Sharing What We’ve Learned About Natural Dyeing. And How You Can Do it At Home.
When one of our design team — the talented Cecille Stein — was travelling in Central America, she came across some particularly gifted artisans in a small village near Oaxaca in Mexico who were working with plant materials to produce their own fabric dyes. Around 80% of the inhabitants there are involved in the continuation of this ancient way of creating colours from the plants around them.
Cecille proposed we explore this ourselves as an idea for an alternative to chemicals — and although we’re a long way away from being able to incorporate this process in our collections, we thought it would be meaningful to explore this avenue whilst making some nice new pieces in a more handmade, tactile way — and in the interest of transparency, we were compelled to share our journey with you.
[Update: You can peep the resulting pieces of our little experiment online now ;) MAN / WOMAN]
Natural materials behave a touch more unpredictably than chemicals, and so it took a considerable amount of challenging experimentation before Cecille was able to find a version of a process that worked for us. Beetroots, Black Rice, Onions, Logwood and Red Cabbage are just a few of the plant materials we were exploring for this experiment where we played around with both the colours and the patterns. Each piece is hand-dyed and therefore intrinsically unique — which is something we’re truly proud of.
But first — what’s so wrong with chemical dyeing?
The main problems with chemical (or synthetic) dyeing come from the toxicity of the chemicals. In short, they can be harmful to those working with them and harmful to the environment if not responsibly disposed of. Unfortunately, less regulated fashion production in the East has become infamous for the environmental irresponsibility with these processes, often discarding the waste dye into lakes and rivers or not providing proper protection for those working with the chemicals.
In more regulated countries of production, such as here in Europe, these issues with chemical dyeing admittedly don’t exist as much — which is why we’re comfortable with including some chemically dyed pieces in our collections. Natural dyeing though might be an even better alternative — so we thought we’d experiment.
We didn’t travel far for this studio visit, just a couple of metres onto the sunny Hund Hund terrace for a few words with Cecille about why she finds this exploration meaningful and how you can try it yourself.
“Nowadays, natural dyeing is one of the main areas of textile research, as it’s important to create garments that are non-toxic in relation to the environment and those that populate it.”
“It’s meaningful for me to experiment with that, not just to be more environmentally friendly, but also to show people the process… I believe there’s nothing more sustainable than creating an emotional bond to our clothes, and to cherishing what we wear… And so I feel like it’s important to understand and to think about how much work it actually takes to create a piece of clothing. From the thread to the fabric to the dye.”
“To me, it’s beautiful to know that it’s plants and not chemicals that I wear on my skin, and to think about the fabric dyes that are naturally around us — and even better, to create it for ourselves.”
“One thing which might make chemical dyeing more convenient for people is that it stays longer in the clothing. With natural dyes, the colour fades over time.”
It’s easy to think of this fading as only a negative, but we have a different take. We like to think that observing this process of fading is a way to be more connected to the garments we own.
“The colour will change through time. It gives it character. It gives it a story… When you understand the process of clothing and natural dyeing, the garment becomes more than just something you buy and then trash — you’re giving it value. At least that’s my (hopefully not too dreamy) wish.”
You might think of it as a patina with leather; a natural process that enriches the garment with a more characterful lifecycle. It offers a unique fluidity to the aesthetics of our wardrobe without even doing anything.
Our process (so far).
So it should be noted that this is just what we did. It’s not a perfect science and we’re far from perfect in our own knowledge. We’re just doing our best to explore more responsible processes and sharing with you our findings.
The basic theory of natural dyeing is as follows:
1) You soak plants in hot water.
2) You leave it to simmer and become the dye.
3) You soak the clothes in mordant.
4) You remove the plant material from the dye and soak the clothes.
It’s simple stuff, but it’s important to be mindful of how you approach each stage, as it will affect your results.
“We chose a cotton and a silk. Different fabrics work differently. Cotton is cellulose-based and silk is protein-based. Protein-based fabrics take the colour much better so it stays a bit longer and the colour becomes shinier.”
