Published on March 24, 2020

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Courtesy of 'Natural Palettes: Inspiration from Plant-Based Color' by Sasha Duerr, published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2020

In Spinning Plates, cook and self-professed vegetable enthusiast Julia Sherman (you might know her as Salad for President) shares how you, too, can make your way in and around the kitchen with confidence.

There’s a troubling disconnect between my preference for crisp white shirts and my hopeless habit of dragging my sleeves through sauce. I am a tornado in the kitchen, an impulsive gardener with no time for gloves, and a passionate eater with little regard for wardrobe casualties (not to mention, the mother of a 10-month-old who has reassigned my shoulder as a napkin). So instead of trashing my collection of splattered and speckled shirts, I give them a second life in full color and a bath in fabric dye. In search of an easy fix, I have admittedly turned to conventional, environmentally noxious dyes in the past.

But when textile artist Kiva Motnyk of Thompson Street Studio introduced me to the work of Berkeley, California–based natural dye expert Sasha Duerr, I began to see my discarded carrot tops and pomegranate peels as pure potential. “Working with natural dyes, you see the creative and connective potential of the world around you, from the wayward white wool sweater in the back of your closet to the leftovers of your favorite meals,” says Duerr. Stuck in my house, and with my wardrobe begging for some new life, I turned to Duerr and her forthcoming book, Natural Palettes: Inspiration From Plant-Based Color, to understand how my compost scraps might take on a second life as rich, natural dyes. 

What You’ll Need

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Courtesy of Natural Palettes: Inspiration from Plant-Based Color by Sasha Duerr, published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2020

You can create and use natural dyes with the most basic of kitchen equipment. Although these recipes are completely nontoxic, Duerr recommends reserving a pot or two specifically for dyeing—you can easily get them affordably at yard sales or secondhand stores. And when it comes to your produce, stick to organics: Chemicals can interfere with colors. Here are the essentials you should make sure you have on hand: 

  • A food scale that measures ounces, grams, and pounds                                                                                                  
  • Stainless steel pots and lids
  • Stainless steel strainers
  • Stainless steel tongs                                                                                                                                                         
  • Measuring spoons                                                                                                                                                
  • A bucket for soaking, washing, and rinsing your fibers                                                                                                                                
  • Heat- and water-resistant rubber gloves                                                                                                                                                                                                    
  • A sturdy clothesline or drying rack 
  • pH-neutral soap (a natural dish soap works)

Natural Dye 101

Pink fabric being dyedPin It
Courtesy of Natural Palettes: Inspiration From Plant-Based Color by Sasha Duerr, published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2020

Keep It Natural
Natural fibers—such as silk, wool, cotton, hemp, and linen—love natural dyes because their fibers are open and able to accept the color. Before you begin, prewash your fabric with pH-neutral soap and soak it in water to increase absorbency.

Follow a 1:1 Ratio
To achieve intense, concentrated color, a good rule of thumb is to aim to have the weight of your dye material equal the weight of the article of clothing you plan to dye. So if your sweater weighs one pound, you’ll need one pound of citrus rinds, carrot tops, or whatever your dye of choice may be. The dye bath will weaken with each use, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get multiple pieces through one batch of dye. For example, if you are working with a vibrant avocado pit bath, the first item you dip will be a saturated peach, and the next will be paler, but lovely in its own unique way. 

Take Care
Naturally dyed clothing should be cared for as you would any delicate item of clothing—wash with gentle pH-neutral soap and hang or lay flat to dry.          

   

Citrus Peels

Light greenPin It
Courtesy of Natural Palettes: Inspiration From Plant-Based Color by Sasha Duerr, published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2020

Color: Citron yellows
Fabric: Most vibrant on wool and silk fibers, but pastel versions of these shades can be created with cotton and linen, too

How-to:
1. Work with any seasonal citrus—clementines, mandarins, satsumas, cara cara oranges, tangerines, and kumquats—to get gorgeous, glowing citrusy yellows. For intense color, weigh the fabric or article of clothing you plan to dye and gather an equal weight of citrus peels. 

2. Use a dye pot large enough to hold both the citrus peels and let the fabric move freely. Add plant material and enough water to cover. The pot should be three-quarters full.

3. Bring the water to a boil, then lower the temperature to a simmer for at least 20 to 40 minutes or until water reaches your desired shade. Remove the pot from the heat and carefully scoop or strain the citrus peels from the dye pot.

4. Add your washed natural fibers. Simmer in the bath for 20 to 40 minutes or until you reach your desired color saturation. For maximum saturation, let your textiles steep in the dye bath overnight or longer.

