The two most commonly asked questions asked by interested individuals about my naturally dyed and eco printed fabrics are: “will the colour fade and/or wash out?” and “how do I care for the item”? In natural dye terminology this is referred to lightfastness and wash fastness.
The main considerations which directly affect the longevity of natural dyes are which dye plants are used and how the textile is cared for
Naturally dyed fabrics are not a new thing. Plant dyes such as indigo (blue), madder (red) and weld (yellow) have been used for thousands of years, in many cultures around the world. Some other dyes include cutch, sappanwood, woad and even dye from insects such as cochineal and murex, from snails, which provides a purple dye.
Lightfastness and wash fastness
For the natural dye to attach to the substrate (fabric, leather, etc), the textile must be properly prepared for dyeing. This includes scouring and mordanting in order for the dye to “bite” (attach) into the fabric. Cellulose fabrics (cotton, linen) require an additional step of a tannin bath, in order to aid the mordant process.
It needs to be realized, that not all dyes are created equal
Certainly, one can colour fabric with beet or purple cabbage water, for example, but since these are actually stains and not dyes, they will quickly fade to a dull brown or grey and eventually wash out. Consider that spilled glass of red wine on a white blouse! With salt and detergent, eventually that wine stain will mostly disappear.
Dyes such as indigo, madder, and plants high in tannins like oak, pomegranate, some tree barks and even tea are known for their ability to keep the colour.
This is called colorfastness. These dyes are known to last a long time, so they can easily survive through multiple washings, and some sun exposure. These dyes are also known as wash fast.
Exhibits of textile items from before the invention of synthetic dyes prove how long natural dyes can last. For example, tapestries from as early as the 1500’s have still maintained their lightfastness!
The Goodness of Natural Dyes
Natural dyes do not contain harmful chemicals such as those used to produce synthetic dyes. By using natural dyes, we help to preserve the environment.
Mordants which are used to “fix” the dye to the fabric are naturally occuring metal salts.
Types of fibres that love Natural Dyes
Natural plant dyes can be used on any cellulose or protein fibre. Cellulose fibres include cotton, linen, and hemp. Protein fibres include wool and silk. Protein fibres absorb dye more readily than cellulose fibres and will tend to have a stronger colour. But beautiful and satisfying results can be obtained when dyeing cellulose fibres.
Natural dyes have been called “living colour”, as they will change when washed, used, and worn. The colours seem to be alive and changing.
In my view, natural colours have an affinity for one another
Each dye plant can create an amazing range of colours depending on the intensity of the dye, which mordants are used, and what type of material is being dyed. Modifiers such as vinegar or soda ash can also shift the colour. The range of colours in natural dyeing is unlimited.
Care of naturally dyed fabrics
Generally, I recommend hand washing or washing fabrics on a gentle cycle, with a mild detergent. Silk & wool in particular should be washed by hand. Then the fabric can be either hung to dry or rolled into a towel to absorb excess moisture.
Returning to the soil, from where the plant came
Since the materials used are organic in nature, plant matter and depleted dyes can be put in the soil, as part of the ever evolving cycle of plant growth