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Plant Dyed Clothing - Natural Dyes For Fabric

Learn about the benefits of plant dyed clothing and how to DIY your own plant-based natural dyes for fabric from home. Say goodbye to harmful synthetic dyes!

As humans, our desire to want to express ourselves through fashion, and especially color, is nothing new. We can see evidence of natural dyes for fabric and plant dyed clothing as early as The New Stone Age (here is a really interesting scientific journal article analyzing ancient fibers). It’s kind of incredible when you think about it. And kind of crazy when you think about it. People back then were living very primitively: think no running water, electricity, and small things like a splinter could get infected and kill you. But, they still wanted to look nice. 

Fast forward to today. Most pieces we wear today have synthetic and often toxic colors. The fashion industry uses these instead of natural dyes for fabric because they are faster, easier, and cheaper to manufacture. Today, 9 out of 10 garments use synthetic, chemical dyes. But, thankfully, more and more consumers and clothing brands are waking up, demanding that the industry do what is right for the planet. So, today we are seeing natural dyed clothes pop up on the shelves more than ever before.

If you are interested in experimenting with plant dyes and creating a more sustainable and ethical garment, this post is going to teach you everything you need to know.


Have you heard about the super secret document that everyone in the fashion industry uses, but no one is talking about? Probably not. That is because you can't find it on Google or Instagram (believe me, I've tried).

It's a form I have used for over 13 years at every job I have ever had. Literally everyone from brands to fabric suppliers, use it, but you can't find it anywhere publicly.   

The best part? It can cut your sourcing time in half, and save you tons of money in product development! This is the kind of info consultants charge the big bucks for. And, I'm giving it away for free until the end of the month.

So, get ready to make fashion startup life a whole lot easier, and GRAB YOUR FREE DOWNLOAD OF THE NOT SO SECRET SOURCING DOC HERE




    best flowers for dying fabric

    This post is very personal to me. Because it was the moment, I realized the fashion industry needed to change. And the day this website was born.

    I got in the car and drove to literally the middle of nowhere. Like, the village I was going to, you couldn’t even find it on a map. When I entered the dye house, everything seemed normal. But, once I got to the first floor, my eyes started to burn, and water, and my chest got tight.

    After about two minutes, I started to get scared that I was having some sort of anaphylactic episode. Instinctively I ran to the window and gasped for fresh air.

    And, once I felt a little more stable, I ran out into the parking lot.

    Now, this wasn't my first time in a dye house. I’ve spent countless hours of my life in them, all over the world. And, the truth is, even in the United States (where we have some serious regulations), I always felt a little sick after spending the day there. 

    I would leave with a headache, and my chest would feel tight and uncomfortable. I was told I was just sensitive, and if I spent enough time there, my body would get used to it.

    And, to be honest, I never thought twice about it. Because my symptoms would be gone in a day, and no one else was complaining.

    But this time, with my reaction being so extreme that I could not even stay to do a quick 10-minute job - I realized the way I felt after leaving dye houses should not and cannot continue being the norm. And, it was kind of scary that people just got used to the chemicals. 


    I am going to be really honest with you about the world of fast fashion. For those of us that are in it, like I was? Crazy is your normal. And, that is why change tends to be so slow. You think, well, if everyone else is fine with what's going on, maybe, in the words of T Swift, “It’s me, hey, I’m the problem, it’s me.”

    Now I know that’s not true. And, it is a big part of the reason why I create so much free content because I want to help as many people as I can do the right thing in fashion.

    So, here you go. This is me trying to make my past fast fashion life right and give you all the info you need to use natural dyes for fabric, instead of the toxic ones. 


    plant dyed clothing

    The first thing you need to understand about synthetic dyes is that they are technology. They were created by man, to do a very specific job. And, that job is to dye any fabric, any color you can possibly think of.

    Plants on the other hand, like a beet, for example, are natural, not dyes. Their purpose is to feed us. So, while it’s great that they can create colors on our clothes, they will never be able to perform as well as man-made technology (we'll get more into that in just a minute).

