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Natural Dyes for Vintage Fabric colours

Natural Dyes for Vintage Fabric colours

Natural dyes have always been interesting to me, I’ve played around with them since high school, using onion skins, tea, coffee and various other plant matter.

As I’m into vintage and the colours produced by natural dyes are the closest I’ve seen to the colours available back in the 1940s and 50s. these are ideal for what I’m working on,  it also helps that some of them have an aging effect on  natural fabrics like cottons and linens and some blends; shiny bright new colours are able to be faded back to the right look for these eras well as I see them anyway! I will experiment with some other blends but for now I’m sticking to cotton and linen and a bit of polycotton as they colour better and are closer to what was likely to be available, a lot of the blends made now would not have even been thought of back then.

As part of my previous blog where I made something every week, I had made a pretty sundress as one of the last week projects and it was a little new looking  for me. I put it into a dye bath of tea, using 20 teabags and enough water to cover the garment. It’s hard to show comparisons with the actual garment as the time delay between colouring it and getting it dry etc was too long and the light changed, so I have recreated it with a piece of fabric to show you the difference side by side. I was extremely happy with the result.

and heres the dress, well the back of it anyway!

Here is the method,

  1. add 4 teabags per litre of water or more bags if you want a darker stain and bring to the boil, then turn off the heat  
  2. remove the teabags.
  3. add clean damp garment/material and stir to make sure of even coverage. The longer you leave it in the water the darker the colour will be. I left my dress in for 20mins but you can leave it overnight if you wish. It won’t keep going really dark as in there is a limit of colour depth.
  4. Remove from the dye bath and put into a spin cycle in your washing machine as you want to make sure there is no streaking which I got from drip-drying my dress.
  5. To preserve the colour put your garment/material into the dryer and dry on the hottest cycle as this will insure the staining (because that’s what it is!) will set. So if you’re not happy with the colour you can wash it at this stage to fade it back, maybe even remove the staining but that’s not something I’ve tried so it may be permanent to some degree already so be prepared for this!

This is what the tea colour looks like on plain white fabric, I have used an off white background and included a piece of the white fabric so you can get a good idea of the colour variation.

This next sample is using beetroot, I think it makes a beautiful pink tone that is also very vintage, it’s more a rose pink rather than bright or baby pink. To make this dye I used the top and tail and peelings of 3 beetroot to 2 litres of water and 2 tablespoons of cooking salt as a setting agent. This amount will only do a small item or piece of fabric but it gives you an indication of amounts of plant matter you would need per litre of water and salt.

Boil the peelings, salt and water for 15mins to extract the colour and then strain off the liquid. Put your damp clothing/material into the colour bath and stir to make sure all the fabric is coloured and even then leave to sit for at least half an hour, overnight will give a better result of course. Once again, wring out in the spin cycle in your washing machine and then set in the dryer on its hottest cycle. As you can see from my sample there are a few spots of other colour, I’m not sure what caused this but think maybe stirring more often during the colour process may have helped prevent those.

Next up we have onion skins, don’t be deceived by the pale colour they produce a good warm orange type colour from only a small amount. I brought 6 onions that had a fair amount of brown skin on them and peeled off the dark layers. In one litre of boiling water I put the onion skins with 2 tablespoons of cooking salt and cooked for 20 mins on simmer. I then strained off the vegetable matter and placed the fabric in the mixture. Occasionally stirring it helps to make an even coverage but as you can see from my sample it wasn’t completely even, I think perhaps more stirring would have helped with this. Mental note – become a good stirrer!

This next sample was a bit disappointing, I have never tried this one before as I’m not much of a fan of green myself but thought I should trial it for you.  I used 700gm of spinach to one litre of water, adding the un-chopped green leaves to boiling water and again 2 table spoons of salt, boiling for 20 mins and straining off the vegetable matter which I had kept whole to make it easier to remove as small particles can make the staining uneven; as you can see the final result if pale and not very green. I presume you need a lot more spinach to get a good result but considering this was quite a bit for just a small sample it might be uneconomical to use.

Finally I attempted yellow and for this I used lemon zest. The colour created in the water was a pretty bright yellow so I thought I would have had a much better result, sadly it wasn’t to be, the end colour was so pale it was barely noticeable so it wasn’t worth showing the sample. 

Im keen to try other types of vegetable dyes and Ill add them to my blog when i do, if anyone else had tried this I'd be keen to hear your results too.

Posted: Monday 10 March 2014


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