If you’ve an interest in natural-dyeing or botanicals, take a leaf out of Babs Behan’s new book

Photography by Kim Lightbody

Organic dyes have been used for thousands of years – the earliest record dates back to China in 2600 BC, and there were natural-dyed textiles found preserved in the tomb of Tutankhamun. Bristol botanical dye expert Babs Behan (pictured below) believes we should return to these ancient practices, not only for their beauty, but as a solution to today’s polluting textile industry.

Having first learnt about natural dyeing and printing processes in India, and after six years of learning artisanal techniques, she returned to the UK to develop a manufacturing system using locally sourced fibres and set up a natural dye studio in Bristol, creating dyed cloth for designers and workshops. She’s now written a book – Botanical Inks: Plant-to-Print Dyes, Techniques and Projects – on how to transform flowers, foraged plants and even recycled food waste into dyes and inks, and imbue textiles and paper with beautiful hues.

Look out for Babs’ dye garden at Feed Bristol on Frenchay Park Road, where she will be growing a range of plants and flowers suitable for workshops and products and, if you’re keen to have a go at the craft, we’ve a sneak preview of the book right here…

There are endless sources of natural dye colours around us, from the domestic (household and garden) to public (local parks, woodlands and wildernesses). Once you start developing your eco-literacy for natural colour, you will start to see colour potential everywhere you look.

House and garden
To start with, reconsider the things you throw into the bin or compost when you’re cooking. Onion skins hold an incredible amount of dye colour. Discarded cabbage and kale leaves, carrot tops, ends of beetroot, and pumpkin and squash skins all yield beautiful hues. One of my all-time favourite colours is the soft dusty pink given by avocado rinds and the slightly deeper shade from the pit. You can recycle used tea bags, coffee grounds and the mulch left over from juicing various fruits and vegetables. Even leftover red wine can be used when it’s no longer drinkable. This is such a great way to source colour, as you are getting an extra use out of the by-products of your cooking, and they can still go into the compost afterwards to nourish the land.

If you’re lucky enough to have a garden or allotment, then you have an almost limitless opportunity for growing colour. Many herbs, such as rosemary, mint, sage and thyme, give good, strong colours. They are often pretty hardy plants too, which carry on growing throughout the colder months of year and so offer an ongoing source of colour. Along with a selection of garden vegetables and herbs, you can also grow various flowers such as roses, daffodils, tulips and hollyhocks for brighter shades and for using with bundle-dyeing and hapazome (a Japanese art) techniques. You can also buy traditional dye plant seeds and rhizomes (from certified organic sources), such as madder, weld and even indigo, to grow in your garden.

Farm and wilderness
If you live near any farms, find out what grows in them and if the farmer would be happy to let you take away any waste produce or invasive weeds. Dock plants are big nuisance to farmers and most would welcome the opportunity to be relieved of them. Things such as walnut husks are discarded once the walnuts have been removed, and can be recycled for making the most wonderful shades of brown and black.

If you don’t have access to a garden or farm, look around at your local landscape. There are endless plants that have colour potential in the wild and natural spaces around us. Where I live, there are hedgerow plants that grow abundantly – such as nettles, blackberries, and apple trees – and other species that are commonly found in woodland, such as bracken and pine. Meadows and lawns are often dotted with outcrops of yarrow, dock and dandelion. Even waste ground can be a great place for finding certain plants and herbs that have made it their home.

When collecting leaves and flowers, use those that have naturally fallen to the ground. If you do take cuttings from the plant, try not to overharvest from one part of the plant. Take leaves/flowers from every third leaf/flower on the stem, or from every third plant. And only take from healthy plants which can then easily regenerate. You can also collect seeds or take cuttings to propagate from local wild plants. Always ask the landowner for permission before you forage for any plants, even if it is a public space.

Online
For any other types of dye that you cannot grow or source locally, you can go to responsible online suppliers of sustainable natural dyes. These come as dried dye materials including wood chips, powders or extract powders.

