Dye tip #1: Experimentation

Even though dyeing is at the heart of everything we do at AMMA, (100% of our fabrics are dyed from plants, food waste and flowers.) I have stayed clear of writing about it. This is for a few reasons, the main one being that we are still learning and perfecting our process. Many of you have followed the AMMA journey since the early days where I felt like social media made us look a lot more confident than we actually were.

Introducing natural dye to Nuwara Eliya has been a tough battle, working with two mothers (with a language barrier) in a damp garage surrounded by hundreds of moldy avocado stones made me think we made the wrong choice. Trying to explain to customers why we couldn’t do what they were asking, or why a colour has come out a different shade or why our products are so much more expensive made me want to give up.

This has also made me very protective about our process. It has just taken so much time, work and pain to get to where we are. Although there is a definite trend back to using natural dyes and Instagram is crowded with women and men dyeing from their kitchen or garden shed. AMMA is trying to make that jump to introducing bigger batch production of naturally dyed products. This means we have a lot to consider, like where and how do we collect, grow and buy our dyestuff? How do we increase in scale from dyeing 2m lengths of fabric to 4m then 10m? Our minds are always ticking. 

Natural dye vat, artisans dyeing in our workshop in Sri Lanka Dyeing with plants in our workshop, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka Dyeing with plants in our workshop, Nuwara Eliya Sri Lanka Natural Dye colour swatches 


We hit a big milestone recently which I thought we would never reach. Finally the daily dyeing has been handed over to a couple of AMMA’s. I am no longer weighing out leaves or boiling up onion skins, I am sitting behind my computer telling you about it instead. The reality of this really hit me when i returned back to Sri Lanka from Christmas in the UK. I was stunned by the beautiful rich blues coming out of the indigo vat along with the consistency of blush pink from the avocado stones. It made me realise that finding two women who are enchanted by the dye process, in which their job is to get a good blue makes all the difference. 

dye tip #1 : experiment

The books don’t teach you much.

They are great for inspiration, pretty pictures and helping you to get a grasp on the basics, but natural dyeing is so subjective to your direct environment (water quality in particular). I have books written by women living in Australia, UK and USA all of which have not been very helpful in achieving colour from plants in Sri Lanka. They have been great at showing me what is possible elsewhere in the world using local plants derived from that area but I can’t remember the last time I looked at one to help me solve a dye problem here. 

Naturally dyed fabric, dyed by mothers in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

The only and best way is to start by experimenting with something easy and readily available like onion skins or tea. Gather scraps of natural fibres, and before adding anything fancy like a mordant just boil the dyestuff up. Immerse the fabric and see what colours you get. Stick the fabric swatch in a notebook, write down what you did and move on. Try with a different water source, try leaving the fabric in for varied amounts of time, then try using household items as mordants like table salt or vinegar, this will also alter the colour.

I have not been methodical in my approach to dyeing, rarely taking notes. I have fabric scraps everywhere and rely too much on my memory. However this is the method I am teaching to the team at AMMA. Record your findings. They are precious, unique to your area and impossible to replicate without a recipe.