Last Updated on March 9, 2021
This post is in partnership with Sustain who makes naturally-dyed, organic wardrobe staples.
I’ve talked before about my love of natural dyeing and even though it’s not very common in the fashion industry, I’m so happy to see some slow fashion brands using this traditional method. In a previous post with Sustain I explained how natural dyeing works, but now that we’ve gone over the basics, I really want to talk about how and why I became enchanted with naturally-dyed clothing. I think there is something so special about natural dyes that you just can’t get with the synthetic alternatives.
My Introduction to Natural Dyeing
It was the second year of my university program studying fashion design, I remember walking into a textile class early in the semester and being hit by a powerful mix of woody and plant smells, maybe something a little barnyard-y too? Around the room were large pots with fruit, peels, wood, and unidentifiable other things simmering inside. We took strips of cloth, dipping them into the pots or leaving them to simmer and started to learn about natural dyes.
What first stuck with me was the history – this is how clothes have been dyed for thousands of years! Humans have always used clothing not just for practical reasons but for self-expression and this is evidenced by embellished garments found by archaeologists, even the world’s oldest woven garment has small, decorative pleats. Dyeing was not only practical but also a way to make garments more special for the wearer. Fabric and yarn dyed this traditional way made me feel connected to the women throughout history who would have used these methods and worn clothes in these colours.
What really made me fall in love with natural dyeing though was the unexpected nature of it – it’s a bit of an adventure with lots of experimentation and you’re never totally guaranteed what the result will be. Small things like the water used or even what part of the year the dye material was picked can have an impact on your final colour. The advantage of synthetic dyes in fashion is you get perfect consistency but I prefer the unique variations you can get with natural dyes. I have a lovely pj set from Sustain and mine is actually more green than the one she has photographed on the website. Even though it’s the same process, variations can happen depending on the dye vat, making each garment special. Colour shifts can even happen later and over-time. To me it gives the garments a unique “living” quality and the colours have a richness that you can only get from natural dyes.
I also love that we can use plants, weeds, and even food waste as dyes instead of synthetic dyes which come from petroleum. It’s nice to know where the dyes came from, unlike most clothing where we don’t really know what they have been dyed with or what the impact is to us and the environment.
This introduction to natural dyes played a major role in starting my slow fashion journey and helping me realize that there are alternatives and different ways to produce clothing outside of the now “normal” mass-manufacturing, fast fashion industry.
Madder is one of the first dyes I discovered. It’s grown around the world and the roots are used for a range of orange and red dyes. It’s a great dye for both colour-fastness and depth of colour. I previously assumed all natural dyes were light and pale (and many can be) but the first time I saw madder-dyed fabric I was shocked that such a bright, beautiful red could be achieved from a plant.
In terms of sustainability, I love dyes that utilise food waste – it can be used for another purpose before being thrown away! I’ve personally used yellow onion skins for lovely golden yellow shades and red onion skins can also be used. Avocado pits and skins are also used as dyes and are a great way to utilize food scraps – would you ever assume that the dark green avocado skins and brown pits would give you a soft pink dye?
Another surprising food waste dye is pomegranate peels, which instead of the assumed pinks and reds actually produce shades of yellows and browns. You can see my pomegranate-dyed tank from Sustain here.
Finally we have to talk about indigo, which has such a beautiful process and a rich history of being used around the world. Even though most people know of indigo dye thanks to denim, the process of naturally-dyeing with indigo is really interesting. Indigo actually isn’t soluble in water, so it requires a reduced vat where the oxygen has been lowered (there are various ways to do this, some more sustainable than others – Sustain for example uses a natural sugar method). When the blue indigo is in the reduced vat it becomes a beautiful green. Fabric added to the vat also turns green, however when it’s removed and makes contact with the air the oxygen changes the indigo back to it’s original insoluble state and you see the fabric magically change from green to blue. This reaction is also what binds the indigo to the fabric for long-lasting colour. Unlike other dyes where leaving it in the dye bath deepens the colour, the blue of indigo is darkened with each dip into the dye vat – allowing this process to happen over and over.
There are so many incredible dyeing and surface design techniques used around the world that I would need many posts to cover them (but I hope to talk about more traditional techniques in the future!) however one that Sustain incorporates in some of their pieces is Ayurvedic dyeing. This is a process where plants and herbs with known benefits and medical properties (often related to the skin) are used to dye with. Part of the process includes keeping temperatures low to preserve these plant properties. Sustain partners with a company in India who uses these traditional Ayurvedic techniques with beneficial plant combinations like acacia, neem, turmeric, asparagus, cinnamon, geranium, holy basil, Thai ginger, and many more.
Especially if you have very sensitive skin and have had issues with clothing or dyes, these Ayurvedic dyes or undyed, organic clothing are great to look into.
I hope this post has given you a little look into the beautiful world of natural dyes. While synthetic dyes play an major role in the fashion industry, I love that within the slow fashion movement, natural dyes are still being utilized and traditional techniques are being preserved.
A huge thank you to Sustain for sponsoring this post and allowing me to share some of my love and excitement about natural dyes – they will always play an important role in my slow fashion journey.
Check out Sustain’s lovely naturally dyed (and undyed) pieces here.