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A Handbook of Natural Dyeing for Education

The Colour of Fashion A Handbook of Natural Dyeing for Education By Katelyn Toth-Fejel Funded by CLTAD Available for download at


Introduction This handbook is an introduction to the handson practice of natural dyeing with an exmpasis on an alternative relationship to fashion colour and engagement with locally available plants. It is aimed at students who wish to use natural dyeing in their work and teachers of all disciplines who would like to use natural dyeing in their classrooms. Selection of UK dye plants

Dye Colour

Yellow onion skins.........Bright yellow to orange Red onion skins............ Pink to green Yarrow..........................Bright yellow Sunflowers................... Bright green to yellow Cherry or apple............. Orange, yellow or tree bark green Cherry or apple leaves....Yellow to orange Nettle..........................Gold green Fig leaf........................Lime green Fennel fronds &............ Bright yellow flowers Red cabbage................ Purple to Blue

Dock Root..................Brick pink to orange Rhubarb leaves ..........Tan to yellow (also a mordant) Marigold/dyer’s...........Bright orange to yellow coreopsis Inner birch bark..........Pink Lady’s bedsraw...........Pink and purple


Introduction to Natural Dyes Natural dyeing is much like cooking in that there are as many ways to gain colour from the many colour-producing plants as there are cooks. Even though there may be recipes and common processes, each plant has different properties which will effect how they are worked with. So in the same way as you would not cook broccoli as you would cook apples each plant and every dyer has their own techniques. The process below can be used for most plants. Consult the books in the resources section for more detailed instructions and examples of many other dye processes. There are 3 broad categories of dyes which includes substantive dyes (which need no mordant and include tannin rich plants such as oak galls and staghorn sumac), vat dyes (such as indigo which require processes not covered here) and adjective dyes. Adjective dyes are the most common and require a metallic compounds such as iron or alum to bond with the fibre effectively. Generally speaking natural dyes only dye natural fibres such as animal fibres: silk, alpaca and wool, or plant fibres: cotton, linen, hemp, rayon, viscose and ramie. The methods and mordants used in the instructions below apply to mainly to any animal fibre. For instructions on dyeing plant fibres see one of the books in the resources section.

What is a Mordant? A mordant is a substance that has an attraction to both the dye and the fibre and so makes many dyeing processes possible. The word mordant comes from the latin word, mordere, to bite. One of the most common mordants is alum which is a form of aluminium (A different form is aluminium acetate which is used for plant fibres like cotton). Other metallic mordants included copper and iron but also many tannin-rich parts of plants are used as mordants. This

includes many tree bark and oak galls. Also rhubarb leaves, which contain the chemical oxalic acid, are a readily available mordant. Be aware that rhubarb mordant does give a yellow tint to the fibre and is mildly poisonous. The mordant can be added at different points during dyeing. The process described below uses a pre-mordanting method where the fibre is infused with mordant before dyeing. For other options see the resources section.


Process 1. Foraging: Pick local dye plants or gather kitchen scraps (suggestions on page 2). Many of the plants listed can be found in abundance along canals and wild spaces in London. Foraging should always be done responsibly by choosing only fallen branches or foliage or other plants that are very abundant or invasive and never taking more than a small portion of what is available. Rare plants like lichens should never be picked. How much to collect? A general rule is to collect the same weight of plant matter as the dry weight of your fabric. This also means that if you use lightweight fabric like silk, equally less dye plants will be needed. 2. Scouring and Pre-Mordanting: Weigh the silk or wool first when it is dry then prepare it for dyeing by washing well. To pre-mordant the fibre calculate 5% of its dry weight. Measure this amount of alum and dissolve in warm water in a large dye pot. Then add enough water so that the fibre will move easily, stir and add fibre. Heat to just below simmering for 1 hour, stirring frequently and set aside. 3. Wash and chop the plants. This helps release the dye more quickly. Barks and roots may need to be soaked overnight or longer. 4. Heat the plants in water to simmer leaves, roots and bark. Use a minimum amount of heat for delicate parts like flowers. Watch the colour of the water. Most plants will release the majority of their colour within 4o minutes.

