What they are and how to use them
Available as a PDF here
Some Notes Before Beginning
Testing the Waters
About Fibres and Cloth
How to Mordant Wool, Silk or Other Protein Fibres
How to Mordant Cotton or Other Cellulose Fibres:
Natural dyes are inviting and satisfying to use. Most are familiar substances that will spark creative ideas and widen your view of the world. Try experimenting. Colour can be coaxed from many different sources. Once the cloth or fibre is prepared for dyeing it will soak up the colour, yielding a range of results from deep jewel-like tones to dusky heathers and pastels. Variations are easily achieved by manipulating any of the elements of dyeing.
The instructions below will take you through the application of the "classic" dyes: those dyes that artisans and guilds have used for centuries. You will also learn everything you need to experiment with garden dyes or wild harvesting. If you can measure ingredients and boil water you can dye with natural colour.
Maiwa is constantly researching natural dye use and we are confident that a full palette can be achieved through the use of safe, time-honoured techniques and recipes.
- Learning to use natural dyes is like cooking with colour. And just like cooking, it takes practice and care. Don’t rush the process. Attention to detail will give results you are proud to call your own.
- Always use clean non-reactive vessels: stainless steel, unchipped enamel, glass, or plastic. Iron or copper vessels can also be used but the metal will react with the dyebath. Iron will dull or “sadden” colours. Copper will tend to brighten them.
- Dyeing evenly is much more difficult with piece goods than with yarns. It is also much easier to dye protein fibres (wool, silk) than cellulose fibres (cotton, linen). For best results the beginner is well advised to start with wool or silk yarns.
- Dry all fibres out of direct sunlight.
- Read all instructions before beginning.
- Mixing dyes or mordants and overdyeing can result in that one desired shade. Experimentation pays off and adds an element of creativity to your dyeing. Keep records.
- All dyes are sensitive to water quality. In almost all cases soft water is preferable for washing, scouring, mordanting and dyeing. Rainwater or distilled water can also be used.
- Natural dyes are not recommended for synthetic fabrics or fibres.
of the first dip in the dyebath.
The acidity or alkalinity of the water used for natural dyeing (both in the mordant bath and the dye bath) will affect the colour. Soft water is best for practically all natural dyes with the exception of madder, weld, logwood and brazilwood. These dyes develop better in hard water (containing calcium and magnesium salts). Most natural dyers consider rainwater best (although in places it may be more contaminated than tap water), river water next best, and well or tap water the last choice as it often contains the largest amount of contaminants.
For dyes that prefer hard water, calcium carbonate can be added in the form of finely ground chalk, or an antacid (Tum’s, Rolaid) tablet. Also soda ash, household ammonia, or wood ash water can be added to push the pH up.
If local hard water needs to be made acidic, add vinegar, lemon juice or a few crystals of citric acid. Water that contains iron is difficult to use for natural dyeing as it will not be possible to achieve clear, pure colours. In this case colours will be “saddened” that is, muted and darker.
Neutral (pH7) water should be used for rinsing and washing naturally dyed fibres and fabrics, otherwise there may be unwanted colour changes. A set of pH strips is a good way to test the water.
For the dyer, the fibre world is divided into two types: fibres from animals and fibres from plants. Animal (protein) fibres are wools, hairs, and silks; plant (cellulose) fibres are cottons, linens, and others like hemp. As mentioned earlier, yarns are the easiest to dye. Woven materials require care to get even coverage. A suitably large dyepot is very important. Tightness of weave is also a consideration. Garments are the trickiest to dye. Watch out for synthetic stitching (it will not take on colour) and areas of wear or perspiration as they will dye unevenly. When using wools, care is required to avoid felting.
Measures, Records, WOF
All measures in dyeing are based on the weight of material to be dyed. This is known as the Weight Of Fibre (WOF). WOF gives a convenient way to state how much dyestuff is needed for a given shade, regardless of whether the dyer wants to colour a few yarns or several metres of fabric. The weight of dyestuff is expressed as a percentage of WOF.
To dye a medium-red with madder, we would use 50% WOF. Hence, if we had a pound of cotton (450 g) we would need a half-pound (225 g) of madder.
