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A few weeks ago Jamie, Martyna and I decided to try a little DIY project of our own. Inspired by a book we recently received in the office, India Flint’s Eco Colour, we embarked on a eco dyeing adventure in my tiny apartment in Brooklyn. For our project we decided to focus on three different types of dyeing: fruit-based, onion skin and flower smashing. These are three of the easiest techniques and a good starting point to try your hand at eco-conscious dyeing.

India’s book goes into much more detail and is great for those of you who want to expand your knowledge and play around with plant-based dyeing. The book also offers some beautiful pictures of her results which are, needless to say, much more professional looking than our own. However, if you’re looking for a fun weekend project you can tackle with friends (it’s also a great way to keep kids occupied for the afternoon!), read on to get the instructions and check out the results of our DIY experiments!

Fruit Dyeing

The first dyeing technique we tackled was using fruit. India’s book recommends the following fruits for cold berry dyes:

Raspberries
Mulberries
Elderberries
Blueberries
Cherries
Blackberries

After further internet research, I read that plums also offer a nice pinkish/purple color for dyeing so we opted for those. For fruit-based dyes you want to make sure to fix your fabric first in either a salt or vinegar bath. Here are the supplies you will need to get started:

Water
Salt or Vinegar (we used salt for this one)
Measuring Cup
Plastic Strainer
Natural Fabric (silks work best as they absorb the most color – however linen and cotton are also suitable choices. We used muslin left over from one of Jamie’s sewing projects)
Cooking Pot (make sure you are using pots that you are ok with destroying – you may or may not be able to use them again after this experiment!)
Berries (we ended up using the skin of about 6 plums)

Start by bringing 1/2 cup of salt and 8 cups of cold water to a boil in a large pot (or if you choose to use vinegar: 4 parts cold water to 1 part vinegar). This is your fix and you will start by boiling your fabric in the fix for approximately 1 hour. While your fabric is boiling away you can start on your plum dye. Dump your plum skins (or berries) in another pot with water – you can adjust the amount of water based on how intense you want your color and also how large your piece of fabric is – and simmer for around an hour.

Once your fabric has been in the fix for an hour, rinse thoroughly with cold water and ring out excess. Strain your plum dye into a separate bowl and place fabric into dye. You can submerge the whole piece or even wrap or tie it up to get a cool tie-dye/shibori print. Lately I’ve been inspired by dip-dyeing and decided I wanted to try to achieve the same effect with this project – so we chose to only place the ends of our fabric (about 10 inches or so) into the dye.

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The Inspiration: tee by Future Sentiments, jacket by Dries Van Noten.

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The Process: our attempt at dip dyeing with plum skins.

India recommends leaving your fabric in the dye for around 3 days (she submerges hers in a tightly sealed jar), while other recipes said a few hours would do the trick. We ended up leaving ours in the dye for around 3 hours and achieved a nice magenta-ish pink. Doing this a second time around, we probably would have opted for plain white cotton or silk, as we think the muslin might have distorted the depth of color we achieved.

Onion Skins

The second dyeing technique we took on was using onion skins. This one is so simple and requires nothing more than the skin of a few onions, vinegar and fabric. Here are the supplies you’ll need:

Red, Yellow or Brown onions (just the skins!)
Vinegar
Fabric (once again India recommends using silk – but we opted for more of Jamie’s left over muslin!)
Spray Bottle
Trash Bag
Extra Fabric for Ties
Plastic Snap Lock/Freezer Bag

This technique lets you bring out your inner artist! Lay out a large plastic trash bag and place your fabric on top. Lay out your onion skins in whatever pattern you choose – it can be random or you can try making different images or shapes. Once you have all your pieces of onion skin in place fill your spray bottle with vinegar and moisten the fabric and skins. You don’t want to soak the fabric, just spray enough to start to draw the color out of the skins.

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The Process: our onion pattern.

Start at one end and begin rolling up your fabric with the onions inside. We lightly spritzed with vinegar as we rolled. Once you have your fabric rolled up into a sausage shape make sure to moisten the outside with a little more vinegar, then take extra strips of fabric and begin to tie up the bundle.

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Place your bundle into a plastic ziplock bag and stash in a cool, dry place for about a week. Once you’ve opened your bundle you can unroll and remove the skins and allow to sit for another couple of days so the rest of the color can fix to the fabric. Afterward, Jamie ran ours through a quick hand rinse to remove any lingering vinegar smells. For this technique India suggests giving a final spray with a protein-rich post mordant – like a mixture of egg whites beaten in water – to bring out the greens and browns. We stuck with the regular method without the post mordant and got a series of cool brownish-reds and yellows.

Flower Smashing

This was by far the most fun and the results were not only instant but so pretty! You don’t need much to accomplish this technique either, here’s the short list of supplies:

Rubber Topped Mallet
Flowers and Leaves (stick with varieties that are moist and vibrantly colored – we chose irises, and a few tiny yellow and reddish-pink buds, along with some large green leaves)
2 Plastic Trash Bags
Fabric (we used a super thin cotton)

A few crafters suggest fixing your fabric in an alum/baking soda mixture for up to 8 hours. You can also fix with vinegar. If you choose to do a fix before you start to smash, try this one courtesy of glitter soup 101.

