naturally dyed shirts

Clothing Dyed with Plants

(this post is kindly sponsored by Sustain)

I love natural dyeing, it not only is a beautiful process but it can be a lot safer for us and the environment. So I was thrilled when Kat from Sustain reached out to share her slow fashion brand that uses all natural dyes. It’s very hard to find brands even in the sustainable fashion world that naturally dye their fabrics. I think part of the reason is that customers and the industry are so used to synthetic dyes, some people don’t even know natural dyes are an option and there are misconceptions that they fade quickly, discolour, or won’t hold up (which we’ll get more into).

So how does natural dyeing work?

Dyes can be obtained from minerals, bugs, and plants – they can be extracted from roots, leaves, bark, wood, fruits, flowers, and fungi, even food waste like certain peels and pits can be used for dyeing. The dyes can come directly from the fresh plant or for more commercial dyeing they are typically in a dried, powdered, or extracted form.

Often fabrics are pre-treated with a mordant (which is French for “bite”) that helps the dye bind with the fabric and makes it more colourfast and long-lasting. Sometimes mordants are added to the dye bath and certain mordants can also be used to shift dyes to different colours. Sustain uses safer mordants like myrobalan (a medicinal Tibetan fruit), oak galls, alum, and soy milk, although it is important to know that some natural dyeing can use heavy metals so if you find naturally dyed products it’s often good to ask what has been used as a mordant.

The dye material is heated with water and steeped for a while to create a dye bath.

Then the mordanted fabric is added to the vat. It often needs to be stirred for even colour and given time to soak up the dye – typically the longer the fabric is left in the dye bath the deeper the colour will be. Dyes like indigo though are set when they oxidise so you have to repeatedly soak it in the bath and hang it up to deepen the colour.

After, the dyed fabric is rinsed to remove any excess dye, and dried. It might also go through other dyeing or printing processes, and then is ready to be cut into clothes!

naturally dyed pjs from Sustain

This pj set is dyed with a combination of chamomile, lavender, rose, myrobalan, and indigo. First they do the flower vat which creates a yellow colour and then the blue indigo vat which together results in a blue-ish green. The pjs initially were more blue but as I’ve worn and washed them they’ve shifted a bit more green which I think is really cool. Some natural dyes will change a bit over time and some are even ph sensitive – I definitely made a mistake using red cabbage (highly ph sensitive) as a dye once which you can see in this video. We’re so used to synthetic dyes that any slight variances in colour are unfortunately often seen as “flaws” – it’s not uncommon for entire shipments of styles to be sent back (aka trashed) if the colour isn’t an exact match. With natural dyeing though likely no dye bath will be identical, little things like the water used or when the plants were harvested can all impact the colour and I think those variances and changes are part of what makes the pieces special and unique. 😊

Something else I really love is Sustain is even conscious of their water use. For these pjs the leftover flower water is used in their garden where they grow dye plants like marigold, weld, madder root, and indigo, and they keep their indigo vat for months, just adding more dye and water as needed instead of starting from scratch every time.

Sustain dyes some of their products in-house but also carries garments made with an ayurvedic dyeing process which is part of an Indian tradition passed down through generations. The ayurvedic dyeing only mordants with tannins from the plants, uses the whole plants for dyeing, and at lower temperatures to preserve the beneficial properties of the plants.

The tank is made from organic cotton that has been dyed with pomegranate peels and rhubarb – both of which have antimicrobial properties.

 

But doesn’t it fade?

First thing to remember is all dyes fade overtime – one of the common reasons people replace items is because they’ve faded, how often do people complain that their black clothes aren’t true black anymore? It’s a misconception that naturally dyed clothes are not colourfast. You can see garments in museums from hundreds of years ago that still have their colour! While natural dyes can fade over time, different dyes will hold up better than others (indigo and madder for example are very long-lasting) and most synthetic dyes aren’t colourfast either.

Like with conventionally dyed clothes, there are some things you can do to preserve the colour:

  • wash in cold water
  • use a ph-neutral and eco-friendly detergent
  • avoid storing/hanging in direct sunlight

 

Natural dyes do typically have a softer quality to the colour – you won’t get a hot pink or neon orange, but they also seem to have a richness to them that I think you can’t really replicate with synthetics. Plus I find it is so cool knowing my clothes were dyed with plants, and also knowing there aren’t harmful chemicals like NPEs or azo compounds hiding in the fabric or being dumped into the water – I have a video more about toxic chemicals in clothing.

natural dyed pjs from Sustain

 

Additionally, all of Sustain’s garments are ethically made in LA and they ensure safe conditions and fair wages for the workers making and dyeing the textiles.

They have a beautiful selection of staples and basics in a range of naturally dyed colours, as well as a collection of undyed organic garments for those with very sensitive skin. They even have a ‘non-conformists’ line of one-of-a-kind pieces.

 

Thank you so much to Sustain by Kat for sponsoring this post! I love being able to share and talk about natural dyeing 😊

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2 Responses

  1. Tara
    | Reply

    What an awesome set of notes on natural dying. I have dyed wool only with natural dye with varying success. I was really surprised they used a yellow and blue blend for the green; I would have thought there were plenty of natural green dyes!

    I love that you mentioned that ALL DYES FADE!

    I am looking for a way to get some natural colors across to my fibers when I dye. I tried to dye with wild plums this fall, the color would have been stunning….if it had been absorbed by the fiber at all!

    What an awesome brand for using natural dyes on a larger scale.

    • Verena Erin
      | Reply

      Ironically green is one of the harder colours to get from plants! Most green plant materials actually dye shades of yellow 🤷‍♀️

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