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Dyeing with Red Cabbage & Tea

red cabbage dye

If you listened to my interview with the lovely Lara Neel, you might remember me mentioning that I have been trying to convince my parents to go into hand-dyeing in their (impending) retirement. Well, today I tried hand-dyeing myself for the first time, and I now have an increased admiration for dyers and a better understanding of why those gorgeous skeins command such a high price.

red cabbage

I hadn’t tried dyeing before because I thought it required lots of extra equipment and careful measuring. Then I came across this etsy video which made it look sooo easy (not to mention that the resulting lavender is one of my favourite colours) that I had to try it right away. Since you’re only using regular foodstuffs, you don’t need special pans or protective gear. I picked up a red cabbage at the supermarket and found myself on Saturday morning getting ready for a morning of dyeing. Well, that morning turned into two days of boiling, rinsing, waiting, and blow drying, but it was all great fun.

boiling cabbage

So first of all I chopped up one whole red cabbage as small as I could, and boiled it with 2 tablespoons of salt for 30mins. Purple fingers, once again!

purple fingers

Meanwhile I let the yarn sit in a warm bowl of water, as instructed. The yarn is the lace/fingering-weight cotton I bought at the seaside this summer.

soaking yarn

I didn’t use any mordants. I had considered using lemon juice, as that’s what I mix in with the henna for my hair, but apparently that’s only for animal fibres, whereas plant fibres like cotton and silk require an alkaline mordant (so says one commenter, anyway!). As for cream of tartar or alum, I have little idea of what they are or where I can get them in Turkey. So alas, no mordant.

mmm cabbage juice!

After 30mins I strained the cabbage, leaving the purple cabbage juice in the pan. I felt a bit bad throwing all that cabbage away, but I didn’t know what I could do with a colander full of too-salty cabbage. :/

red cabbage

So once I brought the pan up to boil again, I added the soaked yarn and boiled it for nearly an hour. I prodded and turned the yarn around every so often to make sure it was thoroughly soaked. The pan got rather short on water around 30mins in, so I boiled some more water in the kettle and poured it in.

red cabbage dye

The yarn looked a delicious pinky purple in the water, but when I pulled it out it was a pale lavender.

red cabbage dye

red cabbage dye

Then came the most exciting part! Having read this cool KnitPicks article the day before I had divided my large hank into 3: 1 big part that would remain lilac, 1 smaller part that would be over-dyed green, and one tiny “transitional” part that I was going to try to make a lighter green. A little ambitious, I know…

cotton yarn dyed in red cabbage

Having fished out my hank, I added a packet of baking powder to the pot. It fizzled and looked a bit green, but when I dipped the spoon in it was still quite purple. So I drained some of the liquid away, and added another packet. Then I brought it up to boil and voila, green! Excitement!

cotton yarn dyed in red cabbage

So I placed my small hank in, and left it to boil for about 30mins. I could have left it longer, but most of the water had evaporated and I didn’t want to add any more in case I lightened the colour. The smallest hank I dipped in and drew out immediately. It turned a very pretty light teal colour.

cotton yarn dyed in red cabbage

cotton yarn dyed in tea

Since I had quite a bit of the dye liquids left over, I couldn’t resist one last experiment. I brewed some very strong Turkish tea in a small saucepan and popped another hank in for about 40mins. It turned a lovely tan colour. I used loose tea, and some of it got past my strainer, but it wasn’t a big deal. I just gave it a good shake when it was a little dryer, and most of the tea leaves fell out.

cotton yarn dyed in tea
cotton yarn dyed in tea

I wanted to try some yarn painting, so I lay my hank out on a piece of aluminium foil and dripped pools of the red cabbage + baking powder mixture over it.

yarn painting

It looked really pretty at this stage, so I dried it with a hair dryer to try and keep the colours from moving too much. That didn’t work, unfortunately, the green and tea-colour merged together and I ended up with this semi-solid colour, with streaks of dull green and somehow also purple! It’s very subtle but I love the way it looks. In the end it’ll be easier to knit into a pattern than the splotchy brown/green would have been.

