Our natural dyes can be used to dye any natural fibres. You can use garments, fabric, yarn, unspun fleece, housewares such as napkins or tea towels and more. It should be 100% natural fibre, but can be cotton, linen, hemp, silk, wool, alpaca, mohair, etc. If your fibre has a very small amount of synthetic fibre, such as a t-shirt that is 95% cotton 5% elastine, or a sock yarn that is 95% wool, 5% nylon, it will still dye without much noticeable difference. However, if it has a higher synthetic content, such as a 50/50 cotton/polyester blend, it will greatly affect the colour. Only the cotton, or natural fibres, will dye, and the synthetic won't. In general, this will result in significantly paler shades.
Most commercially produced fibres, whether fabric, garment or housewares, are treated with a chemical sizing to help resist staining. Unfortunately this sizing may also repel the dyes themselves. This is why it is very important to wash all your fibres before dyeing them, and this is especially true for cotton, which may also contain natural waxes and pectins.
Heavier fabrics such as canvas tend to be very tightly woven and contain a lot of sizing. We don't recommend these for dyeing, at least not as a beginner.
We often get asked if It is possible to dye very large items, such as a sheet set or a duvet cover. It is indeed possible, but as a beginner this may present challenges. If you are aiming to dye the sheets all one colour, solid, with no variegations, it will be especially challenging as you will need vessels that are large enough that there is enough room for the fabric to move around freely in the vessel. For the Natural Dye Kit, these vessels will need to be something in which you can heat or cook the dyes. For the Indigo Kit, it may be simpler, as you can use a large plastic bucket, but again, if you would like it to be evenly dyed, it will be a challenge. If you are planning to do some kind of tie dye, it will be more possible, but keep in mind that you will likely only be able to acheive quite pale shades.
All four kits that we sell are all different processes, and you'll need different things for each one.
For the Indigo Kit you'll need:
- a bucket or large vessel, ideally one that can hold around 15-20 litres. It doesn't have to be anything fancy - I usually just use a cheap plastic bucket with a handle from the hardware store. But you can also use a rubbermaid or a canning pot.
- a second bucket or vessel that you can drip into. This one can be smaller
- something to stir with - can be a big metal or wooden spoon, or even just a stick
- rubber or latex gloves (optional, but if you opt out, you'll have blue hands)
- items to dye - can be fabric, yarn, fleece, roving, garments, housewares, anything as long as it's natural fibre
For the Natural Dye Kit you'll need:
- a cooking pot that you can cook the dyes in
- a strainer or some cheesecloth that you can use to strain the dyes
- a bowl or something to strain the dye extract into
- a spoon or something to stir with
- items to dye - can be fabric, yarn, fleece, roving, garments, housewares, anything as long as it's natural fibre
For the Clay Resist Kit:
- a measuring cup for liquids
- a regular or immerision/hand blender
- something to apply the clay paste with - it can be stencils, paint brushes, silk screens, lino cuts, wood blocks, etc
- an indigo vat to dye the resisted fabric in
- fabric to print on. It can be any natural fibre, but we recommend something without too much texture. Coloured or previously dyed fabric works as well. If your fabric is yellow, for example, it will remain yellow where you apply the paste, and will become green where it mixes with the blue from the indigo vat.
For the Blockprinting Kit:
- a measuring cup for liquids
- a whisk or hand blender
- something to apply the dye paste with - it can be stencils, paint brushes, silk screens, lino cuts, whatever you would do another kind of block printing with
- two buckets for the fixing and reducing agents - can be anything at all - plastic, metal, etc
- things to print on - I recommend plain cotton fabric. It can be white or coloured.
Our Indigo Kit comes with the pre-measured ingredients to create one organic indigo vat, and how much you can dye with the vat depends on a few things, most notably what you are dyeing, how dark you want the shade of blue to be, and how you work. As a ballpark, you should be able to dye at least a pound of fibre (the equivalent of 3-4 metres of lightweight fabric, 4-5 large skeins of yarn, or 4-5 adult t-shirts) and likely more.
With indigo, you build your colour up through repeated dips in the vat. So if you want pale colours you can dye more things, as you're doing fewer dips. If you want darker colours, you will be able to dye less things, as each item requires more dips.
The shade of blue that you are able to acheive will also depend on several factors, such as what the fibre is, if it has sizing on it (many things do!) and if it is old or new.