Weight of Fibre x % = Weight of Dyestuff
(imperial) 1lb x .5 = .5lb (8 oz)
(metric) 450g x .5 = 225 g
Alternatively, cochineal only requires 6% WOF for a medium shade. Hence, to dye the same amount of fibre we would need:
(imperial) 1lb x .06 = .06lb (1 oz)
(metric) 450g x .06 = 27 g
weighed dry before washing.
Keeping notes of the weight of fibre and how much dyestuff was used will help plan future projects - clipping a sample of dyed yarn beside the notes makes for a wonderful record.
Both yarns and fabrics need to be scoured before dyeing Soured items dye more evenly, the dye penetrates better, and dyed colours are more lightfast and washfast.
Note: Fabrics sold as “ready for dyeing” may not need scouring.
Soda ash & Synthrapol (for cotton)
Orvus paste soap (for silk & wool)
Scouring cotton and cellulose fibres:
- Fill a large pot so that yarns or fabric is covered and not crowded.
- Add 1 tsp Synthrapol (5 ml) and 4 tsps. soda ash (20 g) for each pound (450 g) of cotton.
- Simmer for approximately 1 hour. Cotton is full of wax, pectic substances, and oil, all of which must be removed. The resulting wash water will be yellow brown. Bleached white cotton yarns and fabrics may not need as long.
Scouring silk and wool:
- Use a large vessel and fill with enough water so that the yarn or fabric is well covered and not crowded.
- Add 1 tsp (5 ml) orvus paste soap for each 450g of fibre.
- Add yarn, fleece or piece goods and heat gently (60º C, 140º F) for approximately 1 hour. Turn gently but do not agitate
- Allow fibre to cool down slowly and then rinse in warm water.
Colourfast dyeing usually requires a mordant. Mordants are metalic salts that facilitate the bonding of the dyestuff to the fibre. Cellulose fibres also require a tannin in order to bond well. Both metalic salts and tannins are classified as mordants.
Some natural dye recipes still call for the use of heavy metal mordants such as chrome and tin. Historically these were introduced during the industrial revolution and we do not recommend them. Heavy metal mordants are toxic, presenting real challenges for safe use and disposal. moreover most colours obtained through the use of heavy metals may be obtained through overdyeing or variations in the dye procedure. For those who wish to obtain a mordant from plants, Symplocos is a tropical bio-accumulator of alum.
Potassium aluminum sulfate is the mordant most frequently used by dyers for protein (animal) and cellulose (plant) fibres and fabrics. It improves light and washfastness of all natural dyes and keeps colours clear. It is inexpensive and safe to use (see our safety notes). This form of alum is refined from bauxite, the raw state of aluminum ore, and is free from the impurities (such as iron) some other alums may contain.
Aluminum acetate is often used as the preferred alum mordant for cellulose fibres and fabrics. It is refined from bauxite with acetic acid used as a purifying agent. For this reason some dyes develop to a richer shade on cellulose when mordated with alum acetate. Alum acetate is the recommended mordant when considering printing with natural dyes. It is more expensive and sometimes hard to find.
Use at 5-8% WOF.
homemade alum acetate
The dyer may make aluminum acetate from sodium acetate and potassium aluminum sulfate. Depending on the availability of these materials in your area, this can be cost effective.
To make enough aluminum acetate to mordant 1 kilo of fabric, combine in 3 litres of hot tap water:
- 150 g sodium acetate or calcium acetate
- 150 g potassium aluminum sulfate
This can be added to your mordant bath (see next section).
Tannins are used to assist in the mordanting of cellulose fibres and fabrics. Alum does not bond with cellulose fibres as well as it does with protein fibres. However, tannin bonds well with cellulose. and once treated with tannin, alum will combine with the tannin-fibre complex. Many dyestuffs contain tannin (black oak, pomegranate, cutch, fustic, etc) and do not need an additional tannin.
Tannins can be clear or they can add colour to the fibre. This is an important consideration when selecting a tannin. The two most popular tannins in the Maiwa studio are oak gall and myrobalan.
