Sunday, October 17, 2010

Natural Dye Lab 1 - Creating Dark Brown/ Black from Acorns

I love using nature to create my different types of artwork. Of course I could go to the store and buy a box of Rit dye, but where is the fun in that?  I'm going to show you how you can make a gorgeous brown dye from acorns and a few household items.

You need:
50-100 acorns
white vinegar
steel wool
cheesecloth for straining
gloves or you'll get dark brown fingernails (like I got :P )

I have a project I'm working on that requires a very dark brown, almost black dye so I first need to have a mixture of rusty vinegar. For best results make this up a few days before you need it.  You can measure about 2 cups of white vinegar and place about a cotton ball sized piece of steel wool. Let this sit for a few days until a rusty color begins to develop.

Next gather about 50-100 acorns. I used live oak acorns which are a gorgeous dark brown.
As you can see I've included some green acorns and some turkey oak acorns. I don't believe it really matters how dark or light the acorns are.  Put them in a pot and cover with water, then bring to a boil. Keep an eye on the pot, you may need to add more water if it gets low. The water will turn a very dark brown, a little darker than coffee. 

I added a strip of muslin to the  mix to see how dark it was getting.  When it turned a deep caramel shade quickly I felt it was ready to strain. The acorns release a powder, which if you use unstrained  it can add a mottled effect which may not be desired.  Strain with dampened cheesecloth (I used coffee filters).

For items that you want a nice nut brown: place in the "vat" of the strained acorn "juice" until you get the shade you desire.  The longer you leave it the darker it gets.  The heat setting process will depend on what you are dying.  For silk chiffon, removed the cloth from the dye bath and gently squeezed most of the liquid out and placed in a microwave safe bowl. I heated it in the microwave for 30 seconds, checked the fabric and then nuked it for another 30 seconds. I did this because I wanted to try and preserve as much of the dark color as I could.  It is not necessary to do this.

I had separated my brown dye into 2 containers, 1 to remain brown, the other to take one step further.  *Note this step does cause a chemical reaction so it is best to do in a well-ventilated area away from small children.  I added some of the "rusty water" to the 2nd container of brown dye. Almost instantly you can see it turning black.  It does bubble a bit so be careful not to add too much at once.  This becomes a very dark blackish dye. For quick dyeing you will get a gray shade, for darker colors leave longer.

These dyes can be used for a variety of natural items: bone or shell beads, quills,leather, gourds, fibers, wool, silk, cotton, rayon. They will not be as effective on man-made materials.

After dyeing I rinsed my silk until the water stayed clean. Then I hung it up to dry.

The silk scarf was first dyed in the "black" then I went back and gave it a dip in the "brown". It is a very deep chocolate shade.

The above sample pieces are wool, and two strips of muslin. These were dipped very quickly (less than 30 seconds) and maintained this shade of brown.

So imagine how fun it would be on your next Etsy listing, to say "I dyed this______ myself, with dyes extracted from real acorns!".  Definitely a plus for any acorn loving prospective buyer!

Stay tuned for the next Natural Dye Lab experiment! Will be researching a way to create my favorite green!


  1. Looks like Nutella! Great job explaining a very useful and eco friendly technique!