Reporter Sam Schipani dyes a white shirt using avocado pits. There are lots of natural dyes that can be made from materials around your home. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Conventional dyes on your clothes may be pretty, but they can also be toxic, both to yourself and to the environment. But there is an alternative. Making your own natural dyes at home is a fun way to color your clothes while also being conscious of your health and the planet.

“There are so many reasons someone might want to make their own natural dyes,” said Allysun West, a medicinal dye based textile designer in Portland. “If someone is health conscious, cares about the environment, cares about their body or the bodies of their family.”

Making natural dyes in your home kitchen is also a great way to use food scraps that you might otherwise toss in the trash or compost. Materials like onion skins and avocado pits, for example, can be boiled down easily into natural dyes.

“Making your own dyes is fun and empowering and a great way to use something that otherwise would be thrown away,” said Jackie Ottino Graf, owner of Forage Color in Searsmont.

Here’s what you need to know about experimenting with natural dyes at home.

Step 1: Gather your tools

To experiment with natural dyes, you will need a few pieces of basic equipment: a large pot, a heat source, tongs and a thermometer. You may also want to have a kitchen scale and measuring spoons on hand.

West said to get at least two stainless steel pots dedicated to dyeing that are large enough for the fabric to float freely in the water. You will also need alum, a pickling agent made of aluminum sulfate that can be found in the spice aisle at the grocery store which will be used to prep the fabric before it is dyed (West said that soymilk can be used in its place, too).

Reporter Sam Schipani dyes a white shirt using avocado pits. There are lots of natural dyes that can be made from materials around your home. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Step 2: Get your natural materials to dye

Then, you need materials to make your dye. You only need to look as far as your pantry or your backyard.

“There are many discarded food items that can be made into natural dyes,” Graf said. “For example, onion skins will give you a yellow dye, avocado pits will give you a pink dye and pomegranate skins a beige. In the warmer months it is easy to find natural dyes from the landscape, [like] goldenrod, black walnut, acorns, mushrooms and lichen.”

Some other materials West suggested included beets and cranberries for red; paprika for orange; turmeric, marigolds, goldenrod and onion skins for yellow; sage, rosemary and nettle for green; dry black beans for blue; red cabbage, elderberries, blackberries and Hopi sunflower seeds for purple; and avocado skins and pits, hibiscus flowers and birch bark for pink.

Step 3: Prepare your fabric to dye

Next, find the fabric that you want to dye. Some materials will be easier to dye with natural materials than others. Natural fibers generally take on dye the best.

“There are three basic types of material: protein, cellulose and synthetic,” Graf said. “Protein fibers come from animal sources, most commonly wool. Cellulose from plants like cotton or linen and synthetics are man made, like polyester and nylon. Of the three, wool is the easiest to dye with cotton being second.”

West said that synthetic fibers, for the most part, won’t take on the natural dyes.

“A synthetic fiber like nylon or polyester will not accept a natural color,” West said. “We are better off without them! Synthetic fibers and dyes are a big contributor to pollution as they [take] hundreds of years to break down whereas natural fibers take only months to a few years.”

Graf said that an easy first project could be cloth napkins, a tee shirt or wool yarn. Regardless of what you use, the material needs to be prepared before you dye it. First, wash it thoroughly well in hot water to remove any oils, dirt, chemicals used in manufacturing.

Then, you will want to soak your material with alum. Alum is a mordant, or dye fixative, that will ensure the color will be stronger and less likely to fade.

“The real trick to natural dyeing is the mordanting process,” West said.

West said the alum mordant should be 15 percent of the dry weight of what you plan to dye. For example, if the t-shirt you are dyeing weighs 100 grams, you should add 15 grams of alum to a bath of hot water.

“Stir the pot to dissolve and keep it on low heat,” West said. “Add your garment and pluck parts of it out like picking petals off of a delicate flower about every five to ten minutes. Let it soak like this for an hour.”

Reporter Sam Schipani dyes a white shirt using avocado pits. There are lots of natural dyes that can be made from materials around your home. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik

Step 4: Steep your materials

While your fabric is soaking in the mordant, prepare the dye with your natural materials. Graf said that you can think of the process as “basically making a strong tea.”

“Add plant material to a large pot of water, bring to a simmer and let steep,” Graf said. “Then strain the plant material out and you have a concentrated dye to use to dye your items.”

West said that most materials will only take an hour of boiling to extract the color, but some require more time.

“With avocado pits, it’s helpful to crack the pit open with a hammer and then simmer them for two to three hours,” West said. “Some natural dyes you can order online might have to soak overnight.”

Then, put your fabric in the dye. Add more water to the pot if needed to cover the fabric. Bring the water up to a simmer and keep it there until you have achieved the desired color.

“Note that the color it is when wet is not an exact representation,” West said. “It will dry to be a lighter shade, so if you get a color you like when it’s wet, let it soak for a bit longer until it’s a little darker than you might like, but it will lighten up when it dries.”

Hang the piece to dry. West said that once your piece has dried once, you can wash it gently to get any excess color out — or, West said you can wear that excess color and let it seep into your skin and derive any medical properties that the dyes may have.

Step 5: Care for your dyed materials

Your naturally dyed materials will need to be cared for properly.

“To care for your naturally dyed fabric and garments, dry them and hang or store them out of direct sunlight. The sun will fade the color quite quickly,” West said. “For [the] longest lasting color results, also wash your garment by hand in a tub with just a little earth-friendly soap.”

West said that she recommends hand wringing your garments or drying them on a rack.

“If you are in a hurry, you may use the washing and drying machine,” she said.

If the colors begin to fade, you can simply follow these steps again to re-dye them.

“Now you know how to naturally dye and can re-dye your garment if and when the color decides to shift, and it will because when you use dyes from the natural world, that color is alive, and ever changing, just like you are,” West said.