Clare Marie Schneider/NPR
Avocado pits or onion skins are all you need to give an old t-shirt new life — and rethink your waste. Eliza Wapner of Lil Bits Cloth, a friend of Life Kit who uses plant-based dying practices to hand-make garments, says it’s all about “rediscovering what’s around you and what is already in your environment and turning that into an artistic practice.” We’re all about starting a new hobby, so we asked Wapner to walk us through a dye recipe that uses basic household items such as laundry detergent and avocado skins and pits (or onion skins).
While using food items to dye clothing takes patience and time, “This project is just about experimenting and having fun and giving your shirt a new life,” says Wapner. Think of it as an at-home science experiment that results in a new article of clothing.
- White t-shirt. Any old t-shirt will do, just make sure it’s made of mostly (90% or above) natural fibers — think cotton, linen, silk or wool
- 3-6 avocado pits and skins or 6-10 onion skins
- Large pot (big enough so your shit can float in the water)
- Laundry detergent or any clear unscented soap
- *Soda ash (sold at drug stores and grocery stores as laundry detergent)
- Metal or plastic utensil for stirring
- *Alum (often found in the spices section at grocery stores)
- *White Vinegar
*Note: If you don’t have access to vinegar, alum and soda ash, Wapner says that your shirt will still take the dye, it just might not be as strong a color. If you do use them to perform step 4, it will make a brighter colored shirt and help the dye last longer.
Step 1: Fill your pot with water and add ¼ teaspoon laundry detergent (or neutral soap) and ⅛ of a cup of soda ash. Bring the water to a boil and submerge your clean, dry t-shirt in the water. Turn the heat down to a simmer.
Again, make sure you have a big pot. You don’t want your shirt to stay in one position — you want the laundry detergent and soda ash to fully and evenly permeate the fabric.
Step 2: Stir your shirt constantly for the first two minutes, and then every 10 minutes for one hour.
You might notice that the water turns a yellow color — that’s okay! Wapner says that during the clothing manufacturing process, different waxes, spinning materials and oils can get onto your shirt. This step will help clean your shirt as thoroughly as possible to remove any “color-shifters” so that when you apply the onion skins or avocado, the shirt will take the dye evenly.
More resources for natural dyeing practices:
Step 3: Remove your shirt from the pot of water. Wring out your shirt and let it dry.
Step 4 [Optional]: For a size medium to large t-shirt, pour 600 g vinegar, 60 g alum and 30 g soda ash into your pot. If your shirt is bigger or smaller, adjust accordingly — the ratio is 10:1:.5. Dip your dry shirt into the pot and make sure it’s fully saturated. Gently squeeze out the shirt and hang to dry.
Step 5: Start building your dye bath. Place your avocado pits and skins or onion skins in the pot and fill with water. Bring to a boil and turn down the heat to a simmer. Let simmer for one hour. Your water should change color: If you’re using avocado, the water should be a reddish-pink color. If you’re using onion skins, it should turn an orangish-yellow color. After an hour, turn off the heat and let your dye bath sit overnight (letting it sit overnight will create a brighter dye.)
Step 6: The next day, remove the onion or avocado from the dye water.
Step 7: Roll up your shirt and take a few rubber bands and tie them around your shirt spaced about 6 inches apart from each other.
The pressure from the rubber bands will keep the dye off of the shirt in those places, creating a pattern on the shirt. There are tutorials online that use clothespins, string, and other materials to make designs and patterns with dye.
Step 8: Bring your dye bath back to a boil. While you’re waiting for the dye to come to a boil, fill a separate pot with water, and submerge your shirt in the water. This will help your shirt take the dye evenly when you submerge it in the dye bath.
Step 9: Once the dye is boiling, wring out the excess water from the shirt and place it in the dye bath. Again, stir the shirt constantly for two minutes. Stir the shirt every 10 minutes for the next hour.
Step 10: Remove the shirt from the dye bath. (Wapner says the shirt will look more pigmented when it’s wet and will dry about two shades lighter). Rinse in water or with a bit of laundry detergent and let your shirt air-dry.
Dye instructions courtesy of Eliza Wapner, founder of Lil Bits Cloth.
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