If you've prepared fresh beets for cooking and found your chopping board, knife and fingers stained with copious amounts of bright red juice, you've seen this humble root vegetable's potential for being a natural dye. Harnessing those vibrant pigments to dye cotton fabric and cotton yarns is a simple process and a fun experiment, but don't expect the results to be as vibrant or as long-lasting as those of chemical dyes. You also should not assume the dyed cotton will bear the bold hue of beet juice; instead, the probable result is a pretty, dusky shade of pink.
Preparing Beet Dye
Find a large saucepan -- a stockpot is ideal. To avoid dyeing your fingers, don thick rubber gloves. Wearing an apron and old clothes is also a good idea. Scrub fresh beets under running water, then chop them, skins and all, into small cubes or thin slices. Place the beets into the pot and add about twice as much water in volume as you have beets. Make sure there is at least enough liquid to fully saturate the cotton fabric or yarn that you intend to dye. Bring the water to a boil, then lower the heat until the water is simmering. Simmer the beets for about an hour, then turn off the heat. Strain the mixture, keeping the liquid and discarding the solids. For a bolder dye color, leave the beets in the water overnight -- off the heat -- before straining. Unlike when you are working with chemical dyes, the kitchen equipment you use to prepare natural, vegetable dyes is perfectly safe for culinary use afterward.
Preparing the Fabric or Yarn
Start with white or unbleached cotton fabric or yarn for the best results. To prepare the cotton for accepting dye, you need to treat it with a fixative. Fortunately, this is easy and doesn't involve any special equipment or products -- you just need to simmer the fabric or yarn for about an hour in a solution of one part white vinegar to four parts water. Do this in a separate saucepan while the dye solution is simmering and everything should be ready at around the same time. After the hour is up, rinse the fabric or yarn under cold water and squeeze it so that it's damp but not dripping. This basic step is important -- if you dye cotton without treating it first with a fixative, the color will fade and rinse out in only one or two washes.
The Dyeing Process
Add the damp cotton fabric or yarn to the dye, either in a separate container or the pot in which you prepared the dye. Gently swish the fabric or yarn around in the dye with a wooden spoon until it's fully saturated with the liquid. All you do now is let it sit and soak until you're happy with the color transformation. This might take a few hours or as long as overnight. Bear in mind that the color will appear darker when wet, so the final shade will be a little lighter than the color of the fabric swimming in the dye bath. When you've decided that the new color of the fabric or yarn meets your satisfaction, remove it from the dye bath and rinse it under cold water until the water runs clear. To help preserve the color, hand-wash the fabric, yarn or any item you make from the material in cold water from the time of dyeing it.
Other Homemade Natural Dyes
A great variety of other vegetables, fruits and natural products can be turned into dye in the same manner. Carrots, onion skins, walnut shells and tea bags make dyes that range from orange to brown; use red cabbage, blueberries and blackberries for blue-to-purple dyes; try spinach or peppermint leaves to make green dyes. If you are using berries, use one part salt to 16 parts water as a fixative instead of the vinegar solution. Experiment with different dye colors, and try concocting custom shades by blending beet dye with other dyes.
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