My mother was always fascinated with using vegetables for natural clothing dye, and some of that interest must have rubbed off on me. While she was primarily interested in using vegetables like beets, onions, and black beans for creating natural colors for things like Easter eggs, wool and other fibers, I’ve been using these vegetables to create natural clothing dye for t-shirts, leggings, pants and other articles of clothing. It doesn’t hurt that we have a steady supply of these vegetables from both our own garden and from our membership in a local CSA.
Using natural dyes for wool is a little different than using these vegetables for coloring clothing. Adding vinegar and/or salt to your cooking pot will help deepen the color of your finished project and help to prevent the color from fading in the sun or the washing machine.
Natural Clothing Dye: What Kind of Clothing Can I Use?
When using beets and other vegetables for natural clothing dye, it’s always best to begin with a natural fiber item of clothing. Look for T-shirts, tank tops, or other clothing made with 100% cotton. These natural cotton clothes will take up more dye and will hold on to the color longer with normal wear and washing. Adding a little bit of salt and/or vinegar will also help the cotton clothes to retain the color longer.
In my experiments, synthetic fibers like rayon and polyester didn’t take as well to the natural clothing dye. Pretty much everything came out in the wash, or faded in the sunlight in as little as a day when I hung them out on the line to dry. Even using the salt/vinegar combination didn’t do much to help the clothing retain the dye. It was also more difficult to use the iron to heat set the color into the fabric, as these kinds of fibers tend to melt at a lower temperature than natural cotton. If in doubt, try a little swatch of the fabric first before you commit to using natural clothing dye on a piece of clothing with mixed synthetic fibers.
Natural Clothing Dye: Getting Started with Beets
Since I love beets and we’ve been successful at growing beets in our garden for many years now, I started my experiments with natural clothing dye by using the abundant beets we get every summer from our home gardens and from the local CSA. Using beets as natural clothing dye is probably the easiest way to get started, and you’ll love the results – a romantic, dusty pink!
- Prepare your clothing. Even if your clothing is new out of the package, it helps to run it through the wash to make sure you remove any dirt or other substance from the manufacturing process that might interfere with the uptake of the natural clothing dye.
- Prepare your beets. If you’re not going to peel your beets, scrub them well to remove any dirt, and then chop them. For a ladies’ medium T-shirt, I chopped up five fist-sized beets, removing the tops and roots. Don’t go crazy chopping them into small pieces, but do make sure that you chop them so that plenty of the inner flesh is exposed to the water. (I quartered my beets.) Remember that if you use more beets and less water, you’ll get a deeper rose color. Using fewer beets and more water will give you a lighter, more subtle color for your natural clothing dye.
- Boil the beets. Cover the beets in your large pot (large enough to accommodate whatever item of clothing you want to dye) with water so that the water level is about 1” above the beets. Bring to a boil and simmer at a low boil for about an hour. Strain the beets and save them for another use, like the boiled beet brownie recipe at the end of this blog. If you’d like, you can add one tablespoon of apple cider vinegar and/or one tablespoon of salt to your beets while you boil them to help retain the dye.
- Dye the clothing. Let the boiled beet water cool to room temperature, and then place your t-shirt or other item of clothing into the water. Stir it around with a spoon or paint stick until the beet water has soaked through the entire garment. Let the clothing sit in the beet water for no more than 24 hours – I found that 12 hours overnight was plenty of time to allow the beet water to soak into the t-shirt.
- Dry and heat set. After you remove the clothing from the water, allow it to drip dry – don’t squeeze it too hard, or you’ll squeeze all the natural clothing dye out! You can either dry it outside if it’s a warm, sunny day or place it in the dryer on the lowest setting. After the clothing is dry, you can use a warm iron for five minutes to heat set the dye.
You can use this natural clothing dye to create t-shirts, scarves, leggings, or anything else you can imagine! It works well with tie-dye techniques too. Twist the clothing and use rubber bands to hold it in place while it soaks overnight in the dye.
Tips For Using Beets as Natural Clothing Dye
Remember that when you’re using beets as natural clothing dye, you want to take care so that you don’t unintentionally end up dyeing the clothes you wear as you work. Cover your clothes with an apron, or wear dark-colored clothes. Beets will dye your kitchen counter, sink and stove top too, so make sure to clean up any spills quickly.
When removing clothing from the boiled beet liquid, I take the whole pot outside and pour out as much liquid as I can onto the ground. (If you happen to be doing this in the winter, you’ll end up with lovely red snow.)
My husband asked me what I was going to do with all those leftover cooked beets. It seemed a shame to feed them to the chickens or let them go to waste, so I started baking and made a couple of batches of beet brownies.
1 cup pureed beets
1 stick butter, plus more for greasing the pan
¾ cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 large eggs
1/3 heaping cup good cocoa powder
¾ cup flour (you can easily make these gluten free by using coconut flour)
- Preheat the oven to 350. Melt the butter and mix with the sugar in a large glass bowl. Add eggs, vanilla, and beets and stir well to combine.
- Add cocoa powder and mix well.
- Add flour a little bit at a time until well combined.
- Grease an 8×8 glass pan and pour mixture into pan. Bake for approximately 25-30 minutes or until toothpick inserted comes out relatively clean. Let brownies set in the refrigerator until cool before cutting into pieces.
These beet brownies are gooier and thicker than most brownies, and if you use fresh, sweet beets from the beginning of the growing season, you can reduce the amount of sugar by ¼ cup and increase the flour by ¼ cup.
Are you growing onion sets in your garden this year? You can use those onion skins for natural clothing dye, too! Have you ever experimented with creating natural clothing dye using beets, onions or other vegetables? Leave a comment here and share your experiences and tips with me.