How To: Natural Tie Dye

As optimists to the core, we are always trying to find the bright spots and silver linings in every situation—no matter how tough. We recently asked our customers what their bright spots were during this global pandemic, and here’s a common thread we kept hearing: Having more time to slow down.

Slowing down comes in many forms, but a lot of you mentioned having extra time for projects, hobbies, family, and making more sustainable choices. So we thought this would be a great time to talk about one of our favorite slow-down, sustainable activities: How to make natural dyes from food scraps (aka tie dye your clothes in the most eco-friendly way).

Using natural dyes to spruce up old clothes is a double win for sustainability: It’s an awesome way to breathe new life into old threads to save them from the landfills—and using food scraps to make the dye is an awesome (and fun) way to make use of your waste in the kitchen. You can use all types of food scraps like avocado pits, walnut shells, and beet tops, but for these instructions, we’re going with two of our favorite natural dye ingredients: onion skins and used coffee grounds.

And a big thanks and shout out to our friend Emma for sharing this step by step guide with us—she’s a textile artist launching her own upcycled clothing line, so yeah, she’s an expert (more on her below).

What you’ll need

  • •Cotton T-Shirt (organic cotton or bust)
  • •Yellow onion skins and/or coffee grounds (two of the best natural dyes)
  • •Rubber bands
  • •A non-reactive pot (stainless steel or enamel work well)
  • •Iron mordant (optional) **

 

What is a mordant?

When dyeing clothes naturally, a mordant is needed to fix your dye to your fabric—otherwise the colors will quickly wash out and fade. Iron (ferrous sulfate) is a a commonly used mordant that “fixes” and “saddens” your colors. It’s one of my favorites and can turn golds to olives and browns right before your eyes! If you’re wondering about natural dyes that don’t need mordant, onions are a great choice. Some plants (like onions) are very high in tannins (a naturally occurring mordant), and do not need additional mordanting with iron or other metallic salts. For this project, you’ll only need a mordant (and some extra lead time) if you choose to dye your clothes with coffee grounds.

To make a mordant at home:

  1. 1. Put a handful of rusty nails in a jar.
  2. 2. Fill jar with 2 parts water + 1 part white vinegar.
  3. 3. Cover and set aside until the solution turns orangey (1-2 weeks).

 

To dye your clothes:

  1. 1. Throw your tees in the wash with a pH neutral detergent (most “sensitive skin” detergents fit the bill). When they’re nice and clean, soak them in a pot of water for at least an hour, but ideally overnight.

 

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  1. 2. Meanwhile, put your dye supplies (coffee grounds or onion skins) in a non-reactive pot, adding just enough water to cover your shirts. Bring the water to a boil and simmer (for at least an hour, but overnight if you can). For this project, I used about 10 onions worth of skin for one shirt and a half gallon bag of used coffee grounds for a second shirt (1 shirt per dye pot). It’s possible to continue dyeing with the dye pots until the color is “exhausted” (aka producing really, really light colors). You can also adjust the amount of natural ingredients to get your colors darker or lighter.

 

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  1. 3. After your shirts have soaked, you can bind them into tie dye patterns.

 

For a bullseye pattern, pinch the center of the shirt and wrap rubber bands at regular intervals all the way down. 

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For a spiral pattern, pinch the center of your shirt and twist. Once it’s fully twisted, rubber band it in “slices.” 

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  1. 4. Strain the dye materials out of your pot, drop in your shirts, and simmer for an hour. Let cool and rinse.

 

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  1. 5. If you’re using an iron mordant, now’s the time. Simmer 1 cup of your iron solution with water for 30 minutes (make sure you use enough water so that your shirts will be fully covered once you submerge them). Remove the solution from heat and dip or submerge your shirts – iron works quickly so this may only take a few minutes. Rinse out.

 

  1. 6. Hang to dry in a shady spot, then wash your shirts with a pH neutral detergent again.

