Natural Dyeing 101

Last Sunday, I hosted a Medieval Fiber Arts day, where we explored tablet weaving and natural dyeing. Since many people have asked about the dyeing, I am providing some directions and notes for your use.

While there are numerous dyestuffs you can experiment with, I strongly recommend starting out with red cabbage. It is a cheap dyestuff, and with a few products found in your kitchen, you can modify the dyebath into a range of colors.

Embroidery threads dyed with black walnuts (the brown threads) and red cabbage (the purple, blue and green threads)

Embroidery threads dyed with black walnuts (the brown threads) and red cabbage (the purple, blue and green threads)

Supplies:

  • Alum (optional – available through many online suppliers)
  • Cream of tartar (only if using Potassium Aluminum Sulfate)
  • Red cabbage
  • Water (if you have a lot of chemicals or minerals in your water, you can purchase water, just avoid distilled water)
  • White vinegar
  • Baking soda
  • A non-reactive pot (aluminum is fine)
  • A non-reactive stirring implement (a wooden or aluminum spoon just for dyeing)
  • Fibers – fabric or yarn to be dyed (we used silk embroidery thread and bleach cotton muslin)

Terms:
Dyestuff – the product used to create the dye
Mordant – a substance or chemical that is used to help fix the dye to the material; they type of mordant determines when in the process it is used
Modifier – a substance or chemical that is used to adjust the pH of the dyebath, changing the color of the dyebath or improving the fiber’s reception of the dye (silk and wool often dye better in acidic dyebaths, whereas cotton and linen dye better in alkaline dyebaths)

Instructions

To mordant:
Red cabbage will dye fibers without adding a mordant, but the final color will not be as strong. Alum (Aluminum Sulfate or Potassium Aluminum Sulfate) is a good mordant to start with, because it can easily be obtained through many online dyeing suppliers, and because it usually has little to no effect on the color for most dyestuffs. (Note: If you are using Potassium Aluminum Sulfate, increase the amount of alum slightly and add one-third as much cream of tartar.)

First, wet your fibers. Adding the fibers while dry can cause them to take the mordant or dye unevenly. Then, fill your pot with enough water for the fibers to float freely in. For every gallon of water, dissolve 3-6 tablespoons of alum into the water. Bring the water to a low simmer. Add the wet fibers and simmer for about an hour. Remove and drain the fibers. Adding the fibers to the dyebath without allowing them to dry results in a stronger final color.

To make the dyebath:
Chop the red cabbage very coarsely and add it to the pot. Cover with water and boil for an hour. Strain the cabbage, saving the liquid and discarding the cabbage. (Alternatively, you can remove as much of the cabbage as possible from the pot and go on to dye directly in this pot, but you will inevitably end up with bits of cabbage stuck on or into your fibers.)

Pour the dyebath into the pot. If necessary, you can add more water until there is enough water for the fibers to float freely in, but adding too much water can significantly dilute the dyebath, resulting in paler colors. Bring the dyebath back to a simmer and then take it off the heat.

Modifying the dyebath:
To obtain blue dye, use the dyebath without any modifiers.
To obtain a purple dye, add white vinegar until the water begins to turn purplish-pink.
To obtain a green dye, dissolve baking soda into the dyebath until the water begins to turn teal.

To dye the fibers:
Wet the fibers again if they have dried, then add the wet fibers to the dyebath. The longer the fibers soak, the deep the color will be, but the colors do not become intense, bright colors like modern synthetic dyes.

One you have finished soaking the fibers, rinse them thoroughly, until the water runs clear again. The dye can be set with salts or Synthrapol, but for red cabbage this is usually unnecessary.

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