    When all this new dye technology first started coming out, and fashion moved away from traditional and natural options, and more towards convenience, it seemed like a win. Faster, cheaper (read more accessible) fashion for everyone. Decades later, we are seeing the negative implications technology and fiber science can have on the planet.


    1. Increases in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions - the machines needed to run modern dye ranges use incredible amounts of energy 
    2. A tremendous demand on waterways - on average, for every 1kg of fabric being dyed, 8 liters of water are used (btw, this is a real figure from the dye house I work with in India)
    3. A lot of energy - fabric can not be dyed with cold water, so a tone of energy needs to be available to heat all the dye baths
    4. Decrease in the quality of nearby water sources - often polluted water is released back into the environment
    5. Negative impact on the air of locations where clothing factories exist (think back to the story I just told you)

    Azo dyes, including mordant (the stuff that helps dye stick to the fabric, kind of like glue), are some of the worst chemical dyes around. 

    They are well-known carcinogens, yet the lack of research and knowledge about this as well as the lack of transparency, allows for their use to continue in many places around the globe - especially in the developing world.

    What is unfortunate is that a significant number of chemicals in dyes are also unknown to consumers. That is because, the current reporting standards do not necessarily require this of those who produce and use dyes.

    And, here is another crazy statistic. More than two thirds (!) of all clothing manufacturing emissions is waste water.


    natural dyes for fabric

    I bet I have you convinced by now that synthetic dyes are not the best option. But, it’s important to remember that there are a few good reasons why the fashion industry moved away from natural plant dyes - they aren’t perfect.

    So, let’s look at a few pros and cons of natural dyed clothing.


    Let’s start with the positives.


    Natural dyes for fabric are usually, and should be in their true form, are 100% non-toxic. They come from plants, many of which we can actually eat, or are medicinal

    But, be careful. Some of the mordants used for natural dying are actually heavy metals - like copper, alum, iron, and chromium (which is extremely toxic). Use caution, and make sure to ask questions. 


    Ever notice that a new red shirt, when accidentally mixed in with your whites, will turn everything pink?

    That happens because brands are cutting corners.

    After fabrics are dyed, they need to be rinsed with clean water. The clean water removes excess color and chemicals. When this job is not done properly that’s when you end up with pinks instead of whites.

    Well, naturally dyed fabrics require less rinsing than synthetic dyes. Saving literal tons of water.


    Plant based dyes come directly from the earth and can return to it. So, if you are interested in creating a cradle to cradle, or biodegradable product, I encourage you to use natural plant dyes that can safely biodegrade back into the earth's soil without contaminating it. 



    Time is money in fashion. And, natural dyes just take more time and resources. 

    From growing and harvesting the plants for the dyes, to physically dying the fabric, the entire dyeing process takes longer and is more labour and support intensive than using synthetics. 

    Sadly, there is no way around this.


    I mentioned earlier that plants did not evolve for dying fabric. They evolved to feed us, and to create oxygen.

    Because of this, there is a very limited assortment of colors that can be created using plant based fabric dye. Not only that, but colors tend to be muted and on the pastel side.

    You aren't getting neons or jet blacks with plants - that’s for sure.

    Colors that are easy to dye with plants are earth tones - makes sense, right, the dye does come from the earth, after all. Think light pinks, blues, yellows, golden oranges, and neutrals. 


    Another downside to natural dyes for fabric is that they can only dye natural fabrics like organic cotton, linen, silk, hemp, and even wool. They do not work on synthetic materials like polyester. But, I mean, maybe we should be using less poly anyway, right?


    This goes back to the fact that plants were not created to dye textiles. Natural plant dyes tend to fade quicker, and change colors over time. 

    For many consumers who have become accustomed to long lasting synthetic dyes that were engineered to literally last as long as possible - they might think garments made with plants are defective. 

    However, in recent years, there has been a lot of consumer education, teaching people that what they believe are defects with natural dye, are really just part of the beauty of nature. So, consumers are becoming more accepting of these natural inconsistencies. 


    natural plant dyes for fabric

    Simply put, natural dyes come from nature. And, in recent years, they have become more and more popular. 

