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How-To-Guide to Making Natural Dyes with Food Scraps

Updated: Jan 11

How to use food scraps as natural dyes

Naturally Dyed Wooden Balls

Creating Natural Colorful Dyes at Home


From home gardens to large farms, fresh local produce can be enjoyed in delicious meals, but what becomes of the food scraps left over? Before we toss the scraps into our worm bins and compost heaps, produce scraps can be utilized to create natural dyes for natural fabrics, crafts, and baked goods. The use of natural dyes dates back to ancient times; even the Egyptians used marine algae found on rocks in the Mediterranean Sea as dyes in garments and bandages. Today, many of us use natural dyes because of their less harmful effects on our health and the natural environment.


*Use this how-to guide to learn more about creating natural dyes at home for you and your family.


Dyeing Fabrics: Safety Tips


When creating beautiful natural dyes for fabrics, it is always important to follow some simple rules.

  1. Never use the same pots and utensils for dyeing that you use in the kitchen for cooking or baking.

  2. Wear rubber gloves, an apron, and a dust mask when measuring out mordants (fixatives), as they can sometimes irritate the nose, throat, or skin.

  3. Adult supervision is strongly recommended when working with children.

  4. Always work in a well-ventilated space.

  5. Dispose of the used mordants and dyes safely. The mordants used in this guide are labeled GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) by the FDA and can be safely disposed of through the municipal water system by being poured down the drain. They should never be disposed of in waterways or drains that flow into waterways.


Using Onion Skins as a Natural Fabric Dye

Preparing Fabrics with a Fixative


A little preparation is needed before adding the natural dye solution when dyeing fabrics. Fabrics need a fixative, a chemical substance used to stabilize or set biological material (natural plant dyes) onto either cellulose (plant) or protein (animal) fabrics. An important note to remember is that natural dyes only work well on natural fabrics; they do not adhere well to synthetics, which need a photosensitized oxidation process.

Some plants have tannins, which occur naturally and eliminate the need for fixatives when dyeing fabrics. The produce table at the end of the guide notes which vegetables or fruits have tannins.


Many natural dyes require a mordant, a fixative that allows dye molecules to bind to fiber. Natural dyes will eventually fade or wash away; salt (sodium chloride) or vinegar delays the fading process.


Fabric Mordant Chart ©Gisa Seeholzer

Mordanting Fabrics for Fruit Dyes


Ingredients:
  • 1/4 cup of salt

  • 4 cups of water

Instructions:
  • Simmer natural fiber fabric in the salt and water mixture (be sure the fabric is fully submerged)

  • Allow it to boil for 1 hour

  • Rinse in cold water

  • The fabric is ready for dyeing


Mordanting Fabrics for Vegetable Dyes


Ingredients:
  • 1 cup of vinegar

  • 4 cups of water

Instructions:
  • Simmer natural fiber fabric in the vinegar and water mixture (be sure the fabric is fully submerged)

  • Allow it to boil for 1 hour

  • Rinse in cold water

  • The fabric is ready for dyeing


Naturally Dyed Wooden Balls for Spring

Dyeing Mordanted Fabrics


Ingredients & Supplies:
  • Select Produce (Avocados, Beets, Spinach, Red Cabbage, Onion) Based on Desired Color

  • Saucepan or pot (used only for dyeing)

  • Wood Spoon (used only for dyeing)

  • Water

Instructions:
  • Chop up at least 1 cup of desired produce (again, this depends on the color you want; it can be combined to yield different shades)

  • Add all chopped ingredients to a small saucepan or pot with twice as much water as produce.

  • Place over medium heat and bring to a simmer for one hour.

  • Turn off the heat and let the water come to room temperature, then strain off and remove all produced bits

  • Add rinsed mordanted fabrics to the natural dye

  • Gently stir your fabric or yarn; be sure the fabric or yarn is wholly submerged

  • When the desired color is reached, remove fabric or yarn from the pot and allow the excess dye to drain back into the pot

  • Place dyed fabric into a container filled with clean water and let it soak for a couple of minutes

  • Rinse a second time with another container of clean water

  • Remove fabric or yarn from the rinse container and hang to dry outside

*Note: slowly bring up the temperature for reds; do not let them hit boiling, or the color will result in a brownish-to-grayish shade. Yarn should not float, and air bubbles should be pressed out of fabric folds in the dye pot.



Easter Egg Dye

Natural Dyes for Crafts

Natural dyes using produce can also be used to stain wooden crafts or dye hard-boiled eggs. The instructions for dyeing these items are very similar to dyeing fabrics. Please follow the safety tips for dyeing fabrics when dyeing wooden crafts and hard-boiled eggs.


Ingredients & Supplies:
  • Select Produce (Avocados, Beets, Spinach, Red Cabbage, Onion) Based on the Desired Color

  • Saucepan or pot (used only for dyeing)

  • Wood Spoon (used only for dyeing)

  • Water

Instructions:
  • Chop up at least 1 cup of desired produce (again, this depends on the color you desire; plants can be combined to yield different shades)

  • Add all chopped ingredients to a small saucepan or pot with twice as much water as produce.

  • Place over medium heat and bring to a simmer for one hour.

  • Turn off the heat and let the water come to room temperature, then strain off and remove all produced bits

  • Mix the dyed solution with a mordant such as vinegar (for every 1 cup of solution, use 1 to 2 Tbsp of distilled white vinegar)

  • Submerge wood or hard-boiled eggs into the vinegar/dye solution for 30 minutes or until the desired color is reached.

  • Rinse hard-boiled egg or wood piece in cold water and leave out to dry

Concentrated Natural Dyes for Baked Goods

Natural dyes are often used in baked cakes and frostings as a healthy alternative to store-bought food coloring. Unlike dyeing fabric or craft items, you can use your kitchen cookware and utensils when creating natural dyes for your baked goods. Wear an apron and gloves to prevent your hands and clothes from getting stained.


Ingredients & Supplies:
  • Select Produce (Avocados, Beets, Spinach (1/2 cup water), Red Cabbage, Onion) Based on Desired Color

  • Food Processor/Blender (fruits)

  • Juicer/Blender (vegetables)

  • Sieve

  • Water (if needed)

  • Saucepan

Instructions:
  • Use a blender or food processor to crush or blend the fruits

  • Use a blender or juicer to process vegetables; add 1/2 cup of water to leafy vegetables when mixing in a blender

  • Use a saucepan to cook cabbage at medium heat; when purple, turn off the heat (add 1/2 tsp of baking soda to turn the color blue); if you want to leave it purple, do not add baking soda.

  • Use a sieve or cheesecloth to remove seeds and fibers

  • Add part of the juices individually to a saucepan and bring to medium heat

  • The liquid will begin to evaporate, and the longer the juice is in the pan, the more concentrated it will get. Be careful not to let it burn.

*Juices work well when added to dry ingredients, and concentrated juice works well with wet ingredients like frostings.


Produce Table for Natural Dyes ©Gisa Seeholzer
References:

All Natural Dyeing


Chemical Information on Mordants Pub Chem


Dyeing with Natural Dyes


Using Mordants


History of Natural Dyes

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