DIY Natural Acorn Dye

When I was a little girl, I was really obsessed with wilderness survival. Not exactly a tomboy, but I would climb trees, build forts, and get really dirty collecting rocks/plants/acorns in sunflower dresses and my mothers lipstick. Actually, thanks to the 90s trend revival that is almost exactly how I am today. So really, little has changed.

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I think it was a combination of growing up on the edge of the National Forest and my favorite books, My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George and Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, that brought on the desire to head out into the woods with a basket and a western Sierra Nevada plant identification book for anything edible or useful. My parents allowed me to bring home and eat the good (blackberries, spiny gooseberries, black walnuts, mint, and miner's lettuce) and the bad (really tannic acorn pancakes and rubbery, boiled cattail tubers). I now know more about how to use acorns for food, but in all honesty, I love gluten and prefer to dye cotton with these tannic little nuts.

In 2010 I studied abroad in Ghana where I attended the University of Ghana for a semester. I was fortunate enough to take a dye course where we learned the fundamentals of dyeing and practiced with mordants, mixing, and batik. Ghana has long been a huge producer of dyed fabric and I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to learn there. By the way, the class was really difficult and I worked my butt off for a B-.

So let’s talk about cotton and dying. Cotton and other cellulose fibers are very difficult to plant dye because of the cell structure. Unlike protein fibers (silk and wool) that welcome natural color like a warm grandmother, cotton likes to keep its distance. The exception (besides a few dyes like indigo and woad) is tannic dye. Cotton has a huge crush on tannin so it accepts the plant dye and doesn’t fade as easily. What is tannin? Tannins are the astringent taste in wine or the reason your mouth feels dry when you eat a persimmon.

So this is why I love to dye with acorns. Acorns are full of tannin so using them on organic cotton jersey is easy and colorfast. You can also dye first in acorns and then color with another plant dye to achieve a better shade.

For me, an important step in dying with acorns is iron. Personally, an acorn-only dye bath doesn't really do it as it seems to always turn out off-stripy-tan. However, the moment your acorn-dyed fabric comes in contact with an iron solution, magic happens. That off brown changes into a light  blue-grey and, with longer dye time, takes on a purple black. I love it. If you look closely at dye lines in my Dip Dyed Acorn Clutch (available in the Luxury Naturals Shop), you can see the different shades.

An iron solution sounds complicated- but it is not. All you need is a few rusty objects, vinegar, and a week or so. That is it. 

So if you are still with me after that little lesson in dyeing. Let’s move onto the recipe.

Iron Solution:

2 handfuls of rusty objects (nails, bolts, etc.)
1 cup white vinegar
1 large jar with a lid

Place rusty objects and vinegar in your large container. Fill with water 3/4 way full. Let sit in area with full sun for 1-2 weeks (warmer weather works faster) until the solution turns orange.

Acorn Dye with Iron 

5 lbs acorns per 1 lbs fabric
Natural fabric like cotton, silk, or wool that has been washed without any fabric softeners
Your batch of pre-made iron solution

Fill a large pot with water and acorns. You will want enough water to cover fabric and allow it to move freely. Heat acorns on a light simmer for 1-2 hours to extract color. 

Fill another pot with water and iron solution and enough water to cover fabric. This will be what you dip your fibers in after dyeing.

Prewet your fabric in water and squeeze out extra. Add your fiber to the dye vat. Lower the temperature to low and heat for 20-45 minutes. After the dye time, carefully remove fiber and add to the iron solution. Let sit for 10 minutes. Remove from the iron solution and see if the shade is to your liking. At this point, you can alternate between the acorn dye and iron in 5 minutes intervals to deepen the color to black. 

Once the fabric is dyed, squeeze excess dye out and hang dry for 1 hour. Then, wash in cool water with soap to remove any lingering dye and dry again.

Dye hard!