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Natural dyes: A conversation with Kaitlin Leck

natural dyes

You may have heard the term “natural dyes” being bantered around.  Actually, one of our favorite makers of bedding and table linens, Les Indiennes, exclusively uses dyes derived from plants, roots, earth and rocks.

This all sounds so artisan, pioneer-like and eco-friendly, that we went seeking answers to questions begging to be asked. A friend of Nicole Michelle, Kaitlin Leck was just the person to help us. Kaitlin is a nurse by day, but also extensively studied textiles and natural dying processes. She previously worked for a Seattle company, Earthues, a natural dye company.

Posing a few questions to Kaitlin was eye-opening. There’s a whole world of non-synthetic, low-impact-on-the-environment options for coloring everything from eggs to cloth and yarn.


natural dyes

Q: What are natural dyes, and where do they come from?

A: Natural dyes can be gathered locally within our local ecosystem, as well as using natural sources from around the world. The ingredients come from bugs, flowers, roots and barks. Many of the materials needed to dye come from agricultural or food processing waste. Some will say using this waste helps divert material away from landfills and water treatment plants.

Beets, onions, chamomile, marigold, purple cabbage or locally gathered plants and minerals can also be used. The Bend Bulletin carried an interesting article about growing a garden with coloring cloth and yarn in mind.


natural dyes


Q: Why are we seeing more products that are naturally dyed?

A: Consumers are becoming more aware of sustainable issues and want to know where their textiles come from. There are companies like BLUESIGN that are uniting the textile supply chain to jointly reduce its impact on people and the environment.

An example of consumer demand can be seen in the gaining popularity of using natural dyes during Easter to color eggs; or larger clothing companies promoting more ethical practices like Eileen Fisher’s natural dye clothing line and the clean color collection by Patagonia.


natural dyes


Q: How are the dyes made?

 A: Some dyes like onions skins and flowers are just thrown into the water dye vat, others are ground down to a powder like cochineal bugs and madder. Natural goods are made into extracts as well.

More companies are popping up around the US selling natural dyes. Earthues and Botanical Colors out of Seattle and Maiwa from Vancouver BC are a few companies that sell natural dyes and have natural dye starter kits.

Because I am newer to Central Oregon, I am not sure what local wild plants will work, but I would think the CO Spinner and Weavers Guild or the Cooperative Extension would be a great place to start if you are looking to gather local!


natural dyes


Q: Can you suggest a beginner project?

A: A great way to get started with dyeing is to purchase a Dye Kit online (or gather some onion skins, marigolds and purple cabbage) and a plain tea towel or scarf made from natural fiber (cotton, wool, linen or silk). You’ll need a large vat, long handled spoon, thermometer and gloves.

For more detailed instructions and information, please see some of the following references:

We could almost write a book detailing the aspects and benefits of using natural dyes. For me, I love those particulars, but I also love how the colors appear, being generated from organic matter and taking on the nuances of the fabric and yarn.

Thanks, Kaitlin for giving us a small glimpse into this artisan craft with big and lasting impact.




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