“At first, we experimented a lot on small fabric pieces to see which colours we could use. And yeah, it’s always a bit different depending on which fabric you have, which water you use, etc. How the colour turns out really depends on many factors.”
“We used red and brown onion skins, logwood and black rice. We also experimented a lot with red cabbage and were amazed at the bright colours that it creates - even transforming to different shades when you add lemon or soda. But, sadly, we found that the red cabbage dyes faded out after washing - so maybe it’s better as a paint substitute.”
Natural dyeing though can be done with a range of other things like carrots, onions, sunflowers, dandelions, roses, blueberries, beetroot, etc.
Creating the Dye.
“First I prepared the colour. You cut up the plant material and cook it in a hot water bath [around 70-85ºC]. Then you let it simmer for around one hour.“
“You can also leave the plant material in the water overnight - or even for a few days - to create a deeper colour. But as said, it´s different for every plant, so it’s all about experimentation.”
“I then strained the plants out so I was just left with the coloured water - the dye. Now to prepare the fabric you need a mordant.”
The Importance of a Mordant.
A mordant (or dye fixative) is a substance you treat the clothes with to allow the dye to adhere or ‘attach’ to the fabric. Though it should be noted that not all plant dyes need mordants, as some plants already contain qualities that will bind colour to fibre without any additives.
“We use a type of mordant called Alum. The historic Alum mines were located in Southern Europe - France, Italy, Greece and Egypt.”
“All mordants are calculated based on a percentage of the dry weight of fibre. It’s important not to use too much mordant.”
Cecille’s mordant calculations:
Animal fibre (protein-based), Silk & Wool = 10% Alum
Plant fibre (cellulose-based), Cotton + Tencel etc = 20% Alum
“I added the Alum to some hot water in a small jar and stirred well to make sure the mordant had dispersed through the water evenly, then I put it in a bigger container with lukewarm water and added the prewashed fabric before letting it sit overnight.”
“Then, after you wash the fabric properly with water, it’s ready to absorb the dye. You can then either dry the mordanted fabric and store it for later use, or transfer it directly to the dye bath.”
Caution note: Alum is considered non-toxic but still should be handled with care. It´s important to wear gloves throughout the process and be careful with it around children.
Dyeing the fabric.
Adding the correct amount of water is key to finding your ideal colour. Not enough and you may get uneven colours (though maybe that’s your style) and too much water and you will dilute the intensity of the dye.
The specific amount of water depends on the size of the container and the technique you’re using. If you want to colour the whole garment a good rule is to have just enough water so that the whole fabric is covered and can move freely. And make sure to stir the fabric from time to time.
“For our HUNDHUND shirts, we decided to make a dip dye. Dipping the shirts in the colour bath for a few seconds and then hanging them to dry [away from direct sunlight]. It’s important not to squeeze them before they are dried, as it will produce uneven colour results.”
And that’s really it. How to use simple processes and the nature around you to add a touch of vibrancy to your garments. You can take a look at our naturally dyed pieces here, or you can simply try it yourself, perhaps to reinvigorate some less loved pieces in your wardrobe. Just make sure to be super careful with washing, and stick to a cold handwash, avoiding chemical washing detergents. Have fun.
We hope you found this exploration interesting somehow. As a small label trying to exist more sustainably, all we can do is experiment. We still don’t know if natural dyeing, on an industry-wide scale, is a more sustainable alternative to chemical dyeing — but it’s an idea we wanted to offer a platform to right now. We can’t claim to have all the answers and we know we can’t solve everything. What we can do though is try our best to explore new avenues within fashion that are more mindful of the planet and the people we share it with.
Find our natural dye collection online now: MAN / WOMAN.
Words & Photography by Ewan Waddell & Cecille Stein.
If you’re interested in experimenting with natural dyes together with us, stay tuned. We’re envisioning some natural dye workshops in the near future to explore these processes with our community and share thoughts on nature, colours, fashion, and whatever else :-)