Natural Dyes: A Greener Alternative to the Synthetic Dyes of Yesteryear
Ben Jarmak and Jessie Wood
Contact: and
University of New Hampshire at Manchester


The purpose of our Green Chemistry project is to demonstrate the use of natural dyes verses synthetic dyes to elementary school children. We hope to demonstrate that natural dyes can be just as, if not more, effective than synthetic dyes. Inherent is the notion that natural dyes not only cost less to procure but are less toxic to the environment. Use of less toxic chemicals is just one of the principles of Green Chemistry which this project explores. Our project also makes use of renewable feedstock meaning that in using our methodolgy there is no permanent impact upon environmental resources. Finally our project minimizes hazardous procedures with the most dangerous component being the heating of diluted vinegar. We are looking to determine which materials are the most suitable candidates for natural dyeing. Additionally, we are looking to explore the use of renewable mordants and their effectiveness based on timing.

Please note that it was our original hope to work with Mrs. Nancy McCall, a Chemistry Consultant for grades K-12. Unfortunately due to schedule conlficts this wasn't possible. As such we proceeded by using the guidelines she had originally set forth. As such the simplicity of our experiment can be attributed to the fact that it is intended to be a demonstrative activity for elementary age children.

Plan A: Our initial plan is to use plant alternatives and assess how well they work compared to their synthetic counterparts

Supplies Needed:
Natural Fibers: Cotton and Linen
Synthetic Fibers: Nylon and Polyester
Dyes : Indigo, Cranberries/Cranberry Juice, Spinach Leaves
Mordants: Indigo, Cranberries/Cranberry Juice and Spinach Leaves = Vinegar

To prepare plant dyes, chop plant up into small pieces. Place plants parts in a vat of boiling water. Allow plant parts to boil for at least an hour. Meanwhile, place fabric swatch in its appropriate heated mordant. Allow the swatch to simmer in the mordant for approximately one hour. After an hour remove swatch from mordant and place is vat with the freshly made natural dye. Dye should be removed from heat source at this point. Allow fabric swatch to sit in dye overnight to ensure maximum saturation. Check swatch one day later to see how much color has been retained. To assess how colorfast the natural dye is first rinse swatch with cold water. Then proceed by washing with hot water and liquid laundry detergent.

Chopped up spinach
Spinach being boiled
Spinach dye with fiber swatches submerged

Safety Precautions:

  1. Be sure to wear safety googles when dealing with acid and boiling liquids.
  2. Wear a lab coat to protect skin and clothes from chemical splashes.

Plan B: Our second plan takes a closer look at the use of mordants. More specifically are mordants more effective when the fabric is treated before, during or after dyeing.

  • Please note that due to the success of Plan A we did not have to carry out Plan B.

Supplies Needed:
Natural Fiber: Cotton and Linen
Synthetic Fiber: Nylon and Polyester
Dyes: Cranberries/Cranberry Juice, Spinach Leaves

Preparation of dyes is done in the exact same format as that of Plan A. However, in this experiment we will look at whether when the mordant is added has an impact on the colorfastness and intensity of the dye. Specifically, we will assess whether premordanting, where the swatch is treated prior to dyeing, is more or less effective than if the mordant is added during the dyeing or after the dyeing, respectively known as meta and post mordanting.

Plan C: If neither of the aforementioned plans works we will prepare a power point presentation that explains the differences between synthetic and natural dyes. We will explain the historical significance of dyes in the textile industry. Lastly, we will explain why the textile industry needs to focus on green chemistry incorporating the twelve principles.

Data and Results:

Chart Showing Dye Effectiveness

Swatches of fabric dyed with indigo
Swatches of fabric dyed with spinach

Swatches of fabric dyed with cranberries/cranberry juice

The experiment shows that both cranberry and indigo prove to be superior natural dyes. Both are effective in dyeing both organic and synthetic fabrics. Spinach however is not nearly as efffective. It leaves a mere yellow tint on wool which is telling given that wool has the greatest propensity for dyeing. In home dyeing environment indigo plants and cranberries could be used to dye clothing with little to no environmental impact. This experiment successfully demonstrates that home dyeing is indeed a viable process. However as with all scientific experimentation one's work is never complete. That having been said this experimentt could be changed in several ways. First one could test the minium amount of dye required to gain a vibrant and colorfast sample. Another possibility would be to test how the concentration of each individual dye alters effectiveness. Finally one might consider testing our aforementioned Plan B which looks at whether the timing of mordant use effects the dye.


Home-made plant dyes." The Tearfund International Learning Zone. Web. 05 Oct. 2009. <

"Natural Dyes From Plants - Pioneer Thinking." Welcome to Pioneer Thinking. Web. 05 Oct. 2009. <>.

Source of spinach photo

Source of dye photo

Source of goggle photo