The Art Of Natural Dyeing

The Art Of Natural Dyeing

Before there were chemical dyes, people around the world used plants, soil, and insects to extract pigment and dye their cloth. In Asia the art of natural dye is still very much practiced and the artisans instinctively know how to use the materials to shade their cloth the color they want. In West Africa there is still a vibrant tradition of dyeing with indigo and soil.
In Ethiopia, most of the paintings inside churches are still made with natural pigments but the art of tinting fibers naturally has been lost. Today, most Ethiopian artisans work with natural cotton and embellish it with imported, artificial thread that is brightly colored.
When Kathy founded Sabahar in 2004, she was determined to bring back the art of natural dye to Ethiopia. Through the years, Sabahar has been experimenting with different leaves, barks, soils, insects and flowers to see what kind of colors we can create. Just last year, we found that Annatto grows in southern Ethiopia and now have a range of bright oranges that we didn’t have previously. 

Natural dyes are sensitive and often one pot of color will turn out differently than another, even though the ingredients are exactly the same. Chane has been in charge of our natural dyes for about a year now and he is getting more and more confident with the recipes needed in order to achieve a wide palette of color.
We still reserve our natural dyes for silk. Silks already need to be washed by hand, as do naturally dyed products, so it isn’t an added burden for our customers.
The beauty of natural dyes is that each country and even each expert will have a repertoire of color that is different from his or her neighbor. At Sabahar, we primarily use the natural products we find in Ethiopia but we do sometimes use imported natural dyes to achieve colors hard to get without those particular dyes.
Here is a little introduction to our world of natural dye at Sabahar.



Annatto is the seed of the Achiote tree. It is used not only as a dye for cloth but also in medicine and in foods. We source our annatto from Arba Minch in southern Ethiopia. It is an intense dye that tints our silks in colors ranging from bright yellow to deep orange. 


Cochineal, or Dactylopius Coccus, is a scale insect that lives on cactus and eats the cactus fruit. The insects produce carminic acid, which makes a fantastic red dye.  Cochineal was introduced into northern Ethiopia in 2000 as a form of red dye. However, the insect spread and became a pest. It is actually very invasive and can easily kill the cactus plants. Cochineal currently lives on cactus all over northern Ethiopia. The government wants to eradicate the bug because it is killing cactus, the number one food source for the dromedaries in the region.

Cochineal is considered the safest red dye in the world. Even today, many sausages and liqueurs are tinted with cochineal. Your Starbucks Frapuccino was also colored with cochineal! We use it to dye or silk a range of pinks, reds and purples, dependent on the mordant and the concentration of the dye used.


Ethiopia is the birth place of coffee so, of course, we use it as a dye.  Coffee changes our silks into gold, sage or beige.


Rusty nails are an easy natural dye as one finds them abundantly! The rusted iron turns fabric a variety of shades of grey and silver. The darker shades are made with higher concentrations of iron, while the light greys require just a small amount.


Haematoxylum campechianum or Logwood is a flowering tree native to Central America. Sadly it doesn't grow in Ethiopia so we import it from Brazil. The wood of the tree is boiled and, depending on the pH of the mordant, turns silks anywhere from purple to navy blue. 


Madder, or Rubia tinctorum, is a perennial herb. This is a very popular dye in India. The roots are dried and crushed into powder and can then be used for years. We import our madder from India as it does not grow in Ethiopia. The color that madder turns cloth ranges from a very light, soft yellow to an intense coral. 


Marigolds, or Tagetes, are flowers that grow abundantly in Ethiopia. The flowers are rich in the orange-yellow carotenoid lutein, the natural substance that is used to dye all sorts of things. Did you know that marigolds are used as food color in margarine, mayonnaise, ice cream and much more?

At Sabahar we use the marigolds to dye our silks a range of color from yellow to orange.  As they grown abundantly and throughout the year in Ethiopia, it is easy to obtain these natural dyes. 

Onion Skin

Onion skin is always such a surprise for people. We use the purple outer skins of the local onions to make different shades of green, from olive to sage.  Onion skin makes beautiful colors but is not a very stable dye. The shades vary significantly from one pot to another.

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