Tie-dye is a popular dyeing technique consisting of folding or twisting a fabric or garment, followed by applying dyes that don't fully color the textile due to fabric manipulation.
Unfortunately, like most dyeing methods, tie-dyeing can harm the environment. Commonly used modern tie-dyes are synthetic fiber-reactive dyes, non-biodegradable and carcinogenic, posing a threat to people and the planet.
The more sustainable alternative is tie-dyeing fabrics and garments with natural dyes sourced from plants and biological materials. Many dye artists make naturally dyed clothing with vegetable dyes worldwide.
Here is how to protect the environment and your skin by tie-dyeing textiles with non-toxic, biodegradable, natural dyes and organic materials.
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What's wrong with synthetic dyes?
Tie-dyes can be bad for the environment if they are synthetic and contain toxic chemicals. Some trace metals in dyes cause water, soil, and air pollution, leading to illnesses due to polluted drinking water and food.
Synthetic reactive dyes are health hazards and cause respiratory issues due to the inhalation of dye particles. They cause both environmental damage and diseases throughout local communities.
Overexposure to toxic chemical dyes is risky to human health. Chemical toxicity also causes the death of ecosystems, plants, and aquatic life. It's a serious public concern that affects agricultural productivity.
What is tie-dye made of?
Modern tie-dyes for garment and fabric dyeing are synthetic fiber-reactive dyes. Reactive dyes are by far the most commonly used in textile manufacturing.
They can be applied to both natural (cotton, linen, wool) and synthetic (polyester, nylon, acrylic) fibers. The overwhelming majority of synthetic dyes in current use are azo derivatives, a chemical class of dyes frequently used on an industrial scale.
Synthetic dyes are extremely valuable and used in numerous industries such as textile and cosmetics. The largest consumer of these dyes is by far the textile industry.
What is natural tie-dye?
Natural tie-dye is an ancient dyeing technique originated from the Far East in China. It has been practiced there since the 5th century AD using natural, biodegradable dyes from organic materials and plants.
Natural tie-dye uses different ingredients, shapes, and colors to create non-toxic, low-allergenic, highly decorated clothing free from any hidden nasties.
Natural tie-dye is more earthy-colored in appearance. Each color dye is produced from a different plant. They are healthy and safe and focus on quality, not quantity.
For example, red dyes can be made from beets or berries, black dyes from fruits of the Terminalia Cherbula tree, and brown dyes from cutch wood, bark, or roots.
How do you tie-dye fabrics naturally without chemicals?
It's easy to make sustainable and unique clothing designs by using natural dyes made from plants and free from synthetic chemicals. Avoid synthetic dyes and cheap cotton clothing to tie-dye sustainably.
Instead, use sustainable and eco-friendly tie-dying practices based on organic matter, plants, and flowers. Reuse old textiles and natural materials like plants to create beautiful and eco-responsible clothing.
First, you need to look for a sustainable clothing base. Then, get the proper equipment and ingredients. Create the natural dye and apply it to the fabric. Finally, wait and let it dry before removing stains and cleaning any waste.
Choose a sustainable clothing base.
Buy ethically made and organic clothing pieces to tie-dye naturally. It doesn't make any sense to use cheap and fast fashion clothes with sustainable dyeing techniques.
Instead, choose affordable, eco-friendly, and handmade garments using locally sourced, organic, or recycled materials. You can use textiles made from organic cotton, linen, or hemp that are high-quality, durable, and comfortable.
Check out our selection of the best sustainable and locally-made t-shirts.
Get tie-dye equipment and ingredients
You can get tie-dye equipment and ingredients separately or simply buy a tie-dye kit that contains almost everything you need other than the items to dye (organic garments made from cotton, linen, or hemp).
This natural tie-dye kit from Etsy is a fabulous tool for beginners that want to start with sustainable tie-dyeing. It contains simple instructions and everything you need to dye your first garment.
How to make natural dye
The key to making beautiful, eco-friendly, and long-lasting tie-dyed clothes is to use sustainable or biodegradable fabrics and natural dyes made from plants.
To make natural dyes from organic matter like spices, flowers, fruits, or vegetables, you can use the natural colors found in nature all around us, like berries, roots, leaves, barks, and more.
Some commonly used plants that make beautiful and colorful dyes include avocado pits (peach), red cabbage (purple), black beans (blue), ground turmeric (yellow), spinach (green), beets (pink), and onion skins (orange).
Simply mix one cup of plant matter with 4 cups of water and two tablespoons of white vinegar in a pan to create natural, biodegradable, colorful dyes to use later.
How to tie-dye clothes naturally
First, pour boiled salt water onto the clothes and let them soak for 10 minutes. Rubber band the textile to make fun designs by twisting and folding.
Heat the pan containing the natural dye solution and put your clothes in it over the stove for 20 minutes. Use smaller dye amounts and only the desired area of fabric if you want to apply multiple colors later.
If you want deeper colors, let the fabric soak in the dye for longer, even overnight, with the heat turned off. Finally, rinse the textiles with cold water and hang them in the sun to dry.
Make sure to wear protective clothing, aprons, kitchen gloves, glasses, cover surfaces, and clean everything when you are done. Particularly, you can use an activated charcoal filter to clean your tie-dye wastewater.
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About the Author: Alex Assoune
Alex Assoune (MS) is a global health and environmental advocate. He founded Panaprium to inspire others with conscious living, ethical, and sustainable fashion. Alex has worked in many countries to address social and environmental issues. He speaks three languages and holds two Master of Science degrees in Engineering from SIGMA and IFPEN schools.