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How to Naturally Dye and Upcycle Clothing

May, 10th 2022 Skip to Recipe

This blog post is a fun collaboration with the inspiring, knowledgeable ladies from Rooted Botanics. We will be going through the process of upcycling and naturally dyeing clothes from start to finish. The process is super enjoyable, sustainable, and really grounds and shows the magic of nature. The end result is a piece of clothing saved from waste, upcycled, restored through natural dyeing techniques, and ready for your wardrobe. The ladies from Rooted Botanics are a wealth of knowledge and we can’t wait to share this blog post with you!

Specifically, we will be showing the steps on how to upcycle a wool sweater and naturally dye it with Marigolds. While the steps are for a protein fiber (more on this in a bit), we will be providing details on how to dye cellulose and protein fibers with ease. We chose to show the natural dyeing process with a wool sweater and marigold flowers because it will take on an absolutely stunning yellow color. It’s almost as if you pulled rays of sunshine off of the flowers.

A Little Background on Rooted Botanics

For those unfamiliar with Rooted Botanics, they are two sustainably-minded women, Sarah & Alli from Los Angeles, CA who upcycle vintage clothing. By upcycling clothing, you are preventing clothing items from heading to a landfill and reusing goods that are beautiful and fashionable. They are an incredible wealth of knowledge on selecting good clothing to upcycle, extracting the natural beauty from plants, and how to make a vintage garment look new and trendy.

If you haven’t checked out their site, I highly recommend it. They regularly do clothing drops from their finds in vintage markets. I have to say, I’ve purchased some of their clothing and I’m in love! I’m so grateful to work with them on this blog post and share a little insight into their wealth of knowledge.

Why is Naturally Dyeing Wool a Great Place to Start?

First, I want to point out that Wool is a protein fiber. That makes it different than a cellulose (plant) fiber, like cotton. Naturally dyeing wool is a great place to start on your natural dyeing journey because your results are more vibrant. Wool has better uptake of plant dye extracts than garments made out of cotton or other cellulose fibers.

Wool is also much easier to mordant, which we will get to in our mordanting section. It’s much easier to prep and has fewer problems down the line. Since wool uptakes dye at a much better rate, the color tends to be deeper and more vibrant. If you are interested in naturally dyeing clothing, wool and other protein fibers (such as silk) are a great place to start!

However, in this blog post, we will provide all the tips needed to naturally dye and upcycle any natural fabric. All ratios, ingredients, and tips for cellulose and protein fabrics will be covered.

Step 1: Tools and Ingredients You Will Need

To naturally dye, you will need a few tools and ingredients. Luckily the tools and ingredients aren’t that expensive. You can re-use the tools in any of your natural dyeing projects. The ingredients can be sourced fairly in-expensive as well.

The tools you will need:

The ingredients you will need:

If you need more information on good places to source your ingredients and equipment check out our first blog post How to Naturally Dye with Marigolds.

Once you have all of those ingredients and tools, you are ready to start naturally dyeing! Now all that’s left is finding the right clothing to upcycle. That’s the fun part, right?

Where to Purchase/Find Materials

We linked a few of the materials needed above, but our main resource is Maiwa or Etsy. We almost exclusively use Maiwa for mordants, scour materials, and different plant materials and extracts. They work with farmers and artisans to source the best ingredients.

If you are looking to work with local colors, there is an abundance of plants you can use and forage for. Here in California, we have access to eucalyptus, pomegranate, cochineal, and a variety of wildflowers. Of course, make sure to practice sustainable foraging, and only forage where permitted.

We also want to point out, that we are huge fans of avocado skins and pits for plant dye. They are especially beautiful on wools since the tannins can be so rich and dye the wool a beautiful clay pink.

Step 2: Choose Clothing to Up-cycle

If you are out vintage shopping, or even going through your closest, here are some tips for finding the right garment. These tips will apply to any sourcing of garments to dye.

First, you will want to make sure that the garment is made of natural fibers. For this recipe, we are looking for a sweater that is made of wool. If you are doing a cellulose fiber, make sure the garment is 100% cellulose and does not have any unnatural fibers intertwined.

Second, you will want to make sure the clothing is well put together, especially when looking for a sweater. Unfortunately, as clothing ages, it will get stained, torn, worn out, etc. You want to reuse the clothing and save it from the landfill, but you also have to make sure it’s still wearable.

Finally, you will have to plan on what color you plan on using for natural dyeing. For this post, we are using Marigold flowers which will bind better to a lighter, colored piece of clothing.

Also, make sure the clothing you choose is a style you are excited to wear! That just makes the process that much more enjoyable, making clothing you can’t wait to show off!

Now that we have our ingredients and have chosen the clothes we want to upcycle, let’s get started!

