Natural dyeing: coreopsis and marigold


When planning my little container garden this spring, I really wanted to include some dye plants. I don’t know how long I’ll be in this apartment, so they have to produce dye the first year (no madder for me, sadly), and I wanted plants that could double as pretty flowers in my small garden. Coreopsis tinctoria (or tickseed) and marigolds are perfect for the job. They’ve been blooming happily for months now, but I didn’t get around to dying with them until this week.


I used a solar extraction so I could start it quickly on a week day morning. I used only the petals of the marigold (they pull out easily, but sometimes bring the seeds with them. I did not use the seeds), and the entire flower head of the coreopsis. I put each type of flower in a separate glass vase. I poured in very hot (but not boiling) water, and placed the vases outside in the sun on a hot day. The coreopsis water immediately turned orange, and the marigold water a lighter green-yellow with a strong marigold scent. I dropped in a couple of swatches (although you’d get more even colors if you extract and dye in two separate steps) and left for work.


Both marigold and coreopsis are pH sensitive, in different ways. When wet the marigold color is more vibrant in an alkaline solution (that is, if you add baking soda), but as it dries this color fades. The final color is a light golden brown with baking soda, and a soft yellow-green without. Coreopsis changes color more dramatically: in a fairly alkaline solution (lots of baking soda) it makes pink, where as in neutral tapwater it makes an orangey-yellow. It tends to become more pink as it dries – a wet flamingo pink will lose it’s orange tones as it dries. I imagine adding vinegar would shift the color further towards yellow, but I didn’t test it.

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Click for larger image if you want to actually read the labels

Recipe for marigold dye (dyes 1 lb fabric):

  1. Collect the petals from 15-20 marigold flowers
  2. Put in a glass container and pour in 6 cups hot water
  3. Leave in a warm place for several hours to extract dye
  4. Strain out flowers, add fabric, and leave in a warm place for at least an hour

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Travel pants


The first pair of pants I ever made was for a trip to Guatemala. I wanted something light weight that wouldn’t wrinkle, and most of all I wanted a secure pocket for my passport. I ran into some problems along the way – I never quite got the fly right, and I cut the legs too short and had to add mock cuffs around the bottoms just to get the length right. But on the whole, they came out surprisingly well, mostly thanks to the fabric, a wonderful linen/bamboo herringbone, which was light and airy, didn’t wrinkle (except around the unfortunate mock cuffs), and was quite pretty. I ended up wearing the pants a lot after the trip, and lending them to other people who wanted a secret passport pocket for their trips. Eventually they completely shredded and I had to say goodbye.


Last week I went on a road trip through the Southwest and in packing for that trip I really missed my travel pants. I didn’t want to wear shorts, because I was afraid the backs of my legs would get sunburned hiking, and then driving would be terrible. But I didn’t want to wear long pants in the desert, because even my summer pants get pretty warm. I have another pair of pure linen pants, but they get so wrinkly. It was clearly time to make another pair of travel pants.


I couldn’t find anything with quite the beautiful sheen of the herringbone I used last time, but this linen blend had the key features I was looking for: good airflow, somewhat wrinkle resistant, and with enough pattern to hide a bit of dirt. I didn’t put in a passport pocket this time, but I’ll add one if I ever take them out of the country – the patch pockets in front give plenty of space to hide a zippered pocket inside. Like my old pants these have wide legs (for extra airflow), and these new ones are high waisted (just for fun) and uncuffed (like the others should have been).

The pants did their job. I felt a little out of place on hiking trails full of people in fluorescent wicking fabrics, but I think I was more comfortable than any of them, and I didn’t have to change for dinner.

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Peacock Dress


I really like long jersey dresses. They’re so comfortable, especially when they’re made from soft bamboo-lycra like this one. They’re my favorite clothes to travel with - they don’t wrinkle and can be dressy or casual depending on your shoes and jewelry. So when I found this wonderful soft fabric, I knew exactly what to do with it.


