Natural dyeing with plant (cellulose) fibers

If you’re a basic dyer like myself, you’ll be surprised to find that cotton (or flax, nettles, banana, pineapple, Tencel, and other plant fibers) are tricky to dye.

First, natural dyes are trickier than chemical dyes because you have to “mordant” the yarn/fabric before dyeing.  (Mordanting prepares the fiber to accept and hold onto the dye.)  Second, even after mordanting, plant fibers are trickier to dye than protein fibers (from animals, such as fleece and silk) because they don’t accept dye as well.

Some great instructions for natural dyeing can be found for free from Maiwa, an incredible store in Vancouver, Canada that sells clothing made in India (handspun, handwoven, handdyed) as well as materials for making anything fiber.  Earthues is also good with natural dyes.

In the Brooklyn Textile Arts Center’s dye kitchen, I experimented with dyeing plant fibers and had some wins and some losses.  Here’s some banana fiber that was supposed to be teal colored:


I scoured the fiber with soda ash, I mordanted it with alum acetate – all according to directions – and then put it in a dye pot that was very much teal colored.  Again, I followed all directions for dyeing and the fiber looked deeply teal colored.  But when I rinsed it, almost all the color ran down the drain.

Luckily, it ended up this lovely silvery color.  (Banana fiber is bright white).  But there’s an example of what many dyers kindly refer to as being surprised at their results.  Kristine Vejar, the owner of the shop A Verb For Keeping Warm, talks about how difficult it is to replicate colors consistently when using natural dyes in Felicia Lo Wong’s Sweet Georgia Yarn podcast Preserving Natural Dyeing Traditions.

That’s my extreme fail! I had other fibers that did manage to come out to the color I wanted, but in a very pale way.  Finally I hit upon a foolproof method.

Here is some nettles fiber dyed with madder root, which is supposed to give oranges, pinks, and reds, and I managed to achieve all three:


This fiber was also scoured in soda ash and mordanted in alum acetate, but after taking it out of the mordant pot I put it into a colander and let it cool down.  And then it went into a plastic bag and rested for 4 days.

When the fiber finally went into the dye bath, it soaked up every bit of color – there was almost no rinsing needed!  (I did leave it in the dye pot to cool overnight and through the following day.)  The color variations occurred because I tied the fiber into a circle using cotton string; the parts that were tightened by string came out orange and pink.  I was actually trying to create color variation!

When spun into yarn, the color variations are not noticeable but there is a depth of color and sheen that wouldn’t be present if the fiber was a solid color:

You can watch me spin it up on Facebook HERE!


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