Fruit And Vegetable Plant Dyes: How To Make Natural Dyes From Food

Blueberries Next To Blueberry Colored Palette
fruit dye
(Image credit: Rixipix)

Many of us have used dye at home to enliven, renew, or refurbish tired-looking old clothes. In recent history, more often than not, this involved using a Rit dye product; but before synthetic dyes, there were natural dyes made from food and other plants. Vegetable plant dyes (or fruit) have been around since ancient times and are enjoying a resurgence today, as more and more of us try to filter out the use of synthetic products. Interested in making dye from fruits and veggies? Read on to find out how to make natural dyes from food.

How to Make Natural Dyes from Food

Prior to the invention of Rit dye in 1917, people dyed cloth with aniline dyes primarily supplied by Germany, but the advent of WWII severed this supply leading to Charles C. Huffman’s invention. Rit dye was a home dye that included soap that would dye and wash fabrics at the same time. Rit dye was not a natural vegetable plant dye, however, and included synthetic chemicals – including a fixative to help the garment retain the color. Backtrack to ancient history and we can see that a lack of synthetics didn’t stop our forefathers, or mothers, from utilizing natural plant dyes. Making fabric dye with fruits and vegetables is relatively easy and inexpensive, especially if you have a garden or access to an area where you can pick them easily. So how do you go about making fabric dye with vegetables and fruits?

Making Fabric Dye from Fruits and Vegetables

First, you must decide what color you want to dye your garment. This may be at your own whim or depending upon what fruits and veggies you have available. Fabric can be dyed a dizzying array of shades of brown, blue, green, orange, yellow, pink, purple, red, and grayish black. A few of the produce that can be used as dyes are:

There are many, many more options. The internet has some great lists with specific names of a fruit or vegetable and what hue it will become when used as a dye. Some experimentation might be in order as well. For instance, if you are dying a garment that really matters to you, I would suggest practicing on a swatch of that fabric to test for color beforehand. Once you have chosen your dye color and produce, chop it up and place it in a pot with two times the amount of water as produce. Bring the water to a boil, reduce heat, and let steep for an hour. If you want a more vibrant, deeper color, leave the produce in the water overnight with the heat off. Strain out the produce pieces and discard, or compost. The remaining liquid is your dye. Before you jump in and begin dying, however, you will need a fixative to help the fabric keep its color. You can use either a salt fixative or a vinegar fixative.

  • Salt fixatives are used with berry dyes, while vinegar fixatives are used for other plant dyes. For the salt fixative, dissolve ½ cup (120 ml.) salt in 8 cups (2 L.) of water, place the fabric in, and simmer for an hour or longer.
  • The vinegar fixative needs one part vinegar to four parts water. Add the fabric and simmer for an hour or longer. If you want a deeper color, go ahead and simmer for longer than an hour.

Note: Use an old pot to dye in and wear rubber gloves when handling dyed fabric or you will likely have pink or green hands for days. After you have achieved your desired hue, rinse the material out well with cool running water, continually squeezing out the excess. Wash the garment separately from any other clothing in cold water. When dying with natural foods, natural fabrics such as muslin, silk, cotton, and wool work the best. The lighter the original color of the fabric, the truer the desired color will be once dyed; white or pastel shades work the best.

Amy Grant

Amy Grant has been gardening for 30 years and writing for 15. A professional chef and caterer, Amy's area of expertise is culinary gardening.