Dyeing FAQ

Have you read one of my books and now have a question? These FAQs are for you! You're welcome to email me with questions and I will gradually answer them here. Maybe you've messaged me on Instagram and I didn't reply? I'm so sorry - I promise it's nothing personal. I just get hundreds of messages and it's impossible to reply to everyone. Pop your question into an email and I will try to update this FAQ on a regular basis.

Which plants do you dye with in your botanical dyeing book?

In Botanical Colour at your Fingertips I dye with a wide range of plants including avocado skins and stones, pomegranate skins, nettles, alder cones, gorse, tea, culinary herbs (like thyme and rosemary), lavender, eucalyptus.... the list goes on. These are the plants that are at my fingertips, but the purpose of the book is to show you how to dye with any kind of plants. You can use my methods and learn to use the plants that you have available to you and create your own local palette of colours. Do not feel limited by the plants that I show in my book or even on my Instagram, as you can dye with a much wider range of plants than this. You may live in a different climate and have completely different plants available to you. You can apply my methods to any plants.

Note: my book will not show you how to dye with indigo or woad which require a different dyeing technique. I share a 'fresh leaf' method with Japanese indigo leaves in this blog post.

Do plant dyes survive washing?

Yes, if you use the right dyes and suitable dyeing techniques. I have a wardrobe full of naturally dyed clothing and wash everything in my washing machine. This blog post will answer your question in more detail.

I dyed fabric in [beetroot] or [red cabbage] but it faded! Why did that happen?

There are some plants that will never dye fabric, no matter which mordant we choose to use or how well we try to dye the fibres. Red cabbage and beetroot are examples of plants that are stains, not dyes. These stains will wash out of fabric after a few washes – some more quickly than others. Read more in this blog post.

How can I fix dye after I've dyed fabric?

When we think about fixing dye, we need to look at what we do before we begin dyeing. (This answer refers to cellulose fibres such as cotton, linen, hemp etc). As I outline in Botanical Colour at your Fingertips, after thoroughly washing the fabric, I suggest pretreating fabric in soya milk. The soy protein coats the fibres and makes the fabric act more like a protein fabric, and as a result, dyes bind to the fabric better. The dye lasts longer and we can dye darker colours. Heat is another important factor. We need some kind of heat as part of the dye process, whether that's heating fabric in a dye bath, or ironing or steaming fabric that has been painted with plant dyes. When we fix a dye, this isn't something that we just think about afterwards - it's something we plan into the process. If you've dyed something with a natural dye and haven't prepared the fabric beforehand, one thing you can do is steam the fabric in a steaming pot with plain water for half an hour. The heat may help the dye fix somewhat. I can't guarantee anything as the result will be determined by other factors, e.g. was there a coating on the fabric before dyeing that needed to be washed off.

When I soak fabric in soya milk, do I need to wash it out before drying?

This is refering to the pretreatment method I use on fabric, as outlined in Botanical Colour at your Fingertips. No, don't rinse the milk off. The idea is to leave a coating of milk on the fabric. If you wash it off, it will rinse off the soy protein before it's had the chance to bind to the fibres. The aim is to coat the fabric with three layers of milk and dry between each coating. Allow the fabric to dry thoroughly before dipping into the bucket for the next coating.

How long should I dip the fabric into the bucket of milk?

I recommend a dip and swish around, so the fabric is thoroughly coated. We are aiming for an even coating of milk, so keep agitating the fabric until you feel it is thoroughly wet. Then take out of the bucket, squeeze out the liquid, then put on a spin cycle in the washing machine.

My avocado skins go mouldy when I try to dry them. Do you have any tips?

Have you read my blog post on avocado dyeing yet? In that article I explain that I wash the skins under the tap and scrape with a spoon to remove as much green flesh as possible. Then I wipe them over with a cloth to remove most of the moisture and leave on the draining rack for a little while. After an hour or so, I transfer them onto a windowsill. At this point I make sure they are face up so the inner side of the skins (where we scrape out the flesh) can dry. When herbalists dry plants for medicine making, they make sure the leaves and flowers are separated and spaced out. You need to give them enough space to dry properly. This will reduce the chance of them going mouldy.

What's the best way to store acorns for the future?

Acorns dry really nicely and keep for a long time. But first we need to pick out the ones with dark spots as these are likely to be infested with acorn grubs, which will eventually turn into acorn weevils. I learnt this the first year I dyed with acorns and I kept them in a box, and within a couple of weeks, my box was crawling with weevils! Never again! It's important to only dry acorns that are in perfect condition, or collect ones that already have a little hole in the side so you can see the weevil has drilled a hole to escape. Once you've picked out your nice looking acorns, lay these onto a try and let them dry in the air. Then store in a paper bag or cardboard box. When they are dried well, they will keep for a long time.

Can I dye with green acorns or must they be brown?

It doesn't make any difference. First, let's talk about why we are dyeing with acorns. Generally we will choose acorns as a dye plant because they contain tannins. The tannins make a wonderfully rich dye bath that dyes fabric a pinky tan colour. The dye then reacts spectacularly well with iron and the colour transforms to dark grey. The tannins are present in the acorns whether they are green or brown.

If I don't want to use ferrous sulphate crystals, can I use an iron pot?

