A Naturally Dyed Wardrobe with Rebecca Desnos
As we become more and more aware about the effects fast fashion and throwaway culture is having on the planet and it’s inhabitants, we’ve been thinking of ways to make our clothes not only last longer but also become new again. We spoke to Rebecca Desnos, a natural dyer and author of Botanical Colour at your Fingertips, about how we can use natural materials to breathe life into old and unwanted clothing.
Did you know that there’s colour potential in many of the plants growing around us? We can extract dye from many types of leaves, acorns, nut casings, cones, bark, weeds and flowers. No matter where we live, we can make a unique colour palette from our range of local plants. The same plants are likely to produce slightly different shades in different seasons, and the colours may even vary from year to year. That’s all part of the excitement of botanical dyeing. Then there’s kitchen waste: avocado skins and stones, pomegranate skins and let’s not forget the humble onion skin. All of these plants can be used to colour cloth.
Above: Tops made by Thought Clothing dyed with Japanese indigo leaves (blue), acorns and iron (grey/tan) and avocado stones and iron (purple). The peach scarf was dyed with avocado skins and the wooden beads also dyed with a range of plant dyes.
For several years, I’ve been dyeing with local plants. I actually started my natural dye journey by using powdered dye extracts made from plants such as madder, logwood, weld and indigo. After a few years I felt a calling to begin working with my local plants – the plants right at my fingertips – and I transitioned to using local plants and kitchen food waste. I became captivated by the process of gathering plants, slowly extracting dye then simmering various items of clothing and fabric swatches in dye pots. Some dye colours are a real surprise and other times a colour just can’t be repeated. There’s an unpredictable nature of working with whole plants, and it’s these unknown factors that keep me coming back for more!
Above: dye colours from acorns, avocado skins and marigold flowers.
One of the most incredible moments in natural dyeing was seeing my dye pot of weeping willow leaves turn a deep pink. I’d expected beige because so many leaves make brown due to the tannins present. The dye started off as yellow and when I lifted the lid off the following morning, it had transformed to a deep pink! Another big surprise was the almost fluorescent yellow dye from purple buddleja flowers.
Above: Dyes from sequoia cones, nettles, hawthorn leaves and buddleja flowers.
I particularly like dyeing with plants that some people see as nuisance weeds, such as nettles, which make grey, green and tan shades through the year, and gorse, which produces a lovely caramel yellow. So long as a plant is not toxic, then it can be tested in the dye pot. Some colours will have more staying power than others (quite often due to the presence of tannins) and other colours may initially seem promising but quickly fade in the light. Not every plant will make a long lasting dye, but I feel that it’s worth testing plants to see for myself. I inevitably learn something new along the way.
Since exploring my local dye plants, I’ve learnt so much more about the natural world around me. Well into my twenties, I was guilty of seeing plants as general “greenery” and couldn’t pick out individual plants. Over the years of experimenting with natural dyes, I’ve slowly built up my knowledge of local plants. These days I notice alder trees, hawthorn bushes and linden trees wherever I go. Years ago, I would walk with my head down, but now I take notice of the trees around me. Even in urban areas, there are plants close by. Once we start really looking, it’s amazing what we can find. Now, my memories of places relate to the plants that I spotted there. Natural dyeing is a lovely way to appreciate the passing seasons – every month there is something new to experience.
Dyeing clothing with botanical dyes
One of my favourite ways to explore plant dyes is to dye my own clothes. I look for white or unbleached clothing that’s 100% natural fibres. Every season I look out for white pieces made by Thought Clothing. This summer I dyed myself a couple of Thought tops made from an organic cotton/hemp blend, and also a hemp cardigan. These natural fibres take on plant dyes beautifully.
Above: Thought Clothing cardigan dyed with acorns and darkened with iron. Thought “pom pom” sleeveless top dyed with Japanese indigo leaves using the fresh leaf, salt rub method.
