Get Into Natural Dyeing (Plus, How To Dye Pillowcases from Avocado Pits)

updated May 3, 2019
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(Image credit: Aya Brackett)

Sasha Duerr has been dyeing her textiles with compost for over 20 years. The author of two books on natural dyeing and an instructor at the California College of the Arts, Duerr fell in love with natural colors while searching for alternatives to the art school oils and acrylics that made her sick. Living in the Bay Area, she was involved in the sustainable food movement and worked in urban gardens, activities that all raised the question: why can’t we apply those same principles of sensitivity and sustainability to the textiles we wear and live in?

Natural dyeing uses color extracted from plants — from food scraps or weeds or foraged bark — to dye fabrics, with or without the use of a mordant (a tannic substance that helps the color bind to the fabric). It’s how we dyed textiles for millennia, before the Industrial Revolution pushed cost-saving chemical dyes. What we gained in efficiency and uniformity, however, we lost in connection and originality.

“If you think about the Pantone Colors — colors like Orchid or Fig — those are immediate, synthetic versions of living colors,” says Duerr. “The real color that comes from that plant opens up this whole other level of connectivity.” Living colors have “a glow” that you simply can’t find in man-made color. “They show us the hidden color palette of everyday life.”

(Image credit: Aya Brackett)

Plant dyes are also infinitely better for you and for the earth. Textile factories are second only to agriculture in terms of the pollution they create, much of which occurs when producers dump dye by-products into water sources. And many of the plants used in natural dyeing are medicinal, far kinder to our skin than synthetics. “When you wash that towel and black water goes down the drain, those are heavy chemicals you’re seeing,” says Duerr. “Why not embed a blanket with aloe dye, which is soothing to your skin, or turmeric, which eases inflammation?” Up until the 1950s, firemen in Japan wore uniforms dyed with indigo, an anti-bacterial plant that can help treat burns.

This is DIY leveled up; it’s design with a degree of personalization that goes far beyond the breezy, “I found this handwoven rug in a little shop in Tulum.” The colors created in a plant dye vat are ephemeral: you’ll only see that exact shade once. Try to recreate it and some alchemy of water, air, the temperature of the soil when those carrots were grown, etc, will produce an entirely different result. “Some of these colors we haven’t seen in our lifetimes,” says Duerr. “They are so complex. If you think about the biodiversity of taste, which makes us healthier and helps us evolve—I feel similarly about the biodiversity of color.”

For Duerr, plant dyeing takes the trend of ethical, slow design to its natural end. “We’re building up the library of design potential. Being able to specifically curate the palate of your home in a meaningful way is really wonderful.” There’s the pillow you grabbed on sale at Ikea; then there’s the one you dyed with the petals of the roses from your wedding bouquet. Which will you treasure more deeply?

Don’t be intimidated by natural dyes, says Duerr. It’s essentially tea made by steeping bark, herbs, or food trimmings in water before adding (or not, depending on your material) a mordant like iron or aluminum, and then immersing the clean textile in the dye vat. The longer you steep, the more intense the color becomes. Hues will also change with on different additives, as you’ll see in the project below.

Wondering what to dye? Pretty much any home textile is up for grabs, although natural fabrics like linen tend to do best. Those sun-bleached white curtains, old sheets, the table runner you spilled cranberry sauce on last Thanksgiving—Duerr has dyed rugs, transformed scrap fabric into art, and even used a dye technique to create a luminous focal wall.

How to Dye Avocado Pit Pillowcases

You’ll need 10 avocado pits for this project, which is a great excuse to eat 10 avocados. You could also befriend your local Mexican restaurant and grab their pits at the end of a day. (Duerr has staged “Dinners to Dye For,” partnerships between chefs and designers where the scraps from dinner are repurposed as natural dyes for table linens.)

Once cleaned and simmered in the water bath, these pits produce a beautiful dusky pink hue. Avocados also contain a natural mordant, so there’s no need to source your own, making this project perfect for baby dyers.

The instructions below will dye up to 5 square linen pillowcases:

  1. Fill a large stainless steel pot two-thirds full with water.
  2. Add 10 avocado pits. Bring the water to a low boil and then reduce to a simmer.
  3. Simmer until the water turns bright red, approximately 30 to 60 minutes.
  4. Remove the pits with tongs and add the pillowcases, maintaining a low simmer.
  5. After 10 minutes, the dye will be securely bonded to the fabric, and the pillowcase should be a light, sun-dried shade of peach. Leave them longer to intensify the pink hues.
  6. When the pillowcases reach your desired shade, use tongs to move them to a sink to rinse in warm water with pH-neutral soap. Hang them to dry out of direct sunlight.

Ready to experiment? Adding an iron solution to your avocado water transforms the peach hue into shades of dove grey and bruised purple. You can dye multiple pillow cases in the same vat to produce a range of shades. Try techniques like Shibori, block, and steam printing for different effects. You can even collect rain or salt water for a more locally-informed product.

(Image credit: Penguin Random House)

This project, as well as many more details on the how-to of natural dyeing, can be found in Duerr’s book Natural Color: Vibrant Plant Dye Projects for Your Home and Wardrobe.