Choosing a natural, plant-based dye:
When professionally dyeing my natural fiber clothing with pigments from plants, I always lean toward dyes that meet the following criteria:
Light/Colorfast (won't fade easily in the sun/wash). Any natural dye will fade a bit over the years, but some last better than others
Relatively affordable and accessible to obtain locally
Ability to achieve consistent results
For these reasons, black tea has always been a favorite of mine for naturally dyeing fabric!
If you are looking for a way to naturally dye your fabric light-medium brown or light-medium grey (achieved by adding iron sulfate), black tea is the perfect place to start.
Experiment with tea-dyeing fabric
If you want a really simple way to experiment with black tea dyeing at home, check out my Natural Dye kits -- currently available in black tea and black bean. Or, give it a go with the materials you have -- see my instructions below!
Dyeing with Tea - Background information
Tea is rich with tannin (good for gripping onto fabric), is inexpensive, and attaches well to cotton and linen. It typically gives you a light brown color if you don’t use any color modifiers. You can use an iron modifier on the fabric after you dye it with the tea, which will shift your colors to grey, and increase our fabric’s color- and lightfastness. At the iron sulfate stage, you will be able to experiment with different dipping and folding techniques to create patterns on your fabric (see below).
The best part about natural dyeing:
Now that you know how, if your color begins to fade, you can just make another batch of tea, and throw your fabric back in!
From start to finish, this dye process will take around 2.5-3 hours.
We invite you to share your process with the Charlie Darwin community! Feel free to snap some photos or videos of your dye process and finished product and share them with our followers. Just tag us on Instagram, we would love to see it! @Charli.e.Darwin
Natural fabric (I've only experimented with cotton and linen, but you could also try silk or wool)
1 swatch of scrap fabric to use in case of need for mending your garment later
10 Black tea bags (or 20g of tea) per 100g of fiber
Soda Ash (pre-measured at 1% dry weight of fabric (DWF))
Iron Sulfate (pre-measured at 1% DWF) - used if you want to modify the brown to a grey
1 large stirring spoon or tongs, that you do not use again for food!
Cotton twine (if you want to bunch/tie up your fabric to get a tie-dye effect)
Other supplies you will need:
Stovetop or similar heat source
Hot tap water
1 glass jar or old mug, etc.
1 large pot for heating and dyeing in (stainless steel is preferred), large enough for your fabric to move freely through it when filled with water
1 other 1-gallon container (or larger; such as old coffee tub, milk jug with the top cut off, large Tupperware, etc) used if you plan to go grey with iron sulfate. The larger the better, anything up to 15 gallons works great. This container will not be used with heat.
A strainer and large bowl/container/basin for rinsing is ideal
If you don’t have one of these items, we recommend you look first for something suitable at your local thrift store. Always reuse before buying new!
Note: We include matching scrap fabric in our dye kits, which we hope you will use to mend and extend the life of your garment in case of rips or stains. We recommend you dye this fabric scrap along with your garment/fabric so that it continues to match it!
Scour your fabric
“Scouring” is the textile term for properly cleaning fibers prior to dyeing. If the fiber is not clean, the dyes will not adhere well to the fiber. We will use soda ash as our scouring agent.
1. Pour the soda ash into a jar or cup. Fill the cup 2/3 full with hot tap water. Stir until it has been dissolved.
2. Fill your large stainless steel dye pot with enough room temperature water so the fabric will have room to move easily. Add the dissolved soda ash to the dye pot. Stir well.
3. Run your fabric under running water to get it soaking wet. Add the fiber to the dye pot and place the dye pot on your heat source. Slowly bring the temperature to a simmer (180°F), occasionally rotating the fabric gently with your stirring spoon /tongs.
4. Hold at a low simmer for 30 minutes.
5. Remove fabric from the dye pot (be careful as it is very hot!), rinse in cool water, extract excess water, and set aside.
Dye your fabric
1. Rinse out your dye pot. Add enough hot water to your pot that the fabric will be able to swim around in it freely. Add your tea bags and use your spoon to get the tea bags submerged and saturated.
2. Place your pot on your heat source and bring to a simmer. Hold at a simmer for 15 minutes.
3. Add your wet fabric to the dye bath. Hold at this temperature (180-200°F) for 1 hour.
While you wait: Plan your design
If you’d like to create a pattern on your fabric, use the “Design” suggestions at the end of this page to plan your design. Will you make all the fabric dark grey, or only dip certain parts in to create a gradient from light brown to grey? Will you do a Shibori (tie dye) design? Do some searching online for inspiration (you might type in “Shibori inspiration” or “Shibori techniques”). Draw out your ideas and take notes.
Rinse your fabric
1. After 1 hour, turn off the heat. Let the fabric rest until it has cooled a bit so you don’t burn yourself handling it (it is very hot!)
2. Pour out your dye bath and rinse your fabric under running water.
Iron post-mordant for shifting color from brown to grey
We will use Iron (Ferrous Sulfate) as a color shifter, and to increase lightfastness. Iron is very strong, so a little goes a long way and the color results can be dramatic. It reacts with dyes that contain tannin (such as tea) and produces a dark brownish-gray.
