Anyone that knows me, knows that I am not the biggest user of colour in my work. As Rei Kawakubo said ‘I work in three shades of black’.
So as much as I loved the idea of natural dyeing, I never really used it much for my clothing and textile designs because I couldn’t achieve the dark and moody shades I wanted. Natural dyeing was more of a fun experimentation on the side when I wasn’t after a certain look. As an Australian, the obvious choice for a dye substance is eucalyptus leaves. Where I live, there are trees coming out the wazoo.
Depending on the species of eucalyptus, you can get colours ranging from red to amber to gold. I’ve tried a few different trees now but always end up with a golden hue. (Where are these mythical red producing trees??)
Enter Iron Sulphate, aka the greatest mordant that I ever did see. After adding iron to one of my eucalyptus dye baths, I achieved the most glorious shade of grey. When I threw in full garments to over-dye, it gave me that faded/distressed look that is usually achieved from stonewashing or enzyme washing a black garment.
These are the Trigg Shorts – the fabric was originally a white, heavyweight cotton I found in my local Good Sammies (I believe they used to be curtains). The pattern for these shorts is available here.
For anyone new to natural dyeing - a mordant is a substance used to help dye bind to the fibre. Mordants also have the ability to change the colour of the dye. Some common mordants include alum, tin, iron sulphate and copper.***
They can be used in a number of different ways.
- Pre-mordanting- Treating the fabric with the mordant before dyeing.
- Adding the mordant to the dye bath.
- Or treating the fabric with mordant after dyeing.
For this post, I will be focusing on adding the mordant to the dye bath.
Let me preface this by saying I am in no way an expert on natural dyeing. Yes, I have a degree in Textiles- but the need for careful measuring and weighing never stuck with me. I use my intuition more than anything – so if you are here for a strict recipe to follow, then I’m sorry to say you’ve come to the wrong place. Consider this more of an inspiration to try your own experimentation with dyeing!
What you will need:
-White/light natural fabric/fibres/garment that you want to dye.
Protein based fibres such as silk and wool pick up colour better than other natural fibres. In saying that, I have achieved some strong colours with linen, rayon and bamboo cotton by soaking in a soy milk solution beforehand.
-A large, stainless steel pot.
I usually use a 10 or 15L pot. Other metal pots (eg aluminium, copper etc) can cause different results in the final colour of your fabric.
The amount depends on how strong you want your colour and how much fabric you are dying. I usually fill my pot halfway with leaves (or 2/3’s if I’ve been lazy and kept branches attached)
-Soy Milk (optional – if you’re using fibres other than silk or wool)
-Another large container to strain the dye into
Fill your pot to your desired level with eucalyptus leaves. Make sure any insects hiding in the leaves have had the chance to escape. I once cooked a spider in my dye bath and I still feel guilty about it.
Fill the pot with enough water to cover all the leaves.
Place the pot on the stove and heat for at least an hour and a half to extract the colour. The longer you leave it, the stronger the colour will be. You can turn the heat off after the hour and a half and let the pot sit.
This is the colour I achieved after an hour and a half on the stove.
While this is happening, it’s a good chance to prep your fabrics. Pre-wash your fabric to remove any sizing, oil or dirt.
When dyeing cotton, linen, rayon or bamboo, I soak these fabrics in a solution of 1 part soy milk to 4 parts water. Because the soy milk is a protein, and proteins pick up dye better, this helps the dye attach to your fabric. Make sure the soy and water are thoroughly mixed so you don’t get patches of stronger colour where a pocket of soy may have been hanging out.
After soaking for an hour, you can take the fabric out of the solution (do not rinse) and hang on the line to drip dry. This fabric doesn’t have to be used straight away – you can always dry and store for use on a later date.
BUT I’M IMPATIENT SO LET’S GET TO THE NEXT STEP.
Remove the leaves/debris out of your dye bath. Pour it through a strainer into your second container. Pour it back through the strainer again, back into your original pot.
If you’d prefer the golden colour of straight eucalyptus, you can put your fabric into this dyebath.
For the grey colour, I add roughly half a teaspoon of Iron Sulphate to a pot that is half full, 2/3’s full. You don’t need much to see the dye bath turn black instantly.
Please excuse my shoddy photography – but I’ve put these swatches here to give you an idea of the difference between a plain eucalyptus dye bath, and one with a touch of iron sulphate added.
To get an even finish on your fabric, I make sure my fabric is damp all over before placing in the bath. Using your gloves and a pair of tongs, lower the fabric into the dye evenly, ensuring all the fabric is covered and there’s enough room to stir the fabric around. Move and agitate the fabric constantly, getting the dye in and around any fold or creases. The more time you devote to stirring and moving the fabric around, the less chance of patchiness.
Keep the fabric in the dye bath for at least an hour -unless you want a lighter/subtle colour.
I usually leave mine in for 2 hours with constant bouts of stirring. Once your level of colour is achieved (remembering that it will lighten significantly when dry), take the fabric out of the dyebath and rinse until the water runs clear. Or if I’ve done a large batch of dyeing, I’ll forgo the rinsing step, just wring the excess dye out and put the fabric through a quick 15 minute wash in the washing machine.
Hang your fabric on the line to dry and voila – all done!
From the top – silk chiffon, 100% cotton pre-soaked in a soy milk solution, and cotton cheesecloth – also pre-soaked in the soy milk.
This whole outfit is a eucalyptus/iron sulphate situation. Sami is wearing the Carine Tee in a textured cotton jersey (pattern no longer available) and an amended version of the Lawley Skirt (pattern also no longer available). The hat is made from denim and I used the Serpentine Hat pattern.
Photo: Daniel Njegich, Model: Sami Warren
*** Please note that the addition of a metal based mordant to your natural dye increases its environmental impact. Of all the mordants listed above – alum is probably considered the safest.