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Natural plant dyes: 4 ways to use turmeric

by Timber Press on October 29, 2014

in Craft, Food

Turmeric is known as a fugitive dye: with exposure to sun and washing, the color will fade from bright yellow to lighter, less saturated shades. All images: Tristan Davison

Turmeric is known as a fugitive dye: with exposure to sun and washing, the color will fade from bright yellow to lighter, less saturated shades. All images: Tristan Davison

Some of the easiest natural dyes for the beginning dyer to work with are in your kitchen cabinet. They are fun, nontoxic natural dye materials to get you started with the world of color.

Turmeric is a tropical plant that yields an orange-yellow spice from its dried, ground root. Turmeric dye creates a bright yellow. You can use the ground turmeric root available in powdered form in the spice section of your market. Or if you live in a tropical area, you can easily grow the turmeric plant for dye material; using freshly grown turmeric root will create an even stronger dye color. You process turmeric root either by cutting it into small pieces, then grinding or pureeing it, to create a bright and satisfying dye.

As an easy and rewarding beginning project, consider dyeing an old piece of natural fabric or a seldom-worn cotton, silk, or wool garment you have in your house. There’s something magical about transforming a familiar object into something stunning and new with a dramatic color change. Examples could be a piece of reclaimed linen fabric that you turn into a vibrant yellow tablecloth, an old white wool sweater that is freshened with a bright yellow hue, or a plain cotton shopping bag you want to make more colorful.

Turmeric powder can be found in your kitchen or market, and makes a beautiful yellow dye

Turmeric powder can be found in your kitchen or market, and makes a beautiful yellow dye

Turmeric Dye

The root of the turmeric plant (Curcuma longa) creates strong colors, from bright yellow with no mordant to dark green with an iron modifier. Cold water works well for turmeric; for darker and more orange shades, heat can be applied. Turmeric is a great
dye for beginners as it works especially well on animal- or plant-based fibers with or without a mordant.

  • 4 ounces (113 g) fiber
  • 2 ounces (56 g) dry powdered
  • turmeric root

Presoak your fiber in cool water for at least 1 hour. Use enough water to cover your fiber.

In a cup, dissolve the turmeric, add some cold water, and stir to dissolve.

Fill a dye pot with enough cold water to cover your fiber so it can move freely. Add the turmeric solution and stir to mix.

Add your presoaked fiber to the dye bath. Put the dye pot on a burner, and bring the water to a simmer, 180°F (82°C). Simmer the fiber for 20 to 30 minutes, occasionally stirring gently so the fiber absorbs the dye evenly.

When your fiber has reached the desired shade, remove it, wash it thoroughly with pH-neutral soap, and rinse thoroughly until the water runs clear. Hang to dry.

Turmeric dye without a mordant is nontoxic and safe to place your hands in, since it is a food. Just watch for your hands turning yellow as well.

Turmeric dye without a mordant is nontoxic and safe to place your hands in, since it is a food. Just watch for your hands turning yellow as well.

Turmeric-Dyed Wool Sweater
A preowned wool sweater has been given new life with a vibrant yellow turmeric dye.

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Turmeric offers a quick and easy way to spice up your closet.

Turmeric-Dyed Shopping Bag
A turmeric-dyed shopping bag is not only fun to make; it’s also a naturally sustainable choice. Making your own shopping bag eliminates using bags made from depleted resources and toxic dye materials, and you always need more bags to bring with you to the market. You can create your own bright yellow shopping bag with any cottonbased fiber, since turmeric takes well to plant-based fibers. Turmeric is a perfect choice for doing a dye project with children, since it’s nontoxic and so easy to work with. Watching the color bond to the fiber can be lots of fun.

Shopping-Bag-WEB

A reusable grocery bag that you have dyed yourself with a kitchen spice will help you feel even more connected to your food.

