Natural Fabric Dye

All the scarves Scarves I've colored with natural dye.

These are my notes about natural dyeing.

1. Overview of process

  1. Start with clean fabric.
    • If it’s not clean, you’ll need to scour it.
    • My fabric was all “ready-to-dye”, so I skipped this step.
  2. Mordant the fiber.
    • This treats the fabric so color clings to it more, and stays for longer.
    • You’ll need different kinds of mordant for different kinds of fiber.
    • I only did silk (protein fiber), so I used alum mordant with cream of tartar (except for when dyeing cochineal, see notes for more details).
  3. Dye it.
    • I did almost exclusively dye bath, occasionally with a “wicking” technique.
  4. Wash, dry, and iron. (Self explanatory).


pot, manipulator tools, and mat Image 1: pot, manipulator tools, and mat

2. Terminology, Ingredients and Safety

3. Scouring


I tried a few test stripes using clarifying shampoo. Since it is meant to not deposit anything into my hair (protein fiber), I thought it would be suitable for not depositing into the fabric as well. There was no difference between the test strips that had were scoured and those that weren’t, so I stopped doing this. Here are my notes anyway.

Scour the fabric to remove oils, chemicals, or anything that could cause a barrier between the fiber and the dye. For cellulose fibers (cotton, etc), synthrapol is common. For protein fibers (silk, wool), orvus soap paste is used. [[1, 2]]

Orvus paste is typically 100% sodium lauryl sulfate (sheep shampoo), with no surfectants or other ingredients [3]. Other detergents like common dish soaps contain sodium lauryl sulfate, but they also have silicones and other ingredients, which can coat fibers and prevent dye from adhering.


Necessary to use soda ash to scour cotton properly. Boil for ~2 hours, stirring frequently. If scouring water is brown or grey, repeat 35. Maiwa recommends also using synthrapol 16.

4. Mordant

Soak the fabric in appropriate solution of mordant at least overnight. No need to rinse. There are many different ways to mordant a fabric. Below are some options I researched.

4.1 Alum – Potassium aluminum sulfate

The mordant most frequently used by dyers for protein (animal) and cellulose (plant) fibres and fabrics. It improves light and washfastness of all natural dyes and keeps colours clear. It is inexpensive and safe to use. Alum is refined from bauxite, the raw state of aluminum ore, and is free from the impurities (such as iron) some other alums can contain [4].

Use at 12-20% WOF. Mordant once with alum at 15% WOF and then again with a fresh mordant bath of alum at 15% WOF. A tannin/alum/alum mordant achieves slightly richer colours [4].

Cream of tartar also increases the uptake of alum into the fabric, and “brightens” the colors [11].

4.2 Iron

Add iron to two parts water, one part vinegar in a jar [10]. It’s ready when it becomes the color of light tea. This “saddens” dyes, and can bring out darks better. It can make protein fibers stiff or brittle [17]. Some people do an iron dip in combination w/ caustic soda (very high pH, or very basic). I’m not sure why half the people use acid and half use basics. Notjustnat doesn’t share her process, but gets great results from eucalyptus and rusty tin cans [21].

4.3 Copper

Copper wire in one part water, one part vinegar. Ready to use when blue [10]. Details on safe copper mordants. Often used w/ blues or browns, tin is preferred for red for some reason. Copper in vinegar can be toxic. Instructions say to “safely dispose of” but I don’t know what that means [34].

4.4 Mordant Process

Use enough water that the fabric can move freely. Approx. 3 litres (6 pints) of water to 100 gr of fabric [11]. Slowly bring to a boil, and simmer for ~45 minutes.

From Maiwa [15]:

4.5 Mordanting Cotton

You can mordant cotton with alum in a 3-step process that also includes soda ash and a tannic acid 36. Salt and vinegar may also be used as fixatives 37. Be sure to neutralize before dyeing, to make sure you don’t mess up your dye bath 38. Maiwa recommends a 2-step process w/ tannin first and alum second. For cochineal dyeing, Maiwa recommends: tannin at 8% WOF and then alum at 15%, or alum acetate at 8%. 16.

5. Dyes

5.1 Dye process

Process Overview

To give you an overall idea of the process and outcomes, let’s walk through a complete example from start to finish.

1. Mordant the silk in a pot. After weighing the fabric, I dissolved the appropriate amount of alum into a pot with enough water that the fabric could float freely. Then I added the silk, and heated everything up to “steamy and hot but not boiling” for ~45 minutes a couple of times a day for ~24 hours:

pot, manipulator tools, and mat Image 1: pot, manipulator tools, and mat

After it’s heated for a while, I leave it in a plastic container, soaking in the mordant until I’m ready to dye it. This is also because I only own one “dye-safe” pot and don’t really have room to store multiple pots that aren’t used for cooking.

2. Prepare the dye stuff. For this example, I’ll talk about how I prepare onion skins. Each dye has its own way of being prepared, this is just to give an idea of the overall process. I gathered ~64 grams (a grocery bag-ful) of onion skins at the grocery store by grabbing the loose skins out of the onion section. I just asked in advance and they were fine with it. To get so many, I actually visited three different grocery stores.

harvested onion skins Onion skins from the onion bin at 3 grocery stores.

I then put ~34 grams into a glass mason jar, and filled it completely with water. Then I left it to soak in bright, direct sunlight for ~24 hours, rotating occasionally.

3. Add the silk. Sometimes I stuffed the silk into the jar directly:

Silk soaking in yellow and red onion skins. Silk soaking in yellow and red onion skins.

…Which resulted in AMAZING textures and patterns:

Patterns and textures from stuffing a silk scarf into a mason jar as it dies in the sun. Patterns and textures from stuffing a silk scarf into a mason jar as it dies in the sun.

Sometimes I left some of the silk hanging out to “wick” the color up, fading as it goes. Note that the lid of these mason jars can act as an “iron mordant”, which changes the dye colors (that’s where the dark purple comes from in example below):

Red onion wicking up silk. Red onion wicking up silk.

After washing, the silk from above looked like this. I loooove the variety of colors, from pale pink to deeper reddish pink to grey, to light purple to lilac:

Finished red onion scarf. Finished scarf.

More Results

Black beans

The black beans actually turned BRIGHT pink in the dye bath, then quickly faded to a really nice purple by the end of the 24 hours. After taking the scarf out, I dipped one half into a jar filled with vinegar and a copper pipe. The color immediately shifted to pink and stayed that way. I don’t think the copper had anything to do with the color change, just the vinegar.

Black beans and vinegar mordant Black bean-dyed in the vinegar mordant

Red and yellow onion skins

I tried some random tight twists on the one in the yellow onion dye bath. Since I didn’t follow a shibori pattern it didn’t turn out very well, but I was amazed at how little color got into the twisted parts.

Red onion skins Yellow onion skins

Avocado pits

I soaked the avocado pits for 24 hours before using them. I heated them up in the pot for ~45 minutes a few times. I also added DIY soda ash since some people had success with that. I suspect I heated them up too much, or just didn’t have enough avocado pits for a deeper color.

Dyed with avocado pits.


I first did this one in a wicking bath on the avocado-skin dye from above, but it barely changed at all. So then I stuffed the scarf into a small mason jar filled with fresh cochineal and left it for a week to get this incredibly bright color.


Black beans

I left the beans in the sun for about 3 days, at which point it had started to ferment and smelled bad. The color was also terrible, so I threw the whole thing into another mason jar with copper pipes and vinegar. Left it there for another 3 days, and got this amazing rich turquoise color.

Black beans and copper mordant

Hopefully this will help someone else with their own experiments!

All the scarves together
© 2021 / Molly Jane Nicholas / email