Any fiber geek loves their natural dyes, but have you ever thought you might be helping the planet with them? Learn how to reduce food waste with these vegetable dyes made right from your compost bin. No special materials, no expensive ingredients – just rummage around your kitchen to make these natural dyes. Plus, read our review of Natural Color by Sasha Duerr and be inspired to make even more vegetable dyes!
Making Natural Vegetable Dyes
If you’ve moved away from commercial dyes for your textile or even food projects, then you may already be familiar with the natural dye making process. However, if you’re new to the idea of making, for example, vegetable dyes, you’ll want to gather a few basic materials.
Here are some tools to consider:
- Large stock pot that you can dedicate to your vegetable dye projects
- Long-handled spoon or wooden spurtle; you may also like some long tongs for removing materials from hot dye baths
- Scissors, notepad and pen for note-taking
- Scrap pieces of yarn or twine for tying up skeins
- Netted produce bags for dying loose fleece
- Several glass jars with lids for mixing and making mordants and modifiers
- Kitchen scale; I like digital scales the best
- Set of sieves or strainers; I like the ones with handles the best
- Air-drying apparatus like an outdoor laundry line, indoor drying rack, or a collection of hangers in a place you don’t mind drips and possible stains
Not necessary, but helpful:
- Yarn-winder or
- Niddy Noddy
- Good storage area for your naturally dyed yarns – like this one for the wall
Kids Love Their Veggies
No small aside is that this is a great project for families to enjoy. Don’t be afraid to get your kids and grandkids into the kitchen for natural dye experiments. The natural dye process can certainly be made safe for children with a little common sense. For example, the kids can handle peeling onion skins and washing spinach leaves while you prepare the mordants that might be necessary for the each project.
A lot of what we do as grown-up mentors for the young is to simply share our personal way of being. Reducing food waste, living abundantly and eating your vegetables are all messages we want to deliberately share with the kids in our lives. The more your children play around with vegetable dyes, the more they just might enjoy eating those vegetables!
If you discover you enjoy this kind of activity, be sure to check out the home education addendum we created for our book, The Do It Yourself Homestead. Filled with meaningful activities for year-round fun, this workbook will help you connect with the children in your life. For public and home educated kids and even parents! See below:
Reducing Food Waste with Vegetable Dyes
If you cook at home with fresh vegetables, you’ve likely discovered how much food waste can be produced from just one meal preparation. From beet tops to onions skins to avocado pits, the vegetable waste can pile up.
Now, of course, we can and should compost all the food waste. If you’re new to composting, here’s a good article on getting started from Attainable Sustainable – click here. Here are 100 things you can compost from Small Footprint Family – click here.
However, before you reach for that counter-top compost bin, consider these simple ideas for making vegetable dyes from your food waste. As Sasha Duerr writes in her gorgeous plant-based dye book, Natural Color,
“Working with plant color is one of the easiest and most accessible ways of connecting with the cycle of our ecologies and applying that knowledge directly to your design practice – you can begin with the wayward white wool sweater in the back of your closet that you haven’t worn and the leftover by-products of your favorite meal before they hit the compost pile.”
Onion Skin Dye
If you cook at home, you’re bound to end up with onion skins on a continual basis. Both yellow and purple onion skins can be used for natural vegetable dyes. Onion skins are one of my favorite vegetable dye sources because they’re so easy to use. You don’t need a mordant because they skins have naturally occurring tannin.
A little lingo: a dye mordant,or dye fixative, is a substance used to set ( bind) dyes on fabrics and fibers making them colorfast. Here’s a good overview of mordants for natural dyes.
More lingo: colorfast dyes are those that keep their color even with laundering.
Here is a fantastic Onion Skin Dye tutorial from All Natural Dyeing – click here. Onion skins really only need to be boiled to be used as a natural dye. Please pay special to her caution about adding fibers to boiling water!!
After you’re done boiling them for their fabulous vegegtable dye color, then you can compost them with peace of mind. You can know that you gave them a second chance at life!
Along with onion skins, beet tops are commonly used by beginner vegetable dye enthusiasts. They’re easy to use and produce an amazingly bright pink color for foods and fiber. Like onion skins, beets are fun to use for craft fibers and child craft activities because they’re safe and non-toxic. Here’s how to make a dye with beet juice – click here.