- Clear Tannins: “Gallic” - Gallnut, Tara, some Sumacs
- Yellow Tannins: “Ellegic” – Myrobalan, Pomegranate, Black Oak, Fustic
- Red-Brown Tannins: “Catechic” – Cutch, Quebracho, Tea leaves, and some Sumacs.
Gallnuts (oak galls) are a rich source of clear tannin. A gallnut is produced by oak trees as a defense against parasitic wasps which deposit their eggs in small punctures they make on young branches. The tree excretes a tannin-rich substance that hardens to form a gallnut. These are collected and ground to be used in dyeing. Use at 6-8% WOF.
Myrobalan nuts come from the Terminalia chebula tree which grows in Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Indochina and south China. Myrobalan yields both a tannin and a dye. The light warm colour it imparts to cotton makes it invaluable to many dyeing traditions of India and Southeast Asia. The colour works well for overdyeing. Myrobalan is also the perfect colour to lay down under a single indigo dip to obtain a light teal. When used as a tannin, myrobalan requires 15-20% WOF. To create a soft butter yellow colour, 20-30% WOF is needed.
Other tannins are pomegranate, quebracho, tara, and cutch.
cream of tartar
Cream of tartar (potassium bitartrate) is a salt of tartaric acid. It is commonly obtained as a sediment produced in the wine-making process. Cream of tartar is an optional addition to the dyebath to soften wool, brighten shades, and point the colour of some dyes (it will move the fuschia of cochineal to a pure red). Cream of tartar works best with animal or protein fibres and is seldom used with plant or cellulose fibres. Use at 5-6% WOF.
ferrous sulfate (sulphate)
Like alum, Iron is a metal mordant which will increase the fastness of any colour. Unlike alum however, It is far from neutral; making other dyes darker and richer. Iron will also "sadden" bright colours. It is most often used with cellulose fibres like cotton, linen, rayon and hemp and should be used with care on protein fibres as it can make them slightly hard or brittle. If used in the mordant process colour shifts are more distinct than if added while dyeing.
Iron should be used at 2-4% WOF. More than that could damage fibres.
When printing with natural dyes, we recommend changing ferrous sulfate to ferrous acetate to avoid bleeding and ferrous transfer (the migration of iron).
homemade ferrous acetate
- 5 g ferrous sulfate
- 100 ml vinegar
- 3 g lime (calcium hydroxide)
Combine the above ingredients in a plastic container and stir well. If thickening is required, weigh the amount of ferrous acetate you wish to thicken and add 1% of that weight of guar gum.
Ferrous acetate needs to be fixed to the cloth. We use chalk (calcium carbonate) 50g in 5 litres of warm water. Once your ferrous acetate is fully dry, dip it into this solution. This solution may be kept and reused again and again. Generally you may refresh with 50 g of chalk after each 10 kg of fabric.
standard mordant recipe
- Weigh the fibre dry, then scour.
- Measure alum at 15% WOF
- Measure cream of tartar at 6% WOF (optional, see cream of tartar above).
- Dissolve both the alum and the cream of tartar in very hot water in a non-reactive container.
- Add the dissolved chemicals to the dye kettle with enough warm water 45º C (110º F) to cover the fibre when it is added - usually a 30:1 ration of water to fibre. Stir well.
- Add the scoured, wet fibre. Over 30-45 minutes bring the temperature up to 90º C (195ºF) Just under simmer for wool and 85ºC (185ºF) for silk. Hold for one hour, gently turning the fibre regularly.
- Let cool in the bath for 20 minutes.
- Remove the fibre from the mordant bath. Allow to hang evenly over a non-reactive rod (stainless steel, plastic) until it stops dripping. Rotate the yarn or fabric frequently so the alum is evenly distributed.
- Store the yarn or cloth in a damp white cloth for 24-48 hours. Keep it damp during this entire period.
- Once completely dry mordanted yarns and fabrics may be stored indefinitely.
Note: For more effective mordanting on fibres such as linen we use a combination of two mordants of alum. For example we will mordant once with alum at 15% WOF and then again with a fresh mordant bath of alum at 10% WOF. Or we will do a tannin/alum/alum mordant to achieve slightly richer colours.
