Our first natural dye tutorial focused on extracting cochineal dye purchased from a supplier. Whether you’re new to naturally dyeing handmade paper or looking to expand your color range, potential dyestuff might live closer than you think—you can extract dyes from items found in your kitchen.
Keep reading to learn about more ways to experiment with natural dyes and handmade paper!
(MORE) SCIENCE BEHIND NATURAL DYE
When using edible plants for papermaking and natural dyeing, rather than selecting the edible part of the plant, it is best to turn to the skins, stalks, or husks of plants.
For papermaking, the strongest paper will come from non-edible elements of plants (leaves, bast fibers, grasses) because of their high cellulose content. Corn stalks, for example, yield a strong, high shrinkage decorative paper.
The same concepts apply in natural dyeing. While one might assume that the innards of the food would be the best raw material to extract dyestuff from, but the skins and other non-edible elements actually yield the best color.
With those qualities in mind, test out various “waste” materials that you find when preparing food. This tutorial focuses on three distinct food skins commonly used for dyeing: avocado, pomegranate, and yellow onion skins.
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN HOME FORAGED AND COMMERCIAL DYESTUFF
There are a few qualities of dyeing with food products that differ from using prepared dyestuff. Depending on the season or other environmental conditions, dye results might change. Just as with papermaking fiber, these dyes can shift depending on their age and cultivation location.
Drying your dyestuff
When ordering dyestuff through a company, you receive dried dyestuff. Food has a much higher water content than commercially dried dye products. The excess water present in food materials dilutes the dyestuff during the extraction process.
For some materials, you may be able to dry them out (onion/pomegranate skins). When drying, be sure to give the plant matter plenty of room to breathe. Stacking or drying in a poorly ventilated area may cause your materials to mildew.
If you’re hoping to amass dyestuff, freezing can be a great option. As with papermaking, experimentation and flexibility will lead you to the best results! Some plants will fare better with freezing while others will yield a greater color payoff when dried.
Color concentration and endurance
Use more! With cochineal, a very small amount of dye stuff was used to create a potent dye. The color extracted from food stuff will inherently be less saturated. The more you can extract and then boil down, the more concentrated your dyestuff will be.
Two important terms used in dyeing are light fastness and color fastness.
Light fastness speaks to a dye’s potential to maintain its color with exposure to light (perhaps you’ve experimented with dyes in the past that faded when left out).
Color fastness relates to the depth of color that remains over wear and rinsing (which is done with dyed fabrics and could be done with handmade paper).
Using a mordant is one way to improve light fastness and color fastness in your dyed papers. I experimented using an alum mordant while dyeing these swatches, but ultimately did not notice an immediate difference. While using a mordant helps the dye to penetrate the fiber, its corrosive properties can weaken the paper over time. If you choose to use a mordant, be sure to keep it clear of your kitchen supplies and use with adult supervision.
When using natural dyes for archival and/or editioning purposes, I’d recommend testing the dye stuff over long periods of time in various conditions to prevent against the potential of fleeting color.
Sheets of unbleached abaca were used for this tutorial. The abaca was beaten for approximately three hours in a hollander beater. Paper used in natural dyeing must have good wet strength because the paper will be wet and re-wet multiple times in the process. Abaca is fantastic for this, but kozo or other long fibered papers would also work.
General Directions for Dye Extraction
- Bring water to a boil in a non-reactive dye pot (enamel or glass).
- Add dyestuff and enough water to fully submerge dyestuff.
- Stir occasionally throughout the extraction process*.
- Strain out solids.
*The goal is to maintain a continuous boil. I put the lid to the pot on as needed with a small crack for steam ventilation. When extracting, it is best to go slow and steady. Ultimately, there needs to be enough heat to help the dyestuff reach full extraction potential, while also allowing the water to evaporate slowly. If you’re looking for a more concentrated dye, you’ll want to fully extract the dye-stuff (the full time outlined below) and then cook that down to a concentrate.
(Check out this tutorial for the dye application process.)
- COLOR – medium brown
- INGREDIENTS – skin of 4-5 avocados + 2 cups water
- BOIL TIME – 45 minutes
- YIELD – ¾ cup mid-strength dye
- NOTES – The dye will initially be a cool brown color and when fully extracted will become a warm, rich brown. If you choose to freeze your avocados for storage, be sure to clean them before freezing to avoid food bits in your dye extract.
YELLOW ONION SKIN
- COLOR – Yellow to Red Orange
- INGREDIENTS – 1 cup lightly packed dry onion skins + 2 ¼ cup water (enough to submerge dye material)
- BOIL TIME – 20 minutes
- YIELD – 1 cup mid-strength dyestuff
- NOTES – Onion skins will become increasingly translucent as they cook down. The dye is golden initially, but will turn red-orange by the end of the extraction.
- COLOR – Red-brown to Magenta
- INGREDIENTS – skin of 1 large pomegranate + 1½ cups water
- BOIL TIME – 30 minutes
- YIELD – ½ cup strong dyestuff
- NOTES – The pomegranate dye will initially be a faint red-brown. The final dye color is an opaque magenta. Remove the dye from the heat before the skins fully lose structural integrity and begin to become mush.
The lower left swatch in this image is pomegranate dye used with a diluted alum mordant. The color payoff is reminiscent of madder root dye.
Now that you have the dyes extracted, you might experiment with dyeing the same sheet multiple times to darken the color, letting it dry in between each coat.
Another way to broaden your color horizons is to over dye your sheets. Instead of mixing together the two extracts to create a new color, just apply one coat of dye, let dry, and apply another coat of your second dye choice. The order in which you apply the dye might alter your results, so have fun and happy dyeing!
More awesome dyestuff info:
- Check out Sasha Duerr’s Seasonal Color Wheel that documents the variety of colors achieved with different food based dyes throughout the year
- Keep track of your dye experiments with this printable recipe sheet from Paperslurry!
- Need even more natural dye inspiration? Botanical Colors curated a list of their Top 10 Natural Dye Instagram Feeds.
by Katharine DeLamater