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Solar Dyeing: A Low Impact Way To Dye

It’s no secret that I’m fascinated with natural dyeing and have a strong desire to make my life and work more sustainable – this desire being the driving force behind why I set this business up. However, dyeing uses a lot of resources, so it’s nice to find an option which lowers your impact. This is where solar dyeing comes in.

There are of course several ways to lower your impact when dyeing yarns and fabrics – solar dyeing is just one of these. If you’re able to, you could install a water butt and harvest rainwater to use when scouring, dyeing and washing your fabrics and yarns. Perhaps you have a compost bin in which you can compost your dyestuffs when they’re spent. Sadly I have neither of these options at home (the closest I have is a garden/food waste bin). However, I can save energy and use less fossil fuels by choosing to harness the power of the sun for my dyeing experiments.

Solar dyeing doesn't require much - just a jar for you to dye in and a well lit area to leave it in
I started my dyes off on a warm, sunny day in my backgarden before bringing them inside and leaving them on the kitchen windowsill for 4 days. L-R: Rose petals, Quebracho rojo extract, Dyer's chamomile flowerheads

How solar dyeing has a lower impact

My cooker at home is a dual fuel one, meaning the ovens and grill are electric but the hob is gas powered. Since all the heating required for dyeing is done using the hob, my hobby thus far has a much larger carbon footprint than I would like.

Solar dyeing removes the reliance on my hob. I simply need some free space – either in a windowsill or the garden – which gets a lot of daylight and some glass jars to dye in. You can use extracts, dried or fresh dyestuffs in the jars and it’s an all-in-one bath, meaning the yarn goes in at the same time as the dyestuff. You can even mordant your yarn at the same time, again removing reliance on mordanting yarn using a hob, or add colour modifiers if you wish. The best part is that you don’t even need full sun to dye with this method, so if you have a north-facing window or you want to dye during the dead of winter, you still can, it just might take a little longer for the colours to develop.

Solar dyeing in summer is faster than in winter for two main reasons: longer daylight hours and better overall weather. The reason behind this is the real power behind solar dyeing is daylight itself, or more accurately the ultraviolet rays in daylight. UV light from the sun is present everyday, we just hear about it more on clear, bright days because clouds filter a lot of it out. UV light has a very short wavelength, so when it’s refracted through glass and passes through water, it is more likely to bump into more glass and water molecules than light with a longer wavelength. When it does bump into molecules, that causes an energy transfer in the form of heat – and so you heat up the water little by little.

Results from solar dyeing with dyer's chamomile
Here's the colour my dyer's chamomile produced in just four days - not bad considering I used just 40% the weight of my fibre

Taking the slow approach

In order to have a lower impact and utilise the free energy provided by daylight, solar dyeing does take much longer than regular dyeing. Where it might take an hour to extract colour from your dyestuff and then another 30 mins to dye your yarn or fabric using a hob, it could take a week, month or even longer to achieve the same colour extraction using daylight. This can be frustrating if you want results fast, but it does free up your time to do something else while dyeing takes place.

I haven’t had the time to really do any dyeing this year because it usually means me spending half a day or more babysitting mordants and dyes on my hob. Setting up a jar for solar dyeing, on the other hand, only takes a few minutes and then I can go and do something else entirely. I’m inclined to use this method for mordanting too – having a jar or two set up purely to mordant yarns that can then be put into dyeing jars would both remove my reliance on my gas hob and free up even more of my time. As I’ve got a lot going on right now, I’d call that a win-win; I can continue learning to dye and progressing towards my goal of selling my own naturally dyed yarns and threads without having to try and squeeze dyeing time in.

Eventually – perhaps when I feel ready to start selling my own yarns and threads – I think I’d like to have a small greenhouse in my back garden, which is west-facing and therefore gets a lot of sunlight. I could then have multiple jars dyeing and mordanting at the same time – plus the greenhouse would keep in heat, helping to speed up the dyeing process. For now though, I’ve only got a few glass jars, so I’m happy to keep using my windowsills.