The humble household onion
Onion (allium cepa) is an allium, from the family Liliaceae. It is found on every continent and may have been growing wild since pre-civilisation. It’s thought that the Ancient Egyptians believed the onion bestowed strength and that its concentric spherical rings symbolised eternity. Brown and red onions are a classic home-dyer’s choice – there’s always a plentiful supply, and the colour they give is surprisingly rich, making them a favourite when you want an impressive result with little effort. Brown skins make beautiful yellow tones when kept below a boil, while boiling the skins can provide rich burnt orange and rust-coloured dyes. Red skins offer slightly plummier tones. When used together, they create a vibrant, multi-dimensional hue. Onions are easy to grow from sets and take about three to four months to be ready to harvest.

Store up supplies of onion skins from your own cooking – if you need more, ask a local greengrocer for the waste from the bottom of their boxes, or go to cafés or food producers and ask them to put aside a bag for you. Apparently, more than 500,000 tonnes of onion waste is thrown away every year in Europe. Imagine how much dye we could be making with all of that. Store dry onion skins in paper bags or cardboard boxes. Just make sure that it’s only the dry skins you have, and not any of the fleshy bits, and that they are fully dried out before going into storage, or things can get really smelly. Onion doesn’t need to be paired with a mordant [a substance, typically an inorganic oxide, that combines with a dye or stain and thereby fixes it in a material] but using one can deepen colours and strengthen the colourfastness of the dye. You should use the mordant that best suits the fibre you’re dyeing.

Making a dye bath
Weigh your chosen fibre after it has been washed, scoured and dried. For a deep shade, use 50% of the weight of the fibre in skin – for example, for 400g of fibre, use 200g of onion. Onion skins are super-easy and quick to dye with. No need to chop them, simply put them in the dye pot and pour in enough water to allow the fibre to move freely. Bring to a simmer for 30 minutes. You’ll see the colour of the water changing and deepening quite quickly. Strain out the onion skins and use the liquid as the dye bath.
Dye bath method: Suitable with the hot dyeing method [check out the book for more on this technique]. For the hot dye, simmer for about 30 minutes, or until you have the desired shade. You can use the dye bath a second time to get paler shades.
Modifer: An acidic modifier will shift colours towards orangey yellow. An alkaline modifier will move colours towards green.
Making table linen using said household onion!
There’s something special about using food waste to make beautiful, decorative table linen – and it’s a great conversation piece when you gather around the table with friends. Consider the range of colours you can create: rich bronze from onion skins, soft dusty pinks from avocado rind and pit, purple from red cabbage ends, yellow from carrot tops, and an array of beige and greens from coffee grounds or various types of tea leaves. Lengths of yellow onion-dyed linen, with soft edges, add a touch of romantic style. I love the rustic, crumpled look of freshly washed linen, but you can try any natural fabrics for making runners and napkins. You might also like to use larger swathes of fabric to make a full tablecloth or bed throw. Layer up different qualities of linen, from light, loose weave to thicker, heavier weights.
You will need: Tape measure, dyed fabric, fabric scissors, iron and ironing board, dressmaker’s pins, sewing machine, sewing thread.
Dye material: Onion skins. You’ll need 100% of the weight of the washed, scoured and dried fabric in skins – so for 500g of fabric, you’ll need 500g of dry onion skins.
Fabric: Irish linen (plant fibre). You can also use organic cotton, which would give a similar rustic finish. Or silk (animal fibre) is wonderful for a more romantic look.
Mordant: For Irish linen, use two-step mineral mordant, oak gall, alum and soda ash [more on this in Babs’ book].
Dye method: Dye bath, hot dyeing method. For a similar shade, leave the fabric in the dye bath on a simmer for one hour. Then take off the heat and leave in the dye bath overnight.
Modifer: I haven’t used a modifier in this project, but an acidic modifier such as lemon juice or light vinegar will give brighter hues.
  • Measure the table width or length, depending on where you want the runner to sit. A table runner looks good when it’s about one third of the width of the table, and running down the middle lengthways. So if the table is 120cm wide, the runner should be 40cm wide. If you want to leave the runner in place for dinner parties, make sure there is enough space on each side for placemats, without them overlapping the runner.
  • The length of the runner should overhang the ends of the table by about 15-25cm on each end. So, if the table is 175cm long, the table runner will be 190-200cm long. Napkins are square, and can be any size from 40 x 40cm to 50 x 50cm. Larger sizes tend to be for formal events, to be folded into shapes or around silverware.
  • When you’ve established what sizes you need, cut all the pieces from the fabric. I’ve left a rough, frayed hem as I like the rustic look. If you like a neater finish, allow 2cm extra all round each piece for a hem.
  • Make a double hem by folding the edges of each piece under by 1cm to the wrong side and then fold under again by 1cm. Press the folds with the iron and then pin into place, placing the pins at a right angle to the edge so that the needle can sew over them.
  • Using the sewing machine, sew the hem in place all round the edges, close to the first fold.