Safe Use of Iron
The iron we supply in our dye kit is a food-grade product, but it can be harmful in powdered form to young children and pets. We advise that you follow these safety precautions. This information is not meant to freak you out but to make you aware that iron should be handled with care!
• Keep the iron powder package tightly closed and store it away from children and pets. Do not allow children to use iron powder unsupervised. If ingested, seek immediate medical attention.
• Measure iron in a well-ventilated area
• Avoid breathing the steam coming from a hot iron mordant bath and mordant in a well-ventilated area.
• When measuring iron powder, wear gloves. Iron may stain surfaces, hands, and clothing.
• Clean any spills immediately and wash utensils promptly after use.
• Dispose of the iron bath or iron solution down the drain in municipal areas or in a septic system. Do not dispose of it in waterways, lakes, or streams.
1. Prepare the iron bath
a. Rinse out your jar/mug. Pour the iron sulfate into the jar, then fill 2/3 full with hot tap water. Stir until it has all dissolved.
b. Fill your bucket with warm water, high enough that the fabric will have room to move freely. Pour the iron solution into this container. Mix with spoon/tongs.
2. Add the fabric:
a. You will now add your fabric and watch the colors change! If you are doing the entire garment one solid shade of grey, simply add the fibers to the iron bath, and stir them around making sure all areas get evenly exposed to the bath. Keep in the bath at least 3 minutes, but no longer than 20 (the iron will start to break down the integrity of the fibers after too long!) A shorter amount of time will give you lighter shades, longer = darker.
b. If you are doing a pattern or a gradient, follow the instructions for that method. Still only keep your fabric in the iron water for no longer than 20 minutes.
Rinse your fabric
Pour your iron dye bath down the sink. Use one of your containers as a washbasin. Wash fabric with a mild detergent or sulfate-free shampoo. Some of your tea bags may have exploded and gotten tea leaves on your fabric. That is okay, just give the fabric a really good washing, rinsing several times.
Hang, lay flat to dry in the shade, or machine dry with low/no heat.
a. Keep out of direct sunlight or harsh heat (do not place on or near radiators).
b. If your only feasible option is to tumble dry in a machine, then tumble dry on the lowest heat and delicate settings.
Care for your garment:
For the first couple of washes, we recommend you handwash with cold water, and hang dry, just in case there are any pigments left that you didn’t get rinsed out the first time (you don’t want to ruin any of your other clothing!).
If you do eventually machine wash, use the coldest setting on delicate. Hang dry or tumble dry. Tumble drying tends to soften your fabric in such a lovely way, especially if you are working with linen, but be warned that high heat may fade the color of naturally-dyed garments over time, so always use the lowest heat setting on your machine, and do not store your garment in direct sunlight or near high heat, like radiators or heating vents.
Love the look of tea-dyed fabric, but not so great at sewing your own clothes?
We specialize in made-to-measure clothing naturally dyed with pigments from plants, including black tea in brown and grey. Check out our current styles at CharlieDarwinTextiles.com !
For solid, even color on the entire garment.
1. Bombs away! Submerge the entire garment into the iron water.
2. Stir it every couple of minutes to make sure it is soaking into all areas of the garment equally.
For a gradient from one area to another.
1. Make sure your hands are clean and don’t have any iron water on them!
2. Whichever area you would like darkened, start slowly submerging it into your iron water until you’ve reached just a couple inches below the highest/ furthest point you’d like the iron water to reach (because the fabric is wet, some dye will crawl up higher than the surface level of the liquid).
3. To achieve a gradient effect, every couple of minutes pull the garment a few inches out of the dye.
1. Here is a roundup of some of our favorite shibori folds and bundling techniques:
2. Choose a Shibori method and prepare your garment using whatever tools you may need (cotton twine, thread, wood blocks, etc). We included cotton twine for you to use here.
3. Submerge your garment into the dye bath. Move it around every couple of minutes to make sure that the exposed areas are getting even access to the dye.
I am so excited to share the art of natural dyeing with you! My hope is that I can bring a new artform, or even just a fun craft, into you and your loved ones' lives. Honestly, I love making, but I really love to get YOU involved in the slow fashion movement!
The instructions above accompany our DIY natural dye kit. The kit includes all the premeasured "ingredients" that you will need to dye a Charlie Darwin cotton scarf, including the scouring powder and post-mordant color modifier. It also includes detailed instructions for the dyeing process and a BONUS GIFT... a plant propagation station!
Charlie Darwin Textiles is a slow, sustainable, and artisanal textile brand that uses natural, nonsynthetic fabrics in earthy tones. Every garment is custom fit by height and can be easily self-mended over time because we believe the garments you love should outlive you, not contribute to landfills.
I founded Charlie Darwin because I have seen the impact that our behaviors, textile waste, harsh dyes, and plastic microfibers are having on our ecosystem and on other living beings. I’m always looking for more meaningful avenues to feel connected with earth and nature, and bring that feeling to you in the most positive and practical way possible.
I'm so excited to see what you create!
Founder and seamstress for Charlie Darwin Textiles
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