Coffee as a Natural Dye
Coffee is a natural dye, though it is used very infrequently any more for this purpose. However, it is perfect for creating an artificial antique or aged effect. In this article, I'll describe my recent use of coffee to dye a feather and a cotton shirt in order to achieve an aged effect.
Dying an Ostrich Feather
You may never have a need to do this in your lifetime, but if you do this information will come in handy. Ostrich feathers are easy to purchase, but they may not be available in the color that you need. For example, I needed ostrich feathers to decorate a hat. I wanted a natural ecru/beige color. I couldn't find natural color ostrich feathers. All of the ones that were commercially available were either bleached a stark white color, or were already dyed bright jewel tones. So I purchased the stark white feather and set out to return it to a more natural color.
Dying the feather
The feather dyed
- Make enough double-strength coffee to cover the bottom portion of a bowl. Ideally, the bowl should be as long as the feather, but if you don't have one that is as long, the feather can be dyed in portions.
- Unlike fabric, feathers don't need to be pre-wetted prior to the dye bath. Simply submerge the feather (or a portion of it) in the bath long enough for it to pick up the color. The feather will dry a slightly lighter color than what you see in the bowl, so adjust your dying time accordingly. For example, since I wanted an ecru color, I submerged the feather portions for about 5 minutes.
- Use a hair dryer on low heat, low velocity to dry the feather. If you do not use a hair dryer, the feather will not resume its fluffy quality.
Dying Natural Fabric
Natural fabrics, such as cotton, hemp, and wool accept a natural dye. Man made fabrics do not work well with natural dye. Considering the color that you'll achieve with a coffee dye, this is not the dying method that you should choose if you want a deep, chocolate color. The maximum color change for a stark white fabric is a sienna color. What coffee dyes are used for commonly now is to give fabric an aged look. Some people describe coffee-dyed fabric to have a mellowed appearance.
White Cottom Shirt Before and After Being Dyed With Coffee
- Collect a few days worth of discarded coffee grounds, so that you have about 1-2 cups of coffee grounds. In general, the darker the roast and the more quantity, the darker the dye. Makes sense: dark = dark. My ratios were 1 cup of spent coffee grounds for 1 gallon of water.
- Add water and coffee to a large pot of water. Bring the water to a boil. Then turn off the flame and let the coffee mixture steep.
- Thoroughly wet the fabric that will be dyed. Wet fabric accepts dye better than dry fabric.
- At this point you can make a decision. If you want to shrink your fabric, you can decide to add your fabric to the hot water, otherwise let the coffee mixture cool down to room temperature.
- Decision #2: You can strain the coffee grounds, or leave the coffee grounds in the solution. If you are trying for a deep color, I suggest keeping the grounds.
- When the mixture is cool, submerge the fabric in the coffee dye solution. Stir occasionally to ensure that the fabric is dyed evenly.
- The fabric can be left in the dye anywhere from 5 minutes to overnight, depending on the desired color. Keep in mind, however, that the color outcome is partially determined by the color of the solution, not merely the amount of time that the fabric was in the solution. The final color will always be about two shades lighter when the fabric is dry.
- Set the dye by one of the following methods, then let the dye set for about 15 minutes.
- Add two teaspoons of alum to the solution.
- Add two tablespoons of vinegar to the solution.
- Add soda ash to the solution (follow the instructions on the package).
One final word of advice: I strongly recommend dying only virgin fabric. Virgin fabric is fabric that has never been worn. Once the fabric has come into contact with body oils, it will not accept the dye evenly.
Published: August 2003, Last Modified: January 2013