Tie Dyeing with Natural Dyes

One of the questions I get asked the most over email is whether it's possible to use our beginner natural dye kits for tie dye.  The short answer is yes!  The longer answer is.....    Well, it's still yes, it's just that it's not quite a straightforward as using synthetic dyes.  But it's still incredibly fun, and the results (in my opinion) are so much more beautiful than with chemical dyes.

The first big difference is there are quite a few more steps involved with natural dyes.  But it's also possible to spread the steps out, and do the prep work ahead of time, which is a good idea especially if you're planning to do the tie dyeing with kids, as I was.

The other big difference with using natural dyes is that they need to be set onto the fibres with heat.  Usually, this means submerging the fibres in a liquid dye bath, and heating it for around 45 minutes to an hour.  But for tie dye, this means it's also harder to control where the dye goes, and harder to retain areas of white.  I've done lots of dyeing where I'll just use a small amount of dye liquid, scrunch my fabric up and bind it with elastics, and then cook it one bath, then move it to another bath to cook for a different colour.  I have achieved gorgeous results this way, but the colours do blend together quite a bit, and I also didn't end up with as much white as I wanted.  So I wanted to experiment with using our kit to tie dye in a more "traditional" way, using bottles full of dye liquid to squirt the dyes on where I wanted them, then heating the fibres by steaming after the fact.  And I'm happy to say that it was a success!  Below is my step by step.....

One major note I will point out before you begin.  If you are using our Natural Dye Kit, in the instructions it says to put your fibres in the gallnut solution and "let soak for at least 1-2 hours, stirring occasionally.  Leaving overnight will result in deeper colours."  However, gallnut, as with all tannins, will sometimes leave a base colour on the fibre.  With gallnut, it tends to be beige, and it is much more likely to happen if you leave it overnight.  Normally, 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.

The first step is to tannin and mordant your items.  I put together a collection of items - 2 kids t-shirts, 2 tote bags, a set of 6 napkins and one light cotton shawl.  All together it weighed around 550g, which was perfect, as our Natural Dye Kit contains enough to dye around 500-600g of fibre.

I soaked the washed fibres in the gallnut solution for one hour, then into an alum mordant bath for one hour, then rinsed and hung everything to dry, so that it would be ready for the next day. 

Meanwhile, I made my dye extracts, cooking and straining each of the four packets of dye (cochineal, logwood, osage and madder) separately.    I used very small amounts of water for each extraction, so that it would be quite concentrated.  I also did this step the day before, and just kept my extracts in mason jars, all ready to go.  

And now for the fun part.  We did some basic folding, tying and binding, using just elastics, string, some marbles and clothespins.  In my Indigo Class, we get all fancy and use clamps and poles and sewing to do different types of shibori, but this was more of a summer fun experiment, so we kept it simple.  We squirted the dyes directly onto the fabric, in some cases being careful to keep the dyes separate, and on other pieces we just went for it and squeezed and squirted the dye all over the place.

Then we heat set!  I steamed for about 45 minutes, using a big canning pot which had the metal piece that usually holds the canning jars in there, as well as one of those inexpensive collapsible metal vegetable steamers on top.  That way the fabrics sat above the water, but were not saturated by it.  We ended up doing a whole second set of napkins (cause we were having so much fun) and so I steamed in two batches - for the first batch I did the pieces that were a little more wild, which I was less concerned with them bleeding onto each other, and just kind of piled them up in there.  The second batch I kept the pieces quite separate, not touching each other, as I was hoping to maintain the separation of the colours, and the white spaces.  And I'm glad to say it worked!   For the first batch, many of the pieces came out quite purple, since our logwood bath was quite strong, and it bled a bit and overpowered the weaker yellow and orange from the osage and the madder.  But for the second batch, where I kept the pieces all separate and not touching, I was able to maintain both the yellow and orange shades, as well as lots of white.

The unbinding part is also super fun - we were all gathered around oohing and aahing as we revealed each piece of fabric, one at a time.  Then we rinsed and hung to dry.  Time will tell if steaming the fabrics leaves the dyes as colourfast as cooking them straight in the pot.  But for me, for this type of project, it doesn't really matter.  It was such a fun activity, and we purposefully didn't dye anything precious - the shirts will end up with ice cream on them, the napkins will end up being used to mop up a spill during dinner, and they will continue to evolve and change.  And if they do begin to fade over time, we'll just overdye them again! 

Next time we do it, we're going to use the Rainbow Dye Bundle, which will add some indigo to the mix.  That way we can get some blue in there, and some green where it overlaps with our yellow.  And if my 6 year old has anything to say about it, next time is going to be very soon......

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