The final result:

tea + “green cabbage”:
dyeing cotton with tea + red cabbage

green cabbage on the left, red cabbage on the right (all still damp). The streaks of dark colour are from fibres that were touching the side of the hot pan. Interesting, no?
dyeing cotton with red cabbage

Strangely the hank with the red cabbage turned from a pale blue when damp, to a pretty pale lavender, with streaks of green, when dry. The green didn’t change in hue, and in fact there’s hardly any difference between the hank I dipped in & pulled out, and the one I left to boil for half an hour! Also, the baking powder’s made the green yarn a bit “crunchy”. Hopefully another rinse in some Eucalan will soften it up once more.
cotton dyed with red cabbage

Not quite up to The Natural Dye Studio, but I’m pleased with my first attempt. :) How colourfast they will be, I don’t know. I’m going to swatch & wash the yarn soon, and I’ll blog about my results. Hopefully I can make a nice shawl out of my first hand-dyed yarn.

other resources you might like to check out

27th September, 2011  // Technique, Yarn // tags: , , .


  1. Julie says:

    wow, that looks incredible!! I guess it is a lot of work. I’ve thought about doing something similar, but I guess I’ll need to clear my schedule first.

  2. Martha Joy says:

    Wow, those look lovely. I really hope they stay in. I dyed an used woolen shirt with beetroot once, that did not stay in very well at all. Ended up a muted light brown with red notes. Also, I dyed a whiteish childrens balaclava hat with turmeric. That ended up a lovely yellow. But the grey parts near the face stayed darker, so it still looks dirty, hah. Been used by two kids for more than four winters, so I find that acceptable.

    A trick I often use when I wonder what a word is in another language is looking up what I want on english wikipedia ( and then clicking on another language in the lefthand menu. There wasn’t very much information on the turkish page for alum, but it gave me the name, at least: Şap (bileşik)

    It’s fascinating how dyestuff changes with acidity. I want to experiment more, but I don’t really have the time for it. I also have more yarn in my stash than I can hope to knit up in a year, so I’d better stay with clothes if I do venture into it more…

    • laylock says:

      Yes, I have a feeling it will fade, if not at first, then with subsequent washes. & thanks for the great tip! I’d looked up “alum” & “cream of tartar” in the dictionary, but I would never have thought of using Wikipedia to translate. Genius! :)

  3. Al says:

    This is great! Well done. xx
    (have you tried organic red cabbage…)

  4. Melynda says:

    Wow- those colors are so beautiful. I love how muted and subtle they are.

    • laylock says:

      Thanks, Melynda! :) I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the lovely colours too. Hopefully they’ll stick. I’m working on winding the hank so that I can begin swatching. I don’t know how I always end up with a tangle, no matter how carefully I tie it up…

  5. Vivianne says:

    Such a shame the color didn’t stay that rich purple ….cream of tartar should be in a small pot, in the home baking section of the supermarket – even in Turkey ;-)

  6. Jessica says:

    The color variations in your dyeing are lovely!

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  9. sharon says:

    This is so cool, you’ve inspired me to definitely experiment with this method!! I have some white handspun that I am practicing spinning with, and I think it will be so fun to die it and see just how unique I can make it.

    • laylock says:

      I do hope you try it out! Make sure you experiment with a small sample first though, especially if you’re working with wool! :)

  10. Jay says:

    If you have left over too-salty cabbage, you can always make a simple sauerkraut by lacto-fermenting the cabbage.

    Basically, cover it with brine (less brine-y because it’s already salted), and leave it till it’s ‘ripe’ enough. Easy!

  11. Maria says:

    I tried using the peel of a purple potato but it did not work for me because I did not add any mordant to it. The color did not permanently stain my cotton threads. But it was fun though :).

  12. Jess says:

    Ok… I have to know if your colors held up? I adore the more muted colors here! Great job!

  13. PeteJustPete says:

    I am curious as well to know if the purple has lasted 3 years!

  14. Lina says:

    I like your teal coloured yarn.

    I’ve also made some dye experiments with red cabbage and iron liquor as mordant. My fabric turned blue.

  15. Melissa says:

    To answer your comment about what alum and cream of tarter are: you can find them in the spice section of the supermarket, usually. I personally just use white vinegar as a mordant when I do my dyeing and it’s a good way to keep the colour though I have noticed that it brightens things up. the alum and the cream of tarter are good to mute colours so maybe an experiment is due? another good one to use for muting colour would be apple cider vinegar, wood ash also works well for muting the colours. And yet another one to use as a good mordant would be a copper wash; which is one cup white vinegar, one handful of rusty small metal pieces like machine washers and nuts/bolts and then about 2 cups warm water. put all this in a mason jar, cover and let age a week in dark cool place. good luck with your dyeing.
    p.s. the wood ash is mixed with about 2-3 cups water for every 2-3 tblsp. ash and can be used as a pre-wash meaning that you wash your yarn in this then dye it and then set it.

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