For this one we skipped the fixing and got straight to the smashing! We recommend that you do this on a surface that can take a beating – ie: not your brand new hardwood floor – we opted for a big, empty sidewalk space outside of Jamie’s apartment. Start by laying out a large plastic trash bag, place an old towel on top and then your fabric. Place your flowers in desired pattern and lay the second trash bag on top.

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Hold down the edges of the top plastic bag tight (you can have friends or family jump in to help out, or place heavy books on the corners of the bag) and begin pounding the fabric from one end to the other. You can periodically lift up the bag to check your results as you go. Once you are finished you can shake off the excess flower pieces and marvel at your awesome new print! This would also be fun to try with stationary – making your own notecards or postcards with thick paper.

All Finished:

Here are our three projects side by side. Which one is your favorite?

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I attempted to steam the finished projects before we took this picture and unfortunately ended up diluting some of the color, especially on the plum dyed fabric. I suppose I should have taken India’s advice and let the dye sit for a few days! Or used more fix!

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What we know for next time:

Use silk in a bright white color – the muslin we used for this project may have distorted some of the colors and caused them not to appear as vibrant as they might have on a bright white. And according to India Flint, the natural colors adhere to silk better than any other fabric.

Allow fabric to sit in the the berry dye for longer. India suggested 3 days, we let it sit for 3 hours. Longer dyeing time equals more vibrant colors (that hopefully won’t disappear after a quick steaming!)

Let the colors of the onion skins cure a bit more before washing. Once again this is a matter of letting the colors sit for longer to get the best possible effect, in this case the best pattern from the skins. Also it would be cool to try a post-mordant next time around to see what other colors we can bring out.

Anyone else have any tips or techniques for eco-friendly dyeing? Share with us what has worked best for you!

38 Comments

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    Oct 11, 2011, 04.28 AMby piecesofanarnia

    I know I’m late, but this is SO EFFING COOL!

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    Aug 8, 2011, 08.57 PMby alexus1325

    Wow! Love the results of the flower smashing! It looks like a watercolor print! I so totally want to try that!

    It’s a good thing I have some alum, because I agree that the results would be far from permanent without some sort of fixative. So many flowers are in bloom right now, and many plants are fully fruited here in northern Ontario. I have blueberries, choke cherries, and raspberries all over the place!

    For the person curious about getting a nice green, I read that the flower of queen anne’s lace (wild carrot) produces a bright yellow-green.

  • Missing

    Jul 29, 2011, 01.49 PMby mnr

    I think juicier flowers like bleeding hearts, snapdragons and fushia would create a strong dye. To get strong greens, maybe an experiment with jade and other dark succulent houseplants would be in order. For that matter, I wonder what lovely designs smashing beats on fabric would create.

    My favorite is the flower smash. I think you ladies were really onto something with that fabric.

    I just want to know how long it lasts before washing out and being faded. (Once properly cured.) Will it last for a dozen washes, or years worth of washes? Will ironing bake it in faster? Silk is expensive. I think I like that you did it on a cotton base fabric.

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    Jul 27, 2011, 08.44 PMby Clara Nelson

    Thanks so much for this!! I was just thinking about dyeing some fabric the other day…but wasn’t quite sure how. This is perfect!!

  • Missing

    Jul 27, 2011, 07.41 PMby lemon

    Wow, great ideas. Here in Jordan or Egypt, there is a summer drink that made from dried hibiscus flowers. I think it will be a great idea to make a dye and also should be good for natural food colouring .

  • Holy_large

    Jul 27, 2011, 01.45 PMby tungufoss

    I’ve tried out colouring yarn with Kool-Aid and Wilton cake-color dyes with great success. I posted the technique here on Burdastyle under “Don’t take a sip of the kool-aid; it’s to dye for”.

  • Missing

    Jul 27, 2011, 01.33 PMby abcameo

    I love the look of ombre fabrics, where they’re dark on bottom/light on top, and have always wanted to try it using regular RIT dye. What I don’t like is the idea of dye staining my big pots while soaking and then my washing machine when rinsing it out.

  • Missing

    Jul 27, 2011, 08.01 AMby pollyjane

    Thank you for an inspiring article. I find the usual stuff about dyeing very off-putting, and you signpost all the probable difficulties of your method very clearly by being honest about your results and recommendations. This reminded me why I enjoy you so much – real articles by real, talented human beings!

    1 Reply
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    Jul 27, 2011, 06.10 AMby kraftykatina

    I love the flower prints!