The natural dye kit contains the pre-measured ingredients to dye 125-150g of fibre in each of the four dyes included, for a total of 500-600g of fibre (125g in each of the 4 colours). You can use fabric, yarn, small garments, housewares such as napkins, unspun fleece or roving, and more - it is up to you.
125g is roughly the equivalent of 1 metre of lightweight fabric, such as a quilting cotton.
Balls of yarn are usually either 50g or 100g and are generally marked with their weight.
A women's t-shirt is roughly 100-125g, a children's t-shirt is around 75g, and a baby onesie around 50g.
A lightweight (not heavy canvas) tote bag is around 75g
You don't need to have a scale to use our kit - the size and weight of your fibre doesn't have to be exact, just use the above guidelines to roughly determine the weight of your fibre - If you dye slightly more than the recommended amount, your colours will just come out paler (keeping in mind that natural dyes tend to be pale as it is, especially on cotton) and if you dye slightly less, your shades will be darker, or more saturated.
Each Blockprinting kit makes 100ml (a little less than half a cup) of paste. How far that paste will go depends on the design and how you apply it - you can keep printing until the pigment paste runs out, but how fast that happens will vary greatly based on what you're printing with and how much positive/negative space there is in your design. For example, if you're using a silk screen to print and there is a lot of "open space" on your screen (as in lots of blue being printed) you'll use the pigment up quite quickly. But if you're printing with wood blocks or lino cuts, and the design is relatively fine, the paste will stretch very far. So it really could be anywhere from 1-6 metres, but a good average would be that it's possible to print around 2-3 metres.
The other additives in the kit, which are used to fix the dye and reduce the indigo, are used to make a bath in which you soak your printed fibres. If you manage to print a lot of yardage, you can re-use the additive baths over and over until all of your pieces have been through them.
An indigo vat is a kind of fermentation process, similar to things sourdough or kombucha. So it is possible to keep some types of vats going for a few weeks, even years, but like a sourdough, this is something that takes time and experience to get good at, and like a sourdough, you also need to feed the vat more of the raw ingredients.
The kit that we sell is intended for beginners, and meant to be used over the course of a few days, or maybe a week. Once your vat is active it should easily stay active for at least 3 days (and likely more), with very little done to it - we recommend that you stir it once a day, in a whirlpool motion. You'll know it's active if the liquid stays green, and you will likely see signs of an "indigo flower", a kind of slightly metallic looking foam on the top. When you're not using it, the vat can be left in the vessel that you're dyeing in, with a cover of some kind, and ideally in a place that's not too cold.
Once you start using your vat, it will begin to lose it's potency, both because the indigo that is in it will be taken up by the fibres your dyeing, and also because as you dye you will be re-introducing some oxygen into the liquid, which is unavoidable, but something that you want to keep to a minimum if you're wanting to keep it going. This is why you want to wet your fibres out before you put them in, and squeeze out any air bubbles, why you want to move things around gently while they're in the vat, and why you have a second vessel to drip into when you take your item out of the vat - if you drip directly into the vat, you're just adding oxygen and the vat won't last as long.
It's generally best to work slowly with an indigo vat - do your dips slowly, over the course of a full day or a couple of days, rather than looking at it as something you're doing in a 2 hour slot. It doesn't matter how much time passes between dips. It needs to be at least 10 minutes, but it can also be 2 hours or more. Ultimately, everyone works in a different way - some folks are delicate, gentle workers and some folks move quickly and tend to be splashy and create lots of bubbles, no matter how hard they try. And we have discovered that you can't really fight against people's essential nature! But if you move slowly and more carefully, your vat will last longer. If you're dyeing smaller items, it will also last longer.
We recommend thinking of your first vat as a learning experience and not to be too attached to how long it will last. Once you have a the experience, you may want to experiment with different types of vats that are better suited to being kept "alive" such as a Ferrous Vat.
As you work, the indigo in the vat will slowly get "used up" or your vat will eventually become "inactive", or both. Experienced dyers will test the pH of their vat and feed the vat more of the raw ingredients accordingly. However our beginner kit is designed to be used within a week or so, and the type of vat that it is (fructose) is not the most suited to being kept going for longer.