 

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  1. 7. Get excited to wear your new naturally dyed tees!

 

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**A few safety notes: As a general rule, it’s best not to use any pots or utensils for food after they’ve been used for dyeing. If using an iron mordant, keep solution out of reach of children and pets; avoid breathing steam from an iron bath and simmer in a well-ventilated area. Iron mordant can be safely disposed of down the drain in municipal areas. 

 

Once you’ve gotten this technique down, it’s easy to learn how to make natural dyes from plants and other food scraps—and the world is your oyster when it comes to things to dye. Think pillowcases, dish towels, cloth for wrapping gifts (a favorite sustainable trick—get instructions here). When sustainability meets creativity, everyone wins.

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Emma Fern is a textile artist living in Burlington, Vermont. Inspired by the stories and traditions of her Appalachian ancestors, she calls upon the sustainability of age-old techniques like natural dyeing to create contemporary textiles. She’s launching her upcycled clothing line, CNTR, this summer. Follow along on Instagram @cntrcntr

Aquatic Art

One of the highlights of our weekend in Tomales Bay, CA was having the distinct pleasure of taking boatbuilder Jeremy Fisher-Smith’s restored ninety-year-old Old Town ‘Otca’ canoe out for a paddle. Jeremy discovered the boat under some redwoods in a friend’s front yard in the Santa Cruz mountains. Exposed to the elements and basically left for dead, it took Jeremy a month and a half to strip it back to bare wood, disassemble and then rebuild.

Jeremy explained to us that the shape and construction of American-made canoes like this one descend from the indigenous birchbark boats of the first North Americans. The biggest difference being the exterior surface of the hull, which rather than bark and tree-pitch used on indigenous canoes, these later 18th and 19th century boats were finished with woven cotton canvas and paint. The other significant difference being in the way the boats are held together, which in the former case was by binding and stitching with handmade cordage (rope), and in the latter, with metal fastenings.

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Learning more about how these canoes were built was fascinating, and having a world class boatbuilder explain it to you doesn’t hurt. The process begins upside-down on a wooden “plug” jig, shaped exactly like the inner volume of the hull; where ribs of flat-sawn steamed white cedar are bent around the jig on top of heavy sheet-metal bands screwed to the body of the jig.  Then the whole shape is planked with a very light layer of vertical-grained western red cedar, held to the ribs with a special type of brass tacks (canoe-tacks), which are hammered through the planking into the rib. When the sharp end of the tack hits the sheet metal band, it rolls over into the inner surface of the rib, essentially becoming a through-fastening, which resists working loose with the flexing of the boat.  The heads of the tacks are rounded, so the sharp edge is not exposed to the canvas skin.

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This skinning step is the “exciting part” says Jeremy: the canvas is stretched between two beams or walls like a big envelope, and then the finished wooden hull is worked down into it to fasten the skin around the upper edge of the hull. Lastly comes the sealing of the canvas, which, back in the day, was done with a poisonous lead based product “white lead and whiting” paste filler. Jeremy uses a product called Arabol, a non-toxic latex pipe-lagging adhesive, which stays flexible so the canvas won’t crack as the boat moves over time. The canvas skin is finished by building up a beautiful paint finish with coats of standard yacht enamel.

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These boats are truly works of art and a testament of how well things were once painstakingly designed and constructed. The experience of taking a boat like this out on the water truly transcends the simple act of paddling a canoe and elevates it to something truly memorable and reflective.

“It’s one of the cool things about the old ways–they are almost infinitely rebuildable, coming from a time when things were repaired and re-used rather than recycled or junked.”  – Jeremy Fisher-Smith

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For his voyage aboard the Old Town ‘Otca,’ Richard is wearing the Airvoyant Puff Vest layered over the Wainwright Shirt with our Cache Cargo Pants. Alex is prepared for whatever the day may throw at him in our Singlejack Shirt and Rover Pants.