Summer Picnic Tablecloth
If you love food and design, there is nothing more satisfying than connecting with both the spices you use in food preparation and those you use to dye the tablecloth you put your meal on. Using colorful spices such as turmeric, you’ll have fun as the dyer, and you’ll get bright dyes that will connect your picnic guests to the process. A spiced-up tablecloth can be fashioned from any fabric made of any natural fiber. You can find old white cotton to work with or get more experimental. With already printed vintage tablecloth fabrics, like plaids or floral patterns, you can drench them in a new yellow hue. Dyeing just the edges of a cotton tablecloth with bright yellow turmeric dye can be striking, creating a nice bright border around your delicious picnic spread.

As you dip each section, avoid letting it drip or streak; allow enough time for the dye bath to be hand-squeezed so it won’t run. If you are working with a large piece of cloth, fold the fabric in half or in quarters, to dip each end evenly.

As you dip each section, avoid letting it drip or streak; allow enough time for the dye bath to be hand-squeezed so it won’t run. If you are working with a large piece of cloth, fold the fabric in half or in quarters, to dip each end evenly.

Turmeric Gift Wrap
Cloth-wrapping, or furoshiki as it si known in Japan where this environmentally friendly technique originated, allows you to wrap almost anything regardeless of shape or size. With folding methods similar to those of origami, you can use naturally dyed cloth for gift wrapping, food shopping, or as a beautiful decor.

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duerr_sSasha Duerr is an artist and designer who works with organic dyes and fibers. In 2007, Sasha founded Permacouture Institute to encourage sustainable design and education from the ground up in fashion and textiles. Sasha’s textile art and design has been shown in galleries and museums in the U.S. and abroad. Her work has been featured in such publications as San Francisco, Selvedge, Fast Company, and Eco Salon. Her bioregional knitwear collection with Casey Larkin is Adie + George. She teaches at the California College of the Arts, where she earned an MFA in textiles.

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Click image to see inside this book.

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“For anyone interested in exploring natural dyes, The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes is a must-have.”—Curbly.com

1 Justin March 28, 2016 at 4:13 pm

I coloured silk\wool material scarf and tumeric doesn’t wash out. Soaked in vinegar 3 times, cold and warm water numerous times. Still water comes off yellow, and can’t wear the scarf as it stains all clothes and skin. Any advise?

2 Brian Ridder March 29, 2016 at 11:42 am

Hi Justin.
A silk/wool blend is usually a good candidate for natural dying, however, Sasha suggests using a mordant to be sure. A mordant is a fixative that allows dye molecules to bind to fiber. Below is a basic alum mordant which can be used for wool and/or silk. This may not help you at this point but it’s worth a try. Normally, you would dye the garment, then soak it overnight in the mordant which you’ve stirred in lukewarm water.
4 ounces (113 g) silk or wool fabric
8 percent (1 1/2 teaspoons) alum to weight of fiber
7 percent (1 1/2 teaspoons) cream of tartar to weight of fiber
Good luck!

3 Lucy May 6, 2016 at 12:51 pm

Hi Brian I wish to dye cotton cushion covers with turmeric and beetroot, different ones, and wonder if the mordant recipe you have given above would work or if not what would, thank you.

4 Brian Ridder May 9, 2016 at 1:59 pm

Hi Lucy,
Try this recipe for plant fibers. Of course, there are more detailed instructions for different situations in the book.

4 ounces (113 g) plant fiber
1 ounce (1 teaspoon) powdered oak galls
Soak the fiber overnight in cool water. Place the oak gall powder in a stainless steel pot with 4 to 6 gallons (16 to 23 l) of water, and stir to dissolve.
Bring the solution to a simmer, 180°F (82°C), and simmer for 30 to 60 minutes.
Remove the pot from the heat. Allow the tannin bath to cool down from hot to warm.
Lift the wet fiber out of its soaking pot, and submerge it in the tannin bath. Let it steep from 8 to 24 hours.
Remove the fiber from the tannin bath. Rinse the fiber in lukewarm to cool water. then wash with a pH-neutral soap, rinse again thoroughly, and hang to dry.

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