I have a curious crawling baby, for goodness’ sake. There is no way I can rationalize keeping harmful powders, liquids, tablets, or any such nonsense within her reach. And as I’m learning, “in reach” pretty much means everywhere.
It was frustrating, then, to realize that much of the natural dyeing literature depends upon using mordants to create vivid colors. Mordants that are toxic enough that you need to be careful how you dispose of them. If it can’t be poured straight down the drain, I don’t want my baby ingesting it.
So I started to make a list of all the natural dyes and mordants that I could eat. Simple as that. I took every natural dye book I could find out of the library and slowly the list grew. What follows is by no means complete, since I’ve erred on the side of caution. There are doubtless many other dye stuffs that are non-toxic to ingest, but the ones I chose are very obviously so.
Non-toxic Natural Dyes (colors and sources)
- Coffee (brown): from reusing coffee grounds.
- Black tea (brown): from reusing tea leaves or a tea bag.
- Red onion skins (brown): collect the dry outer leaves in a paper bag.
- Celery leaves (green): these are otherwise reserved for veggie stock in my house.
- Carrot tops (green): carrots are often sold with their greens at the farmer’s market during the summer, or try growing some of your own.
- Yellow onion skins (yellow): same as for red onion skins.
- Turmeric (yellow): the dried and ground kind in your spice drawer.
- Hibiscus (pink): sold as herbal tea (e.g. Tazo Passion).
- Beets (pink): use the water from boiling beets to eat and then add any peelings (the root end and top, for instance) to get more color.
- Red wine (purple): preferably from the remnants of a bottle you forgot to finish.
Non-toxic Mordants (particular affinities)
- Vinegar (especially good for onion skins and beets)
- Salt (cotton)
- Skim milk (cotton)
- Whey from cheese-making (cotton)
- Black tea (cotton)
- Water from boiling acorn meat that has the leached tannins (cotton)
- Soy milk (silk)
- Oxidized wine with tannins
- Baking soda
- Cream of tartar
Of course you may notice that some of these things (vinegar and baking soda for example) would not be pleasant to ingest in large quantities, but I have these in my kitchen regardless. The goal is not to reduce all risk, only to minimize it to what is reasonable given our current lifestyle.
White and light brown alpaca yarn dyed with beets and red wine.
There will doubtless be much poo-pooing at this point (and no, not just by the baby) that many of the above dyes are not particularly light-fast, wash-fast, or generally prone to keeping their color. At first this bothered me, but after reading India Flint’s book Eco Colour, I am converted: the worst thing that can happen to dyes fading is that you need to re-dye your textiles, giving you the opportunity to change them with the seasons or the years. As for wash-fastness, I appreciate any excuse to do less laundry.
White and light brown cotton yarns dyed with beets, hibiscus, and red wine.
In all honesty, I have barely begun exploring the dyes and mordants on my list. I started with beets because we eat them often and the bright pink dye liquid takes advantage of what would otherwise be waste water and trimmings. Then I found some old Tazo Passion tea bags that had water spots on them and realized that they were mainly hibiscus. For mordants I have tried sea salt, white vinegar, black tea, coffee (perhaps more of a pre-dye), baking soda, and old red wine. The red wine turned out to be more interesting as a dye than as a mordant for beets. I have also tried using white vinegar as an after-rinse to make colors more vibrant. Soon I will experiment with yellow and red onion skins that I am saving in a paper bag in the kitchen.
Dye samples on cotton and alpaca yarn with detailed notes on the mordant and dye bath.
Every single book or blog post I’ve read about natural dyeing harps on the importance of taking dye notes and saving a record of how each dye experiment turns out. By the time I had dyed more than two different pieces of yarn, I was on board. There is just no way to remember all the little tricks and experiments you will think of. Make it easy on yourself and create a library of dye samples by punching holes in the side of a piece of paper through which you can tie a piece of dyed yarn. The result is beautiful and allows for easy comparison. I like to add samples of the un-dyed yarn as well.
More dye samples of beet, hibiscus, and red wine and how the colors come together in a small woven piece that includes six different colors of naturally dyed yarn.
Until I have the motivation to write a comprehensive review and comparison of natural dye books, let me recommend India Flint’s Eco Colour as my overwhelming favorite. It is the only one I’ve read thus far to emphasize how important it is to source and dispose of both dye and mordant responsibly. Many of the other books focused on natural dyeing like following a recipe, despite the fact that dye results can be affected by something as simple as the water you use in your dye pot. As with cooking, a recipe can only get you so far and may have the effect of limiting your creativity if you don’t have the confidence to experiment for yourself. With non-toxic dyes and mordants, what can go wrong?
White and light brown cotton yarn dyed with hibiscus tea drying on a plate. After the yarn is rinsed the color will be less intense.
As a final note, let me add that natural dyeing has been an ideal creative outlet this winter, requiring only small bits of time whenever inspiration strikes. I have a single small pot for my dye bath that lives on the stove. The dye pot does not need special ventilation because it does not generate toxic fumes. Every few days I will remember to start a bit of yarn soaking in some mordant that I keep in a couple glass jars on a side table. A few days later I remember to add the yarn to the dye pot, turn on the burner for a little while, and then let the yarn soak at least overnight before letting it dry on a plate. Every so often I make up a new dye bath when the old one seems weak. As long as I take notes on what was done to each piece of yarn throughout the dye process then my lack of promptness only works to my advantage (assuming longer soaks in mordant and dye bath lead to brighter/stronger colors).
It’s as easy as dropping a scrap of yarn in the dregs of your morning coffee. What’s not to love?