The Healing Art of Dyeing

There is little spring here in the land below the sea, but what exists fortifies the soul with its loveliness. Outside, the buds are bright and smooth; each leaf is supple and slick with dewdrops’ kiss. Hot sun beats down on petals which seem cacophonous as I walk past. The pinks and yellows howling out, piercing the air with their sharp beauty. It’s the kind of walk that takes over my summer self – a slow, meandering sway allowing my heavy feet to linger on the boiling pavement one moment more. And then the clouds break, rushing past with their spectrum of grey, and forcing the world indoors. Water fills the edges of the road and cools the sizzling ground. Beyond my window, the edges of the world fade beneath the downpour, blending into one another. Here, as the symphony of spring plays upon my rooftop, I find solace in the art of beginning again.

I envy spring her naivety and boldness, for I have loved and lost and grown sore with wonder. I envy the rain its spontaneity and abandon. I am cautious now and too often hesitant. I marvel at my daughter, the natural enchantress, in awe of blowing wind and easy with the world. She, like the blossoms, one day emerged and shattered the winter with life and brilliance. She has no patience for permanence and continuity; she is a springtime thunderstorm, and as refreshing; as peaceful; as magically destructive. I am too precious with memories. I hold moments like a lover, cupping them in my hands and rocking with each in the dark. I roll over each as if tracing the shape of a figure, and I long for them with acute heartache.

Though I have planted new roots, allowed for the rain, and marveled at my budding world, I have not truly begun again. I have forged on like an extended winter, and grown weary of my yearning to hold onto all things. I do not wish to envy spring; I wish to emulate her carefree existence. Her willingness to be seen is commendable. Her loveliness is expected, anticipated, cultivated, and yet always welcome and eternally lovely. I must release these tendernesses, as the buds do, and look upon my world with the eyes of spring. Though I am no longer in love, I am loved, and must tread delicately on my most special bits.

I was never one for true lingerie, but a fancy undergarment speaks to me. I haven’t had cause for much beyond the simplest items, so it took a bit of drawer digging to unearth the silky, lacy items. In my searching I came across a shirt I haven’t worn in years, but somehow can’t let go; a sweet, summery pair of shorts purchased long before my girl could fit them, with a hopeful heart; two sleeping shirts that she’ll actually submit to wearing; and, a pair of tights with a wear or two left before summer truly comes calling – all white and fresh; like new. I held each in my hands and thanked them. It felt ridiculous and necessary. There was something deeply exciting and overwhelming about the possibility of altering an item as opposed to ridding my world of it. With humans, the option isn’t available, and here it was – make it what you wish it to be. What might that be like? I wondered aloud. In this moment, my daughter came to me with her brown eyes wide and searching for understanding. I held the items in my hand and offered her the pile. Thank you, I said one last time, now as much to them as her. Thank you, mama, she smiled, dragging her tights into the kitchen.


You will need:

·      Large stock pots – one for each dye bath

·      Wooden stirring spoons

·      White vinegar

·      Water

·      Strainer

Depending upon your familiarity with the process or your general willingness to experiment, you may be interested in taking a more advanced route with your mordant, or dye fixing agent. The idea of forever altering, even beautifully, these items had my heart in knots and so I opted for simplicity. Despite the dye materials being theoretically edible, or non-toxic at any rate, I purchased new pots for the endeavor so as not to mix cookware. I fantasized about beguiling girlfriends with stories of my creative prowess, and the daydream paid for itself.

Cut, chop, or otherwise break down any of the following:

·      Flower petals

·      Avocado (skin)

·      Eucalyptus

·      Chamomile or black tea

·      Acorns

·      Bark

·      Coffee grounds

·      Beets

·      Indigo

·      Berries

·      Pomegranate (skin)

·      Turmeric

·      Saffron

·      Henna

·      Chestnut

·      Walnut

·      Spinach

·      Red or yellow onion (skin)

There are many more options! Take a walk, take a breath, and gather elements of the world about you. I wanted to create a dusty rose and vintage inspired palette, so I chose red and yellow roses, chamomile and an African black tea, as well as red onion, separating the materials into their own bowls. It didn’t hurt that I had all of these presently in my home.

It should be noted here that the color will appear quite concentrated in the pot, but may appear much lighter when applied to your textiles. There are several reasons for this. Many modern fabrics have tight weavings or blends which don’t allow the dye to penetrate as deeply within. Silk is wonderful for this! It could be that the bath was too short, or it may be the chosen dye materials. The color changes greatly throughout the process.

With your raw materials prepped, measure and add to stock pot with 2 parts water per 1-part dye base. I used yellow rose petals, chamomile, and eucalyptus in one; red rose petals, red onion skin, and African black tea in the other. Bring to a rolling boil and stir, but let the boil continue for a couple minutes. Turn the heat low and steep; the longer you simmer, the deeper your color will truly become. I let my pots simmer for about two and a half hours.

Strainers are so useful, especially if you’ve used tea, small berries, or anything that has broken down significantly in the heating. While the remains won’t damage your dye bath, little bits can be difficult to remove from wet fabric and may affect the look of items when drying. Add 1-part vinegar for every 4 cups water.

Soak all desired materials in water for about twenty minutes prior to the dye bath. I used simple baking dishes. Wring them out to before submerging the items fully into the mixture. Use your wooden spoon to stir occasionally. The longer the soak, the more saturated the color. You can keep items in the dye bath anywhere from two hours to overnight.

I transferred the soaked items back into the baking trays to bring them outside. I laid the fabric on a line in the sun and then tossed them in the dryer with like-dyes. I was nervous about them being too wet and colors bleeding.

As the sun set, I gingerly ran my hand across the fabric, finding joy in the newness of the long abandoned items. I saw them now as touched by me. They had become my creation. F. Scott Fitzgerald notes, “Vitality shows in not only the ability to persist but the ability to start over.” I wonder if winter whispers these words on the back of a chilly wind that they might linger in the tree’s branches ‘til spring dares to step into the light. They have sat with me like this: on my shoulder, and always in my peripheral, for days until I grew tired of their extra weight and shook them free of me. In so doing, it was clear that the divide between persistence, perseverance, the marching forward... and starting fresh has been my deepest learning thus far.

As I folded the warm layers, I thought again of the trees in winter. They are not the lonely, silent, waiting beings I had once imagined. They are the givers, biding time until they may show all they’ve buried deep within them. Spring’s vibrancy and resilience is born of winter’s solitude and consideration, just as my creations are extensions of my tenderness.  


-       When you begin the bath, bring the drained vinegar and dye mixture back to a boil, which may help the color set in trickier fabrics.

-       You can roll raw materials into fabric, tie with string, and steam to create a more marbled effect. Use bark or brightly colored petals and leaves for this method.

-       Use a wooden spoon across the top of the stock pot to dip dye, slowing raising the fabric out of the pot, creating an ombre effect.