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Nature itself is plentiful in vibrant colours; from the warm brown of walnut shells, the rich green pigment in leaves, to the deep red bleeding from beetroots.
Long before chemical dyes were in use, many relied solely on nature to provide them with a wide array of colour. Thousands of years ago, colours used for dyeing were taken from animals, vegetables and minerals. With the progression of synthetic dyeing however, the use of such natural dyes has declined.
The popularity of synthetic dyes though poses problems; chiefly their toxicity when it comes to the environment and human health. Not only toxic to those who manufacture the synthetic dyes, the chemicals in them also pose adverse health effects to those who wear dyed clothes, with many ingredients such as dioxins, formaldehyde and heavy metals being known and suspected carcinogens and hormone disrupters.
Meanwhile the dye contaminated water is then expelled into waterways posing threats to flora and fauna and killing off life in concentrations high enough.
Synthetic dyes are still very popular, but the benefits of natural dyes provide a strong argument for use. Natural dyes can be renewable nontoxic resources, and are biodegradable. They adapt very well to natural fibres including linen, cotton, wool and silk, and can provide a diverse colour spectrum often even from the one colour ingredient. A downside to natural dyes is that they can be less colourfast over time as opposed to synthetic dyes, however the ease of making a dye from plants means they can simply be overdyed again. And importantly, natural dyes can easily be made from simple accessible ingredients.
To come up with an infinite array of natural colours for textile materials, you can use a number of flowers, leaves, barks, roots, spices, fruits and vegetables. For the easier to obtain yellows try saffron, onion skins (see recipe) and turmeric; red tones can be achieved through vegetables such as red cabbage and beetroot; while blues often need to be created with natural indigo extracted from plants such as Indigofera. Greens, purples, oranges and other colours are made commonly through the old principles of colour mixing – using various ingredients mixed.
Fabrics differ in the way they take up the dye as some ingredients can produce a stronger colour than others. For example, turmeric, rhubarb and onion provide the strongest colours on wool, whereas blackberry and red cabbage produce better colours on silk. Cellulose fabrics like cotton and linen don’t take up dyes as strongly.
In addition, some dyes from ingredients (such as onion skins, turmeric and tea) are easier to create than others, with some ingredients requiring what’s known as ‘mordants’. These are commonly metal minerals that are used as a binding agent to adhere both the dye and fibres of the fabric, with alum and iron considered more environmentally friendly than others such as chrome, copper and tin. Other mordants considered safer to use are cream of tartar, vinegar and plant-derived tannins.
India Flint, natural dye expert and author of Eco Colour, says that although results with natural colour are repeatable; there will always be subtle differences. “There is always something new to learn, as every plant gives some kind of colour. But that colour will be determined not only by the genus and species but also the growing location, climate, season of harvest which is very important, the quality and pH of the water used to make up the dye.” Despite all these variables, dying at home can be surprisingly easy.
An onion skin recipe
When using onions as dyes, the conditions in which you store them are vital; they are to be kept dry. You don’t have to use mordants with onion skins to create great colour. However, the upside of using mordants means a wider colour palette for you to choose from, all of which are washfast, lightfast and strong. When used with mordants, onions can provide a spectrum of rich rusty oranges and golden browns.
As mentioned earlier, the conditions in which you store onions are imperative. Onions are very sensitive to temperature and day length. Although it may appear the skins contain quite a significant amount of colour, a lot can be required for dyeing when they weight so little. Ensure too that your fabric has been cleaned before dying.
100 g unspun wool
50 g dried, brown outer onion skins
3½ to 4½ L of water
Simmer the dried onion skins in hot water for one hour. Before straining, leave the dye to steep for one hour.
Bring the wool to a simmer in the dye bath, and continue to simmer for a further hour.
Leave the dye bath to cool down until the wool is the colour you desire. Rinse the wool in warm water.
When using vegetables as dyes in your recipes, don't disregards the unused parts of some vegetable plants, as they can create vibrant colour. Carrot tops can provide warm yellows, onion skins give brassy golds, and beets or red cabbage can provide an array of colours you wouldn't expect.