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Levels of perfectly Happy (pH)!

Updated: May 11, 2021

I’m often asked if one of my naturally coloured garments will fade. Well, the news is that pretty much any dyed item will fade over time depending on the amount of sunlight it is exposed to, and the number of times it is washed. Synthetics are no exception. And our NZ sun is harsh remember? So I tend to be more concerned about shifts in colour than I am about fading to be honest.

What is a colour shift? Unlike synthetic dyes which are incredibly stable, many natural dyes are sensitive to pH levels, and can change colour in the presence of acids or alkalis, like those in washing powders. It’s something to do with hydrogen ions where the molecules are seeking to achieve neutrality – they are trying to be perfectly happy!

Colour shifts of madder with alkali (oranges) or acid (peach).

If you are a dyer you will have some understanding of pH during the dye process, especially if you are after particular results. If you’re a buyer, then it may be news to you that this reaction to changes in pH doesn’t magically stop happening once your new garment is dried, ironed and hanging in the wardrobe. Be aware most naturally dyed textiles continue to show sensitivity to changes in alkalinity or acidity during laundering. I’ve done it myself, chucked a wild carrot dyed green dress through the wash cycle with my usual washing powders and found it came out in shades of yellow. Not necessarily awful if you can welcome happy accidents. Not so good if you’ve paid a lot of money for something you fell in love with because of it’s unique colour.

What to do about colour shifts or fading.

Stands to reason, if dyes are sensitive to pH, only ever wash your garment with a detergent that is pH neutral. Keep those hydrogen ions happy. Use either wool washes, baby shampoo or some of the dishwashing liquids. If it’s commercially prepared it should be stated on the label, but get yourself some litmus paper to check if not sure. I use ‘Softly’ bought from the supermarket. Also be aware that ‘eco friendly’ doesn’t mean it isn’t acidic or alkaline.

Courtesy of Boston Public Library

Hand wash, or on the wool cycle of your machine. If you have to do it by hand, well I guess you’ll be tempted to do it less often therefore reducing the risk of fading. Scarves in particular don’t need to be washed often anyway. Besides, machine washing loosens up those fibres which dislodge into the ecosystem and end up in our rivers and oceans. We tend to be more gentle with a hand wash and can recycle the grey water out to the vege garden instead.

Dry it in the shade. Yes it’ll take a bit longer but patience young grasshopper. It’s worth the wait.

Read the washing instructions. If you follow it to the letter and you get a colour shift you can’t live with then at least you have some recourse with the maker.

Washing instructions - a legal requirement.

Right O. Having gotten that sensible stuff out of the way you might want to also........................

Lower your standards. Yep, that’s right. Consistency is not the goal of natural dyeing. Anyone who wants their item to remain uniformly the same over time better brace themselves for a wee disappointment.

Embrace the happy accident. Your avocado dyed salmon pink scarf comes out rust coloured in the wash? So what! – wear it with pride. Pretend you wanted rust coloured all along, and that salmon pink is so last century. Buy a new outfit to match, or gift it to a grateful friend.

Accept mother nature has a life of her own. If she wants to change colour, that’s her miracle. All living things have a natural cycle, plant dyes are no exception. We all started out in life looking a certain way and we’ve all evolved over time to be something completely different. And isn’t that something to be perfectly happy about?


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