Ice flower dyeing 
Extracting colour from flowers can be difficult. You may find that applying heat to delicate petals disrupts their bright hues and causes a loss of colour. Using a cold extraction technique can be more successful, especially if you start by freezing the flowers – the drop in temperature causes a natural decomposition of the plant cells, making it easier for the colour to pass through into the dye bath.

This is not a very colourfast way to dye fabrics, but it’s fun and easy to overdye fabric in order to create layers of colours. When the colour of a dyed fabric fades, you can overdue using this technique to give it a fresh burst of vibrancy. It’s also a good way to get a second life from used flowers from your home or garden, or waste flowers from the local florist. If they are wilting or slightly past their best, they are still fine to use for colour.

You will need: Plant material (fresh flowers and petals), netting bag or old tights (optional), string, freezer bag or airtight container, pot or bowl, fabric (washed, scoured, mordanted and pre-wetted), strainer, press cloth, steam iron, pH-neutral soap
Plant material: Try deep-coloured flowers such as petunia and delphinium, or red rose and hollyhock.
Fabric: This technique works best on silk (animal fibre) as it absorbs colours easily and holds onto them well.
Mordant: For silk, use mineral-based mordant alum and cream of tartar to brighten the colours.

Put the fresh flowers and petals inside a netting bag, or old tights tied with string – doing this is optional, but it helps you remove them from the container more easily. Next, place the flowers in a freezer bag or an airtight container and leave in the freezer for at least 24 hours.

When you’re ready to make the dye, fill a non-reactive pot or bowl with warm water.

Take the frozen flowers out of the freezer and immediately submerge them in the warm water, before they have a chance to start defrosting.

Squeeze the flowers to encourage the colour to come out. You can do this for a few minutes until the water is full of colour.

Leave the flowers to sit in the water for a day or more to let the cold extraction continue. The flowers will continue to colour the water. Alternatively, apply gentle heat to the dye bath to encourage a quicker dye extraction process – do this for around 30 minutes, or until the water reaches a deep enough shade.

When you have sufficient amount of colour, strain the plant material out. To check the colour is deep enough, dip a spoon into the bowl – if it disappears, you have lots of colour.

Add the fabric to the dye bath and use either a cold dye method or a hot dye method.

For a cold dye method just leave the fabric in the bowl until the desired colour is achieved. For a hot dye method, apply a very gentle heat for around 30 minutes, or until the fabric reaches a deep enough shade.

After dyeing, remove the fabric and hang it out to air dry somewhere warm and dry and out of direct sunlight for several days or weeks to cure – the longer you leave it, the better.

Once cured, iron with a press cloth. Then wash it with pH–neutral soap, rinse it with cool/lukewarm water and hang it out to air dry.

• Adapted from Botanical Inks by Babs Behan (Quadrille, £16.99)