Cellulose fibers, like cotton, linen and rayon, are more difficult to dye with plants than protein fibers like wool and silk. It’s possible to dye cotton fabric black but it takes time: at least three days (or rather a week) from start to finish! Because you have to scour the fabric, extract the dye, dye the fabric, modify the color and overdye the fabric again. But even if it’s a lengthy process, it’s very budget-friendly and sustainable: Because you probably have the materials already at home or can gather them outdoors!
History Of Natural Black Dyes
Dyeing fabric, especially cellulose fibers, a true black has always been difficult with natural dyes. Tannin in combination with iron has traditionally been used to dye fabric black. Another historical way to make almost black fabric was to overdye red fabric with blue. I combined both historical methods: First I dyed cotton fabric with tannin, then I modified the color with DIY iron liquor and then I overdyed it with indigo.
Only For Cellulose Fibers
This natural dye tutorial works only for cellulose fibers, like cotton, linen and rayon. Don’t try to dye protein fibers, like wool, by following this tutorial because iron damages protein fibers! I tried to dye a small wool broadcloth test sample and the iron modifier destroyed the fibers and made the wool broadcloth extremely brittle.
Is The Naturally Dyed Fabric Really Black?
Keep in mind that your naturally dyed cotton fabric might not be as jet black as store-bought cotton fabric. Natural dyeing is a difficult process. How your naturally dyed fabric turns out depends on so many factors: the fabric, what tannin-rich plants you use, the weather, how long you let the fabric soak …
For this tutorial I dyed two pieces of white cotton twill fabric (one of the fabric pieces was leftover from my historical corded health corset). Both fabric pieces looked exactly the same and I dyed them exactly the same but one of the white cotton fabric pieces turned out almost black (with some blue spots, cotton fabric 2 in the picture below) while the other was only blackish blue (cotton fabric 1 in the picture below)! So you can never know for sure what color you’ll get!
How To Dye Cotton Fabric Black Naturally
Step 1 – Scour The Fabric
- 3 tbsp (20g) washing soda per 250g fabric
To scour the fabric you need washing soda, also called soda ash.
Put washing soda and the wet cotton fabric into a large pot. Cover with enough water. Then boil the fabric for about 2 hours. Now remove the fabric and rinse it in cold water.
Step 2 – Tannin Dye
Gather tannin-rich plant materials in the nature. Tannin occurs naturally in various plants.
Plants that are high in tannin are for example: sumac leaves, alder cones, walnut hulls and leaves, thuja leaves, banana peels, spruce bark, witch-hazel leaves, blackthorn leaves & fruits (sloes), cherry plums, berries (like blueberries, bilberries & cranberries), strawberry leaves, berry leaves (like blackberry and raspberry leaves), dandelion & plantago leaves, hops, rose petals, agrimony, silverweed, nettles, oak galls and acorns.
I used a combination of different tannin-rich plants: I used 140g sumac leaves, 280g walnut leaves, 180g stinging nettles, 105g alder cones & twigs with leaves, 160g acorns & oak twigs with leaves, 30g blackthorn twigs with leaves to dye 130g cotton fabric – but you can also use just one plant material. And you can even use black tea instead because black tea also has a high tannin content.
- tannin-rich plant materials
- dye pot
Coarsely chop the plant materials and put them into a large pot. Use a pot that you only use for dyeing! Cover the dye material with water and let it soak overnight.
On the next day, simmer the tannin-rich plants for about 7-10 hours to extract the tannin. Keep the temperature between 60°C and 80°C because heat (over 80°C) destroys the tannin.
Let the plant material soak in the solution overnight again. And simmer the tannin dye on the next day again for about 7-10 hours. The tannin dye should now look dark brown and the plant material should look faded. You can repeat the process (let it soak & simmer) to extract more tannin or remove the plant material.
After removing the plant material, put the pre-wetted cotton fabric into the tannin dye and simmer for about 1 hour.
Step 3 – Iron Modifier
- DIY iron liquor
Dilute the DIY iron liquor with water. Protect all surfaces and wear gloves because tannin dye and iron modifier stains everything! Then dip the tannin-dyed cotton fabric into the iron liquor for about 30 minutes. Remove the fabric and air it for about 30 minutes.
You can repeat the process – simmer the fabric in the tannin dye for about 1 hour, let it soak in the iron liquor for about 30 minutes and then air the fabric – as often as you want to make the fabric darker.
Lazy Method – Alternative Step 2 & 3
After about one or two days I switched to the lazy method and it worked just as well or even better! So you can use just the lazy method instead of step 2 and step 3.
In the morning, heat the tannin dye pot with the fabric to about 70-80°C. Keep it at that temperature for about 1 hour. Now you can either let the fabric soak for a couple of hours in the tannin dye or transfer it to the iron modifier.
Keep it in the iron modifier for 1-3 hours.
Then you can air the fabric for about 30 minutes. According to Jenny Dean’s Wild Colour airing is as important as dyeing if you want to create black with a tannin-iron dye. However, sometimes I skipped the airing after the iron dip and it still made the fabric darker.
After the airing put the fabric back into the tannin dye. Simmer it again for about 1 hour. Then let the fabric soak overnight in the tannin dye. On the next day repeat the dyeing process.
After about 1 week my cotton fabric was dark brown, almost black – even without indigo!
Step 4 – Indigo Dye
I often make fermented foods like soy yogurt, nettle beer, sourdough bread, fermented lemonade and apple cider vinegar. So I expected the yeast vat to smell like sourdough or fermenting fruit juice. But I was so wrong! 😀 Even an all-natural, organic indigo vat smells so bad! It has a strong ammonia smell. So be prepared for a stinking indigo vat and that you have to keep this stinking vat at a warm place for about one week and that the whole room will smell of ammonia – even if you have a tight lid on the vat!
Related: How To Dye Blue With Red Cabbage
- 3 tbsp sugar
- 2 tbsp dry yeast
- washing soda (soda ash)
- indigo powder
Fill a large dye pot with lukewarm water. Add sugar and dry yeast and stir until dissolved. When the yeast solution begins to foam and bubble, you can add the indigo: Dissolve indigo and washing soda in a cup of hot water. Let it cool until lukewarm; then stir it into the yeast solution. Now keep the indigo fermentation vat at a warm place for about 2 days to 1 week.
Stir the indigo vat every day. I used a wooden stick (cut-off branch) for this. Feed the indigo vat from time to time (every other day or so) with one or two tablespoons wheat bran (or home-milled wheat).
After about 1 week my fermented indigo vat was ready to use. When the indigo fermentation vat turns translucent yellowish or greenish under the surface and has a coppery sheen on top, it’s ready to dye.
Related: How To Dye Blue With Black Beans
Now dip the wet tannin-iron fabric into the indigo vat. Make sure that the fabric doesn’t touch the sediment at the bottom of the indigo vat. Slowly move the fabric around but don’t introduce air (bubbles) into the indigo vat. Keep the fabric in the indigo vat for about 10 minutes. Then remove the fabric from the vat: Be careful that the fabric doesn’t drip into the vat and introduces oxygen into the vat.
Now air the fabric for about 30 minutes or until the color is fully developed. Then dip the fabric again into the indigo vat for about 5-10 minutes. Repeat the dipping and airing until you like the color. Keep in mind that wet fabric appears darker than dry fabric!
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