Just Because It’s Natural Doesn’t Mean It’s Better

One of my groups planned a discussion on vegetable dyeing so I went to my kitchen cupboards for raw materials. I settled on tea and turmeric. The internet sources I consulted assured me these would be easy vegetable dyes to use and the photos showed results with discernible color. I considered using rosemary until I realized I would need a hillside’s worth of the plant.

Those same internet sources also had contradictory instructions for using vegetables in dyeing. Despite breezy posts about dyeing a wedding outfit with turmeric, I found specific instructions as to amounts and timing were thin on the ground. Some sources scrupulously show their methods and results but I lacked the raw materials to replicate them.

I found most instructions were for dyeing wool and I had cotton fabric. I gather it’s much harder to get good color from vegetable dyes on cotton. There was no one recommended way to pretreat my cloth. Some instructions called for vinegar or lemon juice; others called for a mordant such as alum. I ended up using alum with the turmeric but I might have done better to use the acid. I used nothing extra for the tea dyeing as I thought the tannin in the tea would be enough.

I decided on a recipe based on the weight of the fabric to be dyed and brewed up my tea and turmeric in water. For the tea I used black tea that had been in my cupboard for at least 10 years. The recipe called for so many ounces of turmeric per quarts of water. After I had my dye pot bubbling away I realized I should have measured the turmeric by weight, not volume. Oops.

The results? The tea left a faint tinge of color on my fabrics, but nothing the least bit attractive. Think dingy laundry. The turmeric resulted in a bold yellow, but I should have stirred my pot more as the color came out blotchy.

FabricsBeforeDyeingHere’s my original fabric. The turquoise jagged lines were made with alcohol inks. Some of the other fabrics were printed.

TurmericCookingHere’s the turmeric simmering in my thrift store stainless steel pot.

TurmericFabricDryingMy fabrics after many, many rinses and washes. Note the alcohol inks are still as intense as they were before dyeing. The Kona white cotton (on the right) took color the best.

Would I do this again? Probably not, at least not with cotton. I used a lot of water with the turmeric and I’m not confident how long the color will last. One source hinted at the fugitive quality of the bright color. And I don’t want to harbor any fugitives in my quilts.

14 Comments

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14 responses to “Just Because It’s Natural Doesn’t Mean It’s Better

  1. Pip

    I have tried dyeing wool fabric with turmeric and it came out a lovely bright yellow, but I did notice that after a year or so it has faded (and it has been stored out of the light). I would like to try with fresh turmeric and see how that works. I too, wonder how tea, coffee and laksa soup can stain fabrics so well and can be nearly impossible to remove but when you try to dye it deliberately the colour is barely noticeable.

    • It’s those fugitive colors. I’ve seen old vegetable dyed rugs where some colors have vanished. Best of luck with the turmeric. And all I can think of regarding coffee and tea is the concentration of the liquid may be stronger when it gets accidentally spilled?

  2. Thanks for linking to me!
    Sorry I wasn’t able to help you more about the soda ash with cotton, etc. I just just read a post that talked about using alum, then tannin water, then alum again with cotton, and getting good results, and I may give that a try. But it didn’t go into detail on how to prepare the tannin water.
    And thinking more about the poisonous plants, I have gotten great results on wool with pokeberry, but that is poisonous, and I haven’t seen any information on if a dyed item could cause a reaction. Right now I keep my naturally dyed items for myself, but if I was going to give them to someone, I would want to do more research on that.

    • Good to hear someone may be getting good results on cotton. It does sound like a lot of work, though. I think the question raised was more if the poisonous plants would harm the dyer during the dyeing process. I would think it prudent to wear rubber gloves but sometimes enthusiasm causes people to forget caution. However, if the plant material is boiled to extract color, the dyer might accidentally inhale harmful fumes.

  3. Well, your post title had me going and thinking “arsenic!” But I really appreciate the info you shared in your dyeing exploration and results. It looks like that thrift store pot was a great find!

  4. Dianne Whyte

    This is interesting. I went to Burma (Myanmar) a couple of years ago and one of the visits we did was to a textile factory. I was fascinated by the dyeing and weaving and, at one point, asked what dyes they use, hoping to get a list of vegetable/natural dyes. They proudly told me that they are now able to get Procion dyes imported and they are so happy because they are so much better than the natural ones! Personally I nearly always use procion dyes and have only made brief visits to the “natural dyes arena” but I’ve never had particularly stunning results on the natural route. Very disappointing.

    • I’m with you on the procion dyes. Some members of my quilt group got good results with beets and blueberries, but I don’t know how stable the results are, given they didn’t really wash the fabric afterwards.

      • Dianne whyte

        I did get an interesting result boiling muslin with coffee beans. I brought beans and cloth to the boil in a saucepan and left it simmering in the bottom oven in my Aga ( Northern European cast iron range) for a couple of days. There was an interesting contrast between where the beans had touched the fabric and where they hadn’t. I washed it in very hot water several times and it seemed to hold its colour. I did it as an experiment but I can’t see myself repeating the process.

      • I don’t understand how badly coffee and tea can stain tablecloths and shirts yet not really change the color of cloth when you want them to. I know that fabric someone covered with boiled beets took color well, though I don’t know how much of the color would last after washing.

  5. Next time somebody implies “natural” is better, just think to yourself, “Yeah, poison ivy is an entirely natural plant.” I’ve had good luck using PFD fabric with commercial dyes and have no desire to use “natural” dyes except for occasionally using tea as you noted in your comment.

    • It’s to laugh when people sneer at anything “chemical.” Essentially everything is chemical. And speaking of plants that aren’t good for you, one person used sumac for dyeing, and the question came up – isn’t that plant poisonous? Another person used fungus. I don’t know if there would be any ill effects from boiling up a bunch to use for dyeing – inhaling the steam, etc.

  6. I tried tea-dying once and found it barely made a difference. As you say, it just looked dingy. Not worth the effort for me.

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