The basics of using natural dyes and preparing your fabrics

Dyeing your own clothes is a great project that is fairly simple to do. You can use natural materials you find in your backyard, garden or a nearby forest to create lovely earth tones for your clothes. Here are some tips and notes and the origin of dyeing and how to prepare your fabrics.

The basics of using natural dyes and preparing your fabrics

Ancient colour creation

  • In the days before the large-scale, factory ­production of cloth, exotic indigo blues and madder reds were the favourite colours of home dyers, but the raw dye materials had to be imported and were expensive.
  • Economic necessity dictated the innovative use of homegrown, home-made dyes. Dyers experimented with some commonly available garden plants and later, with native species.
  • The result was the creation of a wide range of rich or subtle colours that could be created by the amateur.
  • Then, as now, colour results varied from batch to batch; but, with luck and skilful use of dyes and mordants, the tones were rich, mellow and durable.

Preparing to dye

  • Because all fibres contain oils that keep mordants and dyes from penetrating, it is necessary to clean or scour them before starting the dye process.
  • To scour 250 grams (1/2 pound) of fibre takes about six litres (six quarts) of water. As with all dyeing procedures, soft mineral-free water is best to use. If the tap water in your area is hard, use rainwater instead or add commercial water softener to the tap water.
  • When scouring grasses, do not use any detergent or soap; simply soak them in water until they are soft.
  • For other fibres, once the water is softened, add enough of a mild detergent to make it sudsy, then immerse the yarn and gradually raise the temperature.
  • Silk should be simmered for 30 minutes and wool for 45 minutes.
  • For cotton or linen, also add 50 millilitres (¼ cup) of washing soda to the detergent solution to make the scouring bath, and boil the fibres rather than simmering them for one to two hours.
  • When scouring is completed, allow the bath to cool, then rinse the fibres in soft water until no suds remain.

After preparing your fabric, using natural dyes is as easy as soaking them overnight or longer and then giving them a rinse. Make sure to dry your fabrics after dying and wash separately a few times to make sure they don't bleed.

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