Fabric such as viscose and tencel will dye too – these are reconstituted fibres made from trees. I love to dye cotton, linen, hemp and viscose, but if you wear wool and silk then those dye as well. Anything natural is likely to dye – even wooden buttons and beads!
If you dye second hand clothing from charity shops, just bear in mind that invisible stains may become noticeable after dyeing. Old stains from deodorant may act as a mordant on the fabric, which means those areas will dye darker. You won’t know until you try, so just keep this in mind when you experiment.
If you would like to refresh some stained clothing, you could try making patterns with dye. In the past I’ve splashed dye across stained tops to build up layers of colour. Stains can be easily disguised with splashes of dye. Then you can iron the fabric with a hot iron to heat set the dye.
Tips to help you get started with natural dyeing:
- Prewash clothing and fabric thoroughly before you begin. You may choose to ‘scour’ your clothing, but my preference is to do a long machine wash.
- Mordant your clothing before dyeing. This will help the dyes bind to the fabric. My favourite method is to pretreat fabric in diluted soya milk. After soaking, the liquid is squeezed out of the fabric and it’s hung up to dry, then dipped and dried twice more. Another method is to mordant in alum.
- Look for old stainless steel pots, as these make a great size for dyeing. Once you’ve used a pot for dyeing, don’t use it for cooking again.
- Look for second hand pots made from different metals – the metal will influence the final shade. Aluminium often brighten colours, iron darkens, and copper enhances yellows.
Above: dyes from acorns (brown), avocado skins (pink) and marigold flowers (yellow)
- Identify plants before you collect them to be sure that they aren’t toxic.
- Heat your plants gently in water. We’re gently coaxing out the colour – not cooking the plants.
- Try to work outside, or if your dye space is inside (like mine is), then open the windows wide to have good air flow. Keep lids on pots to avoid breathing in the vapours.
- Strain out your plants before adding fabric, otherwise you’ll end up with little bits of plant stuck in the weave of the fabric and potentially some darker spots of dye.
- Compare different sources of water to see the effect on your dye colours. Try tap water, rainwater and even seawater. You may be surprised!
Above: Straining alder cone dye through a cloth. (Photograph by Siobhan Watts)
- For dyeing large items, the bigger the dye pot, the better. Your fabric needs space to move around in the dye for the colour to come out evenly.
- Try dyeing with patterns. One of my favourite ways is to make a scrunch pattern. To do this, simply scrunch up fabric or clothing and tie up in a piece of fabric and secure with string (as shown in photos below). When scrunching the fabric, aim to create a scrunched circle, rather than a ball. We want the dye to reach all areas of the fabric, but if it’s in a ball the middle is likely to be a much paler shade. With this method, the clothing will dye with a soft mottled pattern. So rather than worrying about clothing dyeing evenly (which requires lots of stirring to keep the fabric moving), I like to encourage more creases and make this part of the design.
Above: Scrunch dyeing a Thought Clothing hemp/organic top in avocado dye
- Dip your dyed fabric in an afterbath of rust water (or ferrous sulphate crystals) to darken colours. Beige colours from tannin rich plants (like acorns and oak leaves) will transform into darker shades and you can easily widen your colour palette. Pink avocado dye changes to purple. Iron acts as a mordant and helps the colour last longer.
- Grow your own dye plants. All you need is space for a few pots. For the last couple of years, I’ve grown coreopsis on my balcony. Coreopsis flowers make the most beautiful shades of orange and yellow. The dye is pH sensitive and the orange dye changes to yellow with lemon juice, and a deeper orange with bicarbonate of soda.
- I also grow Japanese indigo (Persicaria tinctoria) so I can dye blue shades. The traditional method of indigo dyeing is to ferment the leaves, but if you’d like some instant colour then you can rub salt into the leaves which extracts the juice, then rub this juicy leafy mixture straight onto your fabric. On soya milk pretreated fabric, the blue remains well after washing. It’s so much fun and the colours are beautiful.
