LIFE CYCLE OF TREE: FLOWERING 7/12: Natural Dye/ Ayurvastra

Dear friends,

Are you ready to explore the journey of natural dye with me today? Let me tune my favorite music on "I Feel" by The Sundrop Garden and continue my writing on this rainy day. 

How has your week been so far? Do you have anything that you usually do on a rainy day? I sometimes cuddle in my bed and curl up like a cocoon, thinking of nothing, doing nothing. And there are times that I will make myself a cup of hot drink, with my favorite mug, to warm my cold palms. My most recent favorite hot drink is Hojicha Au Lait (instant powdered milk tea) by 日東紅茶. I would conjure up a cup with a mix of fresh milk and a tiny amount of plain water, to adjust its sweetness and a milk frother to foam them up into a forthy warmy bliss. 

A touch of grated little cinnamon powder on top of the foamy Hojicha milk tea, to enhance the existing flavors and for a luxurious finish. For cinnamon sticks, I am always lured towards the higher quality ones which provide enhance fragrance and woody sweetness.


The smokey flavors from the Hojicha and the taste of earthy cinnamon are now dancing on my tongue on this rainy day and I am ready to take on my writing with zest.

Last week, I did a full post about my journey with gift wrapping on why and how I was inspired to continue to try a different approach to gift wrapping to this day. 

Today, this post is dedicated to friends who are interested in natural dye. 

Here are 10 things I do not know before I started to practice natural dye

1. Natural dye will take 1-3 weeks to complete as it's a long long process (much longer than chemical dye)

2. General knowledge about chemicals will help in your customization of your ideal color

3. Maintaining dye vat over a stove at 60 to 80 degrees for a full 4 hours (without letting the wind extinguish the flame, is a very important skill to master)

4. Natural dye will involve a natural chemical compound to bind the color on plant base fabrics

5. Natural chemicals and man-made chemicals are 2 separate products (yes, I finally realized!)

6. Some natural chemical compounds will cause irritation to the skin. How much is too much (dependent from person to person)? You will only know after experimenting. For myself, I am allergic to alum in excess of 50g. And I will feel dizzy after 2 hours of heating any dye vat.

7. Most natural dye processes/ products will need to stay away from the sun to prevent any color change.

8. Natural dye is ever-changing. Especially on plant base fibers, like linen and cotton. Color change/ color fade is part and parcel, even if the dyeing is with mineral mordant. The differences between the 2 are, mineral mordant will slow down the color change, whereas when using plant-based mordant, the change will be much faster.

9. There are various ways to practice natural dyeing, so feel free to explore other possibilities

10. There is a lot of planning before starting the natural dyeing process. Most fabrics need to go through scouring, air drying, pre-mordant, preparation of vat, dyeing, color fix, and many various preps, depending on the fabric type and colors that you wish to achieve.

The above statements are based on my personal experiences when practicing natural dyeing in my tiny home kitchen. I hope that these personal findings from my blood and sweat efforts will assist you in your natural dyeing journey.

How did I begin my journey with natural dye?

Last July, I had 0% experience with natural dyes. Have been reading and watching youtube about how it works but had never tried it on my own. At around the same time, I had a mending giveaway in my Wabisabi Instagram account, and my dear friend, Noreen, won the contest as there were only 2 participants (so wished to laugh but it was a laugh with tears instead). She had a favorite Kimono jacket that she would bring everywhere with her, but due to frequent usage, its color faded. She is wanted to change the color to a darker shade with any method that I know in my disposal. And yeah, for someone who enjoys documenting almost everything (yes, it's me), I actually created 3 posts about her jacket here

Before I agreed to restore her jacket, I had already read a lot about nasty pollution emanating from the fashion industry. My first fabric dyeing experience began in my school days (20 years ago). I was told to get the most popular chemical dye brand to use for my textile design assignment. That was the only method I knew and practiced in school.

I remembered when I unwrapped the round capsule packaging of the chemical dye powder, there is a user instruction, guiding beginners like me on its use. Coincidently, that tiny user guide also comes with a toxic logo printed at the back of the packaging. According to the user guide, a glove and face mask are a must during the use of the chemical dye, and your skin should never have contact with the dye

I wondered why the younger me never thought that the same toxic which is applied onto the cloth would dangerously come into contact with my skin. It is till now that I realized that my own safety during the process was paramount. Also now, as the only place that I can do any form of dyeing is in my own kitchen, my interest in harmful fabric dyes just faded due to the chemical risks and dangers that I have to take.

