Amber Joy Greenidge-Sabral was dyeing fabrics outdoors one summer when she realized how much her synthetic colorants had transformed the yard. “By the end of the day, the grass had turned black,” she said. While scouring the internet for alternative dye methods, she came across Wild Colours, a natural dye studio in Birmingham, England, founded by textile artist Teresinha Roberts. Greenidge-Sabral, an artist living in London, got in touch with Roberts and quickly found herself drawn to the eco-friendly craft.
“I found out you can use avocado pits, onion skins, chamomile flowers, hibiscus, sorrel,” Greenidge-Sabral told ARTnews. “All these incredible things I had the whole time. It felt like I was a kid again—my inner child just sparkled.”
Two years on, she has dyed watercolor postcards, pouches, clothing, and more and has led her own dye workshops. Greenidge-Sabral is largely self-taught, and she exchanges knowledge with a network of artists around the world, from the Cordwainers Grow community in London’s Hackney district to plant dyer Gianna Christella Hayes in Australia.
“It’s all about doing your own research, testing, and trying what works for you,” she said. “Depending on where you are in the world, your climate, water, your materials will be different.” This can make the art of dyeing, and especially natural dyeing, seem intimidating. The lengthy procedure can also require meticulous processing, from regulating temperature to using a mordant (a chemical that helps color latch onto fabric), particularly if you are seeking a certain look or colorway. Before you even begin, it can also be challenging to choose your textiles and dyestuffs, which have different lightfastness and entail different extraction processes.
But practitioners say that dyeing is also a highly rewarding art form and, with relatively low barriers to entry, is ideal for those keen to experiment. Like many small-batch dyers, Greenidge-Sabral simply uses her kitchen as a dye studio, setting aside a dedicated space and ensuring that it is well ventilated. Her dyestuff is typically something commonplace, ranging from sorrel to buddleja (a flowering plant) to turmeric. So are her tools: an induction burner, stainless steel pots, a metal spoon, a stirring stick, a sieve. As for textiles, she recommends that first-timers dig through their closets for an old tote bag or a cotton T-shirt that’s been washed many times, which will help the fabric absorb the dye.
An-Phuong Ly, a textile artist based in Washington, D.C., describes dyeing as “a really accessible art form.” She began working with dyes 10 years ago and teaches natural dye classes hosted by the U.S. Botanic Garden, the Arlington Arts Center, and Smithsonian Associates. Informed by her graphic design background, she is drawn to highly structured patterns and cites textile artist Anni Albers as an influence.
“The important thing is to keep your eye open to what’s around you on an everyday basis,” Ly said. “Find a shirt you want to refresh. Use flowers you might have thrown away. I love kitchen compost, commons things like onion skins, turmeric, or paprika. Although those are not lightfast, they are really great introductions to the process.”
Ly also purchases dyestuff from established vendors such as the Seattle-based Botanical Colors and the Vancouver store and school Maiwa. But spending time outdoors foraging for natural materials, from lavender to walnut tree leaves, is part of why she loves natural dyeing.
Early in the pandemic, Ly converted a sliver of soil in the parking spot behind her house into a dye garden for marigolds, indigo, and coreopsis. She was taking a cue from artists she met through Baltimore Natural Dye, an initiative at the Maryland Institute College of Art that treats natural dyes as a tool for healing humans’ relationship with the earth.
“I was shocked at how much I could squeeze into that small space,” Ly said. “It doesn’t take a lot of effort, and it’s super satisfying. You can also have a windowsill garden—that’s a great way to start.”
In the United Kingdom, Greenidge-Sabral has also developed a closer relationship with nature through dyeing. She does most of her foraging for fruits and berries at the end of summer and uses apps such as PictureThis to identify plant species and save their names, which she will often then log in a dye journal. “Living in a city, I thought I didn’t have many green spaces, but there are over 1,000 green spaces in London,” she said. “I started really looking at the world, really paying attention to Mother Earth. Now I have this entire archival guide of things that can help me.”
Alex Reynoso, a fiber artist who lives in the Bronx, has been experimenting with natural dyes during the pandemic, but he still finds himself gravitating toward synthetics. He finds that the colors they produce are more vibrant—vital for an artist who is known for creating multicolored garments and accessories with ombré and speckled tones.
“You need a lot of dyestuff to get a great color as opposed to, like, half a teaspoon of powder,” Reynoso said. “Otherwise the process is super simple. Once you meet the requirements of heat, water, acid, and coloring, you should be able to dye wool or nylon.”
Reynoso, 24, has been crocheting since age 13 and began dyeing yarn because he was tired of the natural white fibers he bought from farmers markets. “It’s a different way to express yourself, to play around with color,” he said. Also self-taught, he learned how to dye by reading books and watching YouTube videos, including ones on color theory. He now uses videos himself to teach others: On Skillshare, he offers an eight-lesson introduction to hand-dyeing wool yarn, covering several techniques in just under 30 minutes.
Working with synthetic dyes can offer more control—you can dip-dye a portion of a knitted hat, for instance—but Reynoso also appreciates more spontaneous techniques, like simply adding dyes to bunched up fabric and setting the colors in a microwave. Another easy way for beginners to get their feet wet, he said, would be to try kettle dyeing, which involves immersing textiles in a large pot of water. “You just mix your dye in, dunk in your yarn, and everything happens in the pot. It will get you a semisolid depending on how many colors you add, and when.”
Even though dyeing—whether with synthetic or natural dyes—follows a basic set of steps, Ly said that its unpredictable nature is still the main reason why she loves the craft. “Every time you make something, it’s so unexpected, even when you think you have the factors constant.” The coolest part, she said, is “that acceptance of surprise and inconsistency and lack of control. It’s just this constant unknowing, this letting go.”