While working on farms and studying herbalism I learned that fabric had traditionally been dyed using the same plants that I was growing and cultivating. When I dove into it further, I realized that compared to conventional dyes, which can be really harmful to water systems and loaded with chemicals, plant dyes are a healthier alternative and much better for the planet. Now, I run a clothing business and use plants to not only sustainably dye my fabrics—but to infuse them with naturally grounding energy.
What plants can be used to dye fabric?
Two of my favorite dye materials are marigolds and onion skins, and they're great for dyeing newbies. Marigolds are beautiful, easy to find, and really vibrant. Onion skins are also super easy to collect (especially when you eat a lot of stir fry like I do!), and since they are already dried, they're a breeze to store. Fun fact: Onions have traditionally been considered a protective veggie, and leaving half of one on your counter is a way to absorb all the negative energy in your house.
You can get a lot of color out of these two materials, and since they're so sturdy, you can use them over and over again. (Once they become translucent and mushy, it's time to compost them, but I can usually reuse them at least three times!) They also create a really beautiful range of color depending on what you're mixing them with.
When doing plant dye projects at home, I encourage you to try to use a material that would otherwise go to waste. Dried, wilted flowers; avocado pits; and certain kitchen scraps are all fair game!
A note on choosing the right fabric.
Next, it's time to consider your canvas. Keep in mind that your fabric must be made of natural materials, or the color won't stick. I like to use ones that I find in secondhand shops to further reduce the waste of my creations.
How to make your own natural dye using plants and flowers.
Tools and materials:
- Your plant material
- Your fabric
- A burner or stovetop
- A pot
- A vegetable steamer
- Rubber bands or string
- Alum, a derivative of aluminum (I like to buy mine online from https://botanicalcolors.com.)
- White vinegar
- Before you get started, make sure to wash your fabric. This will help the color stay pure and bright.
- First, we mordant. Mordanting is a process that opens up the pores of the fabric and allows the color to penetrate. First weigh the fabric, and then measure out 5% of that weight in Alum. Dissolve the Alum in your pot and bring it to a boil. Add the fabric and simmer for an hour, agitating it periodically. Remove from heat and let fabric sit in the pot overnight. You can use this fabric right away, or let it dry to use later.
- After it sits overnight, lay your fabric flat and place the plant materials directly on top. The fun part is arranging them! When the materials are where you want them, roll, and bundle the fabric tightly like a burrito. Secure your magic burrito with string or rubber bands.
- Infuse it with healing energy. This part is optional, but I find it really beautiful. Rub your hands together and then hold your fabric, imagining transferring your energy into it. Transfer a special intention into the piece you are working on.
- Dip your bundle in vinegar until it is completely wet, and squeeze out the excess liquid. This helps bind the color to the fabric.
- Steam on medium heat for 20 minutes to an hour (the longer, the better).
- Use your tongs to remove the bundle from the pot and let it dry overnight.
- Unravel your bundle and remove the plant pieces. Apply heat either with an iron or in the clothes dryer to help set the color.
- When washing, be sure to use pH-neutral detergent and to use medium heat. I would recommend washing separately from your laundry the first time, but after that, it can go in with the rest of your load.
- Wear with love, and tell everyone you made it yourself!
Keep tuning in to mbg this week for more Craft Week how-to's, and check out what we've already shared here.
Barrie Cohen grew up in New York City but always felt a deep connection to nature. In 2012 she began working on organic vegetable farms across the U.S., from California to New York. Through years of farming and study, Barrie became increasingly well-versed in plants and their medicinal properties, eventually falling in love with the traditional practice of plant dyeing.
Today, Barrie works out of her studio in Brooklyn and on nearby farms where she collects flowers and dye plants. Through Anthemia, Barrie all of her passions to create one of a kind pieces that are naturally dyed and infused with healing energy.