Step 3: Weighing Your Clothing

The first step we need to do is to weigh your clothing. We need to find the ratio of the fiber weight to how much of the mordanting ingredient we need. Also, we will need to calculate how much dye we need to make that color pop! All you need to do is weigh your clothing in grams and notate it somewhere. From here on out, we will refer to this measurement as “weight of fiber” or WOF. You will have to do this for both cellulose and protein fibers.

Step 4: Scouring Your Fibers

Once you’ve weighed your clothing, the next step is to scour it. Scouring the garment will remove any material, dirt, etc. that prevents the uptake of natural dye. This is where the differences between cellulose and protein fibers begin. Don’t worry, we will go through both.

Scouring Protein Fibers

To scour your protein fiber (our wool sweater in this blog post), you will need to fill your stainless steel pot two-thirds filled with hot water. You don’t want the water to be boiling, just hot to the touch. Next, you will need to add 3% of the WOF of PH neutral dish soap to the water. This is the first time we will be using the WOF ratio. To calculate how much dish soap you need, take the weight of your clothing and multiply it by .03. For example, if you have 120g of clothing, you will need 3.6g of PH neutral dish soap.

We use PH-neutral dish soap because it’s non-reactive. For wool, we recommend using a wool-specific washing soap such as eucalan. Add your wool to the pot and let soak for about an hour while stirring regularly. After an hour, drain the pot and rinse the clothing. You are now ready to move on to the mordanting step!

Protein Fibers: 3% WOF (ex. 120g of clothing, 3.6g of PH Neutral Dish Soap)

Scouring Cellulose Fibers (Pot Method)

To scour your cellulose fibers (cotton, hemp, other plant-based clothing), you will need to fill your stainless steel pot two-thirds of the way up with water. Next, you will add 5% of the WOF into the water and bring the water to high heat. 5% of WOF means that if you have 120g of clothing, you will need to multiply that by .05 to find how many grams of soda ash you will need. For example, 120g will need 6g of soda ash to properly scour.

Cellulose Fibers: 5% WOF (ex. 120g of clothing, 6g of Soda Ash)

Once you’ve added your soda ash to the water, stirred it around, and it’s properly dissolved, add the clothing. Make sure there’s some room for the clothing to move around. Bring the water temperature to a boil and keep it there for 1-2 hours. Don’t worry if the water starts to turn brown, that’s normal! Just make sure to stir your fibers regularly. After about 2 hours, drain the pot and rinse the fibers with running water. You are ready to begin mordanting!

Step 5: Mordanting Your Fibers

Mordanting your fibers allows you to prep the fiber for optimal uptake of the natural dye. For protein fibers, you will be mordanting with aluminum potassium sulphate (alum). If you haven’t purchased that yet, you can get it off of Maiwa. For cellulose fibers, we will be mordanting with aluminum acetate, also purchased from Maiwa.

There are a lot of recipes on the internet that aren’t real mordants. They won’t actually form a chemical bond between the fabric and the plant dyes. In this tutorial, we will be using a traditional mordant recipe utilizing alum for optimal results.

A question we get asked regularly is whether the mordant is natural. Mordants are actually naturally occurring metal salts. However, it’s important to acknowledge that natural does not always mean safe or non-toxic. Do your research and handle all metallic mordants with gloves and a well-ventilated area. The natural world is wide and diverse. It offers us an abundance of colors as well as naturally occurring compounds that allow these colors to binding to clothing.

Mordanting Protein Fibers

To get the right ratio, you will have to measure out 10% of the original WOF in alum. So take the weight of your protein fibers in grams and multiply it by .1. That’s how much alum you will need to properly mordant your fiber.

Next, you will need to fill your stainless steel pot with the hottest tap water you can get. Once you have filled your pot, dissolve the alum into the water. After the alum has been completely dissolved, add your protein fiber clothing (wool sweater in our case) to the pot and bring the water to a simmer. Let your clothing simmer in the pot for 2 hours to properly mordant. While your clothing mordants, you can begin extracting the Marigolds for dyeing.

Protein Fibers: 10% WOF in Alum, 2 hours saturation

Mordanting Cellulose Fibers

To find the right ratio of aluminum acetate to cellulose fiber weight, you will want to use 10% WOF. That means you take the weight of your cellulose fibers and multiply it by .1. That’s the amount of aluminum acetate you will need to properly mordant your cellulose fibers.

Once you have your aluminum acetate measured out, fill your pot with the hottest tap water you can get. Make sure you leave enough room for the clothing. Dissolve all of the aluminum acetate into the water. Then take your cellulose fibers and add them to the pot. Let them sit in the pot for 4-24 hours, much longer than the protein fibers. Just don’t let them sit over 24 hours since aluminum acetate can deteriorate or weaken fibers. While the fibers sit, you can begin extracting the flowers you wish to use for natural dyeing. In this post, we will be extracting Marigolds.

