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Today we’re talking about natural dyes: what they are, why I choose to use them, and how long they last.
I also recorded a twenty-minute video on this topic. If you’d rather watch me discuss natural dyes instead of reading the blog, please click here or click the link at the bottom of this article.
Storytime: Once upon a time, I believe I was in middle school, I was required to do a science fair project. This was a requirement for my school’s science program beginning in 4th grade, so I’d done a few of these by the time I was in middle school. Science Fair was a big deal! We spent what felt like months and months coming up with our ideas, researching, testing, writing up conclusions, and making our presentation displays.
My project this particular year was using food products as dye on cheap, cotton yarn. I don’t remember what I tested explicitly. I believe red cabbage, onion skins, and something else. Of the five science fair projects I did as a child, this one was by far my favorite. It amazed me how I could take ordinary things from my kitchen and change the color of my yarn with them! I remember crocheting a tidy granny square with the finished yarn for each of my experiments and proudly gluing them to my display board. I have my mom to thank because this idea was 100% hers. So, thanks, Mom. I’m sure you could never have imagined what planting that seed would do for me years down the road!
While I don’t still have that project, I find myself wondering about what those granny squares would look like today.
I can’t remember my process now, but I’m guessing it didn’t involve a mordant to properly adhere the dye to the yarn. But I’d love to see it.
So that’s how I was introduced to plant dyes.
Plant dyes, if you’re not completely sure, are dyes that are created from harvesting pieces of nature. I frequently refer to them as natural dyes for this reason. And, also, because I don’t ONLY use plants. Natural dyes can be created from flower petals, roots, tree bark, and even insects.
And these are exactly the reason I love to use them. I love that I can take nature and create something beautiful with it! The dyes that most yarn is dyed with are manmade, require a lot of natural resources to make such as water, and produce a lot of waste (which is being dumped polluting our precious waterways). The resulting powdered dyes are harmful to breathe as well.
While natural dyes can also negatively impact our environment, for example, by over-harvesting, I strongly believe that what nature offers us is far better for us than anything womankind has dreamed up so far.
Will natural dyes fade?
Now, I’d like to address one last thing today. It’s a question I expected to get asked when I first began Henlia Handmade, but it actually hasn’t come up as often as I would have thought. The question is: Will the color in my yarn wash out or fade quickly? There does seem to be a stigma of natural dyes not lasting as long as manmade, “acid” dyes. My answer to this is that it depends on the dyes and the dyer.
For Henlia Handmade, I choose to use almost exclusively, natural dyes that have been scientifically proven to last beyond the typical usage of an item. Generally speaking, fruit, while oftentimes will stain our clothing, is NOT a long-lasting natural dye. For example, let’s say you’re diving into a delicious marionberry pie while wearing a cotton t-shirt. And in an unfortunate feeding moment, marionberry pie splatters across the front of your shirt. You run your shirt through the washing machine several times but it’s no use, the stains remain.
But before conceding that you’ve lost your shirt to that delicious moment, let’s take a look at it again. Do those stains still look like the purply-red color of the berries? Or have they turned a gray-brown color?
I’d be surprised if it still looks like a fresh marionberry. Because unless a dye has the specific qualities to withstand light, washing, and rubbing, it’s just not going to stick around well. Most also need a mordant, but we can talk about that in-depth on another day.
Let’s take one more example. Let’s visit a historical museum.
Have you ever noticed the clothes, rugs, and other textile goods while you’ve looked around? Have you ever stopped to wonder how they dyed textiles before, say, the late 1800s? If my memory serves me, I believe synthetic dyes began to surge in popularity in the early 1900s, so you can assume any textiles you see in that museum from before 1900 were dyed with natural dyes.
The photos you see above are of some antique rugs that I found through a quick Google search. The colors are still vibrant and beautiful. Natural dyes are really cool! You can click on the photos to go directly to the rug website to check them out more closely.
Now while I won’t say natural dyes do not fade, there is definite proof that when chosen correctly, adhered properly, and, of course, taken care of gently, natural dyes can definitely last even beyond the normal usage of a hand-knit item. I’m even confident in saying that many natural dyes would work very well for heirloom pieces. Perhaps even better than some synthetic dyes. And we do want dyes to degrade eventually. From the earth, back to the earth.
If you’re interested in finding out more about the science behind natural dyes, I’d encourage you to pick up this book, The Art and Science of Natural Dyes by Joy Boutrup and Catharine Ellis. While I might not recommend this book if you’re just wanting a play around a bit with plant dyes…it’s quite scientific, but it’s a wonderful and thorough resource for you if you’re really looking to dive deep into natural dyes.
I hope you enjoyed learning a bit more about natural dyes. If you’d like to watch the video I recorded for our knitting chair chat, please click the button below.
I’d love to read your comments and questions below and I’ll do my best to answer them.