DIY: Naturally Dying a Shirt

tl;dr: I tried to naturally dye a stained shirt (with mediocre results).

I do my best to take care of my clothes. The bane of my existence is white shirts. Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em–I like the way white shirts look and they’re a closet staple, but they get dirty way too easily.

So recently while I was in Mosi Oa Tunya (aka Victoria Falls) Zimbabwe, I mistakenly wore a white shirt to the national park around the falls–a beautiful area with a view and an environment like that of a rainforest.


This was a mistake. In hindsight, I should have brought along my bar of laundry soap (highly recommend–mine is some random Chinese one I bought in Nanjing, but Fels-Naptha works), but instead I let the stains from running around the national park set in my clothes as it dried, making them much more difficult to get out later.

I was able to get out all the dirt/etc. stains, but not a few yellow dots that were (I think) the secretions of a ladybug that had somehow fallen in my pocket (which I discovered and put back in its proper home), or maybe from some plant. I even took it to the cleaners, bleached it, everything–nothing would remove the stains. So I thought I would try dyeing the shirt a light brown/tan color, which would maybe allow the spots to disappear by being dyed themselves and matching the surrounding colors.

I didn’t want to buy dye, either, and I thought it would be fun to see if I could naturally dye my shirt. This was a fun experiment, but with unfortunately mediocre results.

I followed this guideline for natural dying. I first boiled the white shirt in a pot of water and salt, which would break down the material so that the dye would “stick” to it better. I left it simmering for an hour while I went about other household tasks.

Next was the sort of gross step of mixing plant matter with water and putting my shirt in too, which made a very interesting sort of shirt-stew. I put in a bunch of coffee grounds and a full package of some old loose leaf tea that I knew I was never going to drink. I also chopped up the green part of some bok choy leaves (instacart brought me the wrong kind–who even eats the big version? Baby bok choy ftw). I threw all of this in, brought it to a boil, and let my shirt sit in that for another hour.

All the veg cookin’…
veg and shirt.jpg
My shirt’s in there :O

Next, when I tried to examine the shirt it seemed like the color was a little uneven. I also noticed these strange black spots on it–weird! It looked almost like Sharpie stains. I left my shirt in the pot overnight and well into the next day (not heated) to see if that would help at all.

Washing all the coffee grounds out of my shirt was by far the most obnoxious and tedious task. It took many rinses in the sink and then a few in my bathtub, and there was still some specks left–I let it dry in the hope that I could just shake it out afterwards.

the coffee grinds and loose leaf tea really stuck to the fabric

But when my shirt dried, the color was actually quite beautiful!!


…except for some minor defects…


I have a few different theories about why parts of my shirt look like they’ve been stained with coffee (which technically they have) and why those black dots appeared.

Remember when I had to boil the shirt in salt to prepare it for dye? I have a feeling that the harsh chemicals I used to try to remove the stain in the first place (and any the cleaners might have used) were also a way to break down the natural fiber, so the dye “stuck” to those areas better. All the areas where there were darker stains or uneven colors were ones where I had used stain remover or bleach, or simply areas around my arms where I sweat (gross, I know). When I examined the black dots later, I realized they were generally in the same place as the stains from before. So whatever that ladybug secretion was, maybe it was a really harsh agent in itself and the dye just stuck really, really well there (I also used multiple stain treatments on those spots and the cleaners might have too) so well that it looks black.

But the non-weird parts have a really nice rich tan that comes across even better in person.

Some takeaways: clearly, properly treating the shirt with salt, vinegar, or other pre-treatments is really important, and I was in some ways too lenient with that step (only boiled in salt for an hour instead of other more intense methods) but also too harsh (the stain removing treatments on those individual spots). I think this technique might work better on a fresh, unworn shirt or something like a scarf where it’s less important that the color is even. I kind of learned some fake chemistry though so that was cool.

Now, I don’t know what I should do with this shirt. Should I try and draw a pattern on it? My roommate suggested splatter-painting. Another friend suggested just wearing it under other clothes so that the stained portions are hidden. I’ve invested too much energy into this piece to just donate it or throw it away now, help…

Let me know your creative thoughts!

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