5 Reasons You Should Be Making Natural Dye From Plants

(If there is any part of you that would be into this sort of thing.)

I was working on the e-book I’m assembling to share what I’ve learned about dyeing textiles with aloe vera and was feeling really excited about this entire process.

Now, maybe the sensation was coming from my happiness about no longer procrastinating and getting serious about putting the book out into the world. But I also felt pure joy about having started this work and to have made interacting with plants in this capacity a focal point of my curiosities and engagement on a regular basis.

Being in that moment brought to mind for me 5 reasons why you should be doing this, too. I’d like to share those with you here.

5 Reasons You Should Consider Making Natural Plant Dye

1. The materials needed to make dye from plants are easily accessible

If you have a glass jar, some colorful plant materials, water, and a spot outside or inside your home that receives sunlight, you can get started with making natural plant dye. (This is relevant to solar dyeing, which is my personal preference. Below I will reference another method.)

Every jar that I use for solar dyeing is recycled from some food item.

Jars for making natural plant dye

Flowers and leaves can be gathered from your yard or on outings to the park or really just whereever. (Except for in my own yard, I usually make sure to only gather useful plant materials from the ground where they have fallen and not from the mother plant. Although, sometimes I will gather a leaf or 2 from a bush.)

Not much water is needed to make small batches of dye, and it can be collected in the form of rain.

If solar dyeing isn’t an option for you, a simple heating source like a stove or hot plate and a pot can be used to boil materials. I recommend a stainless steel pot since it’s not reactive with the plants being boiled.

My daughters and I are always foraging for plant materials that are useful for making plant dye (we also forage just for fun). It’s not uncommon for me to have flowers and other plant parts in my bags or purse. I’m very appreciative of all that nature has to offer, and whenever I do this work, it feels as if I’m being let in on a well- kept secret.

But it’s no secret at all. Gathering plants for making natural plant dye is just there and available for those who are paying attention.

Whether this is something you want to do as a fun and creative hobby or as a means to support your well-being, making natural plant dye is likely as easy for you to start as it was for me. You can use these dyes on textiles (fabric, yard, thread, etc.), for painting, or any other way that you discover is doable.

There are so many possibilities here, and it’s up to you to figure out the ways in which you can make the process your own.

2. Experimenting with natural plant dye promotes ongoing learning

As a plant and nature enthusiast, I’ve gained so much valuable information and knowledge from making natural plant dye. There is a lot to be understood about color, context, applications, and outcomes when it comes to doing this work.

I mentioned previously that my preferred method of making dye from plants is via solar dyeing. I couldn’t have known all of the nuanced ways that qualities of plants would be revealed in terms of their abilities to create color. I’m always learning something new whether I’m solar dyeing, boiling plants, or using a mallet to tap color from plants.

One example of something that I’ve learned during various dyeing processes is that, while certain dyes will immediately adhere to fabric, others can take days even weeks to show in any significant way on the textile.

Naupaka Leaves

A plant that I enjoy using to make natural color is naupaka. This is a shrub that grows abundantly in the Hawaiian islands. While it’s one of my favorites, this plant (in my experience) certainly has a learning curve where creating dye from it is concerned. Only through experimentation have I come to understand the sensitivities of naupaka that allow me to successfully use it to color fabric.

This work offers a wealth of information. Getting into making dye naturally with plants is a functional activity that will result in many beautiful, naturally dyed textiles. It will also serve as a teacher that opens many paths to better understanding plants and even nature in general.

3. Working with plants supports mental health and well-being

At the time of writing this post, I am about 5 months out from having completed a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling with a 3.98 gpa (I share this mostly to make it more real for me, since it took a lot for me to finish the degree considering life events and friends/family have told me I’m not giving myself enough credit).

Despite this, I’m not here to hound you about the importance of mental health!

In fact, it was the year prior to completion that I realized I pretty much just want to play with plants and help support the mental health and well-being of others through showing them ways to access plants for their own benefit (and also by being a caring, helpful, and authentic person). After just a year of working as a clinical mental health intern, my interests began to slowly move away from traditional mental health counseling.

As someone who has been a long time outdoor enthusiast, gardener, amateur nature photographer, and plant propagator, I routinely enjoy the benefits of nature. I’ve realized how it has positively influenced the bouts of anxiety I experience as well as how it has helped promote a perpetual state of calm and patience within me. Growing things takes time. So does dyeing textiles with plants. Doing this work teaches that things can’t always happen in our time and that when more waiting is necessary, that’s ok! Usually something amazing is on the other side of the waiting.

