Colorfast vs fugitive dyes

Happy Spring everyone!  I hope everyone is staying well during these very uncertain times.  I've decided to just keep on with my bi-weekly(ish) emails with natural dyeing tips and information, even though such things may seem a little trivial or frivolous with so much going on.  But I also think that folks probably need some content in their day that does NOT relate to the pandemic, so here I am.  I hope you agree, and that this can take your mind off whatever struggles you are facing, if only for a little while.

I recently posted on my Instagram about some naturally dyed Easter eggs that my daughter and I made last year, along with a stories highlight of how we made them.  For many people, dyeing Easter eggs is their first entryway into natural dyeing, and I thought that it was a good time to discuss colourfastness, since most of the "dyes" that people (including myself!) use for colouring Easter eggs, are actually very fugitive, and not suitable for use on other fibres.

Simply put, a fugitive dye is one that does not last.  And a colourfast dye is one that does.  Colourfastness can be further broken down into lightfastness (how well it lasts with exposure to light) and washfastness (how well it lasts with repeated washing).  All dyes, both natural and synthetic, will fade and deteriorate over long periods of time - textiles by nature will eventually even disintegrate completely.  But a fugitive dye is one that lasts for very short periods of time, say a year or less.

Many people, when they begin natural dyeing, are surprised to learn that some common kitchen ingredients which seem like they would make great dyes (I'm looking at you beets!) don't really give colour on fibre at all.  And others will dye fibres in the short term (ie. turmeric), but are not actually very colourfast in the long term.  And some things that you wouldn't expect will yield a relatively colourfast dye - for example, onion skins, whether yellow or red, give a decent and beautiful warm yellow.

Add to this the plethora of "fake news" on the internet, and it's hard to be sure what is suitable to use as a dye.  One of the most popular dyestuffs being used on Instagram and the like is avocado pits - are they colourfast?  Well, no.  But how is one to know that?  And does it matter?

The short answer is that to truly know which dyestuffs are colourfast and which are not, you have to do a test.  The most simple version involves dyeing your fibre, covering part of it, and leaving it out to see if the uncovered part fades in relation to the covered part.  But ideally, you leave it out for months, or even longer.  And for many people, they want more immediate answers.  So my recommendation is to do a little more homework when seeking out recipes and tutorials - maybe don't just follow the advice of the first google result that pops up, but read a few, and look for people who have been working with natural dyes for a long time, or appear somewhat dedicated to it.  You can also just google whether a dye is colourfast or not - there is usually very clear information that comes up quickly.

But the second question is, does it matter?  And to that question there is no short answer.  This part depends on you, your goals, and what you're wanting to dye.  I belong to a natural dyeing facebook group that is a little rabid - if someone even mentions a fugitive dye people jump all over them, furious.  Which I think is a bit much.  On the other hand, there is a lot of dyers out there promoting the use of things like soy milk as mordants, which is great, but in my opinion, you're never going to get a proper colourfast dye this way, so I would only use this method for dyeing certain types of things.

So I think the bigger question is, what am I dyeing, and is it important that it's colourfast?  If I was dyeing fabric to make a quilt, or yarn to knit a sweater, I would personally want to be very certain that the dyes and methods I'm using are very colourfast.  These are heirloom items,  they take a long time to make, you want the colour to last. 

But there are lots of things that you might dye where colourfastness might matter less.  Even something like baby clothes - you wash them a lot, but most of them are only worn for a few months anyways.  If the colour fades, maybe it doesn't matter (and you can also always overdye it).  Want to see if that gorgeous plant you discovered on your walk will yield dye?  Maybe just dye something inexpensive where the colour doesn't matter, like a tote bag.  Again, you can always overdye it.

Finally, this is where the Easter eggs come in. Plain and simple, it just doesn't matter if the colour lasts or not.  So it's a great opportunity to use dyes that might not be suitable on other fibres.  A chance to experiment and play.  Red cabbage for example is a terrible dye on fibre, but great one to experiment with for kids - the colour can be shifted from pink to blue and purple by altering the pH with simple household ingredients such as vinegar and baking soda.  In these days of "homeschooling" during the pandemic, turn it into your science lesson!

If you've made it this far, thanks for sticking with me, and I hope that I was able to shed a little light on this question for you.



If you're looking for things to do while quarantining at home, we're continually adding new items to both of our online shops, including my favourite new kit, which includes everything you need to make this gorgeous baby blanket.  Shipping is free over $60 in our online shop, and if you're shopping from the US, shipping is free over $35 over in our Etsy shop

Be safe everyone, be well.


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