When Noreen passed her kimono jacket to me, I knew it was time to put what I've read about natural dyes into actual practice. Additionally, she has a history of asthma, therefore I would prefer to restore the color of her jacket naturally that will do less harm to her

If you have no clue where to start and how to start, the upcoming information will guide you through the "I don't know how, but I want to start somewhere" process (trust me, I started with nothing but only with a curious mind. And you can too!). I will pen 3 essential points in the list below to help you begin your journey:

1. Space 

A proper space to begin natural dyeing is crucial. I started in my tiny kitchen which allowed for sufficient air circulation for 3 main reasons:

a) Most of the time, you will be stirring a heated pot of dye vat. It's important to keep yourself comfortable during the process. A cup of your favorite cold drink (before and after the dyeing process) would also bring so much joy (and heat relief) throughout the process.

b) The smell and steam of your dye vat will linger in your kitchen. I spend less time wiping my floor and walls if I leave all my windows fully open.

c) Make extra space to air dry your fabric indoors (or stay away from the sun), with no overlap with other items of clothing because the color will easily transfer when it's wet.

2. Tools 

You need 6 simple tools that you can easily find in your kitchen:

a) Pot

Stainless steel, ceramic or enamel pot. Different materials will cause a different chemical reaction to the dye vat (especially during the heating process). I've been using 2 pots (which I was about to dispose of) for the natural dye project, one for mordanting and another for dyeing. If you want to get one to start, I suggest getting a second-hand or a used pot from thrift stores like Cash Converters or Salvation Army. The size of the pot should allow you to submerge your fabric entirely when it's filled with water/ dye vet.

b) Tongs (stainless steel)

You will be stirring your fabric consistently to achieve an even dye, the length of the thongs will depend on the depth of your pot. Mine is longer than the depth of my pot for me to stay further away from the heat while stirring.

c) Sieve

If you are using fresh plants or fruit shells for your dye vat, you need to filter the remnant before the fabric dye process. 

d) Pail

To clean dyed fabric

e) Glove

To protect your hands from color dyes. It is optional if your dye vat does not include any natural chemical and you don't mind getting your hand-dyed with colour

f) Used cloth

To wipe away all the (dye) stains left in your kitchen

3. Material

a) Fiber

Plant-based 100% linen, cotton, animal fiber silk, and wool

I prepared 3-5meters of these fabrics for my natural dye experiments.

b) Mordant (to bite the color)

Plant base mordant like lemon, oak gall, and soybean. Mineral mordants like alum, iron, and cooper.

If you are above to get your hands on all the items in the list above, you are ready to start!

After a year of frequent experimenting with natural dyes, I am now having a lot more confidence in sharing my takeaway from this craft with an open mind. Here are my personal experiences on the practice of different methods of dyeing including Ayurvastra, natural dye, and synthetic dye for you to observe the differences between them:  

After reading the chart, you may start to wonder what the point is to practice natural color dye when the color doesn't retain permanently? (at least this is the very first question that I asked myself when I started my experiments) 

Shhhh...there are secrets in retaining the colors

1. There's always a plant-based color binder that may be paired with a plant-tannin: grapes, pomegranate, berries, persimmons, onion skin, turmeric, and many more.

*most tannins can be found on the skin of fruits

2. Indigo (after fermentation) with its chemical reaction with minerals forms a strong binder on fibers that also explains why indigo is a very popular color in the market.

3. Animal fiber, like wool and silk, grab onto colors pretty well

Below are my experiments using a partially Ayurvastra method to practice natural dyeing. Other than the source of the fabric and fruits (which I am not fully sure whether it is 100% organic), the rest of the components I try to keep as close as possible to what's being documented in my Ayurvastra list above.

I used organic blue pea flower and turmeric (because they are sensitive to color change) for my dye vat and 3 different mordants including lemon, aloe vera, and mineral mordant alum (which is not approved by Ayurvastra practice).

As you progress, you will be aware that at the end of each dyeing process, there will be many leftovers that you might not know how to "reuse". Here's my little tip to share: For lemons, I slice them and sun-dry them to be stored in a sachet and kept inside my kitchen drawer as a freshener. Do you have any other tips to make use of leftover lemon peels? For blue pea flowers, I sun-dry them and pound them into a powder, perhaps for future use as a natural pigment? Let me know if you have a better idea of how to make use of the blue pea flowers leftovers so that anyone who practices natural dyeing will create no waste when creating something beautiful.

I would love to practice Ayurvastra in its entirety when I can gather/ have more resources and be sure of the origin of the ingredients. Since my kitchen is the only place that I can practice natural dyeing, Ayurvastra is definitely the most environmentally friendly method, in the long run, both for my personal space and my good health. As for the color change, it holds the same essence as Wabisabi: to embrace the ever-changing impermanence (like how we embrace the COVID-19 pandemic as a new norm).

Do you also practice natural dyeing or a similar craft? Share with me why this post got you reading until here :)

Next week, I will keep you updated on my needlework journey. 

Thank you for reading this far.

Wishing you peace in a mind filled with colours,

Waee Waee