In my experience of it, making natural plant dye has functioned like a balm for my nerves and mind. It allows me to be in the flow of nature and immerse myself in wonders of abundance that surpass mundane mental burdens.

Beyond my anecdotal accounts, the health benefits of working with plants is documented, and the Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture is a leading publication on how horticulture practices support mental health. This involves working with plants, and I’m personally including making plant dye as a horticulture-related activity.

Even if it’s just a method used to maintain a state of inner peace and facilitate mindfulness, working with plants in this way should be a source of support for your well-being.

4. It takes little time to make natural plant dye

It’s usually the case that I’m able to spend a significant amount of time playing around with plants and experimenting with making dye from plants. However, there are certainly times when life is so busy that I don’t have the luxury of doing the work and reaping some of the benefits mentioned above.

I find, though, that there are always opportunities to engage in plant dye making processes.

For example, it’s pretty common for me to get outdoors and into my dye jars and pots in between doing a load of laundry. With the laundry room being positioned where it is outside of my home, it’s in proximity to all the elements that I access to do the work.

It only takes me a matter of minutes to put plant materials in a jar or pot for heating or to retrieve a piece of fabric I’ve dyed in a jar of plants out in the sun. My input for the process to happen is minimal compared to that of the natural elements used to facilitate the transformation.

As mentioned previously, foraging and gathering many of the plants used for making dye is something that occurs while my girls and I are out doing other things. I’m always alert for the opportunity to pick up some natural color that has fallen from its source. I do this on nature walks and hikes, but I also do it in parking lots bordered with trees and shrubs when going into dental appointments or while doing other mundane activities.

I’m not assuming you live in an overly natural environment, but there is likely some opportunity there for you to collect some plant parts while you’re going about your regular business. The time and effort used to make dye from plants can be as small or great as you make it.

5. Small scale natural plant dye production represents a return to sensible methods

Now, I don’t want to insinuate that modern humankind hasn’t positively influenced life with technological developments and advancements suitable for the progressing times, but I do believe that there are some areas where ancient methodologies were more sensible. Textile dyeing is one of those areas.

Conventional industrial dyeing methods are often sited for their negative environmental impact. These methods are also geared toward the massive apparel market.

Small scale textile dyeing for personal use or otherwise can be achieved without negatively impactful effects. Dye production and disposal techniques do not pose a detriment to waterways. There are some areas of concern pertaining to use of mordants like alum, tin, copper, and iron. Of these four, I have personally only ever used alum and iron, and I hardly ever use those. When I do use them, I don’t do so excessively. I also aim to exhaust mordants in my dye baths to make disposal of the mordant less of an issue.

A blog called Textile Indie has useful information about disposing of mordants. Essentially you should use as much of the mordant in the dye as you can by using it more than once. To dispose of the mordant, pour it over a well-draining surface away from soil such as gravel.

There is literature out there that discusses the detriments of industrial dyeing while also stating the shortcomings of natural dyeing. Those shortcomings speak primarily to the lack of viability of using natural dyes on an industrial scale as well as safe disposal of metallic mordants.

Well, I personally embrace small-scale dyeing done at home, and since I’m aware of safe practices when it comes to metallic mordant use and disposal, that’s not a concern of mine.

Using sensible methods, you can feel good about making natural plant dyes at home.

6. You can have it all with natural plant dye

Ok, this section title is based on a favorite song of mine by Hawai’i artist Maoli, but it represents the endless fabric designs you can come up with when using dye made from plants.

Just like with synthetic dyes, the application of plant dyes to fabric can be done in a myriad of creative ways. If you’re into making clothes for yourself or others, consider what it would be like for you to dye small batches of fabric to create one-of-a-kind garments and accessories.

Pieces of naturally-dyed cloth are also great for patchwork sewing including quilts, bags, and pouches.

I’ve personally made clothing, scarves, bags, furoshiki, art, cloth bookmarks, hair scrunchies and more out of fabric artistically dyed with plants. This work can make great use of tie dye and shibori methods to produce a variety of designs. The possibilities of what you can do with this are truly endless.

Final Thoughts

I’ve listed five six reasons why I believe the practice of making and using natural dye from plants is beneficial. This list is just a glimpse into my own thought processes about the topic. You might determine your own personal reasons. I’m just hopeful that I’ve provided inspiration to help you recognize how you can get started and carry out the work of using plants to make natural dye in a way that is viable and promotes joy.

Be sure to check out the Plant Dye For Textiles Youtube Channel for videos that will help you get started or continue on your journey.

I’d love to read in the comments about your adventures making natural plant dye!

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