Making Naturally Dyed Linen Napkins
Welcome to my new obsession. If you think about it, natural dyeing is kind of a predictable progression from gardening. The more I garden, the more I appreciate every aspect of the natural world—from the local birds and wildlife, to the trees and plants we encounter on walks. Natural dye sources exist all around us, and I’ve been curious to explore them more. Most recently, I set out to create a set of naturally dyed linen napkins from homegrown and local plants for Thanksgiving. Today I’m sharing how they turned out and what I learned from this experience.
Now, today’s post is not a tutorial or how-to. I don’t intend to instruct you specifically on natural dyeing linen napkins, but I am sharing the basic principles, my results, and the mistakes I made so that you can feel inspired dye your own linen napkins!
This is only the second year that Sam and I have hosted Thanksgiving. If you’ve been with us for a while, you’ll know that our home is about 715 sq feet, so any hosting we do is outdoors. Suffice it to say, hosting Thanksgiving for 16-20 people is a really fun challenge. To make up for the fact that we only keep about a dozen dinner plates and half a dozen bowls in our kitchen at any given time, our family members contribute various dishes, cups, and silverware from their own homes to help this all come together. Granted, this year I opted to rent tables and chairs (a fantastic decision for my sanity by the way). Overall, it appears that our Thanksgiving tradition has kind of become a creative endeavor, hence the reason I wanted to naturally dye a whole set of linen napkins.
A little about natural dyeing
If you aren’t familiar with the idea of natural dyeing, it is essentially the process of creating dyes by extracting color from natural sources such as plant matter, insects, minerals, etc. In many ways, natural dyeing is more environmentally friendly and sustainable than what is used commercially. On the other hand, lets not mistake “natural” for “perfectly safe.” We still need to take precautions like wearing gloves, eye protection, and possibly even masks when working with some components used in the natural dye process. For example, I used my own foraged oak galls as part of the mordant process on my linen fabric (mordanting is a pre-treatment that prepares fibers to accept color). The oak galls are ground into a fine powder that then gets added to hot water to soak the fabric. As with any fine particulates, the ground oak galls can irritate the lungs if you don’t wear a mask and work outdoors in a well-ventilated area. And that’s just one example of how to be mindful of safety when working with natural dyes.
Foraged & Homegrown Sources for Natural Dyes
One of my goals for these naturally dyed linen napkins was to only use locally foraged or homegrown plant material to create the colors. As home gardeners, we know how exciting it is to create dishes or projects from things we have grown ourselves, right? For this project, I grew marigolds in my garden because they are one of the most incredible sources of yellow dye. Additionally, between local friends and I, we managed to accumulate black walnuts, eucalyptus bark, dried hibiscus flowers, and tea chrysanthemums. As a last minute addition, I decided to do some experimenting with loquat leaves and bark as well. Spoiler: the loquat dyes are currently my favorite and I plan to experiment a lot more with it. In the end, we played with around eight different natural dyes!
When it comes to choosing plants for natural dyeing, I want to share this piece of advice that I rarely see in dyeing blogposts for beginners:
Be aware of fugitive dyes! Fugitive dyes are colors that are not colorfast—-meaning they will fade extremely quickly.
Surprisingly, people don’t tell you that dyeing with common kitchen stuffs— like berries, red cabbage, beets, etc.—will result in a final product that is super fugitive. I specifically like to avoid fugitive dyes. Personally, I don’t want to go through all the work to have my project start to fade immediately after the first wash. For that reason, I was determined to use plant dyes that were not fugitive in order to create a set of naturally dyed linen napkins that would last for a longer period of time. Now, no natural dye is forever, but you can also re-dye or overdye fabric once the color has faded.