    Here are some specific examples of plant dye sources:

    • Tree bark
    • Plant roots (various types)
    • Berries
    • Flowers and leaves
    • Seeds
    • Algae
    • Bacteria/microorganisms
    • Other natural non plant based dyes

    Let’s dive into each of these a little more. But, before we begin, remember that natural plant based dyes work best with natural fibers. Synthetic fibers do not absorb plant dyes well.

    Also, all of these types of dyes can be hand dyed in small artisanal vats, but they are also possible to dye commercially with.


    Myrobalan Tree: This tree grows natively in India, especially in the Himalayas. The colors created from this bark range from a neutral nude to a yellow-brown. And, Myrobalan can be layered with other natural dyes like Indigo to produce a teal color.  

    Birch Bark: Especially silver birch bark, creates medium pinks (think, the “it’s a girl color”), as well as washed-out maroons.

    Horse Chestnut Bark: This variety of bark creates colors ranking from pinkish antique yellows, to yellowish pinks.


    Madder Root: This plant is found in the Eastern Mediterranean and Persia. The root colors create bold and vivid reds and oranges. 

    Turmeric: More commonly known as a health elixir in India and other parts of Asia, Turmeric is also able to dye textiles ranging from sunflower yellow to marigold. 

    Yellow Dock Roots: Originally used for digestive issues is also a dye that can create a range of colors from obvious yellows, to also browns, and greens. 


    Berries are a great option for natural dye because they are rich in tannins, which help colors stick to fabrics. 

    Blackberries: Create saturated rosy pinks.

    Blueberries: Turn textiles into purple hues.

    Cranberries: Give bright pinks that are so saturated with color that they could almost pass for synthetic dyes. 

    Red Sumac Berries: You may not have heard of this plant, but I bet you have seen it if you have been to the United States. That is because it is native to all 48 contiguous states. The trees have bright red bushels of berries, and, you guessed it produce vivid red dyes for fabric. 


    Using Onion skins: This is one of my favorites; that is actually a very common DIY home dye. It’s as simple as collecting onion skins from your kitchen, boiling them, and letting the fabric sit in the dye vat, aka soup.

    Unlike onion skins brown skin, the fabric color comes out looking a earthy yellowish pink.

    And, no. You won’t smell like onions as long as you use the dry crunchy skins, and not the soft ones.

    Red Cabage: Much like onion skin, red cabbage can create an at home dye recipe. Boiling red cabbage into a potent stew can create a fabric dye that will leave fabrics purple. 


    Indigo: Is probably one of the most famous natural plant dyes around. That is because it is the standard for denim jeans. Sadly most jeans today are actually made from synthetic indigo.

    Indigo is known for its shades of blue. And, here is something cool. The color can be manipulated by combining it with other natural elements. For example, when indigo is combined with sulfur, the color becomes much darker, and almost black. And, combining indigo with turmeric will give the fabric a more blue/green vintage shade.

    Indigo is actually extremely easy to dye fabrics with. If you are interested in giving it a try yourself, you can check out this tutorial here

    Peach Leaves: Dying with the leaves from peach trees create on of my favortie colors. Peach leaves yellow, is not really yellow, more more a yellowish green chartreuse.  

    Bundle dying: This is the dying process of taking flowers, placing them on a textile, and then steaming the fabric. The shapes and colors of the flowers will be transferred onto the fabrics creating a unique print design. 

    To bundle dye at home reddish color flowers tend to be the easiest to start with.


    Acorn: Did you know you could get free fabric dye from your own backyard? Acorns create shades of grey and vintage brown colors.

    Avocado pit: (Note do not use the avocado skins)The most millennial thing about avocados is not avocado toast. It’s the fact that avocado pits, will turn fabrics millennial pink!

    Walnut Hulls: Crushed walnut shells can create greys and browns.


    New technology: Today, different bacteria and microorganisms are being bred to create different colors. And, let me tell you, some of these new engineered plant dyes are giving synthetic colors a run for their money. You can learn more about bacteria dye here.  


