Natural dyeing with tea

tea dyeingBright colors are happy and cheerful and creating them is incredibly fun but there are times when the delicate texture and fine details of a fabric would be lost behind even a splash of color. Neutral hues enhance intricate stitch patterns and can be used to highlight a garment’s simple lines but finding just the right natural neutral yarn can be tricky.

Interestingly enough, there are probably a few, and maybe a few dozen, bags of natural dye sitting on your pantry shelf. Tea. The only more consumed beverage in the world is water so there’s likely a box tucked away in the back. Even if the briskness has mellowed over the years, the natural dyes found in tea leaves are still potent enough to brew up a nice pot of natural dye.

tea dying

Dyeing with tea is more of a trial and error endeavor than dying with Kool Aid. Food dye is regulated so results are predictable but the types, colors and characteristics of tea are infinite so all we can do here is provide guidelines.

The one ingredient that is critical to stable tea dyeing is vinegar. There’s enough citric acid in Kool Aid to make it colorfast but adding acid to most other types of dye is essential to creating colors that penetrate and remain in the fibers.

Before submerging your yarn in a dye bath, always soak it for at least a half hour in a solution of water and vinegar – one part vinegar to four parts water. Also, when your tea dyeing solution is ready, add at least a cup of vinegar before you add the yarn.

tea dying 2

The color your yarn turns out depends on the type of tea you use. Black tea, green tea, oolong tea and other names given to types of tea don’t describe the places they fall on a color chart. You can’t expect the color of the yarn to turn out the same as the used tea bag paper or a random cloth you have dipped in the brew. All fibers absorb the dye differently so dyeing a small sample  of the same yarn you intend to dye is the only way to see the true shade.

You should be aware that batches of hand-dyed yarn will vary much more than the dye lots found in manufactured yarn. If you want all your yarn to be the same color, you should brew a strong batch of tea in a large pan and dye all your yarn at once.

Be sure you are using real tea made from the leaves of tea plants. Herbal infusions that are packaged in bags like tea don’t contain enough natural dye to make a difference.

Start by boiling plenty of tea bags in just enough water to cover the yarn. Once the water comes to a boil, let the tea bags steep for at least an hour, longer is better.

Bring the pot back to a simmer. Add at least cup of vinegar and more if you’re working with a big pot of water.

It’s a good idea to remove the tea bags before you immerse your yarn. This way if  one breaks, you can strain the tea through a coffee filter and you won’t have to rinse tea leaves out of your yarn.

Turn off the heat and slowly lower the wet hank into the pan and gently swish it so it’s evenly submerged.

The color of the dyed yarn will depend on the length of time the yarn remains in the dye bath and remember the yarn will dry lighter. Stir gently every so often so yarn will be evenly dyed.

For a series of variegated shades, start with several individual hanks and remove them at intervals.

When you remove the yarn, try to keep the hank intact. If you are saving the dye to use again, lift the yarn and gently squeeze  out the dye. Otherwise, pour off the dye and press the yarn against the pan to remove extra liquid.

Rinsing is important but there’s not a right or wrong way to go about it. Treat the yarn kindly – never twist or wring it. When the water is clear and you feel the yarn is  adequately rinsed, squeeze out the excess water and squeeze it between layers of dry towels.

Next place it loosely on an absorbant surface and let it dry. Do not remove the ties until the yarn is completely dry and you are ready to wind it into a ball.

Photo tea dyed hank