How to Make Clothing Dye With Excess Fruits and Vegetables From Your Garden

Here are step-by-step instructions for giving your clothes and food scraps a second life

Beets can be used to dye fabric red or pink. Nick David/Getty Images

For both old and new gardeners, it’s almost inevitable that come harvest time you’ll have more vegetables than you know what to do with.

Pickling, canning or even donating your excess produce are the obvious methods to ensure your food is consumed and doesn’t go to waste. But another creative, eco-conscious and dare we say “trendy” option for your garden surplus involves using it as natural dye.

That's right. You can use your homegrown vegetables to naturally revamp your clothes. And while the world of textiles and natural dyeing can get a bit overwhelming for first-timers, we’ve put together a detailed step-by-step plan with a few important tips that will ease you into the process.

Your Color Guide

What you use for natural dyes depends on the leftovers you have or what shades you’d like to experiment with. Here are a few recommendations:

Red/Pink: Beets
Purple: Red Cabbage, Blackberries
Orange or Yellow: Onion Skins, Carrots
Green: Spinach, Celery Tops, Basil, Carrot tops


Stainless steel pot (any other metals have the potential to seep into the dye)
Metal strainer
Fabric (a lighter shade will pick up the dye best)
Large mixing bowl
Alum (for your mordant—you can get this at your local grocery store)
Your dye(s) of choice
Kitchen scale (to weigh your fabric and additives)
Orvus paste soap (for cleaning your fabric, if it is animal-based)
Synthrapol (for cleaning your fabric, if it is plant-based)
Soda ash (for cleaning your fabric, if it is plant-based)
Thermometer (optional)

Prepping Your Fabric

In order for the dyes to bond to your fabric, you’ll need to scour (the cleaning process) your fabric to remove any grease, dust and grime. You’ll also need to make a mordant, a concoction that locks the colors into the fabric fibers. Mordant can be made in a variety of different ways. We’ll use a mordant made with alum.

*Note: Fabrics marketed as “ready to dye fabrics” will not likely need to be scoured.

1. Using your kitchen scale, weigh your dry fabric (write this number down or make note of it). Round your number up if you are dealing with decimals. This number is important because you need it to make measurement calculations for your scour and mordant mixtures.

2. Fill your stainless steel pot with water and add your clothing. It’s important that your clothes are not crowded and are completely covered in water. Exact measurements are not necessary in this case.

Animal-based fabrics (ie: wool, silk etc):

· For every pound of fabric you’ll need to add one teaspoon of orvus.

· Heat to 140º F (low heat on element) for approximately one hour.

· Allow fiber to cool down to room temperature. Remove it from the pot and then rinse in warm water.

Plant-based fabrics (ie: hemp, cotton, linen):

· For every one-pound of clothing, add two teaspoons of Synthrapol (fabric detergent).

· Add 4 teaspoons of soda ash for every pound of clothing you’re using.

· Simmer contents for an hour. Allow fabric to cool and then rinse with lukewarm water.

How to Make Clothing Dye With Excess Fruits and Vegetables From Your Garden
You can use your homegrown vegetables to naturally revamp your clothes. Johner Images/Getty Images

For mordant

Animal-based fabrics:

1. Measure your alum at 15 percent of your fabric weight.

2. Dissolve it in hot tap water (120°F – 140°F) in a stainless steel pot or bowl. Stir well. Ensure there is enough water in your container that will cover your clothing.

3. Add your fabric. Over 30-45 minutes bring the temperature up to a simmer (no higher than 195ºF). Rotate the material frequently so the alum is evenly distributed. Leave for one hour, and check on your fiber regularly to rotate it.

4. Let cool in your pot for 20 minutes.

5. Remove the fiber from the mordant bath. Rinse well in cool water and allow it to hang until it stops dripping. The fabric should be damp when moving onto the next step.

Plant-based fabrics:

1. Measure soda ash at two percent the weight of your fabric. Dissolve in hot tap water (about 140°F) in your container. The amount of water used should be enough that your clothing will be completely covered.

2. Measure alum at 15 percent of the weight of your fabric. Add to your container and allow it to dissolve.

3. Add wet fiber to your pot. Ensure the temperature stays at a low heat, between 120°F – 140°F.

4. Stir your fabric occasionally.

5. Let soak for 1-2 hours with the lid on the pot.

6. Remove your fabric and give it a quick rinse with cool water.

Extracting your dye color

As a general rule, use as much of your harvest or more (in weight) as you have of your fabric. Ensure your food is not cooked before this process.

1. Cut your fruits or vegetables up into tiny pieces.

2. Add your first set of plant ingredients into a saucepan or stainless steel pot.

3. Add two times the amount of water in proportion to your fruit or vegetable ingredients.

4. Place this on low heat. Bring it to a simmer for about one hour. You should start to notice that the dye from your vegetables has started to transfer into the water.

5. Turn your heat off and allow the water to return to room temperature.

6. Pour your dye through a strainer and into a larger mixing bowl to remove the solid materials.

7. Transfer your contents back into your pot.

Putting it together

At this point, your fabric should be wet. The fibers bond to color best when they are wet.

1. Place your fabric into your pot of room temperature dye.

2. Bring your mixture to a simmer for 15 minutes to 45 minutes and gently move your fabric around to ensure it picks up an even amount of color.

3. Remove the pot from the element when your fabric has reached a color you are happy with.

4. Allow your dyed fabric to slowly cool down on its own in the pot. You can leave the fabric in the pot overnight if you want the color to be stronger. The longer you leave it, the deeper the color.

Plant fibers, like cotton, you might want to leave longer as the color appears much paler when it dries. As a general rule, it’s important to note that animal fabrics absorb color easier.

Now what?

1. Remove any extra bits of fruits or vegetables from your clothing and gently rinse your product in lukewarm water without soap.

2. Hang it to dry.

We recommend that you do not wash your clothing with soap for the next week or two. Whenever you do wash it, it’s best to do it by hand with a gentle soap.

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