Collective Change

Botanical Dyeing

I spent last Sunday out in the middle of the island at a little finca taking part in a natural dyeing workshop. I´ve never attempted to use dye´s before, natural or synthetic, so this was a new experience and one that totally lit me up as it´s so creative and can be done at home with some basic ingredients. 

The workshop was run by Elize, who is Dutch and settled in Mallorca a few years ago. She studied textiles in Holland and spent time in Japan learning how to use natural dye´s.  The art of dyeing clothes with natural materials dates back thousands of years – archaeologists have found evidence of textile dyeing back in the Neolithic period and before the industrial age,  all cultures throughout history have turned to the natural world to dye their clothes. 

Many colours were discovered through the cooking process and the colour they left behind in the water.  Our ancestors use of wild plants, berries and seeds for medicinal purposes would of also led to the discovery of the colours they contained.  The process has remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years and thankfully, this artisan craft has been kept alive and is seeing something of a revival as we become more aware of the health and environmental impact in the production of synthetic dyes (water consumption, toxic fossil fuel by-products) and the fashion industry in general. 

So, what fabrics can you use? I went along armed with my large piece of linen which will eventually be cut and sewn into napkins, but others bought cotton bits of clothing they wanted to re-invent.  It´s best to use natural dye´s with natural fibres, the fibres can be split into two groups – cellulose (plant derived) and protein (animal) fibres, some examples of each are:

  • Plant: cotton, linen, flax, hemp, raffia, ramie and sisal
  • Animal: wool, silk, mohair, mulberry, cashmere

Now down to the fun part – the colours themselves! I imagined green would be a predominant one given the use of plants, but ironically this is one of the hardest colours to produce naturally. However, the colour spectrum is amazingly varied, and the depth and tone of the colours is really remarkable, plus they have a real tactile quality about them.  You can also mix colours – for example adding iron oxide (basically rusty water) to madder produces a beautiful soft grey but added to pomegranate it produces an earthy olive green.  Different fibres also work differently with the dyes, silks and wools pick up colour well and cotton and linens tend to work best with natural materials rich in tannins (bark & seeds).  

One of the most exciting things about dyeing naturally is that you can use your food scraps to create dye’s – at the workshop I used avocado skins to dye my piece of linen and it came out the most gorgeous shade of dusty pink.  Here are some suggestions of food waste you can use instead of throwing them in the bin or the compost heap:

  • Avocado: light peach to pink´s depending on how long you leave it in the dye bath for. Once you´ve eaten your avocado´s, clean the skins and either use them fresh or store up a load in the freezer (they will keep for about a month) and then use them. You can also use the stones. 
  • Onion: Yellow onion skins make a lovely yellow/orange colour while red onions make more of a pink/orange colour
  • Pomegranate: another one that produces a yellow colour, just use the skins, not the seeds or pith
  • Carrot leaves: those bushy bunches of green leaves can be used to create a shade of brown/yellow

There are other foods you can use – blueberries, red cabbage and beetroot for example, but the dye will not be as stable so will likely fade with lots of washing/use. 

If you want to use natural dye´s that have more fixative so will last longer, look to more traditional plant based materials such as:

  • Saffron – prized in ancient times, it will give you a deep, rich yellow 
  • Madder – this root is in the pink to brown spectrum 
  • Logwood – this bark produces deep purples, violet, blue´s, grey´s and is also the closet you will get to black naturally
  • Indigo – made from the twigs and leaves of the tree we are all familiar with the amazing tone of blue it produces (note that Indigo has a different dyeing process to other plant based materials)
  • Turmeric – bright, bold and earthy yellow from this root with orange undertones

There are of course many other seeds, roots, plants and barks you can use and I think that a fair amount of experimentation is needed to get the colours you want but in general, the longer you leave an item in its dye pot, the deeper the colour will be. You can also re-dye the next day once the item is dry if you want to play with the tones a little.

The basics you will need for home dyeing are:

  • Mordant – this word comes from the Latin word ¨Mordere¨ which means ¨to bite¨. This is your fixative to make sure the colour bites into the fabric and makes it more resistant to daylight and washing.  The most common type of mordant for animal fibres is Alum which comes in a crystal form. For plant fibres you need alum plus a tannin.
  • Tannin – think of this as your binder – it will help the dye to bind to the fabric. Historically, oak bark was used as a tannin, nowadays gall nuts or sodium acetate are a more accessible option
  • X2 large stainless steel pots, muslin cloth, sieve, stick for stirring & a digital thermometer
  • If you want to create designs in your fabric, which the Japanese call ¨Shibori¨ (most of us know this technique as tie-dye or batik) then have some elastic bands and wooden sticks ready. 
How to Home Dye:
*This is my beginners guide – if you are here on the island and want have a go  then I´d recommend checking out Elize´s upcoming workshop dates!*
  1. Weigh your fabric when it is dry
  2. Clean your fabric. This is called ¨scouring¨ and is a pre-wash to remove all dirt, grease etc. Wash your fabric at a high temperature (60 degrees) with a little pH neutral soap or soda ash
  3. Mordant the fabric. Soak your fabric in your mordant and tannin combination (depending on the type of fabric).  Heat it to 60 degrees for one hour then let it sit and cool overnight. This is where the weight of the fabric is important as you only need to add 10% of alum to the comparative weight of the fabric
  4. Prepare the dye bath. Ideally this is best done the night before to let the colours really concentrate. Put your natural material in the water and bring it to 60 degrees and boil it for an hour, then turn off the heat and let it cool completely
  5. Dye your fabric. Sieve the previously prepared dye bath through a muslin cloth to get rid of any bits and so only the coloured water remains. Take the fabric out of the mordant and add it to the dye pot.  Heat to 60 degrees for about and hour and then let it cool – again overnight if you can. Stir it whilst it is in the pot so the colour is evenly distributed
  6. Rinse the fabric. Take it out of the dye pot and rinse with cold water and a little vinegar if you want
  7. Hang to dry and viola!

If you want to keep the dye bath you made, it will last for about a week depending on the natural material used.  Add a couple of drops of clove essential oil to help preserve it.

When it comes to working out how much of a natural material you need then its roughly one kilo of fabric to half a kilo of natural material.  My piece of linen weighed 250grams needed about five to six avocado skins and stones. All the waste products from your dyeing can go down the sink or use to water your plants as it´s all natural and non-toxic – another bonus!

I feel that I´ve just started my home dyeing adventures, I love the idea of using up food waste – especially avocado´s which we eat a lot of – and I´m keen to experiment with madder root, fig leaves and pomegranate, the latter of which are in abundance here.  My linen cupboard may go from white to multi-coloured as I´m already eyeing up some old table cloths and sheets that could do with a refresh! 

You can check out Elize´s upcoming workshops on her Facebook page ´´Studio Elize´´ or her website If you want to buy mordant or any natural dyes then go to Lana y Telar. Another excellent site (based in Canada so remember import duties) is Maiwa.

Written by Clare x


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