Natural dye teacher and writer

How eco-friendly are natural dyes for yarns?

Have you ever wondered how eco-friendly natural dyes are for dyeing yarn at home? Maybe you’d like to learn a little more about natural dyeing? In today’s post I’m going to do just that! We will explore how naturally dyeing yarns and fabrics impacts our immediate environment.

What does “eco-friendly” mean?

In recent years, terms like “going green” and “eco-friendly” have become real buzz words. The term “eco-friendly” has been used for so many different products and practices, its meaning is in danger of being lost.

Eco-friendly literally means earth-friendly or not harmful to the environment. This term most commonly refers to products that contribute to sustainable living or practices that help conserve resources like water and energy. Eco-friendly products also don’t contribute to pollution of the air, water and land.

Making an eco-friendly and sustainable product keeps both environmental and human safety in mind. At a minimum, the product is non-toxic at any point in its production. Other eco-friendly attributes include the use of sustainably grown or raised ingredients, produced in ways that do not deplete the environment.

How eco-friendly are natural dyestuffs?

Eco-friendly dye stuffs

Natural dyers use colour from plants (and a couple of insects) to create dyes for yarns and textiles. These plants are usually grow naturally and are foraged, or are farmed sustainably meaning the dyes are produced with a low or minimal carbon impact. The plants themselves can be reused several times in the dye process which means that not only are they eco-friendly, they give good value. When the dye is used up, the remaining waste plant material and any liquid dye can be safely put on the garden, on the compost or disposed of in household waste without any concerns re pollution. Composting is very eco-friendly. I’m sure one day the daisies in my garden will come up multi-coloured from all the dye waste compost!!

Fibre choices.

Consider what fibre you want to naturally dye, as some are easier than others. Protein fibres take natural colours much more easily than cellulose fibres which need more processing before dyeing begins. (For more about sustainable fibres, here’s my blog….)

Growing and sourcing.

If I can, I use home grown dye plants that I have grown organically in the garden. That doesn’t ever give me enough dye stuff, so I source dried dye stuffs from responsible and ethical suppliers, and ideally the dyes are organic. For example, I’d rather buy chamomile grown in north Wales than chamomile from India because I trust the source. Buying from local suppliers and growers, or at least in the same country means there are fewer carbon miles in transportation.

Water and disposal.

Natural dyes can be made with rainwater almost as easily as tap water. The collection of rainwater to use for dyes is another eco-friendly part of the process. There is no need to use drinkable water from the tap when rainwater is just as good. Whenever I can, I deplete all the colour from the dye pots by “exhaust” dyeing. Sometimes I’m even able to use the same water for several dye colours. (I got this idea from Sinead of Gullrock Fibres, another natural dyer.)I try to be eco-friendly and avoid wasting water in all parts of the dye process.

How eco-friendly are natural mordants?

In the past, heavy metal salts like tin and chrome were used in natural dye processes to mordant the fibres. Thankfully now this practice is less used. I use alum (aluminium sulphate) as a mordant. This helps the colour molecules grip onto the fibre. I also use baking cream of tartar (powdered tartaric acid) with alum to help brighten the dye colours. This combination works very well with protein fibres like wool and silk. Mordanting cellulose fibres is more tricky because their cellular structure is more resistant to the dyes. To mordant cellulose fibres like cotton or bamboo, I use aluminium acetate and chalk after prolonged boiling to remove any oils and residue from processing.

Alum

Alum is used in a wide variety of ways from preserving the colour of pickles, to aftershave and deodorant. It is mined as a salt and purified if it is used in foods. I always use food grade alum (available from many online sources) when I mordant yarns. If you can, indirectly, eat it, then its as natural and non-toxic as possible.

Cream of Tartar

This is a common substance used in baking, especially to whiten meringues. It is a by-product of wine making.

Aluminium Acetate

This aluminium salt is manufactured industrially and has many uses. It can be used as a topical antiseptic and in solution as eardrops. Therefore I take the view that it is not harmful and I use it to mordant cellulose fibres. However, I am still searching for a better way to naturally dye cellulose fibres because it is quite energy hungry due to the hot water scouring needed.

Disposal

In the limited quantities and weak solutions that the natural dyer uses, mordants can be safely poured onto the ground or down the drain. Alum is used to alter soil pH so it really is safe to dispose of in this way! Iron and copper modifiers can be safely disposed of too. Chrome salts are a mordant (rarely used) which cannot be disposed of in this way. It needs to be stored in a plastic, clearly labelled container and disposed of at a council waste facility as hazardous chemical waste.

Natural Dye compost!

How can we be more eco-friendly in our approach to natural dyeing at home?

Use foraged, home grown, locally produced or reputable supplies of natural dyes. Consider growing dye plants in a bucket on your doorstep, go for a walk in the country or local park to forage for dye plants, and be confident in the supplier you choose to buy from.

Ivy, a foraged natural dye

Consider water and energy use and reduce them as much as possible. Solar dyeing is a very eco-friendly way of dyeing yarn. Save rainwater in a water butt off your drainpipe if you can, and consider cold dyeing with natural dyes.

Choose non-toxic and human safe mordants that are easy and safe to dispose of in the ground or drain.

Use eco-friendly soap solutions to rinse your yarn once it has dyed, and leave it to dry naturally on the washing line or hung up over the bath or shower. (See The Knitter, Issue 170 Wool Washes and caring for Hand Knits)

I hope this has inspired you to consider the eco-friendly options when dyeing your yarn………

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