Creating Natural & Seasonal Vegetable Dyes

Deepa Natarajan, an anthropologist by training but a colorist at heart, had an epiphany not long ago: many of us are acutely aware of where our food comes from, but we really have no clue about the source of color.

Natarajan’s family hails from South India, and cloth and color are very much part of her family history. Natarajan has always been interested in color, so much so that she now works at the Permacouture Institute, a Berkeley-based nonprofit that explores fashion, textiles, and sustainability, where she spearheads the Seeds to Sew project helping local seed banks tag seeds for fiber and dye plants. The editors of Remodelista recently asked Natarajan to show them how to create natural dyes for dip-dyeing napkins. Here’s what they learned:

Photography by Mimi Giboin for Remodelista.

Above: Natarajan lays out a batch of napkins dyed with ornamental plum leaves to dry.

Above: Natarajan uses leaves from ornamental plum trees (which require about 20 minutes of boiling) to create a purple dye. Cream card stock turns a mauve gray with the same dye.

Above: The editors sourced White Classic Linen Napkins from Sur La Table ( $39.95 for a set of four; currently on sale for $31.96) and dip-dyed them with natural olive leaf dye.

Above: Natarajan soaks the napkins in an alum solution to prepare them for dyeing (she buys the alum in salt form, then dissolves it with water to act as a mordant for the dye). Here, she set up an impromptu workshop in Louesa’s Hayes Valley Flower Shop; she brought a portable gas camping stove to boil pots of water. To make three batches of dye, she used rosemary (eight sprigs, a foot long each), olive leaves, and ornamental plum.

Above: Natarajan uses tall glass vases to dye the napkins and smaller beakers for paper cards (the thicker the paper stock, the better it absorbs the color). The lidded jar on the right contains an iron solution Natarajan makes using rusted objects picked up at yard sales soaked in vinegar; the solution intensifies the colors.

Above: Olive leaves require several hours of boiling to create a strong enough color.

Above: Napkins dyed with the rosemary.

If you’re looking for more ways to naturally dye fabrics, see Remodelista’s posts DIY Hibiscus-Dyed Drop Cloth and Raw Color: Creating the Ultimate Organic Dye.


Alicia N.
Alicia N5 years ago

very beautiful and healthy!

Chinmayee Jog
Chinmayee Jog5 years ago

I love things like this!! Good to see that people are getting more involved in the natural and eco-friendly way of making dyes :)

Spirit Spider
Spirit Spider6 years ago

I love the colour of the natural olive leafdye - beautiful :-)

Les M.
Les M6 years ago

a woman on tv said she dyed her dog pink (her favorite color) with beet juice.

Nils Lunde
PlsNoMessage se6 years ago


Michele Wilkinson

Thank you

Teresa Wlosowicz
Teresa W6 years ago


Robert O.
Robert O6 years ago


Danuta Watola
Danuta W6 years ago

Thanks for the info

Penny C.
penny C6 years ago

Wow,thank you.