Natural dyeing with onion skins, mango leaves, pomegranate skins and black beans

Before I went to Japan in 2013 and had the introductory experience of indigo dyeing and shibori, my works were often very colourful and vivacious so the thought of studying and focusing on one colour was quite strange and unlikely to me. No matter how much I tried to limit myself to just a couple of colours in the beginning of my weaving or designing projects, it was in my nature to always have the urge of throwing in more colours in my work. During my 2-month study experience in Japan, I was drawn towards the subtle quality of Japanese aesthetic as well as the beauty of indigo and natural dyeing. While I was studying the processes of indigo dyeing I realised that it is truly an art which takes years and tremendous amount of experience, trials and errors to become an expert. Although indigo maybe perceived as just one colour by some, numerous shades and depths can be skilfully achieved and it is indeed a very special and fascinating colour. For the past year, our main focus has been learning and experimenting with indigo. Serg and I went to quite a few places to see and study different methods and works of indigo dyeing, and although I am still very much curious and eager to learn more and become better at it, it is inevitable in my nature to always want to get my hands on dyeing with other colours as well.

I have quite a good amount of dyeing experience from my college days but every project was done using synthetic dyes in powder form. Once I decided to shift the focus of my work to natural dyeing, I realised that the knowledge that I gained from college can rarely be applied to it. In comparison to chemical dyeing, natural dyeing is not as easy to control, the processes take much longer and there are countless different methods for all the different plant and fibres. Even so, the environmental aspect of natural dyeing and the extensive processes yield much fascination and excitement to me. One can spend a lifetime to study and experiment with all sorts mordants and plants. This year we plan to spend more time to focus, research and produce works not only from indigo but from other plant dyes as well. I have started the year experimenting with 4 types of plants; onion, mango, pomegranate and black bean. The different shades were achieved by applying different concentrations of iron and alum mordants on the fabric. All the dyeing was done on linen.

Onion skins are available in most kitchens. I got some from my brother’s restaurant. The chefs there peel lots of onions almost every day and it is a shame that they usually throw the precious skins away considering how many beautiful colours they can produce. From my dye bath the colours achieved range from bright yellows, ochres and browns.

onion skin dye

Next is mango leaves. I have a big mango tree growing in front of my house so it was very convenient to obtain the leaves. I picked the leaves almost a week before I did the dyeing so they were dry when I soaked them to make a dye bath. The leaves yield warm, muted shades of soft yellows and browns.

mango leaves dye

Pomegranates are full of benefits and they grow everywhere in Thailand. The skins are rich in tannin and can be use as both mordant and dye. With alum mordant they produce bright yellow. With iron mordants greenish greys, dark greys and black can be achieved.

pomegranate dye

Lastly, I tried dyeing with black beans. The beans were soaked in water for a night and I used the soaking water to dye the fabrics. The good thing about this is you’re not wasting the beans and you can cook the soaked beans for dinner afterwards. While in the dye bath, the alum-mordanted block appeared to be more blue than when it’s dry which was quite exciting. However, once dried the colour turned slightly more grey.

black bean dye

Applying different mordant concentrations on a fabric is a great way to test a plant to see which colours it can produce using only one dye bath. It is also fascinating to see how one dye plant can yield so many different shades and colours when binding with different mordants. Although dyeing with synthetic dyes is much faster and more convenient, I feel that the process of natural dyeing is in many ways more exciting and rewarding. It changes the way I look at plants and expands my appreciation for nature. There are still so much more to try, learn and discover. I will keep posting more experiments with other plants in the near future.


6 thoughts on “Natural dyeing with onion skins, mango leaves, pomegranate skins and black beans

  1. Marjo says:

    Very interesting post! I agree that natural dyeing is much more exiting and rewarding than dyeing with synthetic dyes. The pomegranate dye is very interesting I have been trying to find ways to make black and here it is!

  2. suffindigo says:

    I agree there is so much to learn about natural dyeing; I think it needs a few lifetimes! The most beautiful thing I have found though is that all the colours blend so wonderfully so there really is no such thing as a failure. My favourite colour is still indigo. I love the idea of many mordants on one piece of fabric to be able to compare the colours; I’ll follow your example if I may!

  3. tribalmysticstories says:

    Enjoyed learning here, thank you. I have a few questions. How much mordant do you use and how much do you add to the natural material? I how of each part? Do you boil it all together?
    I have been using natural dyes to paint and I love it. It is great to learn some new colours from you.

  4. Slowstitch Studio says:

    Hi there,

    In this particular case we mixed iron and alum mordant at various ratios (90% & 10%, 80% & 20%, etc) and applied the mordant directly to the fabric.
    For the natural material we use 100% weight-of-fiber – 100 grams of dyestuff per 100 grams of fabric. The natural dyestuff is boiled for an hour first. The liquid is then strained and the textile goes into the dye-bath.
    If you are using natural dyes for painting you might be interested in searching for information on making “pigment lakes”. These are concentrated precipitates of the pigment molecule made by dissolving alum into the dye-bath along with washing soda. The alum attaches to the dye molecule and the washing soda causes the alum to become insoluble in the alkaline environment. The pigments then precipitate to the bottom of the vessel and can be filtered out using a coffee filter. Once dried and ground into a powder they can be mixed with a binder and painted onto canvas, walls, etc.
    It was the traditional way of making paints in the past before chemical colours were discovered.
    Good luck and let us know if we can help you further!

  5. tribalmysticstories says:

    Wow! Thank you so much for your insight and giving me so much to work with. How wonderful. I will try to get all the materials and have a go. I really, really appreciate this. 🙂

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