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Mid America Buckskinners Info Page

Intro to Home Dyeing

Missouri Iowa Nebraska Kansas

No, it's not skinning bucks............ Developed and maintained by JP Finn

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You went down to Wal Mart in search of suitable material for that new outfit. You pawed through everything they had, and found very little that would be correct.
You knew that synthetics were not suitable. About the only natural cloth you could find was cotton. Having heard that the most that you could pass off was two color prints, every piece was inspected. Somehow looking like a 1950's tablecloth; red and white or green and white checks, didn't appeal to you. Returning home, you are the proud owner of a quarter bolt of unbleached muslin.

You have this sneaking suspicion that white is not a good choice for living in the woods and remaining stylish...
Welcome to the World of Home Dyeing.
Basically, dyeing is the staining of your material in a solution of water and a coloring agent. Usually something is done to "fix" the stain so that it remains more or less permanently.
As with most undertakings, dyeing can get as complex as you want it to become. I'm sure everyone that has had small kids around has discovered the perfect dye - Kool Aid. Yep, it can be that simple.

You will hear sarcastic remarks about those famous "Rit Berries". Rit is a common brand of prepackaged dye here in the USA. The directions come on the package. Most common colors are available.
For those with problems with commercial dyes, prepackaged commercially manufactured dyes were around before the times that we reenact. Those that had the money and a source used them.
I expect the average person bought the hard to make colors more often than the easy to make ones. Indigo to make blue and madder for red comes to mind as examples of historically bought dyes. Browns, yellows and greens are generally easy to make at home.


The Secret Cuss Words

Mordant......Chemical used to make the dye colorfast

Mordanting...Treating the material with the mordant

Dyestuff.....What you use to make the Dyebath

Dyebath......Solution of water and dyestuff extract

Scour........Removing the natural oils from your material prior to dyeing



Large enameled pot or two (Canning pots work well)
Note: Metals make the dye a different color - usually making it dull or muddy looking. Some dyes you make in copper or iron pots, most of the time you avoid metals like the plague.
Long handled wooden spoon or four
Stove or fire to heat everything on
Clothesline to hang the material to dry
Rainwater or a supply of soft water

Step one

Scour the material

First you will want to scour your new material. This will remove the starch, sizing and any oils, be they natural or unnatural.

Both store bought and home spun and woven materials will need to be scoured. Oils and other coverings have a way of settling out of the air on your dye goods.
The actual work of scouring is fairly easy. Just wash the material a couple times using plain soap. Dishwashing soap works pretty well, as does the "Hunter's Soap" from the sporting goods department during hunting season. Don't use your "New, Improved Whitening and Stain Fighter" laundry soap. Keep those dryer sheets out of the dryer, also. The point is to get it ready to stain...

The original method was to boil the material in rainwater a couple times, rinsing the material in clean rainwater, then changing the water and boiling it again until nothing was coming out.

Step 2
Make a dyebath

Again, this is a simple process. As a rule, wrap the dyestuff in a loosely woven rag, tie it closed and boil it in soft water. Cheesecloth bags make great dyestuff bags, but just dumping the stuff in the water and straining it out later works also. Different dyestuffs take different times to leach out, but that's all there is to it. Let it soak.

Step 3
Mordant the material

The general rule is to do this either before or after dyeing the material. Usually it is done first. The solution will usually pull some stain out of the material if you do it afterwards, making the color a little lighter.
I usually do it both before and after. I don't know if it really helps. It just makes me feel that every stone was turned and every bush beaten

Again, add the mordant to some soft water and then add the material. Boil and stir, soak, stir and let it soak while stirring some more. You want the mordant to soak evenly into every fiber and strand in the material.

Hang the material until it is damp dry.

Step 4
Dye the material

Heat the dyebath. Add the still damp material. Boil and stir, stir and soak, then stir some more. You want every part of the material to get an even stain. Folds and wrinkles will come out a different shade unless you sir every so often to rearrange the cloth in the dyebath.
Different materials take different times to take the dye. Some will take longer, some shorter, but usually the longer it is in the dyebath, the more color is absorbed.

Hang the material out to dry. Hand wash it in soft water (without soap) to remove the majority of the unfixed dye. Hang it back out to dry.

Step 5
Admire your handiwork

You now have a chunk of cloth ready to be tuned into that eyecatching outfit.

I recommend that you get a small notebook and record what you did and for how long for each batch. Every one will turn out just a little different. The notes will help you later when you are trying to duplicate that unique shade that you got last year.

Now that I have you all excited to try some home dyeing, here are a few concoctions to get you started:




Mordant Instructions

Dye Instructions


Onion Skins


1 oz per gallon

Simmer 1/2 hour




Cook in iron pot or add a chunk of iron when making the dyebath

Soak acorns overnight then boil 2-1/2 hours

Simmer cloth 1/2 hour

Light Brown



Dye: 1/4 to 1/2 pound of cheap tea to 5 gal water, boil 1/2 hour

Simmer cloth 1/2 hour

Dark Brown

Walnut Hulls


2 gallon hulls in 5 gal water, boil 1 hour, let set overnight

Simmer cloth 1/2 hour


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If you want to plaver, do so. Hey, jp!