Giving your life a more natural touch in any way is super beneficial for your health and the environment. Upcycling old clothes that would usually be thrown away significantly increases the life of a clothing item.
Dyeing your own clothes naturally also gets rid of all the nasty chemicals that would normally be added to synthetic dyes. It’s also much cheaper to dye your clothes at home and you will learn a new skill in the process!
Fabric dyeing is way older than our commercial colors so plants and other natural products were the only things available to add color to any fabric.
Although dark colors are the hardest ones to achieve, dyeing your fabric black without any artificial dyes is totally possible and super fun!
What Can You Use Instead of Fabric Dye?
Today about 90% of our clothing is dyed synthetically, hard to believe that there even could be a way to achieve the same thing using anything other than fabric dye.
Modern fabric dyes were invented in the 19th century and could be extracted from coal tar. So how did people dye their clothes before that?
The dyeing of fabrics dates all the way back to 2600 BC when coloured textiles became more desirable.
Ancient dyes were made from vegetables, plants, insects and sea life and mixed with water and oil to color a variety of textiles.
In this post, we will focus on natural dyes that are extracted from vegetables and plants. These could include leaves, roots, fruits, and nuts.
If you have never seen any natural pigments coming out of plants, you will probably be surprised how intense and beautiful the colors look.
After all, they are the role models after which our modern dyes were created.
How Do You Make Black Dye?
From all the colors of the spectrum, black is the hardest to achieve naturally. It is such a deep color that only few natural products can yield in sufficient pigmentation.
I have collected four different fabric dye alternatives that can be used to dye clothes in the elusive color black. To get better results we will later add a mordant to enrich the colors.
Tannin is a brown-ish substance that develops naturally in barks and plant tissue. You may have picked up the term in relation to wine and you can even taste it every time you take a sip.
During fermentation, both tannin and color are leached into the wine. It creates this drying sensation that is so unique in red wine.
Tannins are great natural dyes and acorns have lots of it especially the acorn cups.
When making your next trip to the forest, bring a cloth bag and fill it with as many acorns as you can find. Leave the moldy ones on the ground and also collect shell pieces as they contain the same amount as whole acorns.
Irises come in magical colors and their parts have long been used as natural dyes. They can achieve colors anywhere from green to blue and purple.
However, using their roots leads to a much darker color. Maybe you or someone you know wants to propagate some irises and has some bulbs left that cannot be used.
Irises grow from so called rhizomes which are bulb-like roots that most commonly grow right on the surface.
Make sure to cut the roots into several pieces to create more surface area for the dye to leach out.
Another plant that has extremely high tannin content is the smooth sumac. It is characterised by dense panicles of bright red drupes and likes to grow in thickets.
All parts of the plant can be used to extract dyes. The leaves, bark and roots are used to obtain a black dye whereas the fruit can be used for bright red colors.
Depending on the season the colors may change for example the roots can create a yellow or orange dye in the spring that gets much darker in the fall.
Leaves can be easily collected as they fall down in autumn. The shrub is native to North America and can be found growing along roadways, prairies, and fencerows.
Butternut is a common food and dye source of the Native Americans. Again, the roots are primarily used to achieve a black color whereas the bark is used for brown dyes.
An iron mordant (which I will talk about more below) will transform the brown color into a more charcoal grey or black tone.
How Can I Dye My Clothes Black Naturally?
Usually, you would have to prepare your clothes using a fixative before the dyeing process which will help set the color into the fabric. Acorns for example won’t need some kind of fixative due to their high tannin contents.
Using them on organic cotton is easy and colorfast and you can even use another plant based dye to achieve your desired shade.
For the acorn method, we will use a post mordant and in this case iron to significantly darken the color.
To make this iron solution, place two handfuls of rusty objects such as nails or screws (the rustier the better) into a large jar.
Fill the jar with 1 cup of white vinegar and the rest with water until the jar is about 3/4 full. The rusty objects should be completely covered and the jar tightly closed.
Let it sit in a sunny area for 1-2 weeks or until the solution has turned copper. Warm weather works best for this and you will be left with an effective iron mordant.
Moving on to your clothes: Choose a clothing item that has a light color and is made from natural materials. For 1 pound of clothing, you will need 5 pounds of acorns.
If you collect them outside, make sure to thoroughly clean them in your sink as you don’t want debris in your dye.
Use a large pot and fill it with water so that the acorns are fully covered and there will be enough water for the fabric.
Bring the pot to a simmer and cook the acorns for 1-2 hours. Now you can either let them rest overnight or you can get into the dyeing process immediately.
The total amount of dye extraction is up to you and your color preferences. The more time you let the color extract, the darker the tone will be.
Repeating the one-hour cooking over several days will yield a deeper color. After the dye has been extracted according to your desired time, strain the acorns and prep the fabric.
The fabric should be freshly washed and soaked in clean water for at least 30 minutes. Bring the dye solution to a simmer and add the fabric. You may need to pour in more water so the fabric is fully covered.
You can either let the fabric simmer in the solution for 30-45 minutes or you can turn off the heat and let it soak for 24 hours. Again the results will differ.
Make sure to stir the fabric occasionally to ensure an even color. Add a second pot where you will combine the iron solution with enough water to cover the clothes.
Remove the color from the dye pot and add it to the iron mordant. Let it sit for at least 10 minutes and stir frequently.
The chemical reaction will darken the color from light brown to a nice grey. Now you can alternate between the iron and the acorn dye in 5-minute intervals until the color is dark enough.
Make sure to use gloves and utensils that are stainless steel. Everything that comes into contact with the iron will be permanently stained.
Wring out the fabric completely and let it dry for at least one hour. To remove any excess color, hand wash the fabric with cool water and natural soap until the water runs clear.
Can You Dye Any Fabric Black?
Nearly any fabric can be colored black. Natural fabrics like silk, cashmere, mohair or wool consist of protein fibers and soak up plant dyes easily.
Cotton, however, has a different cell structure and may not hold onto dyes as much as the aforementioned fabrics. But cotton loves tannins, so your best bet will be to go with a plant that contains lots of it.
Synthetic materials such as acrylic and polyester are the hardest to dye and you may not even achieve a brown-ish tone.