Natural Projects 2 - Giving a New Life to Old Clothes Using Plant Dyes

I’ve been so happy lately with the great response I’ve been getting to this new site saltwaterstories.me,  I was a little afraid to steer away from just the foodie sphere, but it has been so amazing to have an outlet to talk about environmental issues, get crafty and creative and even to talk a little about other things like social anxiety! So I guess thats just a little thank you in the forward! 


I’ve long been a person who loved a good project, especially since I was little - art, food, decoration, building you name it. Taking on a creative endeavour (e.g. making a roll for my chef knives over winter, or making loads of hats) or learning a new skill. 

On a yoga retreat last year I learned about how to dye easter eggs with food scraps and it got me to thinking. Could I give new life to clothes I had stained in my foodie exploits by dying them? I didn't want to use chemical dyes and I had loved that idea of getting one more use out of my food before it went to the compost. So I started to research natural dyes. It turns out there is a wealth of knowledge online if you're keen to try it and one site I particularly liked was www.botanicalthreads.co.uk

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Knowing what I’m like and that I wont give anything a go if its too difficult, I jumped in at the paddling pool instead of the deep end. So here is a super simple recipe for dying with red onion skins (you could also try white onion skins for a more yellowy colour) with as few ingredients as possible. 

Golden Rules

 

Natural Dyes work best (or only work) with natural fibres - the tshirt I used was a mix of organic cotton and tencel (also a natural fibre)
Mordant - is the word for something that helps the dye adhere to the fabric
Variation - is a blessing not a curse - variation in pH, age of your ingredients, how hot your water boils, the composition of your pot etc will all affect the final colour result (even how you hang the garment), so just see this as each piece being beautiful and unique and accept that it will not have the homogeneity of a synthetic piece.
Dont mix the equipment you use with that you use for food - use an old pot and sieve and keep a wooden spoon just for these experiments. 
Gloves and an apron would be smart, learn from my laziness. 

 

 

You’ll Need 

 

1 big aluminium pot, salt, water, natural clothes soap, lots of onion skins (enough to fill half the pot), a basin (or another pot), a sieve, glass jars to keep your leftover dye, clothes horse or wooden hanger to dry your creation, fabric to dye - you could do something small like cloth napkins to start or give new life to old clothes like I did

 

What to do 

 

  1. Soak your fabric in the basin with a water and salt mix - I 1/3 filled the basin and added a small handful of salt, mixed it up and then soaked the tshirt for 24. The fabric should be clean already (ideally washed with a natural detergent). This prepares the fabric for dying and is called a mordant. You can use soy milk as another natural mordant, but I thought it easier to start with simple saltwater. 
  2. Make your dye - add your onion skins (give them a good rinse if theres any mould or anything on them) to the pot and cover with water. Bring to a simmer for 1 hour, trying not to let it boil. 
  3. Leave to steep and cool over night off the hob after the hour. 
  4. The next day - empty the basin and squeeze as much liquid of the fabric as possible and set aside. Strain the skins (using the sieve) out of the onion mix - the liquid should be a dark purple - into the basin. Pour the strained liquid back into the pot. 
  5. Add the fabric into the pot of purple liquid, pushing down with a wooden spoon or with gloved hands. If you allow some of the fabric to be on the surface (due to air bubbles) it affects the evenness of the dye, but it can also be a cool pattern, I left it as is. 
  6. Leave the fabric in the dye for a min of one hour, the longer you leave it the stronger the colour. I left mine in for about 3 hours, but you could even leave it overnight. 
  7. Squeeze the fabric over the pot (you can keep this liquid in the glass jars for future dying projects) and rince the fabric in cold water till the water runs clear. 
  8. Handwash the fabric in a natural soap and then leave to air dry (away from direct sunlight). 
  9. Voila! A beautiful unique piece, you could do one more wash on cold to ensure its colour fast and then you’re ready to go. 
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Will you have a go at this? Let me know if you’d like to see more posts like this in future. I’m planning to try a few household items next like napkins and tea towels!

Finn Ni Fhaolain