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    Jul 27, 2011, 12.03 AMby CarolineAl

    I have to ask why its even worth doing this when the colour is fugitive? There are much easier ways of getting colour into wool and silk that are permanent without using nasty chemicals, and there are several brands of eco-friendly dyes now that will do cottons. Vinegar has never been a mordant or fixative for cotton, though salt can be used. Paula Burch has an excellent website on dyeing, and an article from her would help those who want to try dyeing and give them good results instead of something so transient. I notice one of these posts was from someone putting on a fashion parade – any customers buying her so-called “dyed” goods will not be impressed when the colour vanishes. This may be fun, but its irresponsible and possibly lays you open to being sued if people expect things to be permanently dyed, and they are not.

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    Jul 26, 2011, 08.40 PMby olg

    great post. Thanks! Q: did anyone try to use ‘beetroot’ in tranches – to create red circles? I love the color (and taste :)) of this vegetable. Any tips?

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    Jul 25, 2011, 05.47 PMby yesicap416

    i have a fashion show coming up and i will most deff try yo make my own patterns using these techniques !

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    Jul 25, 2011, 02.18 AMby bastor

    I like the three techniques, I would try the onion technique with some silk fabrics I do possess now, since I am working on sustainable projects. This could be some important thing to do and get some creative ideas I have already in my head. Bravo!!! for the three of you ladies. Keep posting DIY techniques. Love the idea of natural dying.

  • Mlonghs_large

    Jul 24, 2011, 09.04 PMby mlssfshn

    I love natural dying. In my experience vinegar is a better fixative than salt. I’ve done rust dying with washers, flowers,and teas are some of my favorites. I’ve even mixed tea and rust to get a beautiful purple. I need to post some of my natural dyed items.

  • Dscn0826_large

    Jul 24, 2011, 03.57 PMby ruthw

    I like all of them, but the end result of the flower-bashing version is obviously going to depend a lot on your artistry! I would like to give all of them a try, and I would have tested it out the way you did before committing myself to buying silk or waiting around for three days. Good show, well done. A couple of questions… How much “gradation” do you think you can get on the dip dyeing? Are the any ways to increase it?.

    How much time and effort does the flower-bashing take? And how did the neighbors react (LOL)?

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    Jul 24, 2011, 01.43 PMby nikkishell

    Great post! I’ve had this book since it came out but haven’t tried any dyeing thinking i’d need a whole lot of equipment. But of course i don’t need much at all! The day before reading this post i had collected some onion skins and have them steeping in a jar. A few friends have been experimenting with natural dyeing and have been an encouragement to try it out. It peeves me though that there is always at least one negative comment. Constructive criticism i’m all for, downright negativity i’m not. These comments are often left by someone who has not contributed in any way but are quick to judge those who have.

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    Jul 23, 2011, 04.13 PMby rhinestic

    Oh my! The results from flowers smashing is just amazing! I might try that out!

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    Jul 23, 2011, 03.29 PMby fabled

    I think I’d like to try the Onion Dye along with the Flower bashing ;) What do you think would happen if I rolled the onion skins and included a few large flowers in there as well? Would their color stick as well do you think?

    1 Reply
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      Jul 23, 2011, 03.35 PMby themisslinds

      It wouldn’t hurt to give it a try! I think vinegar works as a good fix for both vegetables and flowers. Let us know how your results work out!

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    Jul 23, 2011, 09.54 AMby pambox

    once it gets to spring here and the azaleas in our garden go crazy i think i’ll give this ago!

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    Jul 23, 2011, 07.21 AMby janene

    Great feature. What fun! A great rainy day project. Love the dipped effect into the plum dye and I imagine the onion skins make a fab effect. Not too sure about the flower smashing… I think it could end up looking like you rolled around in a field or that you forgot to wear an apron when you were painting!

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    Jul 23, 2011, 12.54 AMby applesofavalon

    I love the idea of dyeing fabric naturally! I’m definately going to try the onion skin and flower smashing! Thanks for the inspiration!

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    Jul 22, 2011, 10.31 PMby ichigogirl

    It was really big here in Sweden to dye fabrics and yarn with plants; roots, flowers, bark and mushrooms in the 1970’s. My mum and aunt did it a lot in summer, I remember them boiling the plants and yarn in a big pot in the open air. There were some chemicals involved to make it work properly, but the dye itself was totally natural. The result was colourfast, beautiful colours, mainly in the orange-yellow-green-pink range, but it’s possible to achieve blue and red too. I’d recommend it for those who want colours that don’t fade in the laundry, but these methods seem fun too!

  • Missing

    Jul 22, 2011, 10.18 PMby cheschiiire

    Wow, the flowers turned out gorgeous!

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    Jul 22, 2011, 08.48 PMby Whitehaus

    Onions! Who knew?? Cannot wait to try this!

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    Jul 22, 2011, 08.39 PMby margaretchandler

    Holy unwarranted vitriol, batman! I think they’re gorgeous, and am inspired to play around with the flower smashing technique, especially; I think it could create a really nice gradated border print. Regarding the dyes fading after steaming, the Foxfire book series has a wonderful chapter on natural old-time dyeing and mordants. They suggest cream of tartar, alum, vinegar, and salt.

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