Prepping Linen Napkins for Natural Dyeing~ Mordanting
Last Spring, I gathered with some friends to try some natural dyeing for the very first time. As a newbie, I was really excited to use some homegrown avocado pits to dye my linen fabric. To prepare, I read blogs that stated that avocado pits contained enough tannins that mordanting (pre-treating) fabric wasn’t necessary to achieve color. Therefore, my naive self showed up with linen fabric that had not been pre-treated (mordanted) in any way! In the end, my first dye project was pretty much a total disappointment! While all my friends were trying different colors and achieving vibrant dyes, my poor fabric sat in the avocado dye vat for at least an hour and was the lightest shade of peach…which proceeded to wash out with a simple rinse and barely looked colored at all in the end. That was how I learned how important it is to prepare your fabric for natural dyeing.
After learning my lesson the hard way, I knew that these naturally dyed linen napkins needed to be mordanted prior to dyeing.
According to botanicalcolors.com: Mordanting is the most important process of preparing fibers to accept color. Using a mordant helps to ensure the most durable and long-lasting colors.
In simple terms, natural fibers require some help in order for them to take on color and keep it. I decided to follow a two-part mordant process, much like this one, for cellulose fabric (linen is a cellulose fabric, aka: made from plant fiber). When it comes to natural dyeing, the mordant treatment of the fabric can be different depending on if your fabric is cellulose or animal fibers (some common animal fibers would be wool yarn).
To start, I washed my fabric in the washing machine and then got my oak galls ready for the first step of the mordanting process.
After doing a tannin treatment (oak galls were my tannin) for about 2 hours, I moved on to an alum and soda ash bath for another 2 hours approximately. Like I said, I opted to follow a two-step mordant process using tannin and alum although there are other ways to mordant too depending on your preferences and desired outcome.
This two-step mordanting process prepared my linen fibers to accept and bind with the natural dyes, which will enhance their color fastness and vibrancy. Truthfully, grinding my own oak galls was a lot of work but I wouldn’t have it any other way. You can indeed buy gall powder online if you don’t have access to enough oak galls to treat your fabric. The amounts needed are based on the weight of your fabric (WOF)—so the more fabric you have, the more you will need. Sam and I had stumbled on a treasure trove of oak galls on a recent trip, so I was set! I thoroughly rinsed my fabric with water in between each step.
Notes on Supplies & Tools for Natural Dyeing
Would it surprise you to know that I now have an outdoor dye supply closet? To summarize, it’s extremely important that you don’t use the same pots or utensils that you would use for cooking for natural dyeing. Remember, just because we are utilizing naturally occurring materials in this process, that doesn’t mean everything is safe for consumption (at least not at the levels or ways we are using them). Thus, I’ve been buying used or thrifted stainless steel pots and wooden utensils for my dye projects and now keep everything in an outdoor closet. Stainless steel pots are essential because they won’t react with your dyes.
Additionally, it’s better to work outdoors when naturally dyeing. For example, most of my friends and I brought outdoor camp stoves or burners so we could heat our dye baths. In fact this reminds me of how pungent the eucalytpus bark was as it was processing. Even outdoors, the fumes surprised us and could irritate our noses and lungs. This is why gloves, eye protection or even masks are smart ideas when natural dyeing.
Sewing the Linen Napkins
One thing I didn’t think about until it got close to dye day, is whether or not I should pre-cut or sew my linen napkins before dyeing. You can absolutely dye large yardages of fabric and then cut and sew later, but I made a different decision based on my previous dye experience.
Remember my failed avocado dye story? Well, I had kept my fabric as a whole piece (about 2 yards long) that day and it was a total pain to work with. Especially with small dye pots, large pieces of fabric are very difficult to move around and make it more difficult to achieve an even color. Now, there might be times when you want to make clothing from your natural dyed linen and need to keep the yards together, but for napkins I knew I wanted to cut my fabric before dyeing. Additionally, I had to consider thread options and colors. If I waited to sew my napkins until afterwards, I’d be stuck having to buy multiple colors of thread to sew all my napkins. Whereas, if I used a natural thread (ie. white cotton) and sewed all my napkins before mordanting and dyeing, my thread would match the colors exactly. So that’s what I did!
