Smash It Up
August 19, 2020
Make Your Own Natural Dye from Avocado Pits with Seawitches
As I write this, we’ve been under Shelter in Place orders for almost four months. I’ve missed being in nature and feeling wild and free. One way I’ve coped with staying inside, while also getting creative about my relationship to nature, is making my own natural inks and dyes.
I’d like to share my simple dye-making recipe with you so you too can deepen your relationship with nature and your creative spirit. You’ll be surprised by how easy dye-making is, and by what incredible, varied, and vibrant colors your environment can yield.
The best part about making your own dye is following the rhythms of Mother nature. She’ll bring you oxalis flowers in spring, explode with wild fennel in summer, and litter the ground with color-filled acorns in fall. You’ll protect her from toxic dyes produced by large corporations producing fast fashion that pollute. According to the World Economic Forum, “Textile dyeing is the world’s second-largest polluter of water.”
I’ve made some dyes that have blown my mind and some that were so underwhelming I dumped them down the drain. But my friend who taught me all I know about making natural inks and dyes instilled in me the most important ingredient—there are no mistakes, only happy accidents.
What You’ll Need
10 Avocado Pits
Large Metal Pot (canning pot works great)
Soda Ash (Dharma Trading)
pH-neutral soap (Dharma Trading)
Fabric: About 2.5 - 3 lbs. (about five T-shirts or pillowcases), non-synthetic, such as 100% cotton, linen, or silk
It all starts with foraging for the material you’d like to try making dye with. It is important to forage responsibly by only taking what you need from locations where foraging is permitted.
To paraphrase the natural ink maker Jason Logan from his book Make Ink: A Forager’s Guide to Natural Inkmaking, he practices two kinds of foraging: wandering and focusing. When wandering, he “picks a landscape and explores it without preconceptions.” His focused searches are about finding one single ingredient. For our recipe, we are going to go on a focused foraging adventure for avocado pits. We need to find ten pits and we want them to be fresh. You can either eat ten avocados and save the pits, or I’ve had a lot of luck asking my local cafe to save their pits for me. Remember to bring them a token of your gratitude; something you made with their avocado pits—a painting or dyed piece of fabric.
The fresher the pits are, the more vibrant color they’ll yield. If you can’t use the pits right away, wrap them in a wet paper towel and put them in an air-tight container in the fridge until you’re ready to make your dye.
To prepare your fabric for dyeing, wash it using a pH-neutral soap. This step is important because most fabrics, even organic ones, come with oils and waxes on them; for your dye to bond with the fabric, you have to wash these off. I use the professional textile detergent from Dharma Trading. There are other options, such as simmering it with Marseille soap and washing soda.
Clean and Chop
Clean off any avocado meat from the pits. Some pits have a thin brown skin on them, do not remove this, you want it in your dye bath. Once they are clean, chop each pit into quarters. They can be slippery, so be extra careful when cutting. Use tongs or something to hold them steady to avoid cutting your fingers.
Fill the pot between halfway and two-thirds with water. Add the chopped avocado pits. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer. Let them simmer until they turn the water red; about 30 to 60 minutes. Remove the pits with tongs.
Dye Fabric/Add Modifiers
This is where the fun happens! Depending on the color you’re trying to achieve, you can add modifiers to your dye bath. These can brighten or sadden the color, depending on what modifier you use. For example, alum will brighten and iron will sadden the color. You also don’t have to use modifiers if you like the color of your dye bath. I recommend cutting some smaller strips of fabric to test the color. If you’ve got five T-shirts, try dyeing one, then adding a modifier and dyeing another.
To dye fabric: Wet your fabric in clean water and wring it out. You want it to be damp but not dripping. Then add it to your dye bath and make sure it’s submerged using your tongs. Keep the bath simmering. Leave it in the dye bath for as long as you like. The longer it’s in the bath, the darker or deeper the color will be. If you want light pink, only leave it in the bath for 10-15 minutes. If you want a deeper rose, leave it in for longer.
Once you’ve reached a color you like, remove from the dye bath and let rest for 15-20 minutes. Wash again in pH-neutral detergent to remove excess dye. If you have leftover dye, you can put it in a jar and keep it in the fridge and try dyeing with it again. You can try painting with your dye on watercolor paper too.
How to use a modifier: My favorite modifier is soda ash because it tends to deepen the color and it’s good for helping the dye bind to the fabric. If you want to use that for your recipe, add 1 tablespoon of soda ash to your dye bath and stir with your tongs.
Most importantly, keep experimenting with materials, modifiers, and materials to dye. Continue your journey with Sasha Duerr’s book Natural Color: Vibrant Plant Dye Projects for Your Home and Wardrobe. Make your own recipes! And remember, there are no mistakes, just happy accidents.
Seawitches, a zine for waterpeople, is a bi-annual print publication. We are here to tell stories inspired by water that are rooted in nature and diversity.
Margaret Seelie is an artist and writer living in San Francisco. She is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Seawitches.