Natural Fabric Dyeing: How to Dye Cotton and Other Cellulose Fibers with Kristine Vejar

This is a guest post from an expert on all things art and crafts Melanie Falick*

In her book, The Modern Natural Dyer, Kristine Vejar compares natural dyeing to cooking. She writes, “At its essence, the natural dyeing process can be much like making tea or cooking food. In fact, it may be helpful to think about following a favorite recipe when you are dyeing with natural materials: All the ingredients must be in harmony to cook a successful dish. So as in any good recipe, you can interchange the ingredients to a certain degree, so long as they complement each other.”

Over the weekend while I was taking part 2 of Kristine’s Natural Fabric Dyeing class, How to Dye Cotton and Other Cellulose Fibers, I thought about both baking bread and simmering sauce. In the class, Kristine dyes a pair of organic cotton socks with madder extract (madder is a plant whose roots produce a range of reds and an extract is the dye in a concentrated powder form), and I was doing the same.

Scouring (pre-washing) and mordanting (preparing the fabric so that it will hold the dye long-term) reminded me of baking bread because each involves mixing together a small number of ingredients and then leaving them alone for a few hours.  The actual dyeing process reminded me of making sauce because it takes place in a pot on the stove for a couple of hours and requires some stirring and because there is room for improvisation.


The first pair of socks just after placing them in the madder dye pot.

Kristine is the creator of A Verb for Keeping Warm, a dye studio and shop in Oakland, California. When she is dyeing her yarn line, she has to work with scientific preciseness in order to create a color palette that is consistent from one batch to the next. But I don’t have to do that when I’m dyeing socks at home.  I can play around as much as I want with the amount of dye or the length of time I leave the socks in the dye pot, just as I might play around with the amount of pepper I add to a tomato sauce or how finely I dice the onions. I can improvise and the results will still be beautiful.

I dyed two pairs of socks. I kept one pair in the dye pot for about two hours of gentle heating. I added the second pair at about halfway though in hopes of achieving a shade about half as light. In fact, my socks turned out close to the same shade, but that’s ok since I think both pairs are beautiful and I will definitely wear them often.


Two pairs of socks dyed with madder. The ones on the right were left in the dye pot longer.

I’m intrigued by natural dyeing and I’m eager to do more.  I felt al little intimidated before I tried, but now I see that it is as easy as basic cooking, especially when using dye extracts. Next time I dye with madder I may use a little less extract and shorten the dye time to get a pale pink/salmon tone.  Or maybe I’ll dye with cochineal (a bug that yields pink) or weld (a plant that yields yellow).  All of this reminds me of the first times I made bread. I began with a basic baguette. Sometimes the flavor varied, sometimes the crust, sometimes the texture. But the outcome was always delicious.

*Melanie Falick is a creative consultant and freelance editor and writer and the author of numerous books, including Knitting in America, Weekend Knitting, and Kids Knitting. She is the former publishing director of STC Craft, an imprint of Abrams. She also teaches several Creativebug classes, including Leather Wrap Bracelets. Visit her website to learn more.