Cabbage Dyes: Are they all they’re cracked up to be? (Part 1 of 3)

The more I have learned about the nature of dyes and the impermanence of fugitive dyes the more I have strayed from things like red cabbage as the source of reliable colorants for my embroidery threads and fabrics. Despite my trepidation, I decided to give it a go – curse you Pinterest!!!  In this 3 part series I’ll share with you what I did, what I learned, and the results I achieved.


In the first post on this topic, I’ll share some information about cabbage dye, some links to resources for those who want to learn more, and an overview of the process I used in my own personal exploration of the concept based on online information.

First – what are fugitive dyes and why does this matter when considering cabbage dyes?

Fugitive dyes don’t really bind to fiber and thus slowly leach away due to external conditions (sun, washing, etc.). They are more likely to bleed and fade and so are really not that ideal for creating art work that is intended to withstand the test of time. A lot of colors can be better bound to the fiber with the addition of a mordant like alum or (as a natural alternative) soy milk – these dyes are called adjective dyes. Some natural dyes are quite permanent so there are plenty of more stable options out there if this is something you are concerned about.

Despite my hesitation with dye stability, my husband has been encouraging me to experiment with cabbage dyes as the shifting PH provides a spectrum of color that is quite enchanting. I’ll admit – after a few searches on Pinterest it is hard not to be swayed with the promises of vibrant pinks and peaceful teals.

To provide a basis for exploration, there are some great articles about basic dying principles with onion and tea in addition to cabbage as well as blog posts that try to relate specifically to how to alter the pH of red cabbage to achieve different colors. There are also numerous options online for assistance so it is easy to get started without purchasing a special book.

An overview of how I dyed cotton fibers with red cabbage dye:

Materials I Used

  • 1/2 red cabbage
  • distilled white vinegar (5% acidity)
  • baking soda
  • large pot*
  • jars*
  • 100% cotton fibers – I used unbleached muslin and canvas as well as white DMC thread. Obviously starting from an unbleached (tan) fabric creates a more subdued color result than working with the white base.
  • Alum (I got 1 lb of alum from Amazon) – you could also use soy milk as a mordant if you want a more natural alternative.)

*Note: I have specific pots and jars I only use for dying – although everything is food-safe (with the exception of the alum, which I feel is optional) you should exercise your best judgement here.

How I went about things (which can be an informal “how to” of sorts).

  1. I cut up 1/2 red cabbage (you could use more… it’s likely the result would be stonger).
  2. Add cabbage to a pot with enough water to submerge your materials in. I used about 8-10 cups of water I believe. I totally eyeballed this as I don’t have plans to recreate it any time soon.
  3. Bring pot to boil then simmer for 45 minutes to an hour.
  4. Add fabrics to a pot with the mordant (follow instructions on package of alum or from other sources if using soy) at the same time and, once brought to a boil, simmer for the same length of time.
  5. Take some of the “indicator” (my husbands chemistry term) or cabbage juice (my term) and put it into several jars that you can play around with.
  6. While indicator pot was still cooking, I drained out mordant pot – but didn’t rinse fabric off. I wrung the water from the cotton fibers gently with my gloved hands.
  7. I popped some of the fabric and thread in the pot with the remaining cabbage juice and simmered it for an hour.
  8. I then played with adding the vinegar and baking soda to the remaining jars to alter the pH of the cabbage juice (indicator).
    • Vinegar is an acid and will turn your dye bright pink (max saturation).
    • Baking soda is a base and will turn your dye from blue to teal and to green (max saturation).
    • If you overshoot your color goal you can add the opposite factor to go back the other direction with the pH level.
  9. I then added threads to smaller jars with colors and let sit for 3-4 hours. If you allow these to rest over night they will change colors again (and thus your dye results) so you don’t want to let them sit too long.
  10. After an hour of simmering the materials in the larger pot, I removed my materials and then added either an acid or base to shift the color as desired. I added more fabric each time and allowed them to simmer for an hour each.
  11. I rinsed my fabrics after removing them from the pot – gently but not too much – and wrung them out and then hung them to dry out of direct sunlight.
  12. Now I just have to figure out what the heck to do with the stuff I dyed knowing that is likely going to change a LOT over time….

Additional notes and things to consider:

  • The alum I used seemed to act a little like a base and I had to alter the pH of my jars accordingly after adding the skeins of thread that had this as a mordant. This also seemed to shift the color in my large pot as the mordant in the fabric began to leach out into the rest of pot. 
  • When you cook cabbage this long it stinks. Your whole house (and hair) will smell like cabbage for a good while.
  • Some websites say to boil your cabbage with salt – I didn’t do this so perhaps that would’ve helped with fixing the colors? I know you add salt to berries (or dyes that are really stains) but I haven’t read anything to defend exactly why this was used with cabbage.
  • While the dye may not stick to your fibers too well it will stain old counter tops (like mine) and lots of other things it encounters so proceed with caution. I found a good magic eraser cleans up dye stains really well.
  • Wear gloves whenever possible to save your hands the stress – Alum dries my skin out super bad so I would highly advise taking precautions if you use it.

Unfortunately I did all of this in the evening and my kitchen light is not the best so I didn’t take photos of process but the results turned out fairly well on first glance:



Overall, I’m pleased with the outcome of the dyes on the fabrics (though they’re pretty subtle in the end) but no so much with the threads because if I tried to rinse them even a little they started hemorrhaging color.

I thought that adding the mordant to my fibers would help preserve the color but I think cabbage is just a bit too fugitive for my liking. I know that these materials will not be used in anything intended to be washed or worn in the sun so I’m not too worried about them – in the creation of artwork that explores issues with the fluidity of memory and losing a connection with nature the impermanent nature of these colors is conducive to the message.

I’ll share more about the outcome of the thread dying in my next post and will include how these dyed threads changed after being left in the sun over a week.


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