What experience do you have with natural dyes?
This bag was published in the Autumn 2017 edition of Altered Couture magazine.*
Altered Couture has a couple of challenges running this year that have caught my eye. One of the challenges is to use natural dyes from foodstuffs to create a project. Being a cook, I knew I’d have fun with this one. As it turned out, I needed to make a bag that I can carry sheet music in for teaching my violin lessons. Right now, I’m teaching at home, but that may not always be the case, and anyhow, I’m always toting piles of books. I set out to create a bag that would hold all my stuff and yet fill the bill of the challenge. I present my spice dyed music bag!
Spice dyed coloring book bag
My inspiration for this bag came from the fabric. It started life as a curtain. I couldn’t pass up the black and white print. What’s more of a music bag than something black and white? Of course, I wasn’t leaving it black and white. I thought about the whole adult coloring book trend and how fun it would be to see if I could actually paint with natural dyes. The short answer is yes, but it’s a gamble. But you knew that. Dyeing with chemicals is comfortingly predictable. Colors turn out bold and vibrant with very little effort on your part. So you get a non-toxic dye (obviously better for you and everyone else), but you give up technicolor and predictability. As long as you go into a project like this thinking of it as an experiment, you won’t be disappointed.
Soy milk mordant
Mordants are solutions that help natural dyes adhere better to fabric. Alum, rusty iron, vinegar and other things can be used. I read Harvesting Color before this project which is a great primer on natural dyes. The most intriguing mordant possibility I found in my research is soy milk. This article from Textile Arts Center made me wonder if I could mix powdered spices and ground dehydrated vegetable matter with soy milk for painting.
Because I’m dairy free, making soy milk is something I already know how to do. I whipped up a batch and got to work.
Painting with your food
First I soaked some yardage cut from a twill curtain in homemade soy milk. I read an article about how soy milk can be an excellent mordant for natural dyes. After it dried, I set about the process of painting in the lines. I ground various dried herbs and spices in a coffee grinder into powders. I tried beets and beet greens that had been dried in the oven, as well as dried oregano. Cocoa, turmeric, and powdered wheatgrass I did not grind further. Next, I mixed the powders with more soy milk to make a paint. Then, I added a little cornstarch to thicken the paints to make a smooth consistency.
Using a small paintbrush, I painted with my various paints all over the yardage. I mixed some of the paints together as I was painting. I kept some of the areas unpainted so that it looked more like a coloring book. After letting the paints dry, I folded the fabric, and set it in a steamer basket over boiling water. I let the whole thing steam for 2 hours. Because the paints themselves are entirely edible, I felt comfortable using my regular steamer insert in my stock pot. I wouldn’t want food to touch conventional dyes! Once steamed, I ran the fabric through the laundry with as small amount of soap as possible on cold. I let it air dry before I ironed it.
As you can see from the painted yardage, a lot of those brilliant colors got lost. Wah wah wah. It goes with the territory.
A note on beets
I really love beets. There’s little that makes me happier in the kitchen than seeing all that brilliant red. You would think that beets would be about the best natural dye given that a battle with them usually ends up with you looking like Lady Macbeth. Yet, in my tests beets washed pretty much straight out of fabric. I actually shredded the beets in my food processor and sprinkled them with vinegar as I dehydrated them in the oven. In theory the vinegar should help the beet color stick to the fabric…yeah, not so much. No doubt there’s a way to make beets behave more, but I wasn’t going to discover it on this project.
So much brown
Natural dyes have a tendency to change unpredictably on you. It was interesting to see how many of the shades I started with came out in various shades of brown, I imagine due to oxidation. The turmeric was the clear winner of the bunch, staying a true yellow through all stages. The oregano also produced a nice strong dark brown. To cut down on any other further oxidation, I applied iron-on vinyl to the surface of the twill. Now the fabric behaved much like oilcloth.
From the twill faux oilcloth and some vintage wool, I cut and sewed a simple bag. There’s not much in the way of a pattern here. I cut rectangle a little larger than one of my music books and added a gusset.
An old grocery bag (the cheap promotional plastic cloth kind that are kind of like interfacing) got cut up to serve as interfacing. I’ve experimented with this material in bags before and I really like it. It’s physically lightweight but adds a good strength to a bag. Plus, I seem to have more of those bags than I otherwise know what to do with.
There’s an interior pocket, and some elastics to hold pencils. I finished it off with some handles repurposed from an old purse.
A top zipper finishes everything off.
Dye cage fight
I’m sending this bag off to the magazine, and I hope that it makes it into one of the upcoming issues, but I know it’ll be heavily used once it makes its way back to me. Bonus–I still have more of the original fabric! I have a notion to paint with regular dyes and compare the results. I know the conventional dye will win on the color front, but the natural dyes were so fun to work with. Plus they smelled AMAZING.
Have you ever dyed anything with natural dyes? What was your experience?
Elizabeth Farr is the writer behind the Elizabeth Made This blog where she shares helpful sewing tips, step by step sewing tutorials and videos to help you explore your creativity through sewing. She has written sewing Eguides and patterns, been a featured teacher at Rebecca Page’s Sewing Summit and Jennifer Maker’s Holiday Maker Fest and her work has appeared in Seamwork and Altered Couture magazines. She also created a line of refashioned garments for SEWN Denver. When her sewing machine isn’t humming, she’s playing and teaching violin, and hanging around a good strategic board game with her husband and 4 kids.