5. Rinse with gentle pH-neutral soap and hang to dry in the shade.                                                                                                                                             

Yellow Onion Skins

OrangePin It
Courtesy of Natural Palettes: Inspiration From Plant-Based Color by Sasha Duerr, published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2020

Color: Golden yellows
Fabric: All-natural fibers, although particularly rich and saturated on silks and wool

How-to:
1. Onion skins are light, so you need a lot of them to match the weight of the fabric you are looking to dye. Saving your compost can get you far, but for bigger projects, gather onion skin waste from your grocery produce section. Collect skins in equal weight as the fabric you wish to dye.

2. Use a dye pot large enough to hold both the onion peels and let your fabric move freely. Add the skins and cover with water. The pot should be three-quarters full.

3. Bring the water to a boil, then lower the temperature to a simmer for at least 20 to 40 minutes or until water reaches your desired shade. Remove the pot from the heat and carefully scoop or strain the skins from the dye pot.

4. Add your washed natural fibers. Simmer in the dye bath for 20 to 40 minutes or until you reach your desired color saturation. For maximum saturation, let your textiles steep in the dye bath overnight or longer.

5. Rinse with gentle pH-neutral soap and hang to dry in the shade.                                                                          

Avocado Pits

Pale pinkPin It
Courtesy of Natural Palettes: Inspiration From Plant-Based Color by Sasha Duerr, published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2020

Color: Pinks and russet reds
Fabric: All-natural fibers

How-to:
1. Avocado pits can be used fresh or frozen. Collect enough to equal the weight of the fabric you are dyeing (or more if you want super-intense color).

2. Use a dye pot large enough to hold the pits and the fabric moving freely. Add the pits and enough water to cover. The pot should be three-quarters full.

3. Bring the water to a boil, then lower the temperature to a low boil for at least 40 to 60 minutes or until water reaches your desired shade of pink. Remove the pot from the heat and carefully scoop or strain the pits from the dye pot.          

4. Add your washed natural fibers. Simmer in the dye bath for 20 to 40 minutes or until you reach your desired color. For maximum saturation, let your textiles steep in the dye bath overnight or longer.

5. Rinse with gentle pH-neutral soap and hang to dry in the shade.  

Carrot Tops

Pale greenPin It
Courtesy of Natural Palettes: Inspiration From Plant-Based Color by Sasha Duerr, published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2020

Color: Clear yellows
Fabric: Works on all types of natural fibers, but most saturated hues will be on wool and silk

How-to:
1. Carrot tops can be used fresh or frozen. Collect enough to equal the weight of the fabric you are dyeing (or more if you want super-intense color).

2. Use a dye pot large enough to hold the greens and the fabric moving freely. Add the greens and enough water to cover. The pot should be three-quarters full.

3. Bring the water to a boil, then lower the temperature to a low boil for at least 40 to 60 minutes or until water reaches your desired shade. Remove the pot from the heat and carefully scoop or strain the greens from the dye pot.          

4. Add your washed natural fibers. Simmer in the dye bath for 20 to 40 minutes or until you reach your desired color saturation. For maximum saturation, let your textiles steep in the dye bath overnight or longer.

5. Rinse with gentle pH-neutral soap and hang to dry in the shade.  

Lychee Peels

Warm pinkPin It
Courtesy of Natural Palettes: Inspiration From Plant-Based Color by Sasha Duerr, published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2020

Color: Delicate pinks
Fabric: Most saturated on silk and wool

How-to:
1. Lychee can be found at any Asian market. Weigh the fabric or article of clothing you plan to dye. Gather an equal weight of lychee peels (the peels can be stored in the freezer if it takes you a while to amass the right quantity).

2. Use a dye pot large enough to hold both the lychee peels and the fabric moving freely. Add plant material and enough water to cover. The pot should be three-quarters full.

3. Bring the water to a boil, then lower the temperature to a simmer for at least 20 to 40 minutes or until water reaches your desired shade. Remove the pot from the heat and carefully scoop or strain the citrus peels from the dye pot.

4. Add your washed natural fibers. Simmer in the dye bath for 20 to 40 minutes or until you reach your desired color saturation. For maximum saturation, let your textiles steep in the dye bath overnight or longer.

5. Rinse with gentle pH-neutral soap and hang to dry in the shade.

Bonus: You can change the color from pale to deep pink by adding alum salts (aluminium acetate or aluminium sulfate) to the dye bath and simmering for an additional 20 to 40 minutes before adding the fabric. Alum salts is commonly used in pickling or as a topical astringent and is available online. If working with cotton, linen, or hemp, use 1½  teaspoons aluminium acetate per 4 ounces dry weight of fiber. If working with silk or wool, use 1½ teaspoons aluminium sulfate per 4 ounces dry weight of fiber.

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