Carefully sieve the plant matter out and keep the liquid (allow to cool if pouring cannot be done safely hot). 5. Immerse mordanted fibre in the dye liquid (add more liquid if needed for easy movement). Heat the dye bath and stir fibre regularly. The longer you keep the fibre in the dye bath, the deeper the colour will be. 6. When finished, remove the fibre and rinse with mild soap and hang to dry. 7. The discarded plant matter can be composted and the alum water poured down the drain or on alum-loving plants such as rhodedendron.

List of Supplies Dye plant material Mordant appropriate to dye and fibre Dye pots and lids Stove or kettle Fabric (natural fibres) Tongs Sieve Scissors Washing line and clothes pegs Weighing scales Washing soda & vinnegar change the pH. Shibori materials to create patterns Swatch book to record different dyes Notebooks and pencils to make note of dye plants used, weights and heating times.


In the Classroom Natural dyeing is useful for students from all fashion disciplines as it raises many questions relating to the source of our materials and colour. Dyeing can be done in a classroom without a stove by making concentrated dye baths in advance and topping up with water boiled by kettle just before use. The warmth is a catalist and speeds up the dyeing process. Fibre can also be left in the dye bath overnight for deep colour but dyeing may not be as even. Small electic hobs can be used but it is better to do the initial heating of plants on a strong heat source as large pots of water can take a surpising amount of time to heat. If a day or whole afternoon class is possible the students can take part in the whole dyeing process including the chopping of dye plants and pre-mordanting of the fibre. Silk habotai is a good fabric for workshops as it take the colour very quickly and brightly. Questions to consider and discuss in class Q. In your fashion work, how do you go about choosing colour? Q. Where do dyes come from and what are them made of?

Answers to Basic Questions 1. What is a Dye? A dye is a colored substance that has an ability stick to a substrate such as fabric. Most dyes require a mordant to improve the fastness of the dye on the fiber. 2. What is a natural dye? The majority of natural dyes are from plant sources – roots, berries, bark, leaves, and wood, fungi, and lichens but also

metallic substances such as iron, chrome and copper. Humans have been using natural dyes for thousands of years. In fact any textiles made before 1856 will have been coloured with natural dyes. 3. What is a synthetic dye? The term synthetic dye usually refers to dyes made in the lab from petroleum.


History Before the invention of synthetic dyes brilliantly dyed fabrics were produced worldwide in every shade of the rainbow. These colours were made using plants, minerals and some animal or insect products. Materials which were readily available locally provided the most commonly used dyes but certain rare colours were often only available as costly imported goods. One such example is the famed purple cloth worn by Roman emperors and royalty of Medieval Europe. This famous ‘Tyrian purple’ colour was made using millions of sea snails local to present day Lebanon. Plant-based dyes such as woad, indigo, saffron and madder as well as the insectbased cochineal were raised commercially and important trade goods to Asian and European economies for many centuries. The origin of these dyes were valuable trade secrets and in some cases the processes are still unknown today. These industries disappeared rapidly after 1856 when chemist William Henry Perkins accidentally made the first synthetic dye in his East London lab. This purple dye was derived from coal tar and Perkins named it mauvine. The invention spread rapidly with numerous new colours created in the following years. These new dyes could be made far more quickly and cheaply than natural dyes and offered a standardised process that suited the industrial age.

Natural Dyes for the Designer Today natural dyes are used very rarely on a commercial scale. However as interest in locally sourced materials and alternatives to petroleum has grown, so has the number of designers looking to use natural dyes again.

But it is also much easier to create subtle shimmering colour combinations and ombre effects. For this reason shibori, itajime and other reisist methods where these qualities will be enhanced are often used.

Natural dyes give a more complex colour than synthetic dyes because they are not pure tones. But this same quality means it is also more difficult to get very even colours with natural dyes.

