How to make and use natural dyes

Teacher: Susie Wareham

From: Bedfordshire

Lesson: The art of natural dyeing

Wearing a shirt she’d dyed with an avocado stone, Susie Wareham welcomed us into the workshop that sits at the bottom of her dad’s garden. It’s from here that she runs a business – ECoMe – selling naturally dyed scarves and babywear, and where she does all the prep work for her workshops.

There’s not much money in natural dyeing, which means Susie has to keep a job as a waitress alongside running her business. But for Susie, dyeing is a passion that’ll always be a huge part of her life, whether it pays the bills or not.

Teach Us made a dye bath using dahlias

Alice from teach us with Susie Wareham from ECoMe Creative

When Susie offered us the lesson, we knew nothing about natural dyeing. We assumed it would involve dipping material in baths that had been coloured with petals and other colourful things but had no idea how we’d make these colours stick.

For starters, Susie taught us about mordants (fixatives) and let us have a go at painting on different concentrations to create patterns. We then each selected a natural product to boil in water to make a dye bath. We chose cochineal, dahlias and tansies and couldn’t believe how vibrant the colours were. As we stood in wonder at what could be achieved with the things we’d selected, we spoke with Susie to ask how she came to be so intrigued by the offerings of the natural world.

Susie Wareham, our teach us how to use natural dyes instructor

What have you been teaching us today?

Today we’ve tried several different techniques of different natural dyeing on cotton. The reason for focusing on just one fabric is because it can be such a huge topic that it’s easier to break it down into specific parts.

We’ve created five different mordants (the fixative that sticks the colour onto the cloth), set the mordant onto the cloth using wheat bran, and then added different colours that we created ourselves. One we made from dahlias that came out of my stepfather’s garden, another from cochineal and another from tansy which was grown locally.

Can you tell us one interesting fact about natural dyeing?

Rhubarb root turns silk a bright yellow colour, but when put in an indigo bath it’ll go red, not green (as you’d expect from the mix of yellow and blue). This is thanks to a reaction that occurs between the alkaline from the indigo bath and acidity from the rhubarb.

How experienced are you?

I’m only just getting used to calling myself ‘experienced’. I’d say anyone should be able to call themselves experienced after four, maybe five year of constant dye practise, and a little bit of teaching. It’s generally at that point that dyers become confident with their answers and gain a true understanding of the whole process.

There are thousands of plants I haven’t touched or even tried to understand yet though, and loads of different mordants. I still have a long way to go, but there’s no real end point with this and that’s one of its great joys. It’s great because I’m always developing new skills and yet never comparing myself to other people. In a lot of jobs of even hobbies, there are set levels that must be reached before a person is able to claim to being an ‘expert’. What I do, however, is a real passion for me. I love what I do and put everything into each dye bath I create.

Matt from teach us with Susie Wareham, learning how to create a pattern with mordants

How did you get into natural dyeing

I started learning about natural dyes in the last year of my fashion degree. I started making garments with the Environmental Justice Foundation and wanted to add colour, but using synthetic dyes on organic cotton didn’t feel right to me. So I was talking to my mum who said: “I’m sure you can use things from the garden to create colour”. So, we did some research and had a go ourselves – I fell in love with it immediately.

I decided to focus on dyes for my MA, and had access to a dye garden at my university, which was just incredible. To follow the journey of the plants from planting to cultivation, right through to making the dye baths is, and always has been, an amazing experience. I had the opportunity to exhibit my dye garden at BBC Gardeners’ World Live, where I showed a beautiful border based on Birmingham’s traditional dye works. They use of have lots of textile mills up there so I took inspiration from that.

Who has has had the biggest influence on you?

Michel Garcia has been a massive influence on me. In 2014 I spent a week up in Scotland with him and he helped me understand the science and chemical process that goes on within natural dyeing. To meet Michel was incredible, and to be able to spend time with him and ask questions was truly invaluable. He always says ‘you’re only as good as the last dye bath you made’, which I take inspiration from.

What do you like most about dyeing?

It’s the excitement of seeing how the colours turn out. I never know what I’m going to get – the dyes can change depending on the time of day they were picked, the season, whether it was night or day, or how old the plant is. The colours are the final piece of the puzzle after putting all the love and hard work into getting the fabric and materials ready.

What’s been your proudest moment?

Handing in my Masters, knowing it was completely different to anyone else’s, and to be rewarded with a Distinction at the end of it.

Have you done much teaching before?

Yes, with small groups of people. I love teaching and passing on my knowledge. I love being able to introduce people to a new skill or hobby. People tend to get caught up in natural dyeing quite easily. It changes the way you look at things. You no longer just go for a walk in nature to appreciate the views, but you start to wonder what colours everything you can see would produce if put in a dye bath.   

Do you think anyone can learn how to use natural dyes?

I think anyone who has a passion for fabrics or who loves gardening and being out in nature would enjoy natural dyeing. So yes, I think most people can learn!

What are the most common mistakes people make with natural dyeing?

Getting the mordants wrong is the most common mistake, as it’s easy to not get the right consistency or for it not to bind properly. Choosing a material is key to getting off to a good start. For example, I would say dyeing on cotton is more difficult than dyeing on silk or wool.


Matt from teach us painting mordants onto cotton before dyeing with natural products

How long would it take for us to get to your level?

I’ve put years into this, but it’s hard to say how long it would take others. Some people have a natural affinity for it, but for others it takes longer.

How where we as student?

You were great students! I loved having you here – I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about what I do.

Who is the most skilled person you know?

My mum, because she has influenced me my whole life. She is a quilter by trade, and an incredible artist, but she can turn her hand to anything. She makes clothes with me, and dyes with me, and she’s an amazing photographer. She really is the most creative woman I know and I love her to pieces.

Is there another skill you wish you had?

There are hundreds of skills I wish I had! I would love to be a potter in my next life, but I’d also like to learn how to spin wool properly and how to weave. I wish I could knit, and wish I had more time to make my own clothes. To be honest, it’s too hard to pick just one skill. I wish I could try everything!

The teach us team, Matt Bowen, Nick Street and Alice Albery with Susie Wareham learning how to use natural dyes

Susie Wareham from ECoMe dyeing using plants during the teach us lesson

One of the teach us natural dye pieces coming out of the oatbran bath