There’s a little drawback for both, though – neither onion skins or beets are colorfast on natural fibers. Beet will even fade entirely over time; onion skins will fade to a lovely pale, yellowish-orange. Here’s a great article from Wearing Woad on natural dyes that are not colorfast (aka, fugitive) – click here.
That’s not to discourage you from using them as vegetable dyes. They’re wonderfully effective for foods and crafts – even Easter eggs! Never be afraid to experiment with vegetable dyes. Here are some off our homeschool experiments to inspire you – click here.
Natural Color can educate you in all the natural dye vocabulary you’ll need to know. Duerr clearly explains mordants, modifiers and everything in between. She can help you learn how to ensure that your natural dyes are colorfast and versatile. That’s one of the neat things about the book – all the different kinds of projects!
Finding a good green dye can be tricky, even for the experienced natural dyer. If you have spinach leaves on hand, though, give this tutorial a try from Janet at Timber Creek Farm – click here.
Janet uses her beautiful home-grown wool to experiment with; be sure to check out her yarn shop. Don’t drool on your laptop, though. (Are you a fiber nerd like me, normally drooling over beautiful yarn?)
I saved one of my most recent favorite vegetable dyes for last – avocado pits! Who doesn’t look at a proud avocado pit and wonder if there might not just be something else you could do with besides tossing it in the garbage or compost bin? (For example, here are seven things to do with avocado pits, only one of which is making a vegetable dye.)
When Blogging for Books sent me a review copy of Natural Color I was immediately drawn to dyeing with avocado pits. We eat so many avocados and the kids are always up for a fun time. So, here’s what we did to use avocado pits to make a natural dye, following the instruction from Natural Color closely.
How to Make Avocado Pit Vegetable Dye
Avocado pits will make several lovely shades of pink, and purple with an iron solution, or modifier. Depending on how long you soak your fibers, how concentrated your dye bath and which fibers you use, your colors will vary. That’s actually one of the neatest parts about natural dyes. As Sasha Duerr writes in Natural Color,
“They are so complex. If you think about the biodiversity of taste, which makes us healthier and helps us evolve—I feel similarly about the biodiversity of color.”
To make your own palette of colors with avocado pits:
- Fill a large, non-reactive pot about 2/3 full of water.
- Add 10-12 clean avocado pits. You don’t need a mordant with avocado pits, which is another reason why they’re good to use with children. (Mordants need to be handled with care.)
- Bring the water to a low boil and then reduce to a simmer. The avocado pits will probably split open and that’s fine.
- Simmer the dye bath until the water turns bright red. It usually takes about 30 to 60 minutes.
- Remove the pits with long tongs – be careful, they’ll be hot!
- Add your dye material – fabric, yarns, fiber.
- After 10 to 15 minutes, the dye will be set on most fabrics. The first colors will be warm peach tones. Leaves the fabrics and fibers in longer for darker pink variations.
- When the items get to the color you want, move them to rinse in warm water with pH-neutral soap.
- Hang them to dry out of the sun.
- Add the iron modifier to the dye bath to try for purples in varying shades with new fibers and fabrics.
Natural Color – a Great Resource!
I’ve really enjoyed my time delving into Natural Colors and can absolutely recommend it for natural dye enthusiasts.
Duerr really does see natural dyes as a way to connect ourselves back to nature and feel close the its rhythms and needs. In fact, the section where you’ll find the avocado pit natural dye instructions are entitled, “Creating Color From Compost.”
Here are a few of my favorite highlights from Natural Color:
- The projects are organized by season, which I really appreciated as a homeschooler. We did, indeed, use this book for several school projects.
- Duerr gives quality instruction that is clear and compelling. She also suggests a wide array of projects so that, if one doesn’t appeal to you, others will.
- She gives clear materials lists and nothing is too pricey or odd. You know what I mean – some projects are just too hoity-toity for their own good and you never end up doing them.
- The photos are luscious! They are simply inspiring and encouraged us to try the projects.
- No good book can rest only on pictures, of course. The text is also clear and compelling – the writing is good. I especially enjoyed her personal stories in the preface materials.
So, save the planet and try these vegetable dyes to reduce food waste and increase the fun in your family! You’ll want a good book, so pick up your own copy of Natural Color.