To create some visual interest (and let’s be honest, save on time) I did seven napkins with double-hemmed edges and mitered corners, seven napkins with frayed edges, and six napkins with a zig-zag type stitch along the edges. While I can’t be sure how well the frayed linen napkins will fare over time, they washed up really nicely and still look amazing after Thanksgiving dinner.
Let’s Play with Some Natural Dyes!
I’m not gonna lie….the preparation of the fabric was my least favorite part. It’s kind of like painting—all the sanding and dusting and taping—prepwork is so important to the end result, but extremely tedious. So, after literally DAYS of prep work, it’s time to share how these natural dyes turned out!
Overall, the most vibrant of all the colors I achieved was the marigold. In fact, I actually left my napkins in the dye pot too long and it became almost a green-yellow! The exact color was hard to capture on camera, but these napkins were so vibrant, even after being washed two times after dyeing!
It was a good thing I started with the marigold dye to get the excitement going because not all of the dyes I tried that day were quite as successful. Of all the dyes I tried this time around, my passionfruit peels were the biggest disappointment. The color never amounted to more than a very light grey, which could be modified with some citric acid to create a pale pink, but it was barely noticeable. Secondly, our dye pot of hibiscus flowers created a soft green, but since none of us were loving that exact shade, we opted to move on.
As the day progressed, our outdoor burners slowly coaxing colors out of plants, we discovered the magic of eucalyptus bark as a natural dye. Despite the sad passionfruit peel dye, we were beyond please with the eucalytpus tree bark results. I mean, WOW! The water in the dye pot showed a deep red-brown color, but the resulting linen was a very warm brown in the end. Which reminds me, the dye water is always going to look much darker or saturated than the final product when natural dyeing. Thankfully, much like the marigold dye, the eucalyptus bark napkins stayed pretty vibrant after two washes. I simply loved the warm brown tones!
In hindsight, I wish I had documented the many shades of my loquat dye more efficiently. Many of you might be familiar with loquat—a large, semi-tropical evergreen shrub or tree grown for it’s delicious fruit—here in Southern California. As it turns out, loquat is an incredible source of natural dye that can provide an array of colors from light peach to coral to rust. Furthermore, when used in combination with a modifier, loquat can tend toward soft purple or mauve. Because I had already divided my napkins amongst the various dye pots we had going, there weren’t enough napkins left to truly show the range of possibilities with loquat. To summarize, stay tuned for more of a focused loquat “study” because I’m infatuated!
The Thanksgiving Results
In retrospect, I need bigger dye pots. Even with smaller pieces of fabric, it was hard to move my napkins freely within my dye pots, resulting in some uneven dye patterns. Also, I should always strain out the natural dye sources (leaves, twigs, flowers, etc) before adding my fabric so that none of the debris leaves imprints on the fabric. Alas, these are the lessons we learn the hard way as we progress through hands-on learning.
When approaching this project I didn’t know how the colors would turn out, but that’s the beauty of natural dyeing. No matter what, I had a feeling that the color palette would end up feeling very natural and relaxing simply because none of the plant materials we played with were known to produce bold hues (or at least not in a short amout of time). Our Thanksgiving table this year featured our naturally dyed linen napkins, small bud vases filled with garden roses, lavender, marigold, and native grass, along with a couple tealight votives. The hues were bright, yet still autumnal.
The days leading up to Thanksgiving were actually quite disastrous. On that Monday, our dog hurt his hip and we made two trips to the vet before Thanksgiving. It was an emotionally challenging week but I have to admit, having this creative outlet and spending time with family was very comforting. As we head into Winter here in Southern California, it’s a great time to find ways to play with plants indoors—whether it’s learning about natural dyes or doing some baking using preserved garden goods. I hope you find some inspiration here.