Remember that tie-dye trend from a few months ago? There are SO many ways you can spice up your home and closet by dyeing your fabric, whether dyeing a particular design or going with a solid color. The three natural dyes we’re going to work through in this DIY article are black beans, onion skins from yellow onions, and turmeric — yup, you probably already have them all in your pantry!
Black beans tend to give off a periwinkle color, though I’ve also gotten a really cool stormy blue from them before. Onion skins give off a yellow/orange or goldenrod color (that can be altered with iron to turn green!). And finally, turmeric, which you probably know if you’ve ever cooked or eaten anything that uses the spice, is a bright yellow! Say goodbye to winter whites and hello to colors that call on Spring’s arrival.
A few things to note before we jump into this. For starters, you’re going to want to use a natural fiber. This means you’ll want to use a protein fiber like wool or silk, or a cellulosic fiber like cotton or linen. All fibers will take color slightly differently and prepping them can be a slightly different process as well. Make sure your fabric has been washed and is clean before starting to dye. The amount of “dyestuff” (official term! Means the item you’re getting the color from) is up to you. More beans, skins, and turmeric will come out with stronger, bolder colors. Same with how long you let the dye sit both with and without your item in it. You can experiment with your amounts or base your DIYing on my experiences below. Lastly, it’s suggested that you use pots and bowls that are set aside for dyeing. Dyeing can, well, dye your pots and bowls. Also your mordant (be it alum or soda ash) isn’t great to ingest, so if you have a pot you can dedicate to natural dye, do it! I picked up a big enamel canning pot at a thrift store for my dyeing hobby.
Once you’ve finished dyeing your projects and they’ve air dried, I suggest a solo washing machine run for each color. This will help any extra color bleed without the risk of getting it on other items (especially in the case of the turmeric). On my washing machine, I select “Quick Wash” and the “Low Soil” option, wash on tap cold water, and put the spin speed to high. A run through the dryer can help set the color more as well. After this initial solo wash, you should feel comfortable washing your items with dark colors. The turmeric style may still bleed onto other light colored surfaces in future washes, so don’t leave your wet wash to sit in the machine for long after a cycle ends. That said, I’ve successfully washed out those bleeds from lighter items it’s ended up tinting!
Dyeing with Black Beans
This is probably my favorite “new” dyestuff I’ve discovered. I’ve dyed with it a few times, using it to dye some face masks earlier in quarantine, both using tie-dye techniques and not. I was so excited to work with it again for this DIY article! Important to note, this dyeing process can take a few days.
- Alum – A mordant (helps the color adhere to the fiber). Alum can be found as a pickling spice at the grocery store, or a local craft store
- Black Beans (I used about 3.5 cups worth…which is a lot and a bit more than I’ve done in the past)
- 1 large pot for mordant
- 1 large bowl for soaking your beans
Rinse your beans and place them in a big bowl and cover with water. Your beans will soak up the water and expand to be about three times the volume they start at. Now, leave them for a few days. I usually leave them for three to four. The water is going to turn into your dye, and the beans you can cook and eat after soaking if you want! I usually just leave the bowl out on my counter.
It’s been a few days and we’re back! I chose to dye this cotton pillowcase that I found while thrifting. Now’s a good time to mordant your fabric. Check your alum for instructions on how much to use. Mine suggests 2 teaspoons for each gallon of water. I used 1.5 gallons to fill my pot and mixed in 3 teaspoons of alum once the water was warm. Keep the water warm on your stove and put what you’re dyeing into the pot. Add more water to submerge the item if needed and more alum, as well, to keep the solution ratio accurate. Let it simmer for about an hour.
While your fabric simmers, you can get the dye ready. Using a slotted spoon, remove the beans from the dye. Sometimes your water can be a bit thicker from the beans. For this reason, I would avoid jumping directly to straining the beans and opt here to remove them with a spoon. When your fabric finishes soaking, you can pour out the alum solution and carefully pour the bean water into the pot over the fabric. Heat is not needed for this step. If your fabric is not completely covered, you can add some more water to the pot, but this does dilute the dye.
Leave that for a few more days, stirring every so often. I would check it when I woke up and before I went to bed and just mix it around a bit using tongs or a large spoon. I left my pillowcase in the dye for about two days. Rinse your fabric in a bathtub or sink, but be mindful that dye is dye and a white sink may be a bit purple-y after. (For this reason, I choose to rinse in my kitchen sink!) The color lightens up a ton once it dries, so even though it may originally look quite dark, once the fabric has been rinsed and dried it relaxes a bit.
Enjoy! I love how my pillowcase came out and am excited to use it. I hope you love whatever you make as well! To care for your dyed item, it’s best to run it through the wash either by itself or with darker clothes to account for any dye run-off during the first few washes. Overtime, the dye may fade, but remember — you can always dye it again!
