Experiments in Dyeing with Coffee

This weekend I did some experimenting with coffee dye. I found a white cotton cardigan on one of my recent thrift expeditions and I loved the fit and the style but wearing any white clothing in the presence of an active toddler is not really a wise idea. Unless, of course, it is made from 100% natural materials because then it is perfect for natural dye experiments. Hence, the white cardigan found its way into my closet in the name of future dye projects.

So coffee. In my very fledgling work with natural dyes (I confess to being a novice and given the natural dye experts who have dedicated their entire careers to researching natural, plant-based, dyes I will likely consider myself a novice even after decades of this work) I have tried to avoid using mordants. A mordant, in very simple non-encyclopedia terms, helps the dye bond to the fabric. Some dye/ fabric combinations are much easier to achieve without mordants than others. Thus, my very novice disclaimer above. It's a lifelong practice. (You can see more of my natural dye adventures here.)

I'm learning there are more and more natural non-toxic mordants (or let me be more specific and say "edible" mordants) but I've been hesitant to go the mordant route. When dyeing, I use the same stainless steel pots and wooden spoons that double as kitchenware so I have been hesitant to introduce alum or iron mordants because that will entail separate "dye only" equipment. If I had the extra space and good kitchen ventilation--or a dreamy outdoor garden dye studio--I'd be less hesitant. But our cozy 650 sq foot apartment already doubles as home, office, studio, and playroom and this does not allow for many extra pots or pans.

So in my own kitchen I've worked with onion skins, carrot tops, beets, cabbage, tea, and coffee. But I am learning that the different reactions are not just the plant (or the time of year you harvested, age of the plant, soil of the plant, etc) but also very much the mordants. Ho hum. And, of course, if the fabric is made from animal or plant materials. It seems the protein-based materials take to the dyes quicker than the plant-based. Or the wools and silks react better than the cottons and linens. Well, usually.

But in my quest to avoid mordants (which is very much coming to a quick end, I do declare) I am also learning that there are other plant-based and nontoxic mordants. Like seawater or salt. And vinegar. And citrus. And, of course, scrap metals that will make my kitchenware my "dyeware" but I suppose I can find an extra spot under my studio desk if I must. Ho hum again.

So coffee. I used a 100% cotton cardigan and it turned out a very pretty--albeit very pale--shade of beige. I hate the word "beige", so let's say, "tan" instead. So it's tan. And it has this pretty hint of yellow or green depending on the light. Maybe even a warm brown but a very light brown at best. It's certainly a warmer, more earthy version of its original stark white. So that's a move in the right direction. I do love the complex colors of natural dyes--perhaps, it's what I love the best.

But it is far from the deep rich brown I had imagined. And I also tossed in a pair of my son's pajama bottoms--92% cotton and 8% spandex--because they were far from their original white already. They actually took the dye better than I imagined (as they are not 100% plant or animal-based) but my shibori string was tied to loose. Next time I'd tie each tiny leg in it's own shibori thread as only the outer edges really received the result. Ho hum again.

But, oddly, I'm not dissuaded. I think that working with plant dyes is certainly in my future. And like any creative pursuit, it just takes time. Trial and error is really the only way of navigating a lifelong journey in the arts. Or in the kitchen. Or in the sewing studio. Or in parenting. Or in love. Or the list continues.

Like anything really meaningful, it cannot be learned on the first or second or maybe even the tenth time. It takes time. And so now I'm going to use the rest of my son's nap to continue reading my beautiful dye books and to do some research on post-mordanting (or modifying as it's called), and over-dyeing, and also this new direction I've been learning about using a protein as a mordant. Hmm.

In my basic plant dye experience I can say this: Use natural materials, use clean garments, let the garments pre-soak in water or a mordant, brew your dye vats strong and long, and let the garments soak for longer than you think is needed. Unless, of course, you're working with a dye or garment that will reach a saturation point or working with a mordant that will dilute if soaked for too long. You see? It's not a perfect science at all. But it IS a whole bunch of fun. Now, off to enjoy a bit of this quietude during naptime.


PS--THANK YOU to those of you who left your feedback on my last post. I'm so grateful for your thoughts! I'll announce the winner of the giveaway in the comments section of that post tomorrow morning. The giveaway is open until midnight tonight so there's still time to enter. Good luck!


  1. Katrina - I've used tea to dye little miniature quilts before as it gives them a very aged and antique look. Never thought of coffee and I know next to nothing about using natural dyes. So this blog post was very fun!! ~ Dori ~

    1. yes, i think the effect with black tea is very similar to coffee. it works great when the fabric doesn't need to be repeatedly washed, but i'm struggling to get the coffee to be colorfast on the cotton. it washes right out. deep breaths and try, try again! (hi dori!)

  2. Anonymous1/22/2014

    I've never done this before but one day I hope to. Thanks for the enlightenment!
    Valerie @ Accidental Hayseed

    1. hi valerie! thanks for visiting here.

      it's really easy to dye with natural dyes like coffee or onion skins. my battle is with using mordants that aren't kitchen safe. but if you're dyeing a garment for something decorative i think most natural fabrics dye great. it's the washing and wearing that reduces the saturation. i hope you'll try natural dyes too!

      nice to meet you. -k


Thank you for your comments, friends. I like to think we are creating a dialogue in this space--building a virtual community.