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Fabric Dyes: There Are Healthier Alternatives

With so much bad news about the textile industry bombarding us from all directions, it’s hard sometimes to remember that all over the world people are working hard to find environmentally-friendly fabric dye alternatives. Here at Mandala Dream Co the subject is never far from our hearts and minds (and hands!) because we are always learning and experimenting, looking for ways to create beautiful, rich colour without leaving a trail of environmental destruction in our wake.


People Have Been Dyeing Fabrics and Fibres for Generations

What we’ve discovered over many years of play and experimentation is that not only are there options when it comes to gorgeous, fun colour, but the techniques used can also produce fabulous patterns and textures.  Of course, we aren’t inventing any of this. You can trace the history of colouring fabrics back to ancient times.

The Mayans, Egyptians and Japanese, and many other cultures have all dyed fabrics and wool for generations. Japanese Indigo, for example, is derived from Japanese indigo plants and though there are only four indigo farms left in Tokushima prefecture (the only ones left out of more than a thousand…), a few producers of hand-dyed items still keep traditions alive that began way back in the 12th century. Batik, shibori and wax techniques used in Japan produce exquisite patterns and you can still find examples of craftsmen making gorgeous items using traditional designs and ingredients.

Many Natural Plant Sources Make Good Dyes

It turns out that the list of natural sources of lovely colour is long and by no means are they all in this list. (Brace yourself, we’re not kidding!) For those die hard eco dyers (who sadly seem to have a judge first ask questions later approach) they will know that some are light fugitive, some require specialty techniques, some are preferable as under or over dyes, some prefer ferments while others are dependent on a tannin, mordant or modifier.  We don’t like to differentiate as find that experimentation is where the fun and discovery evolve for the individual and prefer not to be living out of someones’ books and hard work but to develop our own, as we did for our organic Hemp. Let's hope all eco based dyers can lighten up the craft so that others are more willing to join the good fight.

  •      Onions skins
  •      Turmeric
  •      Indigo
  •      Certain lichens.
  •      Eucalyptus leaves
  •      Bloodwood kino
  •      Logwood
  •      Avocado seeds
  •      Sunflower seed hulls
  •      Certain teas and coffees
  •      Acorns
  •      Oak galls
  •      Pomegranate rind
  •      Marigolds
  •      Annatto
  •      Saffron
  •      Butterfly bush
  •      Banksia cones
  •      Bamboo
  •      Madder root
  •      Rosehips
  •      Purple sage
  •      Cornflowers
  •      Hyacinth
  •      Olives
  •      Red cabbage
  •      Ornamental plum leaves
  •      Artichokes
  •      hydrangea flowers
  •      Calendula
  •      Camellia
  •      Chamomile
  •      Moringa leaves and bark
  •      Nettles
  •      Rosemary
  •      Rosella roots
  •      Lentils
  •      Dandelion
  •      Fennel
  •      Iris
  •      Bay leaves
  •      Crocus
  •      Daffodil
  •      Paprika
  •      Weld

And this is just the start! So why limit ourselves to artificial dyes that will end up harming the environment?

No Two Hand-made Textiles Alike

Each textile artist uses a unique alchemy only fully known and understood by each individual. We love seeing the experiments and creations, new designs, and journal entries as artists explore the endlessly fascinating world of textiles and dyes. @raven_and_wren and @greenleafknitter are just a few of the many, many textile creators who share something about their process on Instagram.

Each eco choice of natural fabric dyes, it’s related mordant method (how the fibres are prepared to best accept dyes), tannin, the fabric type, temperature, season, soil, modifier, and so on produces a different effect. You’ll find most true eco dyers will use only what they have readily available to them so the specific list of ingredients and processes will differ by country, and by climate.

What many natural, eco dyeing processes have in common is a steeping process (think of tea getting darker the longer the leaves soak, but imagine much bigger containers). There are plenty of other dye processes that work better with fermentation, solar dying, steaming, drying or crushing. That’s just half the fun involved with dabbling in plant-based or eco dyeing… the experimenting.  The techniques of design are as endless as your imagination but the easiest design details can be achieved by trying out tie dye, or even using reduced plant dyes for completing a block print.

