Produce To Dye For

By Marykate Smith Despres, Salem Depot

One of the first signs of the transition from winter to spring in New England is color. After mild winters like this one and a spring like last year’s, which made only a brief appearance before disguising herself in the heat of summer, it’s color that we notice first. Bulbs sprout and bloom, trees bud and blossom, and variety seeps slowly into the local produce options in our grocery stores and farmers’ markets.

If your palette is tired from a long winter of rustic root vegetable, bring in the spring with the changing seasons’ colors and turn your kitchen, and your produce, into an art project: natural dying. Although some may think of dying skeins of yarn or bolts of cotton, you don’t need to know how to knit or sew to dye. Plain white t-shirts, socks, napkins or even paper all make great canvases for experiments in dyeing. Because dyeing is a chemical process in which mordants (think of these as the glue that holds the color to the fibers through washing) chemically react with your dye source, try to avoid treated materials; organic fabrics are best.

To turn even the tiniest kitchen into a color lab, all you’ll need is a variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs and mordants (see below), a pot, sieve and tongs dedicated to dyeing, rubber gloves and a pen and paper to keep track of the variables in your experiments.

Natural dye sources to try include yellow onion skins, spinach, blueberries, strawberries, turmeric and annatto. You’ll want dyeing-only tools if you plan on using mordants that can be toxic if ingested in large amounts, such as alum (found in the spice section) or even cream of tartar. If you’d prefer 100% non-toxic mordants, try salt and baking soda or vinegar. Surprisingly, beets do not work as color-fast dyeing veggies, but if you want to dye paper or a fabric you won’t be washing, beets yield a bright spectrum of pinks. The colors you will get from your dyes depend on the chemical reaction from the type of mordant used, the length of time you steep your material, and the material itself. I always love to see the variety in color I get when dyeing cotton, wool and silk with the same color source.

Think you should stick to dyeing cotton since the warm weather is approaching? Think again. Wool has natural absorbent, antimicrobial and wicking properties, which make it a great fiber for year-round garments including socks, shirts and diaper covers. Plus, wool is a renewable resource and can be grown organically just like the fruits and veggies you use for dyes!

So root through your refrigerator, spice cabinet and the grocery’s local produce section and get cooking! Today’s special is color and creativity.

Here’s an easy recipe for 4 oz of wool yarn, fabric or fleece to get you started:

To prep your fiber for color fastness –

Fill a12-quart stainless steel stockpot with 6-8 quarts of water. Bring water to a boil.  Add 1 tbsp salt and 1 tbsp baking soda as mordant and stir to dissolve. Add fiber or fabric and simmer in mordant bath about 1 hour. Drain.

To dye the fiber –

For a lovely pale yellow (using wool), combine 2 c packed fresh spinach per 1 oz wool, cover with water. Let it simmer 1 hour and let stand 1 hour or longer.

For a gray-blue, combine ½ c blueberries per 1 oz wool and prepare as above.

For a vibrant orange, crush 2 tbsp annatto (per 1 oz wool) using mortar and pestle and boil in 2 c water. To create a variegated effected, dampen the wool with lukewarm water and use it to wipe off your mortar and pestle (these parts of the wool will have a deeper orange after dying). Add wool to annatto water and prepare as above.

Some people prefer to separate the dye source from the fabric, especially in the case of berries. If you don’t mind picking out skins and seeds after, there is no need to separate, but feel free to use a metal strainer that can sit in the pot as you’re dyeing or to put your fruits and veggies in muslin or tea balls to keep it out of the fiber. I don’t mind picking out the pieces and like to give my dye source lots of room in the pot to steep better.

The best way to get the color you want is to experiment! Try using different mordants, fabrics and steeping times. Not sure if a particular veggie will give you the color you want? You can easily find natural dyeing blogs and tutorials online, or instead, encourage exploration and ask your kids to pick their favorite (or least favorite) food to use and predict about what color they’ll get. Interacting with fresh fruits, veggies and spices in a fun way may even inspire them to taste some new foods! For best results in getting consistent colors, keep a notebook of all your dye recipes along with photos or samples of your freshly dyed fibers for future reference.