For natural dyes, look to the yard or kitchen

By Katherine Roth AP | 3/28/2014, 11:11 a.m.
Transforming weeds, kitchen scraps and other natural elements into a rainbow of textile dyes is a concept as old as ...
This undated photo provided by Sasha Duerr shows a color palette Duerr has dubbed “compost colors,” dyed using onion skins and avocado pits, from left, yellow onion skin and alum salts, yellow onion skin with no mordant, avocado pits and soda ash, avocado pits with no mordant, and avocado pits and iron added. These colors were made with alum, iron and soda ash, with hues and shades that vary depending on mordants and modifiers that are used. Photo by Sasha Duerr.

"Just about anything you feel comfortable around, like blackberries or elderberries, should be fine, but there are some plants that should be avoided,’’ she warned.

Lily of the Valley is toxic and could harm the water supply if you dump it down the drain, she said, and although Native Americans traditionally used bloodroot for natural dyes, "it’s not a large plant, so if you start using it for dye you’re depleting the population.’’

The beautiful purple berries on pokeweed plants, although tempting, are poisonous and should also be avoided, Uyterhoeven said.

To be safe, designate a pot specifically for dyeing projects, and use gloves to protect your skin. If you’re dyeing in the kitchen, work in the sink and avoid surfaces used for preparing foods. Although natural-dyeing books from the '60s, '70s and '80s are plentiful, experts warn that books from that period often recommend using toxic substances like chrome, copper or even lead as mordants.

"You just don’t want to be inhaling that kind of thing,’’ said Duerr.

As a rule, leaves should be chopped, the more finely the more colorful the pigment; berries should be mashed with a potato masher; and bark and roots can be shredded or ground.

Wrapping the natural materials in muslin or putting them in some old pantyhose makes projects neater and easier.

If boiling berries, sometimes the longer they are boiled, the lighter the pigment, so for darker shades either add more berries or let the water cool slowly.

But onion skins are the classic home dyeing project for beginners.

"We do onion skins with kids here at the botanic garden. The yellow color is fantastic,’’ said Uyterhoeven. "People can go to farmers’ markets or grocery stores and get loads of onion skins, because people usually just throw them out.’’

First, peel the papery red or yellow skins from lots of onions, ideally enough to fill your biggest pot. Aluminum pots make for a brighter color dye, but any pot will work. Cover the skins with water and bring to a boil. Then simmer for at least an hour.

Next, in a separate pot, soak the natural fabric or yarn you’d like to dye in hot water for at least 15 minutes. Wet fabric absorbs dye much better than dry fabric does. For tie-dyed fabrics, just fold and then wrap rubber bands around the still-dry fabric first.

Strain the onionskins from the big dye pot and discard them, then bring the pigmented water to a boil again, and place your wet fabric or yarn in the pot. Simmer for at least an hour, stirring as needed to keep the fabric submerged. Let the fabric cool in the dye bath or, better yet, soak for a night or two.

Rinse the fabric in cool running water until the water runs clear. Hang dry, and savor the moment along with the earthy hue.

All dyed fabrics should be washed before being used in any craft.