A few weeks ago I attended a natural dye workshop held by the Textile Arts Center in Brooklyn, at Etsy Labs. I had been wanting to learn how to do natural dyeing and had purchased several books, some natural dyes and a dedicated pot that I purchased for my natural dyeing months ago.
After flipping through the natural dye books, I was overwhelmed. I learned that natural dyeing is not 100% non-toxic as one might assume. There are some mordants (the chemicals used to make the dye color “stick” to the fabric) that are mildly toxic, some more than others. While some sources say that the mordants are completely non-toxic, others say that they are mildly or just plain toxic. It’s controversial, it seems, so many companies opt to use low impact dyes for their fabrics.
This debate was enough for me to hold off until I could learn about the topic in more depth before I proceeded to test stuff out in my kitchen. What I learned from a natural dye book was that each color requires a different mordant in different amounts. There’s a science behind all of this and it was going to take more research than I had originally thought.
(I’ve since found that the most toxic mordants are chrome, copper and tin, which are heavy metals. Avoid these if you attempt to use natural dye. They pollute the environment and are toxic for you too.)
Fortunate for me, Etsy was holding a natural dye workshop not too far from me where I could go and see how to use natural dyes.
The type of natural dyeing method we learned in the workshop is called “bundle dyeing.” The name is quite literal. We bundle the dye stuffs into a piece of fabric (we used a silk scarf in the class) and tie it together. Then into the pot it goes.
I was most curious about what type of mordant was used to adhere the dye to the fabric. To my surprise, it was truly non-toxic. The mordant that was used was tea bags! Yes, the tea bags that we use in the teas we drink. Black tea was used because it contains tannins, which is the mordant. Interesting! So, there are non-toxic options after all. I’ve done some research and it seems that using tea bags as a mordant is not used in the fashion industry because the colors will fade over time using this method.
Natural “Bundle” Dyeing
Here’s the process of bundle dyeing in case you want to try this at home.
1. Choose your fabric. We were provided with a silk scarf to use for this project.
2. Place natural dye objects onto fabric. You can purchase natural dyes online or find stuff in your kitchen or backyard to use, such as onion skins, unused herbs, plants, etc.
Here’s my little attempt at trying to create a pattern. It all gets bunched up together anyways, but I tried to create a little design anyways.
3. Fold the edges over before “bundling the fabric” so the natural materials do not fall out. Wrap the fabric around a stick and tie it using some string.
The tighter you wrap the fabric around the dye material, the stronger the dye color and impression will be of the objects you placed inside. The looser you wrap and tie the string, the result will be a softer, water color effect.
Here’s my final bundle:
4. Place the bundle in a pot of boiling water and tea bags.
They used 6 tea bags for each pot for this demonstration. Leave it in for 20-30 minutes.
5. Take the bundle out and resist the temptation to unravel it right away.
If you leave the dye on for a day or two, the dyes will set into the fabric and give you a richer color. Just beware that some mold may grow on the fabric that you will have to wash out.
6. After waiting a day or two (or earlier if you couldn’t wait), unwrap and rinse thoroughly in water.
Here is my final result. Ta da!
I’m sure it would look better after ironing it, but you get the idea. What a fun little experiment. If you plan on trying it out, have fun!