It’s one thing to know how to dye clothes, and a whole other to know how to dye clothes using your own homemade natural dyes.

Fruits, vegetables, flowers, and more can all be used to create natural dyes for cotton and other fabrics, and they’re a great way to get beautiful results without all of the chemicals found in traditional dyes. They’re ideal for when you want to dye clothes with kids and are also biodegradable and easily disposable so you also don’t have to worry about harming the planet with your dye project.

Below, we’re taking a look at the types of things that you can use to make homemade dyes, with a quick tutorial on how to make natural dyes from plants and other homegrown products, courtesy of this Skillshare class taught by Liz Spencer of The Dogwood Dyer.

table cloth
Skillshare student Sarah Neylon used onion skins to make this pretty yellow dye, which she then applied to a tablecloth using the shibori dyeing method. 

What is Natural Dye?

Natural dye refers to any type of dye product made from natural ingredients, including plants, flowers, and foods. Tea leaves are also a great material to make natural dye from.  

Unlike synthetic dyes, natural dyes are free from harmful chemicals and carcinogens—neither of which you want to breathe in or have on your hands or clothes. And because they’re made from organic materials, you also don’t have to worry about them doing any harm to the natural environment.

If you’re interested in how to dye fabric without chemicals, then natural dyes are the way to go. As a bonus, you likely already have everything that you need for making natural dyes right at home.

What Can You Use to Make Natural Dyes?

You have a ton of options when it comes to organic ingredients that can be used to make natural dyes for cotton, silk, linen, and other fabric dyeing projects. What you choose depends on what color you’re trying to achieve, as well as what’s available to you.

Here are some options for creating different colors of dye:

  • Red and pink: Fresh beets or powdered beetroot, pomegranates, red and pink rose petals, avocado pits
  • Orange: Carrots, turmeric, butternut seeds or husk
  • Yellow: Marigolds, sunflower petals, paprika, celery leaves, onion skins
  • Green: Spinach, mint leaves, lilacs, artichokes
  • Indigo: Purple cabbage, blueberries, blackberries, woad, black beans

The shade and saturation level of your dye will vary based on the plant, fruit, or flower that you choose, as well as the technique that you follow. You can also modify your colors by adjusting their pH levels, which we’ll go over how to do in the next section.

So how many types of natural dyes are there? Hundreds, when you consider how many different materials can be used to make them. Once you get the process down, you can start to explore what happens when you try to make dyes out of other ingredients, such as various flowers or plants from your backyard. You can also mix it up further with additives that adjust the completed shade.

How to Make Dye from Food and Plants

The process for how to make natural dyes is actually a lot more simple than you might think. And once you master it, you’ll be able to dye clothes using your own homemade products—all with no chemicals in sight.

Ready to get started? Check out this overview of how to make natural dyes from Spencer’s course on how to dye fabric using products from nature.

Step 1: Collect Your Dyestuff and Other Essential Tools

red cababge
Red cabbage, avocado pits, and black beans form the base of dyes that Spencer makes in her Skillshare course. 

The first step in how to make natural dyes for fabric is to figure out what organic materials you’re going to use. Most of the time, this will depend on what colors you want to make, however you could also just use what you have around the house and see what colors you can create.

Other materials that you’ll need include:

  • A saucepan and heat source, such as a hotplate or your kitchen stove
  • Jars
  • Cheesecloth (coffee filters or fabric scraps will work fine too)

Check out the full course to learn about optional additional materials, including the materials you’ll need to actually dye your fabric.

Step 2: Extract Your Dye

These dyes were made using solar extraction, which involves soaking the organic materials in water for a week with plenty of access to sunlight. 

The process of turning organic materials into dye is called “extraction,” since you’re extracting the natural colors from the product.

You have a couple of options for how to extract. Spencer recommends adding your ingredient and cool water to a jar and placing it on a windowsill for a week or so to let the sun do the work for you. Even an overnight soak will get you some good, usable color.

Want to use your dye sooner? A quicker extraction method is to simply chop up your desired ingredient and add it to a saucepan with enough water to fully cover it. Bring the water to a simmer over medium heat and allow to simmer for one hour. Then allow the water to come to room temperature.

With both solar extraction and the quick heated extraction method you’ll want to finish making your dye by straining it. That’s where the cheesecloth (or coffee filters or fabric scraps) will come in handy.

Step 3: Modify Your Colors (Optional)

By adjusting the pH level of your dye you can change the color that you end up with. 

If you’re not totally satisfied with the colors that you’ve achieved—or if you just want to play around a little more—you can switch up the hues by modifying their pH levels.

Many natural dyes are pH sensitive, which allows you to change the color with the addition of something acidic (like lemon juice or vinegar) or something alkaline (like baking soda).

If you’re intent on darkening your dye, then a good way to do it is to add something that rusts. Spencer notes that she’ll sometimes add steel wood nails to darken her colors, or even create iron-based natural dyes by adding nails to equal parts vinegar and water.

How to Set Natural Dyes

To actually use your dyes on fabric, you’ll need to set them first. This is done by applying a fixative—also called a mordant—to your fabric prior to dyeing.

Salt and vinegar are both natural fixatives and a good way to go with these types of dyes, with salt being ideal for dyes made from fruits and berries and vinegar ideal for dyes made from plants.

Combine either ½ cup salt with eight cups water or equal parts vinegar and water in a saucepan, then add your fabric and simmer for one hour. When you’re done, run the fabric under cool water and then start applying your dye.

Ready to Dye Your Wardrobe?

Botanical Dye Made Easy: Create Sustainable, Natural & Stylish Clothing

Written by:

Laura Mueller