Orange peel, one of the many things that can be used to make natural dye

Natural dyes

Add a splash of colour to your clothes with help from nature

Did you know that roots, nuts and berries can be used to make natural dyes that range from mellow yellow to deep blue? Start experimenting today and brighten up some fabric. 

Blackberries

Blackberries will dye material purple, if you use ripe ones like the one on the left. © Ragesoss, CC BY-SA 3.0

You will need:

  • berries (make sure they are ripe), leaves or nuts
  • water
  • salt or vinegar
  • an old saucepan
  • rubber washing up gloves
  • something to dye, like a cotton T-shirt

Tip: Light-coloured (white or pastel) cotton, wool and muslin absorb natural dyes better than other fabrics.

What colour do you want to make?

Material dyed using blackcurrants (top left) and yellow onion skins (bottom right)

Material dyed using blackcurrants (top left) and yellow onion skins (bottom right). The patterns were made by tie-dyeing. © Merrily Me, CC BY-NC 2.0

  • Blue – use red cabbage leaves or blueberries
  • Brown – use strong coffee or black walnut shells
  • Green – use spinach leaves or grass
  • Orange – use yellow onion skins
  • Purple – use blackberries, mulberries or elderberries
  • Red – use beetroots, red onion skins, blackcurrants or rose hips
  • Yellow – use orange peel, carrot tops or ground cumin

How to dye your fabric

Tip: Wear gloves when handling the dyed fabric as it may stain your hands.

Rubber bands tied around material, for tie-dyeing

Try tying rubber bands around the material before dyeing it to make patterns. © Wendy Copley, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

  1. Make the colour fixative. There are 2 types. For most natural dyes you will need a plant fixative: mix 4 cups of water with 1 cup of vinegar. If you are making a natural dye from berries use a salt fixative: mix half a cup of salt with 8 cups of cold water.
  2. Soak the fabric in the colour fixative for about an hour before you start the dyeing process. This prepares the fabric to accept the dye. 
  3. Rinse the material in cool water until the water runs clear.
  4. Make the dye. Ask an adult to help you. Chop the berries, leaves and nuts you have collected into small pieces and place in a saucepan. Add twice as much water and bring to the boil. Simmer for about an hour and strain. 
  5. Put your fabric into the dye and leave it to soak. For a stronger shade, leave the material in the dye overnight. Your dyed item will be lighter in colour when dry.

Remember: Dyed fabric should be washed separately in cold water.

Try making patterns

Something else you could try is to tie rubber bands or string tightly around bits of the fabric before dyeing it. The dye can't reach the material under the rubber band or string, which can create cool patterns. This is known as tie-dyeing.