When you cook beets, the water turns such a deep, rich red that novice dyers assume that beets will make a good dye. Many times I have received emails from people wanting to know why their beet coloring is washing right out of their cotton. It's such a pretty red, it has to be a good dye!
The thing is, a dye must have two properties: a good color and the ability to bond to the fiber.
My son Will, who is in middle school, recently investigated this as part of his 2006 science fair project. He puréed a pound of beets in a food processor and boiled them for an hour in enough water to cover them. He then boiled swatches of fabric (one of which had been pre-mordanted with alum) in two beets dyebaths, and allowed it to cool overnight. (He used glass canning jars for his individual dyebaths so he could boil several in one pot.) The really neat thing is that he used a multi-fiber test ribbon from TestFabrics, Inc, so he tested thirteen different fibers at once. Here are his results (note that the left swatch is unmordanted, the middle swatch is undyed to use as a control, and the swatch on the right was pre-mordanted with alum):
The fibers are, from top to bottom:
- bleached cotton
- Creslan® acrylic
- Dacron® 54 polyester
- Dacron® 64 polyester
- nylon 66
- Orlon® acrylic
- spun silk
- polypropylene (polyolefin)
- viscose rayon
- worsted wool
The first amazing thing is that beets do not produce a red color on any fiber! Beets can be used as a soluble red food coloring, but they simply do not make a red textile dye.
Only on wool did beets work at all well, producing a yellowish tan. The color is better with the alum pre-mordanting (the swatch on the right). Note that an air bubble caused lighter dyeing in the lower lef tof the mordanted swatch. Silk with mordanting produced a decent khaki. Only thing is, we used a HUGE amount of beets to get this much dyeing! 450 grams (one pound) of beets is an awful lot of dye for two little tiny 13-gram swatches of fabric. Normally you use equal quantitites of dyestuff to fabric, for most natural dyes.
There are many good natural dyes, but randomly-chosen natural materials do not necessarily dye well, or even dye at all. Beets make a poor dye at best.
Do you have any stories about attempts at dyeing with substances that don't make good dyes? Did you ever try to dye with beets?