1000 Ways to Dye: Natural versus Not

Natural, acid, fiber-reactive, basic, disperse, vat – the list goes on. There are numerous ways to dye, some more readily available than others, but there are two basic groups – Natural versus Not.

Hang on a Sec

Before I even start the separation, I’m here to tell you that it’s okay. It’s okay if you are not ready to throw on a loincloth and go bounding among the trees in search of plants to dye with. It’s okay if you switch your methods, try natural on Wednesdays and synthetic on Fridays. It’s okay to experiment and find which method works best for you, and the method that you enjoy most. I’m not here to tell you which is best, safest, or even most morally righteous.

After all, that’s not the point. BQueen is not here to give a speech on “let’s go all natural,” and in fact – I’ll share a secret – chemicals are alive and well in my home. My car runs on gas, I use Lysol for my toilet bowls you betcha I’m going to grab some heavy duty carpet cleaner when my dog throws up. Don’t feel guilty if you do too AND want to be a connoisseur of natural dyeing.

The reason BQueen focuses solely on natural dyeing is because I enjoy it. I enjoy the challenge of having to do a bit more work for color, and truthfully I enjoy the process. Will I always naturally dye? Who knows. I will certainly not write off synthetic dyeing – and I really love the colorways that can be achieved from them and what other fiber artists are able to create. But for now, I am playing with natural and I love it.

Will you? It doesn’t matter. You might try both, and realize that synthetic dyeing is your calling. And then you’ll send me some yarn you’ve dyed, because I’d love you for it. This blog Dyeing for Fiber is simply to encourage, help, and show that natural dyeing isn’t an impossible method and that it can be just as rewarding and fun as synthetic. One is not better than the other, they both have their drawbacks and advantages.

Natural Dyeing

Natural dyeing refers to dyes obtained from plants, insects, and minerals. Remember though, that natural does not always mean safe - just think about all the natural yet poisonous plants that are out there, such as Oleander, Rhubarb, and Hemlock. The sources of natural dyes can be poisonous or toxic, and some mordants and color modifiers are toxic themselves (such as chromium and tin). Additionally, the resources used are not necessarily more ecologically sound than those used by synthetic dyes.

So why dye naturally? There are numerous advantages, such as the historical significance, the self-sufficiency of growing/cultivating your own dyestuff, a connection with nature, and the uniqueness and individuality of results. I like knowing that this color came from a plant, or this from a bug. I like to know that what I am doing has been in practice for hundreds of years, and I love seeing what brilliant colors can be achieved without a synthetic modification.

Synthetic Dyeing

Synthetic dyeing is widely used for large scale dyeing, it being the most cost effective for mass production and color repetition. However, synthetic dyeing regulations and the impacts it has on the environment are still arguably concerning and unknown, especially when it comes to the manufacturing. Because it is made from petrochemicals, synthetic dyeing has a lot of components and ingredients that we just plain don't know much about. 

Dyeing fiber with synthetics means consistent color and a much wider range of color possibility than with natural dyes. The availability and low cost of synthetic dyes can be appealing to fiber dyers, and just like with natural dyes, can be done in the comfort of a home.

Pick a Dye, Any Dye

What it comes down to is what method you enjoy the most and what materials you care to accumulate. Try them both, start with one – it makes no difference. Take what you read on the internet – this blog included – with a grain of salt and relieve some of the pressure off of yourself to choose a side. Have fun with your fiber and find color in any way you choose!

Next Blog Post | Fibers to Dye For: What Fibers can you Naturally Dye?

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