Natural Dye Notebook :: No. 1, Prepared for Dye

Posted by Erin Howe on

The ribbon is really what started it.

Every Mother’s Day I snag up on the choice of ribbon to wrap around the bouquets I send out. I want something luxurious, but that doesn’t break the bank for me or my customers, and I want something biodegradable. No sense in a single-use ribbon ending up in a landfill. 

I’ve tried polyester satin. Shiny and beautiful, but not biodegradable. Acetate; technically biodegradable but looks like funeral flowers to me. And I’ve tried silk, but it’s so limp it doesn’t hold any shape, especially after going through the cold, wet cooler. Fluttery is great for a wedding bouquet, but this bouquet is going into a vase, and the ribbon is probably going around the vase, so it needs some perk to it. My grandmother, a florist in her professional life, even scolded me about my limp silk ribbon when I called on Mother's Day this year. Point taken.

So every year, after I see the deficiencies of the ribbon I landed on during my search the year before, I start digging again. This time I’ve landed on a cotton ribbon (in the upper left hand corner of my photo, but it only comes in this unbleached non-color. 

And have you ever looked through the keyhole of something and realized there was a whole world inside? A world you really really wanted to be a part of? A world you wondered why it took you so long to discover? Natural dyes is mine.

The ribbon was my keyhole. 

Of course now I’m also here:

Because I love plants. It’s not just that I love plants themselves, I do, but I love what happens between plants and people. What’s been happening between plants and people the whole time we’ve known each other. Every single plant comes with a treasure box of advice, warnings, uses, and stories. Every one comes with a legacy of ways that humans have shaped it, and been shaped by it in turn. Each of them has a whole world inside and gosh, I love geeking out in those worlds. You might call this place where our Venn circles overlap with plants’ circles planthropology. That’s it. I’m a hardcore amateur planthropologist. Surely I didn’t just coin that phrase. 

Seeds take time to grow, though, and a stack of seed packets are not dye ready yet. But a really strange thing happened when I began to look into plant dyes. Every plant on my farm suddenly became a potential candidate for the dyepot. I’ve walked by them all hundreds of times, but now, with my new dye eyes, I’m seeing colors in places where I didn’t before. There are three or four tree barks I’d like to try. Those dandelions are in bloom. And I can’t say I’ve ever felt the lack of a pokeweed patch until now. 

So while we wait for the “real” dye plants to grow, let’s experiment with the things I’ve got growing already, shall we? This, I think, will be fun. Because although the ribbon started it, I can see that’s not where it ends. 

Procedure notes: 

Gathering supplies

So. First things first. PFD is an acronym that, when attached to fibers, means prepared for dye. As I looked for fabric to use for my sample notebook, I looked for white PFD fabric. 

What I ended up with was:
-Kona cotton fabric, white PFD
-Handkerchief linen, white PFD
-Habotai silk, 5mm
-Felted reclaimed wool fabric, cream
-DMC perle cotton, white
-DMC embroidery floss, white
-Shetland wool yarn, straight from Avillion Farm Fibers in NC 
-Cotton Ribbon, Paper Mart


Following these instructions from The Maiwa Blog I scoured the fabrics in several pots on my stove.

-Silk and wool got a teaspoon of Orvus Paste Soap for each pound of fabric. I had small amounts of fabric so I was using miniscule amounts of soap. Orvus Paste Soap itself is a curiosity. I found that you can either buy it from a quilt shop in a little sample-sized packet like I’ve got here, or you can buy 7 lbs of it from Tractor Supply to clean your horse with. Those are your choices. Given the ⅛ tsp of it I was using to scour my little piece of fabric and my one skein of yarn, I boggled at the amount of fabric/fiber it would take to ever use a horse-sized jar. 

-Cotton and linen got 1 tsp of Synthrapol and 4 tsp of washing soda per half-pound. Remember during 2020 when we were all stuck at home and so bored we started stripping our bath towels and sheets? I still have my box of Arm and Hammer Super Washing Soda from those strange days, so I used that. 

The only thing that produced satisfyingly disgusting water was the ribbon. I changed that water out three times during the hour I let it boil. The linen water was slightly green. 


Every dyer who cares to explain her process has a different way of mordanting. It’s enough to make a beginner’s lip begin to quiver. Also, is anyone on the internet really clear about what exactly alum is? I’ve heard about five different things, and everyone is sure. 

Finally I used the simple, straightforward method from A Garden to Dye For:

-Silk and wool got 10% alum per weight of goods
-Cotton and linen got 20% alum per weight of goods

Test Stack

To create my notebook, I want a consistent sample of all my fabrics/fibers. That way, I can have a consistent weight to calculate from, and a consistent sample photo at the end.

My test stack consists of:

(4) 2”x3” swatches of Kona cotton fabric
-1 for regular color
-1 for iron modifier
-1 for vinegar/lemon juice modifier
-1 for baking soda modifier
(1) 2”x3” swatch of handkerchief linen
(1) 2”x3” swatch of habotai silk
(1) 2”x2” swatch of felted wool
18” of wool yarn
18” each perle cotton and cotton embroidery floss
2” cotton twill ribbon

All together it weighs .2 oz.

Ok, so: fabric and fibers collected, scoured, mordanted, sorted, stacked. The blank canvas look of the fabric reflects the state of my mind, picking up a new skill I know nothing about. But now we're farther along than we were when we were looking in the keyhole at the beginning. Now, I think, we’re prepared for dye.

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