How to tie-dye your clothes using natural dyes from food

It’s quiet on the fermenting and foraging front this week, as Valerie O’Connor takes time out to go back to her roots for a good old dye.

Recently it’s been claimed that I am a hippy. Hippy, moi? 

Now hipster is a word that we are too familiar with and probably tired of and being a woman I haven’t managed to cultivate that uniform of full beard (ginger if you’re lucky), and American gothic gentleman’s way of dressing, while having a bunch of tattoos on my arms and waving the rare-breed or vegan flag.

Some of us are accidental hipsters; I cycle a bike with a basket that I’ve had for over 30 years. 

I still have it because, so far it hasn’t been robbed and there’s nothing wrong with it. 

While I argued with the fact that I am no hippy, I pondered it after my tai chi session that I did outside in my bare feet while contemplating the brocolli micro-greens and my tomato plants.

I went inside to strum on my guitar and noticed that my living room is full of jars of kombucha scobys and sauerkraut that don’t have enough room in the kitchen. 

Short of making my own batiks and having Joni Mitchell playing on a loop, I realise and now accept that I am indeed a full-on hippy. 

Hippy and loving it. 

Love and peace and let’s get on with it.

How to tie-dye your clothes using natural dyes from food

So I decided to dip into a pastime I had in my teens, tie dying clothes. 

My sister and I spent many an evening customising stuff, hacking up jeans, bleaching them in the bath, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering mother, (who, incidentally, was a dressmaker and baker and would now be called a homesteader and probably have a book deal if she were into that kind of thing).

We would buy Dylon dyes and turn the inside of the washing machine blue and make all sorts of rainbow-coloured and wonderful, wacky clothes for little money. 

So when I came across an article on dyeing fabrics using natural dyes from food, I had to give it a go. 

It’s food and it’s fashion all in one.

And because I’ve tried this and found some things that work and some that don’t, I’ll save you the trouble of messing around with the bits that don’t work. 

How to tie-dye your clothes using natural dyes from food

It is said that red cabbage gives a lovely blue hue, this didn’t work for me and I tried it on several different old white things, they all came out a depressing blue-grey mulch. 

If you find differently, please send me the tips on a postcard.

What worked well was turmeric, and beetroot. 

I wanted to know if I could turn a boring old white shirt into a funky and vibrant yellow one, and I did. 

Onion skins are said to give a nice brown colour, but I never heard of a colour brown that’s nice, so I didn’t do this. 

The internet is a wonderful resource and has lots of tips for creating beautiful patterns to dye fabrics and tablecloths — so it’s time to reach peak hippy.

Tie dye with food

You will need:

Shabby white cotton items — like a cotton T-shirt or shirt. (No elastine in the fabric , the dye will work better without.)

2/3 tblsp turmeric powder or turmeric root (below)

How to tie-dye your clothes using natural dyes from food

The root is preferable, and found in Asian stores in abundance, or health food stores — it’s so strong it’s best to wear gloves when preparing.

Beetroot — 3-4 large roots peeled and chopped roughly, or the skins from a bunch of beets, which means you’re dyeing clothes from your compost materials — even better.


1. Boil your cottons in a pot with salt, about 1 cup of table salt to the pot and cook the for one hour. 

This should stop the colour from running but the quality of water and its chemicals affect the results.

2. In another pot cook up your dye for one hour or longer, simply put your chosen food into a large pot with about five litres of water, bring to a boil and cook it for an hour or two. Strain out the food bits.

3. Spin out your whites.

4. If you want some big circles patterned onto a pink T-shirt, pinch the middle of the shirt into a point and tie an elastic band around it, put another elastic further down and another, to make a ‘sausage’ coming out of the T-shirt. Tie the elastics good and tight.

Pop this into the pot of beetroot dye and cook on a low heat for a couple of hours, leave it in the dye for as long as you can, ideally overnight. 

Remove it from the pot and rinse out as much dye as you can, hopefully most of it stays in.

Remove the elastics and marvel at your groovy pattern. Alternatively, you can create a two-tone Tee-shirt by uncovering the elastics and dipping the T-shirt, or just the ‘cones’ into the tumeric pot, to get a pink and yellowcolour combo.

5. To dye with turmeric, cook it up in the same way and strain the powder variety through muslin as it can make the effect patchy. I just shoved a shirt into the pot in no particular way, cooked it for a while and left it overnight. 

The result is a mixed, semi-faded yellow in a lovely shade. I like it a lot and I now have a cool shirt that screams “Hi I’m Valerie and I’m a hippy!”

Valerie continues her food fermenting classes at the Urban Co-op in Limerick on Thursdays until June 2. 

Check out: 

She is also doing a fermenting demo at Slow Food Clare in Lisdoonvarna on May 28 at 1pm, followed a book signing.


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