I found the black first, and began imagining this dress, with the braided back and a long skirt. But there was only a yard a half of the fabric, not nearly enough for a floor length dress. Fortunately, the same fabric came in peacock blue, so I got the extra yardage in that. I made a fitted knee length dress in the black, cut the skirt on the diagonal, and added a half circle of the blue at the bottom. There’s a pocket at the top of the long side seam of the blue section of the skirt. It’s in a sort of awkward place, down by my knee, but it’s important for a dress to have a pocket, and it would look weird and lumpy higher up in the fitted black skirt. It takes a bit of leaning over and a bit of lifting the dress up to get to (see top photo, where I have my fingers in the pocket), but it works pretty well as a place to keep my phone.



The most fun part of making this dress was figuring out the braided back. It starts as a six strand braid, which splits into two ordinary braids. You could do this by doubling the six pieces at the bottom into a thick ordinary three stranded braid, but I wove each piece separately, like in a braided friendship bracelet. I cut long, inch wide strips of the black fabric, and pulled them so the edges curled in. I sewed the base together and taped it to the table so I could braid, braided up 4″ (it stretched later…), then split for the straps.

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One problem with a long jersey dress is that the weight of the skirt stretches out the top part of the dress, especially the straps. This has made for a much lower neckline than I’d intended. If you’re making a dress like this, I recommend just tacking down the straps to begin with, and then adjusting them when the whole dress is assembled. I’ll probably go back and shorten the straps before I wear this out.


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Summer Sun Jacket


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We moved! Our new place is in Harlem, which means I can walk to work. This is wonderful, but as the season moves towards summer and the sun gets brighter, the half hour walk home turns me a bit pink. I’ve started reapplying sunscreen before I leave work, but I prefer to just cover up with wide brimmed hats. Unfortunately, a lot of my dresses don’t have sleeves and I need something to cover my shoulders. So I made this very lightweight summer sun jacket.



I’ve seen similar lightweight outer garments referred to as kimonos, but this really isn’t shaped like a kimono. It’s a trapazoid, with triangular sleeves that come to a point at the wrists. It is a simple thing to make, with two straight seams and a bit of finishing. I added pleats and little shell shirt buttons at the point of the sleeves, but without that decoration it would have taken about 15 minutes to sew. If you need something to cover your shoulders and have a nice airy piece of fabric, I highly recommend making one. To do so, you will need 2/3 of a yard (24″) of 60″ wide fabric.

  1. Finish all edges by folding over 1/4″, ironing flat, folding the edge again, ironing, and sewing down (as you would for a hem).
  2. Put the fabric on a flat surface, right side up, and fold a triangle at each side, so both short edges of the fabric lie along one of the long edges.
  3. Beginning 8″ from the point, sew the edges together on each side.
  4. (optional) Gather or pleat the outer two inches of arm seam on each side.



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My collection of jersey remnants was getting large, and my collection of underwear in good repair was getting small, so yesterday I spent a couple of hours correcting that situation with the help of some stretch lace.


I made a pattern by pulling apart my favorite pair of worn out undies and tracing them onto newspaper. I pieced together some pairs, when my fabric wasn’t conveniently shaped, and covered the extra seams with appliquéd stretch lace. I finished all edges with stretch lace or lingerie elastic. In the past I’ve talked about finishing edges with the lingerie stitch on a serger, but I don’t have a serger here. Besides, I’ve mostly been wearing dresses lately and I find that serged edges ride up unless they have pants to hold them in place. Stretch lace is my current favorite way to finish underwear. To use it, just lay it over the unfinished edge and topstitch with a wide zig zag. Make sure your thread matches the lace.

For more on making your own underwear, check out my past posts on the subject here and and on Kristin’s blog.


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Natural dyeing: tea and coffee


This is the final post about the natural dyeing I did at my parents’ house over Christmas. While I was dyeing, my sister came in and made herself tea. As tea is one of the best natural dyes - nicely colored, reasonably fast, and in this case already prepared – I took the dregs of her pot and dropped in a swatch. A bit later, I did the same with my husband’s coffee.

Tea and coffee both produce lovely soft shades of brown. Tea gives a slightly warmer color, but on the whole they’re pretty similar.