Dyeing with Onion Skins
Not nearly as time consuming as dyeing with black beans, onion skins are a classic first venture into the world of natural dyes. You can use the skins of red and yellow onions, even shallots, but for this tutorial I used yellow onions. Whether you decide to stash onion skins (I usually throw mine after cooking into a container and keep it in my freezer), or help yourself to the skin scraps at the grocery store, or buy a bunch of onions for this specific purpose, onions are great to have around for cooking. I used the skin of about 4-5 large yellow onions but suggest using more to get a stronger color.
- Soda Ash – A mordant (helps the color adhere to the fiber). Often can be found with tie-dye supplies at craft stores or bought under the name “washing soda” at most grocery stores near the laundry detergent
- Onion Skins from 4-12 onions
- 1 large mordant container
- 1 large pot for simmering your onion skins
- Optional: Iron – Iron has the ability to alter the color of your dye and can be used across many natural dye projects. You can make your own solution by filling a mason jar with water and some rusted nails and letting them sit for two weeks, or you can buy a powder online
Let’s start with the onion skins. Peel your onions if the skins are not yet off. I then minced the onions and stuck them in a container in the freezer to be used in cooking later. Put your onion skins in a large pot (I used my Instant Pot), cover, and let simmer. Let simmer for at least 60-90 minutes. I left mine in my Instant Pot on the “Keep Warm” setting for eight or so hours as I went about my day. You’re basically making onion tea. While that’s happening, start soaking your fabric in your mordant. Soda ash does not require heat.
Once you’re happy with your dye color, strain out the onion skins and put in your fabric. For this project I’m using a pair of linen shorts I thrifted that seemed perfect for lounging around the house once the weather warms up. Leave your fabric in the dye for at least 60-90 minutes. I decided to leave mine in the Instant Pot on the “Keep Warm” setting overnight.
Once you’re happy with the color, remove your fabric from the dye, rinse your fabric, and then let it air dry. You’re done!
Dyeing with Turmeric
Feeling a need to brighten up your life? Turmeric will do that for you. The bright yellow easily stains…everything. I have yellow stains on jeans from eating Indian food, a cotton carpet of mine met the untimely fate of having a coconut curry dripped on it by a friend (who then grabbed a cotton hand towel to clean it up…) and it’s not easy to get out. Which makes it pretty good to dye with, but you’ve been warned! Wear protective gear or clothing you don’t mind possibly getting some yellow splashes on…possibly even gloves!
- Optional: Mordant – turmeric will dye with or without a mordant. I used alum to try it out
- ¼ cup Turmeric
- 1 large mordant pot
- 1 large pot for simmering your turmeric
Dyeing with turmeric is comparatively fast in relation to the last two natural dyes I’ve presented, so for this one, let’s start by getting your fabric mordanted. Check your alum for instructions on how much to use. Mine suggests two teaspoons for each gallon of water. I used 1.5 gallons to fill my pot and mixed in three teaspoons of alum once the water was warm. Keep the water warm on your stove and put what you’re dyeing into the pot.
Note: if you’re planning on making a design, you can apply rubber bands before mordanting so your fabric is ready to go straight into the dye bath after. Add more water to submerge the item if needed and more alum as well to keep the solution ratio accurate. Let it simmer for about an hour.
Remember how you just made onion skin tea? Now let’s make turmeric tea. On the stove, fill a pot with water and add your turmeric. If you’re dyeing in a larger quantity, you may want to increase the amount of turmeric you’re using. I’ve decided only to dip dye the bottoms of the jeans for this project. As your dye “tea” simmers, water will evaporate, so it’s better to start with more than you plan to need to dye your garment. Let your dye simmer for at least 30-60 minutes.
Once your dye seems ready and your fabric is mordanted, wring out your fabric and move it to the same pot as the dye. Let it sit for at least 15-30 minutes, but longer is okay too! I like to keep the turmeric dye on the stove on low the whole time.
Now comes the most risky part. Turmeric stains so so SO easily. If you tie-dyed, carefully remove the rubber bands as you rinse your item in the sink. If you tie-dyed and avoided some areas (like I avoided above the shins), you’re still likely going to get a slight yellow tint on the rest of that fabric. I did. I put mine right into the washing machine on a Spin & Drain cycle to help dry it out, before letting it air dry on a drying rack. Definitely run this one through the washing machine by itself, and even as you wash it in the future, be mindful about leaving it in the washer too long as the color will transfer to other, lighter color items if just sitting. It is pretty fast and satisfying to dye with, though!
I hope these instructions help you jump into using natural dyes! You can use it to revamp items in your closet (but be mindful that sometimes stains are amplified by natural dyes rather than covered up), and keep your clothes in use longer and out of a landfill. Natural dyes are all around you, from your pantry to your neighborhood. You can use pine cones, avocado skins and pits, oak galls, carob pods, marigolds, and so many more natural goodies to create a whole rainbow of colors.
I’d love to know what you choose to create, so be sure to tag me @samanthakirsch on Instagram so I can see!