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Here's how to wash naturally dyed fabric and clothing (realistically)...

Updated: May 3, 2023

indigo dyed cotton fabric being washed

What is Naturally-Dyed (aka Plant-Dyed) fabric?

Clothing that has been labeled as "naturally dyed" (aka plant-dyed or botanically dyed) has been colored by pigments extracted from plants (in contrast to "synthetic dyes" which are human-made chemicals that are used to pigment up to 99% of clothing sold in stores-- and they have their pros and cons as well). Naturally dyed clothing is considered special and coveted because pigments from plants are very rich in earth tones that are difficult to achieve in the lab. But you might be wondering how to wash naturally dyed fabric...

As the artist behind Charlie Darwin Textiles, I often get asked,

"How should I wash my naturally dyed clothing?"

and my answer is this:

It depends on how heart-set you are on preserving the exact color that it started as!

Set realistic expectations for washing naturally dyed clothes

It's all about setting your expectations straight and seeing the garment as biotic; aka, a plant-based product that fluctuates like most everything else in nature.

See my tips for setting expectations, washing, drying, and ironing below!

indigo linen cotton long sleeve shirt

How to Wash Naturally Dyed Fabric

After my first couple of years in the naturally dyed clothing biz,

Here are my top 3 *realistic* tips for loving and caring for your plant-dyed clothing:

indigo linen pants, wide leg, handmade

Tip #1: Get clear on your expectations!

Think about the physical fluctuations and lifespans that plants and animals go through; remember all life on earth reacts to the environments around it. The skin, hair, and tissues of our bodies are always moving, changing, growing, and dying -- we should expect the same for the pigments we extract from plants. While I do follow the gold standard for preparing my fibers for dyeing (through processes called "scouring" and "mordanting"), it should never be expected that naturally dyed clothing will keep its original color indefinitely, or even for the duration of the time you own it.

Throughout your friendship with your naturally dyed clothing, you can expect that the colors will shift and fade; when long hours are spent wrapped around your skin (which occasionally produces acidity) the dyes may alter chemically, shifting the hue of the fabric slightly. In addition, time spent in the sun (UV light) can lighten the fabric (just as it often changes the color of our hair, skin, etc). There are many other random reasons why the color may change over time-- for instance, a customer of mine spilled a clear sports drink on her romper that was dyed blue with black beans, and the chemical reaction turned the spot bright pink! However, she washed it right away and said it returned almost completely to the original blue.

Tip #2: Wash with care

I prefer to wash all of my clothing in the washing machine, and the safest way to wash naturally dyed clothing without stripping its color is with cold water and mild detergent (as ph neutral as possible). But remember, earthy materials are always in flux-- I truly accept and enjoy the changes of natural colors over time; it feels alive and adds transformative beauty to the piece. If you screw up and do a hot-water load or you aren't crazy about replacing your current laundry detergent, you may lose a tiny bit of color in each wash but you can always re-dye the piece later or accept the slightly lighter shade.

Suggestions for washing detergent:

  • Dish soap! Most dish soaps have a neutral ph level.

  • Or you can google "ph neutral laundry detergent" and choose the one that fits your needs and budget.

Chart showing the acidity of different items

Tip #3: Drying

Here are the pros and cons I've found for two main drying methods. I'm specifically considering naturally dyed linen clothing, but these might apply to other fabrics as well:

Machine drying: Pros: gets the linen super soft; quicker dry time (<20 minutes if put in the dryer alone, with a dry towel) Cons: this will cause small amounts of shrinkage each time; high heat or repetitive heating will likely cause the natural colors to fade little bits over the course of a few years. But this is all a part of the natural life cycle, and faded earth tones are still very beautiful in my opinion. Tips: Mitigate shrinkage and fading by only drying 80-90%, and letting the piece air dry the rest of the way. If you are really worried about shrinkage, give each section of the pieces little tugs (vertically) when they are still at 80% dry in order to return them to their original size. Air drying: Pros: will likely increase how long you get the original depth of shade of the dye color Cons: Longer dry time, takes up space in your laundry room or bathroom (you shouldn't let it dry in direct sunlight if you want to reduce fading), and the linen fabric typically feels a little bit crispy to the touch once it's dry. Tips: Mitigate this crispy feeling by rubbing the garment into itself. Ball it up in your hands and sort of scrub it with itself. This loosens up the fibers and gets them feeling much softer!

Ironing (if you're into that sort of thing!)

Ironing introduces a lot of heat to the dyes, which as we've already covered, may cause the colors to fade a tiny bit faster (over the course of many years). But the change is not usually so drastic that you can see it happening right in front of your eyes. I would recommend putting your iron on the wool setting (a little less hot than the hottest!) and moving the iron around a lot so that it is never sitting in one place for too long.

grey linen shorts with elastic waist and butt pockets

How I treat my own naturally dyed linen clothing: I machine wash with gentle detergent and with other clothing of like colors. I machine dry with the same load but remove it from the dryer when 90% dry (I usually check it at around 20-30 minutes in). Stretch out any pieces that look too small or wrinkled, like sleeves, skirts, pant legs, etc. But I don't go overkill because linen naturally will stretch back out after about an hour on an active, warm body. I embrace the wrinkles and consider them to be "bonus texture"!

artsy linen button up shirt with collar

Re-dyeing or Overdyeing your naturally dyed clothing:

Soon, I will be publishing a guide about re-dying your naturally-dyed clothes after they have faded. I will be experimenting with this for the first time, actually, and will report back with the results!

To get updates about my experiences with re-dyeing, and to be the first to see new releases of my naturally dyed clothing line, sign up with your email below! You can also shop any of the naturally dyed styles photo'd here in my online store.

how to wash naturally dyed fabric


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