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Natural dyeing: madder root


Unlike the other materials I tried dyeing with, madder doesn’t grow wild around my parents’ house and isn’t used in the kitchen. You can purchase the root whole from dye suppliers, but as long as I was buying the material, that seemed like unnecessary work. Instead I bought powdered madder root from A Verb for Keeping Warm, mixed it up with warm water, and started dyeing.

Madder produces some of my favorite fabric colors. It’s also relatively lightfast, and working with the powder was as easy as using synthetic dyes. But unlike synthetic dye, I didn’t have to mix in other dyes to get a color I like. Every shade it makes is just lovely. I don’t think I’ll buy synthetic red again.

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Madder is pH sensitive, ranging from yellow in acidic conditions to purple in a base. I used cream of tartar to move towards yellow and baking soda to move towards purple. I found my favorite shades were between the orangey red of neutral tap water and the wine red of a more alkaline solution.

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Green skirt

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I’m pretty sure this fabric was intended for upholstery. It’s heavy, slightly textured, and has that sort of pattern. I don’t really have anything to upholster, but the fabric was on sale and it’s some of my favorite colors. So I bought half a yard and made this short pencil skirt. I faced the hem and waist in a light weight black cotton and put an invisible zip in one side seam.

Also: my skirt matches the diamonds on my mom’s kitchen cabinet and the green pottery in it.


Thanks Rosalie for taking photos!

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Natural dyeing: red cabbage


The best part of dyeing with cabbage is watching the color change in the dye cups as you adjust the pH. Like the indicator in litmus paper, cabbage gradually changes color from red to blue as the pH increases. This makes it quite a versatile dye. It’s not very stable, but for as long as the color lasts (a few months if you keep it out of the sun), it gives you clean pinks and purples that are otherwise hard to get from natural dyes.


To make a cabbage dye, chop up a head of red cabbage into 1/2″ pieces. Put them into a pot, and fill with water until the cabbage is very nearly covered. Bring the water to a gentle simmer, then turn the heat low. Keep the cabbage warm for half an hour, then pour the water into your dye containers. I like to separate it into three or four containers and adjust them to get different colors. The dye liquid will start out purple. To turn it pink, add an acid, such as cream of tartar or vinegar. To turn it blue, as a base, such as baking soda. Play around with amounts – you can get anywhere from a dusty blue to turquoise to a pale green on linen.

This is also a great way to dye Easter eggs. Cabbage produces the perfect range of pastel colors for the purpose.


Prima came by near the end of these experiments and we dyed a set of old linen napkins, mordanted in aluminum acetate.

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Natural dyeing: onion skins

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Onion skins might be my favorite dye. They’re always around when you want them, easy to extract, and make a beautiful array of colors. After Prima and my eucalyptus dyeing experiments, I turned to this reliably lovely dye. I started with a small batch of dye from the skins at the bottom of my mom’s onion drawer. We used a lot of shallots in Christmas dinner, so shallot skins made up a substantial portion of the mix, along with yellow onion skins, one medium sized fragment of red onion skin, and a few garlic skins which probably didn’t contribute to the color. I brought the skins to a simmer, threw a couple of test swatches into the pot, and went to bed. In the morning my swatches were a gorgeous mottled pink and yellow (top left and center of the swatches bellow). I tried a couple of other swatches (top right, and later bottom right and center), but it had been a small batch of dye and the color was quickly exhausted.

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For the second batch (bottom left swatch above), I stopped by the grocery store and gathered up the skins from the bottom of the onion bins. I ended up with 30 grams of yellow onion skins and 20 grams of red onion skins. When I threw in my first test swatch, a linen which had soaked over night in aluminum acetate, it came out bright green! My first thought was that the shallots must have been responsible for the peachy pink of the first batch, and the large proportion of red onions for the new green color, but further experimentation suggested that the aluminum mordant changed the color from peach to green. Potassium aluminum sulfate (alum) had a similar effect (bottom right). After all this swatching, I dyed a square of unmordanted silk peach with white resist stitched lines, and half an old linen table cloth to a yellow green much like the linen swatches above.

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