My natural dyeing method

The content of this post is summed up very well in the title: it’s a description of my usual natural dyeing process. Whether you’re looking for more information than is mentioned in one of our articles, or whether you’re looking to start dyeing yourself, I hope this information helps you!

What you’ll need

  • Two stainless steel or enamel pots. Other materials may affect the dye results. And you’ll definitely want two, unless you’re willing to spread out the process over a few days.*
  • A thermometer
  • At least two glass jars. I use a large one to soak my dyestuff in and a small one for preparing the alum
  • A spoon, for stirring
  • Alum
  • A pair of tongs or another tool to remove your materials from hot water
dyeing yarn

Safety measures

  • None of the materials you use for dyeing can be used for preparing food afterwards. Keep them away from your kitchen and mark them “dye only” if necessary!
  • Do not eat or drink while you are dyeing
  • Work in a well-ventilated area and/or use the range hood
  • Wipe down all surfaces after dyeing
  • Use gloves, a respirator and an apron to protect yourself when necessary

Step 1: preparing the dyestuff

I generally work with dried bought dye materials, and most of the time, they need to be soaked in water before use. When I’m using a new type of material, I do some research as to how to prepare it for dyeing and compare some sources. Usually, I pour the material into a tall glass bottle (this one used to hold pasta sauce) and I then fill up the bottle with boiling water. This is then left at least overnight, or if I’m dyeing with a type of wood, usually for three to four days.

The evening before my dye day, I weigh the yarn, fibre or whatever material I’m going to be dyeing (from now on, this will be referred to as fibre) and write down the weight, before placing it in a bucket of cold tap water, to make sure it is thoroughly wet when I dye it.

Step 2: mordanting

When I’m ready to start dyeing, the first thing I do is prepare the mordant. So far, I have only ever used alum at 15% weight of fibre. This means that if I’m using 100 grams of fibre, I need 15 grams of alum. Keep in mind that this formula works on protein fibres (such as wool, silk and alpaca) and it will probably not work well on cellulose fibres (such as cotton, linen or other plant fibres).

While I’m waiting for the kettle to boil, I fill up the pot I’m going to mordant in with cold tap water and I measure out my powdered alum in a jar. I pour boiling water into the jar and stir until all the powder has dissolved. I then pour this water into the pot and make sure to stir well.

After that, I carefully place my fibre into this pot and turn on the stove to a medium heat. The aim is to gradually heat it up to between 80 and 90 degrees Celsius over the course of approximately half an hour, stirring regularly and carefully. It’s fine if it takes longer to get up to temperature, but you don’t want it to happen too quickly, or you may felt or otherwise damage your fibre. Once it gets hot enough, turn down the heat to low and keep it at that temperature for an hour, again stirring regularly and carefully.

Step 3: preparing the dyebath

Dyeing material in pot with pantyhose

While that pot is heating up, I prepare my dyebath. I like to place an old pantyhose over the glass jar and use this as a sieve when pouring the liquid into your second pot. This pantyhose can then be knotted and put into the pot with the liquid. I top it up with tap water (hot is fine if your dyestuff can handle it) and turn on the heat (again, high heat is fine if your dyestuff can handle it). I let it heat up to a simmer or to between 80 and 90 degrees Celsius and leave it at that temperature for an hour.*

Step 4: actually dyeing

Once my fibre has been in the mordanting bath at the right temperature for an hour and my dyebath is ready, I use a pair of tongs to transfer the fibre from one pot into the other one. This is then left in the dyebath for another hour, stirring regularly and carefully and checking the temperature to keep it in the right range. After that hour, I turn off the heat, put a lid on the pot and leave the fibre to cool down in the dyebath. I leave it overnight and rinse out the material the next day.

Step 5: rinsing out your fibre

When the dyebath has cooled (or the next day), fill up a bucket of cold water a third to halfway. Using gloves, I lift the fibre out of the dyebath and squeeze it to get rid as much liquid as possible, before placing it in the bucket. I press down against the fibre several times to get it to release the extra pigment. Replace the water when necessary and keep going until the water runs clear. Then you can remove your fibre from the water, squeeze out as much liquid as you can and hang it out to dry.

Notes

  • Usually, one dye session will not extract all the pigment from the dyebath. If you store the liquid in a cool, dark place, it will keep for up to a few weeks. This is affected by many factors, though, so it’s advisable to use your dyebath as soon as possible.
  • To reuse a dyebath, all you need to do is heat it up. If you have mordanted materials handy, you can put them in the dyebath cold and heat them up together. I do recommend stirring well beforehand, and regularly agitating the dyestuff in the pantyhose to get it to release as much pigment as possible.
*You do not need to mordant your fibre right before dyeing it, this can be done in advance. You can keep your materials wet for a few days, or you can dry it for storage and soak it in water when you’re ready to use it. It’s very possible to mordant your materials the day before you’re going to be dyeing them.
**Some dyestuffs are sensitive to heat, such as alkanna tinctoria. If you’re using one of these, you’ll want to be a bit more careful and use cold water and a low to medium heat to control the temperature of your dyebath more easily.
***An hour usually works for me, but some dyestuffs need more time to release their pigment.

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