The easiest way to tell if your vat is still active is to put a scrap of white fabric or fibre into the vat. It should come out green, as in your first dips of your first pieces. If it does not, your vat is inactive. And if it does, but the blue that it turns is very very pale, it is likely that your vat has not enough indigo left in it to continue dyeing.
Our indigo kit is an organic vat and so the liquid can safely be disposed of down a residential drain, or poured into soil. The pH of the vat is very alkaline, so you may want to oxidize it back towards neutral by vigorously stirring and sloshing it about until the liquid turns back blue. For many folks, this will have happened already during the dyeing process.
While indigo doesn't require that your fabric is mordanted, there is no adverse reaction it if it has been.
So if you have leftover fabric from your Natural Dye Kit that was mordanted, you can dye it in the indigo with no trouble at all.
In fact, if you're planning on overdyeing (i.e. you can take some of your blue dyed fabric and dye it in leftover osage to get green) it's even useful that it's already been mordanted. More information on overdyeing can be found here.
Mordanting is the process of adding a soluble metal to the fibre, which aids the dye in adhering to the fibre.
Almost all natural dyes are not substantive and require the use of a mordant. The most common mordant is alum (potassium aluminum sulfate) a food safe ingredient that used in pickling, which gives a clear bright shade. Another common mordant is iron, which darkens or "saddens" the shades.
Cochineal, Osage, Logwood and Madder all require the use of a mordant.
If you are dyeing cellulose or plant fibres such as cotton, you also need to pre-treat your fibre with a substance that is high in tannins. Our favourite is gallnut, which leaves the fibres clear and bright.
If you are using a protien or animal fibre such as wool or silk, you need the metal mordant (such as cotton), but you can skip the tannin step.
If you are dyeing with indigo, your fibres do not need to be mordanted. However, indigo is also not substantive and must be dyed by creating a vat, using an alkali and a reducing agent.
We sell three beginner natural dye kits, and two of them can indeed be used for tie dyeing. However, it is a different process with many more steps than with synthetic dyes, where you just squirt the dyes on.
Indigo is the traditional dye used with Shibori, which is the Japanese art of resist dyeing. If you google shibori, you'll see all sorts of examples, including methods where you use stitch resist, clamps and shapes (itajime), wrapping things around poles (arashi) and more. Many of these methods are very simple and there are a plethora of tutorials online. Indigo is a great fit for resist dyeing because the fabric goes in and out of the vat for relatively short amounts of time, so there is not much time for the dye to seep in behind the resists. However, it is only one colour - blue.
If you want more colours, you can use our Natural Dye Kit to do resist dyeing, but bear in mind that the dyes in this kit (and most natural dyes other than indigo) need to be heated, and need to stay in the dyebath much longer - at least 45 minutes. The combination of time and heat means that the dyes are more likely to seep in behind the resists, and it is harder to get pure white areas (though not impossible - your resists just have to be super tight!) Furthermore, each of the four colours in this kit is applied separately. So it's not as straightforward as synthetic dyes, where you can apply many colours all at once. But the results of tie dyeing with natural dyes can be extraordinarly beautiful, if less predictable.
We did some experimenting with creating strong dye extracts with our kit, then squirting them directly onto the fabric, and then steaming it all together. We had some great results, and you can read more about our process and see some photos here: https://www.juliesinden.com/blogs/natural-dye-tips-and-tutorials/tie-dyeing-with-natural-dyes
One important thing I would say is that if you are planning to try this method, and would like to leave a lot of white showing on your fabric, then only soak your fibres for 1 hour in the gallnut solution, not overnight, as a long soak will deepen the colours, but it can sometimes also alter the base colour of the fabric to a light beige. When you are covering the whole fabric in colour, this doesn't matter, as the beige will all get covered, and in fact will only serve to deepen and enhance the shade. But if you want some white left showing, it will be more beige than white.
We encourage you to experiment! Beautiful results can be acheived with supplies as simple as elastics. Keep in mind that you're a beginner, and don't have too clear of an idea of what you want the finished piece to look like. If you have a very specific look you want for a specific piece of cloth or garment, I would practise on something that is less precious to you first. Have fun, experiment and play - the unexpected results are often the best ones.
You can take off your resists as soon as you have done your final dips in the indigo vat, and before you let the fibre oxidize for the final 24 hours.
If you're doing simple and random resists such as elastics, you can leave them on from the first dip right through to the last, or you can experiment by taking them off in between dips and putting them back on in different formations. This way you get some areas that stay white, and some that have different amounts of dips, which results in varying shades of blue.