    Snails: Have you ever noticed how purple is the color of royalty? Hello, royal family. That is because it used to be crazy expensive to make. Natural royal purple colors, specifically Tyrian Purple, were created with the mucus of snails. It takes 10,000 snails to create just 1 gram of color (or, 250,000 snails for 1 tablespoon of dye). The ethics behind this are of course, questionable, with thousands of snails being crushed simply for attaining a specific shade for a pair of pants.

    Insects: Cochineal bugs created red dye. While traditionally, they were used for textiles, today, this type of dye is mostly used in food and cosmetics like lipstick. 

    Iron: Through a fermentation process, old rusty bits or iron can create a black natural dye.

    As with anything we are trying to be more mindful of, we need to ask our suppliers how each of the above examples is sourced, if they are harvested in a sustainable and ethical way, produced locally, and use fair labor standards. 


    naturally dyed cotton

    A current scam happening in fashion supply chains is suppliers telling you that they are using natural plant based dyes, but then actually using cheaper synthetics. To the average person, there is literally almost no way to tell if this is happening, because synthetic dyes can be designed to match natural dyes almost exactly.

    So, to make sure your supplier is on the up and up, I would recommend considering working with someone that holds a certification. 

    Here are a few industry-recognized certifications you might want to consider. 


    An international label that ensures the garment is made from certified organic fibers. Specific social criteria are also met.


    This label tests for harmful substances and tells consumers their garments are not harmful to their health, which is great for parents worrying about what clothes are safe to buy for their kids.


    This label signifies that the garment is safe for the environment, customers, and those who made it.

    There are many certifications to take into consideration, but it is also important to know which ones have the most impact. The ones on this list have worldwide and have stringent criteria that are adequately monitored.

    The Fashion Transparency Index can likewise encourage transparency and will allow companies doing good (or not) to be brought to the spotlight. While this focuses on larger companies, it may serve as a useful guide for brands who are starting out to gather insight on what the industry as a whole finds relevant.


    plant dyed fabric

    If you’re in the market for incorporating natural dyes into your brand’s products, check out the companies mentioned below! They have done an incredible job of using a holistic approach to this ever-evolving space within the fashion industry.

    In particular, California Cloth Foundry is making amazing strides in the natural dye world, taking it one step further and aiming to make not only toxic free sustainable clothing, but that which is entirely, 100%, compostable. 


    Seattle-based Botanical Colors was founded in 2010 by Kathy Hattori. Botanical Colors is a seller of natural dyes to artisans, dye houses, and industrial clients seeking the beauty and environmental and social benefits a natural color palette offers. In addition, we offer classes and educational materials to teach natural dyeing to a broad audience.”


    California Cloth Foundry uses “eggshells instead of heavy metals, natural enzymes instead of Formaldehyde, and dyes made from madder root, weld, and chestnut instead of petroleum derivatives. There's always a cleaner, safer alternative to the harmful chemicals used in most commercial clothing production. We are committed to using those alternatives, with the intention of making them viable options for the rest of the industry.”


    Dharma Trading specializes in “fiber art supplies, and garment blanks shop since 1969”. And, at some of the best prices available, IMO. 


    Living Ink is a plant materials company on a mission to use sustainable algae technologies to replace petroleum-derived products and launch carbon negative products. Carbon Black is the black pigment that makes materials black such as ink, plastics, leathers and rubbers. It is made from heavy petroleum and generates a large carbon footprint while being unsafe for humans. Living Ink has developed a sustainable alternative called Algae Black™.  It’s made from algae, not petroleum. The innovative pigment is carbon negative, safe, bio-based and tells a novel sustainability story.”


    For us, natural dyes for fabric are evidence that colour can be a cultural force linking individuals to history and tradition. We work directly with farmers and run a full-time natural dye studio.” Maiwa  also has a textile school!


    vegetable dye for fabric

    Are you planning on using natural dyes for fabric in your next collection, or try sourcing natural dyes to sell on an etsy store? If you are, which ones?


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