I was packing for a trip when I pulled a yellow blouse from the bottom of my dresser that I hadn’t seen in weeks. I bought it while was in India from artisans that use only natural dyes to color their textiles. I felt compelled to bury my face in the cloth in order to see whether any traces of its original scent lingered on the fabric.
The blouse was dyed yellow with turmeric, and the root’s strong smell always takes me down memory lane. When I was in India, not only did I experience foods and Ayurvedic remedies perfumed with turmeric, artisan workshops and design studios carried its scent too.
Unfortunately and fortunately, the shirt no longer smelled of turmeric nor did it glow the bright yellow I remembered from when I bought it in India. Its gaudy color had faded to a mild mustard and its fabric reeked of Tide laundry detergent.
Natural dyes are magical. Ordinary plants and roots are transformed into a spectrum of evolving shades and textures; their colors vary depending on the fibers they are applied to, the mordants (fixing agents) that are used to set their colors and, yes, elements of weather such as humidity or cold. And in addition to the magic, many people have turned to natural dyes in order to fight today’s environmental and human health crises. Natural dyes don’t use harsh, toxic chemicals and require minimal resources.
Many innovators in the field of natural dye are chemists and engineers. The endless formulas of mordants that react differently with various colors and quantities are mindboggling. Did you know when you mix cow urine with Indigo, it increases its color fastness? Or that Copper brings out green color in dyes? Me neither.
There are also simple mordants, like salt (used mostly with dyes derived from berries) and vinegar (used mostly for dyes derived from plants) that anyone – even you! – can play with.
While many chemists fight the dye’s tendency to fade over time, its dynamism is what I love most about natural dye. I have a pair of jeans colored with Indigo, and I can’t wait until its color sheds into naturally worn patches. My magenta and black scarf dyed with cochineal and iron is ever evolving. And the fact that my once shockingly yellow blouse becomes tamer with each wash feels natural to me – a reminder that things aren’t supposed to stay the same forever.
- Avocado pit: yields delicate pink/orange.
When I first learned that avocados are classified as fruits and not veggies, I felt tricked. And now avocados are at it again, betraying my senses and broadening the relevance of the 7 layer dip. Avocado pits have been used centuries to color textiles a deep orange color. Word is that the pits smells awful when being prepared… they must be boiled and soaked in water for hours (some say days) before beginning to leach orange and pink. Holy guacamole!
- Chamomile leaves: yields deep green. Sleepy time? Nope. Chamomile serves several purposes beyond lulling our eyes shut. The leaves can be boiled with water to create a deep green dye for all sorts of fibers!
- Red onion skin: yields light green.
It doesn’t surprise me that red onion skin is strong enough to leach permanent dye. What does surprise me is the color it creates – a light green. The skins need to be soaked and rubbed onto the material.
- Red Cabbage: yields lavender
Boiling red cabbage with salt and water isn’t just a dieting trend. It produces a beautiful lavender color that can be used to dye many types of fiber. If my stomach lining looks this pretty after red cabbage soup, I’d be down for a cabbage cleanse.
- Prickly Cactus Pear: yields magenta and purple
Native American groups have been using cactus pear juice for dyeing textiles for centuries. The most effective way to utilize this fruit for dye is by fermentation. The cactus juice will need to stand in a warm place for a couple of weeks before the fermentation process begins. If vinegar is added, the solution will become more blue. The pigment in prickly pear is betalain, which is the same pigment in beets! Pretty!