With indigo you create a "vat" so all three ingredients are mixed together at once in around 15L of water, and you dip your fibres in. The short answer is that you can indeed use only half of the ingredients in each of the packets and mix it in half the amount of water.
The longer answer is that if you do this, you'll have a fairly small vat, so you'd only be able to dye smaller items, as there needs to be enough water so that your items have a bit of room to move around in the vat. Using only half the indigo also means that your vat will be quite weak, and you will only be able to achieve very pale blues.
Cochineal is very sensitive to changes in ph, so if your colour came out purple, it usually means that your water is a little bit alkaline. It's one of the fun parts of cochineal - that you can shift the colours all the way from pink to red to orange to purple, but also means that (especially as a first time dyer) you don't know what you're going to get.
You can shift the colour a little bit after it's dyed by putting it in a bucket of water that has a couple of glugs of vinegar in it - you should see it shift a bit more towards pink.
But for dramatic shifts in colour, you need to add the acid or alkaline at the time of making the extraction - once there is a base colour on the fibre, it's harder to change completely.
If you are aiming for pink and red shades rather than purple, put a glug of white vinegar or the juice from a lemon or lime in with the ground insects the first time you go to make your extraction.
Iron rich water will also have an effect on cochineal, shifting it to purple. If you are on well water and know that your water has iron (even in trace amounts), you may want to use spring or rainwater for your dyeing.
The end shade of naturally dyed items is determined by many variables:
- what kind of fibre content the item is (ie, if your item has some synthetic content, it will result in a paler shade, and silk and wool tend to come out darker than plant fibres like cotton
- if the item is old or new (something that has been washed a lot of times will take the dye more readily as the fibres will have begun to break down somewhat, and so the dye can penetrate very easily)
- whether it has sizing on it (many things, especially garments and housewares like napkins, are coated in a type of chemical sizing to resist staining - unfortunately this also has the effect of resisting the dye somewhat). If you're aiming for dark shades, and your items are brand new, you definitely want to wash your things very very well before dyeing them - I would run them through the machine more than once even
When using an indigo vat, you build your colour up through repeated dips - so for darker shades you need to dip many times - as many as 10 or more.
With other natural dyes, for darker shades, you need to use more dye.
With our Natural Dye Kit, you can dye items in shades of pink, yellow, purple and orange. However, if your water is hard, or very alkaline, your cochineal samples may come out more purple than pink. To make sure that your colour is red/pink, add a glug of vinegar or the juice from a lemon or lime with the ground insects when you first make your extract.
For the green, you need to take one of your pieces of yellow dyed fabric, and overdye it in the indigo vat. The yellow plus the blue will make green.
All cellulose fibres such as cotton need to be treated with a substance that is high in tannins, before the mordant step. And unfortunately almost all tannins will leave at least a small amount of colour on your fibres, usually a brown/beige/pale red shade.
We use gallnut in our kits, because we find that it is the tannin that leaves the least amount of colour. But it will still leave a little. With gallnut, it tends to be beige, and it is much more likely to happen if you leave it overnight. This is not a problem, as the dye colours that you add to the fibre later are much stronger and will completely cover it. But if you are doing tie dye and want to leave a bit of white showing, you are better off soaking the item for only 1 hour, rather than overnight. It will still shift colour slightly, but much less noticeably, and once the colour is on, you won't notice it at all You can still leave it to soak in the alum overnight - that step will not change the colour.
But rest assured, you did not do anything wrong! The beige colour will be easily covered up by the dye colours, and usually serves to enhance and deepen the shades in a beautiful way.
It's recommended that you wind any yarn into hanks before you dye it. This helps the dye to penetrate evenly, and most importantly, keeps the yarn from getting tangled.
You can find a tutorial on how to make hanks here: www.marthastewart.com/1538644/how-hand-wind-yarn-ball-hank-skein
You can also knit your item up first, and then dye it.
All of our dyes are sold dried and/or powdered, and have a very long shelf life if kept stored in a cool, dry place.
All of our kits come with comprehensive instructions, geared towards a beginner dyer.
Our bulk dyes are intended for experienced dyers, or folks who have other resources to teach them how to dye.
We have an archive of our newsletters, which contain small tutorials and tips on natural dyeing, that you can find here.