natural dyeing, cotton and linen

A good friend asked me if I have had good experience with natural dyeing with cotton fabric. I told her that I had some bad ones and a few fair to good results. Unlike silk, wool, mohair, and alpaca which are classified as protein fiber–cotton, linen, or viscose are cellulose fiber, they require extra preparation and usually don’t print as well with natural dyes. In order for it to uptake the natural dyes, the fiber has to be pre-mordant with one or more of the following chemicals: tannin, alum, soy milk, soda ash, milk, and sea water.

To make the dye fix to the cellulose fiber, it is usually treated with a “mordant“. This is a chemical process which affixes itself to the fiber and in turn, the dye sticks to the chemical. The common method that most dyers use to mordant cotton and linen is “alum-tannin-alum”, which is a three-step process. I’ve tried this method before and found it was time-consuming; as the fabric needs to be aired dried between each step. See below for picture of the result from this process.

this piece was mordant using the 3-steps process. The fabric was folded in half to create a mirrored image of eucalyptus on cotton, the stain at the bottom was a result from a piece of untreated wood used for bundling the fabric

close up on the outline of eucalyptus

I thought there has to be another method, thus I was determined to find another easier and simpler process. I remembered an article I read about soymilk, and how one dyer in Japan used it to mordant cotton and linen. So, I’ve decided to give it a tryout last weekend with unsweetened soy milk from the grocery. I pre-scoured my cellulose fabric with washing soda to remove any chemicals, rinsed and then soaked it in store bought soy milk overnight. The following day, I simply wrung out the soy milk, and dried the fabric in the summer heat. Finally, I soaked the dried fabric in a solution of alum, soda ash, and rain water overnight; wrung it out and then layered plant materials on the pre-mordant fabric. When I am happy with the layout, I bundled it up tightly and boil in a simmering onion dye bath. Tip: I always soaked the leaves used in vinegar and some iron water. 

vintage linen mordant with soy milk, alum and soda ash.

close-up of eucalyptus prints–thrilled with the results, notice the skeletal leaf on the right–a result of decay

I love the earthy hues of browns, bronze and hint of greens

cotton mordant with soy milk, soda ash, alum, and bundled with copper pipe

yellowish and skeletal prints from eucalyptus, a result from aged and decaying matter on leaves

cotton with eucalyptus cinerea, staghorn sumac and privet berries

prints from staghorn sumac leaf

deep prints from sumac, a result of the leaf that yield tannin, and yellowish to orange prints from eucalyptus cinerea

Saving the best for last……

triangular-folded piece of cotton with plant materials in between layers, and bundled with iron pipe

peeling each layer to reveal nature secret of colors–my favorite moment

golden yellow to sage green from lime and orange leaves

spotted with yellowish prints from unknown eucalyptus, a result from alum

more gorgeous colors and prints in here-love the vibrant yellows, oranges and spots of sage green


I see you gorgeous!

a cornucopia of colors!

*Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melinda Tai and Obovate Designs with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. Thank you for visiting, I welcome all your comments.

“A smile is worth a thousand words, live happy, dye happiest.”

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28 Responses to natural dyeing, cotton and linen

  1. Interesting!
    I only use soy milk on my cellulose fibers, although there is tannin in the rainwater since I’m gathering it from my rain gutters (which aren’t very clean!).
    Your results are lovely!


    • mltai says:

      Thank you jschubert, I think the alum also makes a difference. It brightens and brings out much yellow in euca and other leaves. I may be wrong…nature is still my teacher. Thanks for dropping by:):)


  2. Karen says:

    Lovely! THanks for sharing all this information. Has the last one also been soaked in soy and alum mordanted? Also have you noticed amy rapid fading of the colors with washing and light exposure?

    Liked by 1 person

    • mltai says:

      Hi Karen,
      All the cotton and linen in this post has been mordant with soy and alum, except for one, I did another dip in seawater for experiment. That’s the one in bundled with copper. Thanks for your follow:)


    • mltai says:

      Hi Karen, this is the first time I gotten good results from cotton, so not sure about the colors fading from washing and light exposure. I would assume like all things dyed in natural dyes should be treated with gentle wash and not direct sunlight. Hope this helps


  3. Terriea says:

    Gorgeous, I love golden yellow so much. You hit my bell to try soy milk. Great experiments with cotton. Will try with alum to get your pretty yellow. Thanks for sharing.


  4. kitzkamp says:

    Thanks for sharing your process Melinda! I’ve been dabbling for a while with eco-dying and am really enthused after taking a few more classes!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Cedar says:

    The yellows are so rich,!!!lovely work


  6. carolina lillo says:

    How was the result of soy milk and seawater mordanted cotton fabric?


  7. Oh thank you, I am inspired to go back to natural dyeing again!


  8. taitaimah says:

    Nice work! You have done some very nice things and I am re-inspired to work on my eco prints. Just need to find more time to concentrate on it. I am especially glad you did this on cotton and linen – I am very interested in natural dye on those fibers. Also – Thanks for visiting my blog and your nice comments.


  9. arlee says:

    but alum-tannin- alum CAN be dried in the dryer, so why waste time with air drying? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: Eco dyeing and printing - The Desert Echo

  11. Corinne says:

    I’m just beginning dyeing with botanicals. So informative. Thank you.


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  13. Stephanie Reed says:

    Thanks for your inspiration. Did you happen to compare soy milk vs. soy milk plus alum vs. soy milk plus alum plus soda ash? I am starting my experiments next week! Thank you


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