Above: Rubbing Japanese indigo (Persicaria tinctoria) leaves into a Thought Clothing organic cotton/hemp top
- There are so many plants that you can grow for colour, and you might be growing some already, such as edible herbs. As long as a plant isn’t toxic, try it in your dye pot to see if it makes a dye.
- Test your fabric for light fastness by cutting a small piece of fabric in half, then put one half in the light and keep the other in a dark place. After 2-3 weeks, compare the samples and see how much fading there has been.
Washing and caring for your naturally dyed clothing
- Wash your dyed clothing at a low temperature with gentle washing detergent. This will help the colours last longer. All dyes fade, even synthetic ones. Natural dyes can fade quicker so they need extra care. Some of the longest lasting dyes are ones that contain tannins.
- When you dye something, don’t rinse it under the tap straight away. I like to wait a few days before washing as I find more colour will remain in the fibres. Then when you do your initial rinse, there will be some colour loss – this is simply the dye that didn’t attach to the fibres. After this initial wash, you shouldn’t notice much colour rinse out in subsequent washes.
- Dry naturally dyed clothing in the shade to preserve the colours. Prolonged direct sunlight can fade dyes. Of course when we wear clothing we will go in the sun, but often we are moving around and not in direct sun constantly for hours.
Above: Drying clothing in the shade. Purple is from avocado stones with iron, and grey/tan is from acorns with iron
- When you’re not wearing your dyed clothes, store them in a cupboard out of sunlight.
- It’s important to mention that beetroot and turmeric aren’t dyes – they are stains. Surprisingly beetroot fades away quite quickly, even when kept out of the light. Turmeric will last fairly well when kept in the dark, but will fade quickly in the light.
- Tannin dyes last the longest, and if you do a dip in iron water to darken the shade, this further helps with colour fastness.
- When we’re experimenting with dyes, it’s inevitable that some colours will fade. This fabric can be over dyed with new plants. If you grow tired of a colour, then you can dip it into iron water to darken the shade, or put it into your next dye pot to receive a new layer of colour.
- Refresh old, faded clothes in your dye pot. Even if the fabric was previously dyed with synthetic dyes (patterned or plain), you can still dye it with plants. Just check to see if it’s made of natural fibres, as synthetic fibres won’t dye. If the stitching is polyester, it won’t dye.
I hope these tips help you get started on your dyeing adventures! It’s a lovely hobby to have as it encourages us take notice the plants around us – whether that’s fruit or vegetable peelings in the kitchen, plants in your garden or trees in the wild. No matter the season, there’s always something new to try in our dye pots!
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This lovely photo of my book was taken by @pilar_bear who is going to begin her own botanical dyeing journey very soon 🌿🍃🌾🌼🍂🌸 . I remember the sheer thrill when I started natural dyeing – my eyes had been opened to this whole new world and the feeling of excitement has never gone! When we work with nature’s gifts, the inspiration is infinite and ever-changing. There are secrets to be discovered in so many plants around us. . I wrote Botanical Colour at your Fingertips (first released as an eBook and later in paperback form) to show you how easy it is to start natural dyeing – we have colour potential all around us just waiting to be unlocked! It can be as simple and intuitive as cooking. Once we learn a few basic principles, we can start to experiment and develop our own palettes of natural and local colour 💚 . What was the first plant dye that you used❓ I began with powdered dyes and my first one was madder, then a few years later my first whole dye plant was the alder cone. Then I soon became enamoured with avocado dye. To be able to put my avocado skins and stones to good use and make pink dye was mind-blowing! 😱✨ Which plant made you fall in love with natural dyeing ❓
More about Rebecca Desnos
- Rebecca is a natural dyer, writer and independent publisher in the UK.
- Her book Botanical Colour at your Fingertips is an introductory guide to natural dyeing using soya milk as a pretreatment method on plant fibres.
- Rebecca also publishes the magazine called Plants Are Magic which is a celebration of the natural world and brings together other makers, artists and plant lovers from all over the world. Volume 4 has just been released.
- Find out more on rebeccadesnos.com