Yes, that's a great idea. When you dye in an iron pot, your dye will gradually darken as the dye reacts with the metal in the pot. (You can do the same with copper pots and shift your dyes to green or yellow tones, depending on the plant.)

There are a few other ways to work with iron:

You can make your own rust water by soaking pieces of metal in a mixture of water (and vinegar to speed up the process). After a few weeks, this will have turned into a rusty liquid that you can pour out and use to darken your dyes.

Alternatively, you can use ferrous sulphate crystals. I buy mine from Wild Colours. A small packet has lasted me a few years as I use just a small sprinkle each time.

Remember to never let iron near your aluminium pans as the iron will react with the aluminium and potentially contaminate your pot for all future dyeing. If you've accidentally done this, give your pot a very thorough clean with a scouring pad and see if you can remove all traces of iron. Then test it with a pale dye and see if it darkens.

Do I need a separate pot for dyeing, or can I use my kitchen saucepans?

I always recommend you have a separate set of dyeing equipment. Many dye plants are not edible, so it is not safe to dye in your kitchen pots. I say this is all of my books - it is so important.

Can you reduce dye by leaving it to sit on a windowsill in the sun?

If you have some sunshine, then yes, this works well! I often let jars of dye evaporate on a sunny windowsill so they become more concentrated. The key point here is to make sure they dry out before they go mouldy. I find this works best with small jars of dye, rather than a large dye pot.

Can you freeze or refridgerate dye to save it for the future?

Yes, you can do both, but it's worth mentioning that the colour may dull over time. Dye will generally keep in the fridge for a few weeks. The exact length of time depends on the dye plant, as some just go mouldy quicker than others. Also, adding iron will help dyes last longer, so that can be a useful option. If you clean your jars very well and even sterilise them, this will possibly help the dye keep for longer. You could try adding in a couple of cloves or drops of wintergreen essential oil. But essentially we are storing jars of plant infused water, and water only lasts for so long before it goes mouldy.

Dyes last much longer in the freezer, but it's worth asking yourself if you want to waste valuable freezer space. Try not to fall into the trap of freezing everything as it can quickly build up! Nevertheless, freezing can be helpful if you've made a lovely colour, but you're waiting for a particular item of clothing to dye. You could freeze the dye until your clothing or fabric is mordanted/pretreated. You can also freeze small amounts of concentrated dye in ice cube trays as Yasuna Iman shows us in Plant Dye Zine. These ice cubes can be defrosted at a later date and you'll have just enough dye for painting.

Can I set the dye in the tumble dryer instead of waiting a week before rinsing?

I would never recommend putting fabric into the tumble dryer that hasn't been rinsed, as it will transfer dye to your machine. The point of wating a few days before rinsing out the excess dye is to simply give the dye more time to bond to the fabric. Time plays a role in natural dyeing and in my experience I've found it helps the fabric retain more colour. But if you're very keen to wear a piece of dyed clothing, then simply rinse it then give it a wash. You've already heated it in the dye pot, so it doesn't need the additional heat from the tumble dryer. But if you've painted fabric with dye, the it definitely needs some kind of heat treatment to help fix the dye. You can iron the fabric with a hot iron (check the fabric type and use an appropriate heat for that fabric) or steam the fabric in a pot with plain water.

Do you have any tips for growing Japanese indigo?

I sow my Persicaria tinctoria seeds in the spring, as we do with most annual plants. I'm in the UK, but if you live in a hotter climate, you might have a longer growing season. I make a little "greenhouse" for my windowsill using a small tray and a plastic freezer bag. I pierce holes in the bag so there's ventillation in the little greenhouse. The seeds germinate best when just sprinkled onto the surface - not buried under a layer of soil. Persicaria tinctoria needs warm, humid conditions to germinate, and the makeshift greenhouse really helps. Keep an eye on the soil to make sure it is moist at all times. I keep the bag over the tray for a few weeks until the seedlings are well established. The plants will grow happily on the windowsill for a few weeks, then I put them outside in June. They are very thirsty plants so keep them well watered.

I'd like to make a dress and dye it myself. Should I dye the fabric first, or make the dress and dye it afterwards?

There isn't a simple answer to this, as there are pros and cons of each method.

If you make the dress then dye it, there may be areas that collect the dye and it leaves an uneven result. It's very hard to get a perfectly even result on a garment with seams. If you stir your dye pot very often, then it is achievable, as I've written about in this article. However, perhaps this is a time to try scrunch dyeing or some other kind of tie dye? If you aim for a patterned result, then this can be a lot more forgiving on a garment.

Alternatively, you can dye the fabric first. The downside of this method is that when you join two pieces of fabric together, they have slightly different depths of colour and this will be quite noticeable on seams. But this can also add to the beauty of the garment... so it is a matter of taste.

I would recommend experimenting on some less precious fabric first to get a feel for what you are doing. Don't spend days making a beautiful dress and dye it in your first dye pot. We learn from experimenting and it's best to try out a couple of dye pots and maybe dye some cotton sheeting. Then when you're happy with the method, move onto your dress. I know how tempting it is to dye clothing, but I don't want you to be disappointed. Saying that, you can always rescue any dye pot mishaps by eco-printing with leaves, bundle dyeing with flowers or pounding plants onto fabric. All of these techniques are included in my Plant Dye Zine.