Cellulose Fibers: 10% WOF in Aluminum Acetate, 4-24 hours saturation

Step 6: Extracting the Marigolds

With your fibers mordanting, you can start to prepare and extract your Marigolds. There are two possible types of Marigolds that you can use to naturally dye your sweater. You can use dried Marigolds, purchased from Maiwa, or you can use fresh Marigolds. Dried Marigolds tend to be a little more potent, so we will be using a much smaller ratio if you are using dried.

Tips for Dyeing with Dried Marigolds

When working with dried Marigolds, it’s a lot less work. You will need to measure out 30% of the WOF in dried Marigolds. That’s all you really need to do! Since they are dried out, 30% is enough to dye all of your fibers.

Tips for Dyeing with Fresh Marigolds

Fresh marigolds require a 1 to 1 ratio of the weight of fiber to Marigold weight. This means if you have 120g of fiber, you will need 120g of fresh marigolds. When using Marigolds, you can also include stems and leaves to increase the weight and extract more color. Although, the stems and leaves are less saturated when extracting color. We still love to include them because they can add an earthier element to your final color. We strive to use as much of the plant as possible.

Dried Marigolds, 30% WOF. Fresh Marigolds 1:1 to WOF

No matter what type of fiber you choose to use, you can prepare your Marigolds the same way. This goes for any other natural dyeing solution you wish to use as well. Once the fibers are properly scoured and mordanted, then they are ready to uptake the natural dye.

Step 7: Preparing the Marigold Dye

Once your clothing is done mordanting, it’s time to begin preparing the natural dye. Rinse out your stainless steel pot and fill it two-thirds of the way up with water. Put in your Marigold flowers and simmer for an hour. If you want a little more concentrated dye, put less water in with the Marigolds.

After the Marigolds have simmered for an hour, you can either strain the marigolds out or place your fibers right into the pot. If you want more consistent, level results, we’d recommend straining the flowers from the pot. However, we personally love some of the inconsistencies that come with leaving the flowers in the pot. You can get some absolutely incredible results!

Let the fibers sit in the pot with the dye bath for 30 minutes to an hour, on low heat. After you have let your fibers sit, you are ready to extract them. All you have to do is take your clothes out of the dye pot and hang them on a rack to dry. Make sure to have a sheet or a tarp down so the dye doesn’t drip on the floor!

If you are interested in re-using your marigold dye bath, you will need to add some more marigolds to increase the concentration of color. The first dyeing extracts most of the color. When you are finished you can also store the dye in mason jars in the fridge for a week with no issues. We typically re-use each marigold bath 2-3 times and add in more flowers as needed. This makes the process even more sustainable!

Step 8: What to expect from Marigold Dye

Marigold dye produces some of the brightest, most vibrant yellows on the color spectrum! The final result can range from true yellows, mustards, and occasionally a deeper gold. It’s absolutely gorgeous. If you want to modify the color, check out the sections below for tips and tricks.

When using marigolds to dye your clothes, it will work with any type of natural clothing (protein or cellulose). We found that the tighter the weave on the clothing, the brighter the yellow. Our favorite marigold pieces tend to be some sort of wool, hemp, or gauzy cotton.

Like most natural dyes, marigolds gradually shift and fade over time. However, marigold dye holds up very well to sunlight and washing. The dye doesn’t dramatically fade within the first few years either. Honestly, we enjoy the slight shifts that plant dyed clothes make over time. They become more “natural” and “earthy”.

Modifying Color

There are plenty of ways to modify the color of your dye. The ingredients you can add to the dye batch are in two groups, color modifiers, and metallic modifiers.

Color modifiers are broken down even further into acidic modifiers such as cream of tartar and vinegar and alkaline modifiers such as baking soda and wood ash. Certain dyes are more sensitive to modifiers than others. Marigold doesn’t really respond to acidic or alkaline modifiers, but other flowers will be.

Metallic modifiers such as iron, copper, and alum tend to shift the colors to either duller or brighter versions of the same hue. Iron, for example, is known as a saddening or dulling color modifier. Marigolds tend to shift towards green when the iron is added. When using a metallic modifier, be mindful of wearing gloves and handling in an outdoor setting.

Troubleshooting Color

To be honest, plant dyes can be temperamental. You might follow a recipe exactly and still get a different result. You also have a ton of factors to consider such as the hardness of your water, flower variety and harvest time, is the flower fully dried, etc.

With all of the variables, it’s fairly difficult to do detailed troubleshooting of color. However, we usually start with making sure the flowers have been fully extracted by having them heat long enough. This will just make sure that you have enough dye in your dye bath. Also, try to make sure you get the same flowers from the same source. This way you can adjust as you go.

One of our best tips for making sure your final piece of clothing is dyed to the color you are looking for is to try a swatch. This way you can dip it in the dye bath and make sure the hue is correct. From there, you can adjust by adding more flowers, a color modifier, etc. before you dye your actual piece of clothing.


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