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Bundle-dyeing old clothesI stopped buying new clothes in 2015 when I learned about the social costs of the fashion industry (not to mention the environmental costs on top of that, but its people’s suffering that tipped the scale for me). I still make exceptions from time to time when I need new socks or underwear, though I purposefully didn’t get any fast-fashion items for the past 8 years. I am not saying it from a higher moral ground, far from it. It is meant as an inspiration, because I believe anyone can do it, and should do it. It’s better, cheaper and looks cooler. The only “less” — it’s less easy.

And because I acknowledge it’s less easy, I want to help those who care to re-love their old clothes. If there’s one thing I am good at it’s natural dyeing, so I am opening my studio doors and inviting you to upcycle your clothes (or curtains! or tote bags! or shoes! or napkins!) under my guidance. If you’re not in Berlin, you can participate remotely and ship your pieces to me. I will dye them and send them full of fresh energy back to you. And if you’d rather do it all by yourself at home, here’s how I upcycled my beloved second-hand turtleneck this week:

Requirements for plant dyeing

Before you start, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • plant dyes only work on natural fibers: cotton, linen, wool, silk, etc. (no acetate, polyamide, acrylic, nylon, polyester, etc.). please check the fabric to avoid disappointments.

  • plant dyes are translucent, whatever color is used as a “base”, it’s going to be visible after dyeing. depending on how the pieces were dyed previously, some of the pieces might take up the dye poorly, so the safest option is white or beige. You can message me if you’re not sure!

  • clothes have to be washed before dyeing; for cotton and linen wash with baking soda (natron) without bleach or softeners. for wool and silk rinse with wool soap.

  • the durability of natural color is a spectrum and depends on the fixatives and plants used. Plant dyed textiles can only be washed by hand using ecological washing soap, and should be stored away from the direct sunlight.

Preparing the fabric

Two ways to go here: either you use a natural pre-fixative and get more durable colors or work without it and re-do the dyeing every once in a while. I suggest always working with a pre-fixative for plant-based fibers like cotton or linen. Wool and silk generally take up plant colors better, so if you don’t mind re-dyeing the fibers when the dyes fade, it’s an easy option.

For my wool turtleneck (like for most of my projects) I worked with aluminium formate. This is my favorite pre-fixative. It’s an aluminium salt which is applied cold by soaking the fibers in its solution. I usually let the fibers sit in the solution for at least 24h but for this one I wanted it to be quick and easy so I tried just one hour and it seemed to work OK. (I only experiment like that on personal items, things for sale have to hold up to my standards.) When handling aluminium or other metal salts, always wear gloves. More info on pre-fixatives (mordants) in this blog post or in-depth in my ebook.

Choosing the dyes

Plant color durability is a spectrum. I never get tired of repeating that because this is one of the main features of natural dyes I want you to remember about. If your plant color is not durable in itself, no fixative will change it. I find it to actually be a super cool feature—especially in bundle dyeing. As color spots change at a different pace, your garments seems to live its own secret life. Choosing dyes to work with is important part of the design process. If you’re not sure what to got for, you can always ask me for help.

Sometimes less is more (and sometimes more is more, though), and a little goes a long way. I loved that the turtleneck was cream-white and I didn't want to change it so my plant selection was purposefully scarce. I worked only with one dye—dried rose—and used minimal amounts of plant matter. My idea was to get modest beige splatters that would mask existing (and future!) stains.

 Stained wool top to be dyed with plants

Upcycling old clothes with plant dyes

Dyeing process

After soaking the piece in aluminium formate, I scattered small amount of rose petals over the front of the turtleneck. I then rolled it up from the bottom to the top. I didn't have to add any more plant material to the back, as the petals were now sandwiched between both sides. I scattered some more dye over the exposed parts after bundling and wrapped my package into a piece of cloth to hold everything tight.

Bundle-dyeing wool with plants

Bundle-Dyeing wool with rose petals

Natural dye bundle

To set the dye it should be exposed to heat. You could simmer your piece or steam it. The difference is that steaming makes clearer prints, while simmering makes the dye dissolve in water and partially transfer to the background, too. I steamed my turtleneck for 1 hour and because it’s wool, I let it cool down overnight, before opening and rinsing it thoroughly in cold water. 

Bundle-dyed wool after steaming

Naturally dyed sweater after steaming

New (to me) bundle-dyed turtleneck

What I specifically love about the result is that despite using just one single dye, the pattern is multi-colored. Rose petals made beautiful speckles, from brown to beige, green, yellow, and even purple and blue. They are all very muted, though, and work beautifully against my cream-white base. The stains I wanted to cover are not to be spotted anymore. I expect the speckles to all become more beige overtime (rose is not specifically a great dye source), and I know I will love it too. Because this garment is made of wool, the speckles will most probably never fade, but if they would, I know how to refresh them.

Woolen sweater naturally dyed with rose

Botanically dyed upcycled top

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.

Thank you for following along! If you are interested in behind-the-scenes of my handmade business, you can find me on Instagram. If you’d like to receive my monthly thoughts on self-employment and creativity, add your email to my Substack subscribers list.