Synthetic dyes can look ‘dead’ in contrast. Natural dyes also may appear to shimmer in sunlight but not in artificial light. These are a few of the qualities that draw designers to experiment with natural dyes. 6

Myth 1: Natural dyes produce only drab colours. If you’ve ever been to a museum such as the V & A in London, all of the textiles from before 1856 will have been naturally dyed. This gives an idea of the full range of colours possible. Every colour is possible but it might take a bit of research to find the best process to use. Myth 2: Natural dyes fade in the wash or sunlight. Many naturally dyed textiles are actually more resistant to fading than conventionally-dyed garments. Each natural dye has different properties and some do fade faster than others. See the resources section for more information. Myth 3: Natural dyes are always safe and ‘non-toxic’. Just because natural dyes only use nonpetroleum based chemicals does not mean they are without question non-toxic and safe. Especially in previous centuries many heavy metals such as chrome and copper were used. Also Medieval dyers made much use of stale urine and modern indigo dyers often use the highly caustic chemical, lye. For these reasons before the advent of synthetic dyes, dyeing districts were often far removed from town centres due to the smell and pollution they generated. However, with modern methods, natural dyes offer the possibility for completely non-toxic colour -even edible dyes in some cases!

Health and Safety It is essential to use different utensils and pots for cooking and dyeing. Even when not using a mordant, a surprising amount of plants contain harmful chemicals.

Using only 5% of the fabric weight of alum will a minimal amount of alum in powder form being present in the dry fabric before it is washed out.

If you are using alum, it is technically a skin sensitiser and requires some protective equipment. When sold in crystal form a mask is not necessary but wear gloves or use tongs to protect skin.

Tongs and appropriate protective equipment for working with hot liquids and hot surfaces


List of Plant Dye Resources Compiled by Katelyn Toth-Fejel 15 November 2014 Suppliers Fibrecrafts at George Weil: supplier of mordants and natural dyes (UK) Woad Inc. (based outside Norwich, UK): Grower and supplier of Woad. The Woad Centre also runs demonstrations and events. Earthues (Seattle, USA) supplier of natural dyes for craft and industry Books Wild Color: The Complete Guide to Making and Using Natural Dyes by Jenny Dean and Karen Diadick Casselman Guide des Teintures Naturelles by Marie Marquet The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes by Sasha Duerr Eco Colour: Environmentally Sustainable Dyes by India Flint A Dyer’s Garden: From plant to Pot. Growing Dyes for Natural Fibers by Rita Buchanan

Natural Dyes: Sources, Tradition, Technology and Science by Dominique Cardon Indigo: Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans by Jenny Balfour-Paul Fashion and Sustainability: Design for Change by Kate Fletcher and Lynda Grose Gardens featuring natural dyes in the UK London College of Fashion Dye Gardens at Mare Street & Lime Grove locations. Staff and students are more than welcome to get involved. Email Rachel Clowes, (r.clowes@ for more information. The Geffrey Museum, East London Vauxhall City Farm, SW London Horniman Museum and Gardens, SE London Chelsea Physic Garden, West London Oxford Botanic Garden, Oxford, UK

Websites and Organisations CRIT Horticole, Rochefort, France Supports the development of businesses and facilitate innovation in Europe in four areas, one of which is the use of plant dyes. The Centre for Sustainable Fashion, UAL Keep in touch via the blog and social media to find out about upcoming opportunities. centreforsustainablefashion Here Today Here Tomorrow: A London-based brand and shop co-run by Katelyn which sellsnaturally dyed pieces and runs classes. Fibershed: a non-profit organization providing experiential education to build and sustain a thriving bioregional textile culture in California. Slow Lab: a collective of Slow experiments for art and life. Plants for a Future: excellent database for finding and identifying useful plants.


Colour of Fashion Handbook  

A handbook for natural dyeing for students and educators. Natural dyes open up possibilities for a more diverse and locally derived colour p...

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