroughly before dyeing. Calcium carbonate can shift colours so best to rinse thoroughly. Once rinsed you are ready to dye or you can dry prepared fabric/fibre for future use.
Wheat bran bath
Per 100g fibre use 5g of wheat bran
Bundle the wheat bran in a cloth that has a fairly open weave such as cheese cloth. (You want to submerge this bundle in very hot water and allow wheat bran goodness to leak out easily.) In a small bucket add this bundle into very hot water to soak for 30 mins to make that milky looking wheat bran goodness. Add this solution to a bucket/tub with hot water of 60 - 70 degrees, a container large enough for your mordanted fibre to fit comfortably. Some people add the bundle or you can allow it to cool slightly so you can squeeze out all the liquid to add to the bath - even repeat this several times. Once finished with you can compost wheat bran.
Both the calcium bath and wheat bran bath can be kept and used or topped up over 2 - 3 days, if you live in a warm climate you may find the wheat bran bath will ferment and that’s tells you its time to make a new one!
We like to rinse lightly after this bath, some dyers don’t bother. If you are not proceeding to the dyeing process we would definitely recommend a good rinse then dry and store out of the light for future use. If dyeing immediately a light rinse will suffice.
Compared to cellulose fibres preparation for dyeing protein preparation is a dream. Protein fibres love to be coloured with natural dye.
To mordant protein fibres use a vat such as stainless steel, aluminium or a non chipped enamel vat. Fill with the hottest tap water - 60 - 70 degrees, with enough room for fibre to move freely.
Add aluminium potassium sulphate (alum) or aluminium sulphate at 8% WOF - if mordanting wool you can also add your 8% WOF cream of tartar at this point.
**although there is now experiments and investigation with results proving this could be over use of mordant and 7% is now not an unrealistic weight. It is also acceptable for you to reuse your mordant and tannin vats multiple times until they are exhausted.
Dissolve mordant/mordants then add your fibre to vat and stir gently for even distribution. Cover to retain heat and leave for minimum 2 hours but we like to leave overnight. Stir gently occasionally over the first 2 hours.
Remove and rinse. If not moving straight to dyeing process you can dry fibre and store out of light for future use.
Step 4 - DYEING
From here, you are ready to dye your cloth.
We have prepared our Natural Dye Glossary which alphabetically lists our Dyes for you to review the percentage of dye stuff we recommend as a guide to use per WOF. If you want light shades you use less dye stuff and if you want deeper shades you use more dye stuff. Sometimes people can get frustrated trying to create deeper shades as it does use a lot of dye matter to achieve such results. When dyeing deeper shades always have extra projects ready to dye once bath is used as there will be a lot of dye pigment left after using 70-100% WOF dye baths. Allowing fibre to sit in dye bath overnight will also aid in obtaining deeper more saturated colours.
Visit our Natural Dye Glossary.
Step 5 - CARE following Dye Process
Once you remove your fibre/fabric from a dye bath there are several options of what comes next. As with the entire process of natural dyeing this choice derives from experience.
It is best to remove excess dye stuff from your fibre/fabric so a light rinse to achieve this is recommended, a light rinse in cold water with no detergent.
You can then hang fibre to dry out of direct sunlight. Some dyers like to allow a “curing” stage, that is they like to let the dyed item sit for a few days to rest. After this time you can then wash your dyed item in a neutral pH detergent, some like warm water some like cold water.
Some dyers don’t bother with this “curing” stage and proceed to rinsing with a neutral pH detergent in cold or warm water straight away.
One thing to be aware of is some dyes, such as cutch, can continue oxidising once removed from vat. So if you hang cutch to dry on a line and it hasn’t been spun in a washing machine cycle or wrung out really really well you may find the dye gather at points on your cloth, oxidise and give a variation in your dye result.
The most important thing to remember is when using a soap/detergent/powder that its ph is neutral, as in 7, or as close to as possible. Know your water sources ph as sometimes old pipes contain copper, boar water is hard, there are many variables.
Please visit our Care guide for advice on ongoing care of your natural dye cloth.
Snap Shot Process :
A quick basic overview of my tried & tested Natural Dye process for working with 100% natural hand loom & khadi cotton - my chosen fibre is natural cotton! (this would work for all fibres).
Step 1. Scour on day one (sit overnight in vat to be cool enough to handle).
Step 2. Wash on day 2 and straight into a tannin bath and soak overnight.
Step 3. Day 3 rinse tannin and then straight into a mordant bath - alum acetate or alum and soak overnight. If alum was used repeat a second alum vat on day 4.
If alum acetate was used spin dry Khadi to speed up air drying and hang to dry, when dry soak it in a wheat bran or calcium carbonate bath to absorb any excess alum acetate and to support fixing of mordant to fibre, then rinse and we ready to dye! If not dyeing immediately dry Khadi for later use.
Step 4. Dyeing can take up to 2 days depending on colour and then there could be a post mordant process with iron.
Step 5. After care depending on your decision to 'cure' can take up to another 1-2days, but is not 100% necessary.
Natural dyeing is not a quick process but it is a process that is mesmerising. Every day there is something to learn and no 2 vats are ever the same. The joy is the individuality of this craft yet the fellowship in sharing it!