- Weigh the fibre dry, then scour.
- Choose your tannin and mordant (see individual dyes for recommendations). Tannin must always be done first. Each bath must be completed before starting the next one.
- Measure tannin to the recommended WOF for the tannin you are using. Dissolve in hot water. Add to kettle. Fill the kettle with enough water to fully cover the fibre when added.
- Add scoured, wet fibre.
- Heat to 87 - 93ºC (190 - 200ºF) hold for 45 minutes.
- At this point the fibre may be rinsed and mordanted with alum, or left to steep for 8-24 hours before rinsing (steeping will give deeper colours).
aluminum Potassium Sulfate
- Measure alum at 15% WOF. Dissolve in hot water. Add to kettle. Fill the kettle with enough water to fully cover the fibre when added.
- Add wet fibre (already treated with tannin).
- Heat to 87 - 93ºC (190 - 200ºF) hold for 45 minutes.
- At this point the fibre may be a) rinsed and remordanted, b)rinsed and dyed, or c) left to steep for 8-24 hours before rinsing (steeping will give deeper colours).
Note: For this mordant you do not “cook” the fibre. You begin with very hot tap water 38 - 50ºC (100 - 120 ºF) but do not maintain heat. For this reason a plastic container may be used for mordanting.
- Measure aluminum acetate at 8% WOF, dissolve in hot water, add to mordanting kettle. Or use your homemade aluminum acetate. Top up the kettle with enough hot tap water 38 - 50ºC (100 - 120 ºF) to fully cover the fibre when added.
- Add wet fibre (already mordanted with tannin).
- Let fibre sit for 1 - 2 hours stirring from time to time. Keep the kettle covered so that it retains its heat.
- Remove fibre and hang to dry.
- Chalk* (fix) the fibre. Dissolve 50 g of chalk (calcium carbonate) in 5 litres of warm water. Dip fibre into this solution. Fully wet the fibre, wring out and proceed to dyeing. If using wheat bran, mix 100 g of wheat bran in 5 litres of warm water, fully wet the fibre, wring out and proceed to dyeing. These solutions may be maintained over time and occasionally refreshed (after every 10 kg of fibre).
*Aluminum acetate must be fixed to the fibre prior to dyeing. In some cultures this is known as “dunging” as cow dung is used. Dung is high in phosphates, but you may also use wheat bran or calcium carbonate (our preferred choice).
- Measure iron at 2% WOF. Dissolve in hot water. Add to kettle. Fill the kettle with enough water to fully cover the fibre when added.
- Add wet, mordanted fibre
- Heat to 71 - 77ºC (160 - 170ºF) hold for 30 minutes.
- Rinse well. Remember always thoroughly scrub a pot that has been used to iron mordant or it will sadden the next dye bath.
Note: cellulose fibres can be fully dried and stored before dyeing. Fibres do not need to be remordanted between dyes. Once a fibre has been mordanted it can be dyed and then overdyed without any further mordanting.
Before beginning, keep in mind that dyes are not like paints: dyes combine with fibres to give character and personality, depth and texture. They do not produce a uniform, even, shade. It is these variations that give an added dimension and excitement to natural dyes. Like fine wines that change with the years to reflect the weather of the seasons, the conditions of the soil, and the tastes of the vintner; dyes will give slightly different shade each time they are used. They will alter when you change the dyeing conditions, mordants, colour pointers (such as cream of tartar and iron) and over dye. Experiment and play with this potential (keeping notes will help). Recipes for dyes are listed with each dyestuff.
The dye colourant always needs to be extracted from host material (roots, barks, petals, or leaves). Usually this extraction happens in the dyebath, but sometimes (as with indigo, cutch, or any of the insect dyes) it is an entirely separate process.
We sell natural dyes as both raw materials and extracts. Extracts are very concentrated and so smaller amounts are needed. We also carry a special line of extracts.
As a general philosophy we always recommend working with dyes in their raw form. Working with raw materials increases your knowledge and gives you control over both process and colour.