OAK LEAVES DYEING TUTORIAL
It’s autumn/winter and green disappeared from nature. Summer might seem like the most abundant season for plant dyers but don’t get discouraged by all the yellows and reds on the trees. Autumn bears beautiful gifts for those who look for seasonal colors. And what’s a better color for cold days than a shade of grey that will make you feel like you’re wrapped in a thick blanket with a cup of hot cocoa in your hand?
If that’s the first time you’re dyeing with plants, have a look at this post.
What you need
To dye warm grey you will need:
- well, oak leaves
- natural fibers: cotton, linen, wool, silk, etc.; you can use blends with a small amount of synthetic fibers, but the resulting color might be paler
- iron crystals, aka iron sulfate
- a big stainless steel or enamel pot and a steel/wooden spoon; please only use utensils you don’t use for cooking
- protective gloves might come in handy for those with sensitive skin!
Collect the dyestuff
To dye my linen pants I collected a few handfuls of leaves. This dye material is quite potent so you don’t need much. I found them laying on the sidewalk on a sunny autumn day, so they were crispy and dry. If you can’t find oak leaves, alternatives for making warm grey are oak galls, alder cones, acorns, or black tea. All these dyes contain high concentrations of beige tannins, which makes them sensitive to modification with iron.
Beautiful golden oak leaves on my way to my studio. I will use some as mulch for my balcony plants, too.
Extract the color
I added the leaves to a big pot and added around 5L of water. The amount of dyestuff and water will depend on how much fibers you want to dye. A general rule would be to prepare enough liquid for the fibers to move in freely. I heated up the dye and let it simmer just below the boiling temperature for a little over an hour.
Prepare the fibers
In the meantime, I soaked my linen pants in warm water. I wanted them to take up the dye evenly once placed in the dye bath. When choosing things you want to dye, make sure you work with natural fibers. Cotton, linen, wool, or silk can be dyed with plants. Synthetic fibers are not suitable.
Note that I didn’t mordant the fibers (to mordant means to pretreat the textile with a pre-fixative metal salt, for example, alum). It’s because tannins that oak leaves contain, generally bond really well with natural fibers AND I will apply another metal salt—iron—as a modifier and a post-fixative.
For that reason I skipped mordanting which is usually necessary for lasting color. What you shouldn’t skip, though, is cleaning the fibers. Choose a fitting “scouring recipe” according to the type of fiber you work with. For second-hand clothing, it might be enough to just rinse your piece in warm water, though I noticed that linen is prone to storing invisible oily stains, so it might be a good idea to additionally boil it in water with some washing soda beforehand.
The fibers should soak in water before dyeing, this way I can avoid uneven color.
Dye the fibers
To avoid staining, I strained the hot dye through a sieve with a piece of cloth laid on top of it. The leaves were mixed with some dirt from the street, so I wanted to filter the dye bath, pouring it into a big plastic bucket.
You might be wondering why I’m not heating up the fibers and the dye. The volume of the dye is big enough to stay hot for a while even if stored in a bucket, and that’s enough in my case for the fibers to take up the color. I could even work with a cold dye and leave the fibers to soak in it for a few days and the result would be the same. When working with a smaller volume of the dye, you should either plan more soaking time or simply dye the fibers in a pot set on low heat for around an hour. The fibers basically have to swell to take up the dye, and they swell either when you apply heat OR when you let them soak for a long time. I like cold dyeing because it lets me save energy.
I’m not adding any more water, I have enough liquid for my pants to move freely. I let them soak in a hot (then warm) bath for an hour. Remember to stir a lot at the beginning, and move the fibers regularly after the initial 15 minutes workout, if you want the dye to take up evenly.
Modify the color
After an hour I poured some hot water into another bucket and added a pinch of iron crystals to make an iron bath. I took out the pants from the dye bath, squeezed out the liquid, and, without rinsing, I placed them in the iron solution. They stayed there for 10-15min until they got a nice greyish tinge.
If you don’t have iron crystals at home, you can make your own iron water with rusty nails and white vinegar. Cover the nails with vinegar, top with water, and let the solution develop for at least two weeks. This way you can produce iron acetate at home, which is actually less harsh on the fibers, but takes longer to make and has a shorter shelf life than iron sulfate.
I’m adding a pinch of iron crystals to warm water. Don’t put the crystals directly onto your freshly dyed clothes, or you will get uneven coloring.
Deepening the color
You decide what is shade you go for and at what stage to finish the process. Pure beige from oak leaves was actually lovely, the first beige-grey I got was great too, but I wanted a proper dark grey. To make the color darker I used my usual strategies. After the first iron bath, I steamed the fibers, putting them into a sieve, placing the sieve over a pot with boiling water, and putting a lid on top. This trick makes the tannins oxidize and get darker. It was still not my color of choice, so at this stage, I simply repeated the process. I rinsed the pants, placed them in a heated dye bath for an hour, modified the color in the same iron bath after that, and steamed them again. That was exactly the color I wanted to make, so I rinsed the pants thoroughly and hung them up to dry.
After two rounds of dyeing, modifying, and steaming I got this beautiful dark grey. It will dry slightly paler.
Is this color lightfast?
Yes! Tannins can actually get even darker when exposed to direct sunlight. You might have noticed raw wood getting darker over time—that’s the same process.
Iron is a metal mordant that binds the fibers and the dye, so the color is wash-fast too. That being said, you should be careful not to use harsh detergents. I wash all my plant-dyed clothing by hand using wool soap.
Another thing to remember is that acidic stains might discharge (discolor) the dye. More on that in this blog post. If you get a lemon juice stain on your iron-modified clothes, make sure to soak it in pure water right away, but it’s best to avoid acidic food around your clothes altogether.
Therapeutic function of crafting
For me, dyeing my clothes with plants is not an aesthetic choice—though I absolutely love natural colors. The thrill for me lies in the act of creating and changing the matter with my own hands. Crafting lets me experience my own causative power, a force that lies within me. It could be any other craft—and as a matter of fact, it often is. I love painting, sewing, and knitting, I would even add handwriting and gardening to the list. Anything that makes me use my hand-brain connection has a soothing effect on my mental state.
Questions? I am here to help!
I hope you will enjoy this colorful practice and find joy in little things this spring.
If you want to get a clear overview of the world of plant dyes,
I recently published a small ebook about all the dyeing basics.
You can find it here:
And if you are ready to start diving deep with your dyeing practice,
check out my “Mordants for natural dyes” ebook
with useful tips, recipes, and alternatives, available on Etsy.