There are wonderful books, guides and workshops on the process… but tread carefully so you don’t also become part of the problem and do your research in regard to toxicity and sustainability, please do your own experiments, this is how we all learn.


You’ll find some plant eco dyes may be a light fugitive (such as turmeric or logwood) and will fade quickly if exposed to the sun. Some others (such as indigo) require an oxidation process (up to 100 days) to fully complete the process.  Yet other eco dyes may react to PH levels in your washing machine water or your detergent (try Soap nuts or berries, an ecologically friendly alternative to harsh detergents).

Eco Dyeing Processes are Slow

Eco-friendly and natural fabric dyes certainly are beautiful, but all that gathering, preparation, and then often slow dyeing processes are labour intensive. You’ll see this reality reflected in the pricing of creations hand-made by artisan or textile artists. This is also why big brands and large retail chains have been slow to embrace these more natural alternatives. It takes land and labour to grow and harvest plants used to make the natural fabric dyes and given the fast fashion cycle and consumer demand for cheap clothing, eco alternatives are not currently sustainable on a large scale.

One of the benefits of supporting a small eco business is that the smaller scale of production needed for a cottage industry makes it possible to plant modest quantities of indigo, turmeric, onions, and so on. Small-scale producers can also often find enough raw dyeing materials by foraging or using waste from other businesses in the gardening, farming, or food industries. The food sector is known for an incredibly large amount of waste, so partnering with small textile producers is an excellent way to recycle materials that would otherwise be thrown away.

Are There Options for Large Producers?

For larger scale industrial producers perhaps the answer lies somewhere between the two extremes of mass-produced artificial dyes and the less efficient use of plant or natural dyes. Remember that big business responds to consumer demand so, ultimately, the answer really lies with us. If we consume less (and more selectively) and if we are willing to pay a bit more for better quality clothing produced with more natural and less environmentally harmful methods, big business will sit up and take note.

That said, when you go off in search of hand-made, naturally-dyed items, keep in mind that just because something is ‘natural’ that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s non-toxic or non-harmful to the environment. And, once we’ve found and purchased our ‘natural’ garments and linens, remember that washing these items can further pollute our waterways with microfibers, leaching of chemicals used in the production process, and rinsing away of our detergents.

Most natural fabric dyes require bigger quantities versus synthetic dyes to create the same depth of colour. Some need metal mordants, modifiers (some are highly toxic) or tannins. Naturally dyed colours tend to fade over time (though we find this natural process to be rather beautiful). Yes, there are options and yes, it is worth our time to seek them out. And, yes, eco dyeing really is worth all the hours of planting, caring, harvest, drying, foraging, fermenting and love.


Finding Eco-friendly Small-Scale Producers is Just One Option

Remember, too, that purchasing earth-friendly products isn’t the only thing you can do to help create a sustainable future for our planet. You don’t need to buy into the latest and greatest in this week’s fast fashion releases; instead, cherish and care for the clothing and home décor items that you already own. Investigate some of the fabulous Eco Stylists who are out there blogging and sharing photos of their creations (the talented Faye de Lanty is a great example, and there are many others) and learn how to thrift shop, upcycle, recycle, revive and reuse. Enroll in an eco dye course or workshop and learn the joy of natural fabric dyeing and textile art in a safe non-toxic way.

Do Your Homework

Research your purchases, the company’s ethos and ethics and what they stand for (and don’t)! Quality is always the go-to over quantity. Ultimately, quality purchases will outlast any cheaply-made fast fashion finds, saving you money in the long run and protecting our planet and our health to boot.

As consumers, it’s only us that can cause the necessary changes to take place. Where we spend our dollars and our improved habits are key components needed for this Revolution. And we’re ready for it, even though we’re late to the party. At Mandala Dream Co we believe that the younger generation will push the agenda and it’s time for designers, brands and big business to get on board before large producers go the way of the dinosaurs. While researching this article I learned that maybe a massive shake-up of the way we all do business may not be a bad thing. Buy local, recycled, thrifted, sustainable, slow and ethically and you’ll be doing yourself and our planet a favour.


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