Naturally Dyeing Fabric: My First Experience

This past weekend I went to a naturally dyeing fabric workshop. This has been on my bucket list for years! I’ve wanted to learn about natural dyes and start incorporating them into my quilts but have been really overwhelmed with the information currently available. I’ve gotten every book from the library and read them all, but each book told me how to mordant the fabric differently, using different mordants, and treat with tannins, or a wheat bran bath, or soy milk, or, or… the list went on and on. And quite frankly, it was really overwhelming and frustrating. I didn’t want to waste a whole bunch of fabric.

So, when I saw this natural dyeing workshop/retreat pop up 2.5 hours from home, I signed up immediately! The workshop covered naturally dyeing fabric with available plants as well as eco-printing on paper.

Gathering Sumac Berries for dyeing
Prepping marigolds for dyeing

Over the course of the weekend, I had all my questions answered and more. I learned how to mordant fabric, and because I came overly prepared with my own yardage, I was able to spend some time after dinner the first evening mordanting my fabric to take home and continue experimenting.

In the workshop we learned how to prepare dyes and went out foraging near the retreat studio for available plants. I realized that there are some plants that are in my own neighborhood and I hadn’t even realized it (like sumac!). There were some dye baths that were prepared ahead of time for us to use as well. We dyed with:

  • False Indigo
  • Wild Grape
  • Walnut
  • Eucalyptus
  • Goldenrod
  • Juniper Berries
  • Marigold
  • Pokeweed
  • Hibiscus
  • Basil
  • Mint

In addition, there were several modifiers available for us to play with:

  • Copper Sulfate
  • Iron Sulfate
  • Wood Ash
  • Soda Ash
  • Vinegar
The modifiers: each one will alter the color of your dyed fabric
Fabric dyed prior to rinsing. While the wild grape stayed purple on wool, it turned blue on my cotton fabric!

Day one was learning to prepare dyes and dyeing with available dyes in the area. We dyed fabric and yarn and were able to use the modifiers if we wished. Some dyes worked better than others, and in a workshop with lots of people, some things were a bit more chaotic than I would have liked. (Dye pots boiled and lost their colors, others never got warm enough, others got overloaded with fabric, etc.) However, I generally got the idea of what I would have to do at home in order to achieve different colors.

Goldenrod, picked at the end of the season, giving off a golden brown instead of vivid yellow
Cutting eucalyptus leaves to create a dye bath
So many dye baths!
Adding fabric and wool to the Juniper Berries dye bath
Fabrics and wool hanging out to dry. Isn’t the view beautiful?
View from the studio door.
False Indigo. It gave a bright green dye.

Here are the results from the weekend. All the fabrics and wool have been rinsed thoroughly until the water ran clear. As you can tell, the animal fiber (wool) retained colors much better than cotton did. Also, weirdly, all the grape and hibiscus cottons turned blue! It was fun to see the final results.

Wool from left to right: Pokeweed modified with wood ash, Eucalyptus, Goldenrod, Hibiscus, and Wild Grape
From left to right: Hibiscus, Pokeweed re-dyed in Hibiscus and modified with Copper Sulfate, Wild Grape, and Wild Grape modified with Copper Sulfate
Left Column, going down: Goldenrod, Juniper Berries, Eucalyptus, Basil
Right Column, going down: Mint, False Indigo, Coneflower modified with ?? (I can’t remember if it was iron sulfate or copper sulfate!), Walnut

Day 2: Eco Printing

Day two of the workshop was eco-printing on fabric and paper. We went out foraging again, this time for flowers and leaves we could pound into fabric or steam onto fabric.

We used mordanted fabric, layered with plants that we first dipped in an iron sulfate solution, rolled it up and steamed it for 90 minutes.

I used goldenrod, eucalyptus leaves, and sumac leaves
Here’s the after! The sumac leaves look amazing!

We also did something similar with mordanted watercolor paper – layering dipped plants between wet paper and tiles and steaming those for 90 minutes.

We also experimented with pounding flowers directly onto mordanted paper and t-shirts. Mine turned out a little… messy. Ha!

The results of this eco printing was really, really cool. I thought I’d be more interested in Day 1, and solid colors on fabric, but I ended up really loving the results of my eco-printed fabric. The paper was cool too, and would be a great activity with kids, but I generally don’t have a use for the paper so it was less interesting to me.

Overall, I’m so glad I went to the workshop. I learned a lot and it gave me the confidence to keep naturally dyeing fabric at home. A lot of things in nature make yellow and brown (like, A LOT) so I’m looking forward to diving into what can produce additional colors, learning how to get an even color application, and testing the colorfastness of the dyed fabrics I produce.

I’m hoping to use the fabrics I made in the workshop to create a small quilt or project. I think a Nordic Star block to turn into a pillow would be fun with some of the yellows and greens, or a Misty Mountains wall hanging with the blues.

I’m going to experiment at home in the next few months with avocado pits, goldenrod (which I picked earlier in the season and froze), juniper berries and sumac berries/leaves. I’ll keep you all posted! I’m also going to invest in some dried dye stuff from Botanical Colors for plants that don’t grow nearby (madder, logwood, osage and cochineal [which is an insect]) and see what I can produce from those.

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