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How to Naturally Dye Fabric With Instant Coffee

Coffee is rich with layers of legend and history. Some anthropologists speculate that early Stone Age men may have chewed on the seeds, roots, bark and leaves of caffeine-yielding plants discovered in paleolithic times. An origin story sees a civet cat bearing the undigested seeds of the wild coffee plant from Africa to the Ethiopian mountains where the plant was cultivated and brought to Arabia by merchants. Another story concerns Kaldi, a 9th-century Ethiopian goatherd who was said to have discovered coffee when he noticed how perky his goats became after eating the beans from a coffee plant. Today, coffee is one of the most popular drinks in the world. But like many consumables, coffee has artistic properties too. Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio was known to try ageing the appearance of his garden statues with coffee and tea. Coffee has also featured in plenty of artworks by artists from Edgar Degas to Andy Warhol. But spill a mug of coffee on yourself and you'll quickly realise its potency to stain - which makes it a great natural dye for textiles too.

A photograph of the coffee dyeing process with cotton material sprinkled with coffee granules inside a yellow cooking bowl by Megan Kennedy

Natural dyeing involves working with dyes derived from naturally occuring sources. Nuts, roots, leaves (I wrote about Eco dyeing with eucalyptus leaves here), fungi and other organic materials can be used to infuse textiles with raw colour. As a coffee drinker, perhaps one of the most accessible dyes I've encountered is instant coffee. Coffee contains tannin, a chemical that can be found in a vast range of plant species. It's a protective chemical which discourages predation and produces the distinctive astringent flavours found in chocolate, tea and wine - all of which can inflict considerable stains to textile materials.

The tannins in coffee impart a rich, warm brown hue to fabric. I've been dyeing with coffee for a while, especially while working on my Sleep series. It's easy, cheap and non-toxic with no compulsory mordanting involved (although you can mordant if desired to maintain the colour of the coffee dye more effectively).

A photograph of cotton fabric taken with a shallow depth of field by Megan Kennedy
  • 2 medium mixing bowls

  • 1-3 heaped tablespoons of instant coffee (the more coffee, the darker the result)

  • A kettle

  • 2 cups of boiling water

  • Fabric (for this recipe I'm using two pieces of a plain white cotton sheet that add up to be about 45 x 19 cm. You can use a larger amount of fabric, but the ingredient ratios may need to be tweaked to compensate).

  • A stirring spoon

  • 1 part vinegar mixed with four parts cold water (for fixative)

Keep in mind that in terms of fabric selection, some textiles hold colour more readily than others. I prefer a gentle light brown tone, so I'm happy using cotton sheet. Other fabrics like linen, bamboo or rayon will behave differently when coffee-dyed.

If dyeing with pre-used materials, it can be a good idea to launder the fabric before starting the dyeing process.

Coffee-dye on its own isn't colourfast, meaning it can fade in direct sunlight and after each successive wash. Avoiding exposing a coffee-dyed fabric to the sun for long periods and limiting washing will help maintain the life of the coffee-dye. Mordanting will also help.

Different coffee brands may produce different results. For my dye work I've been using Nescafe Blend 43 but if you aren't sure about the exact properties of the brand, make a few small test pieces first.

  1. Put 2 cups of water in the kettle and put on to boil.

  2. In a large bowl or container, soak the selected fabric in cold water for a minute

  3. After a minute, drain the cold water, leaving the fabric in the bowl or container

  4. Spoon 1-3 tablespoons of coffee onto the material and pour the 2 cups of boiling water on top

  5. Use a spoon to sir the mixture until the coffee granules dissolve (alternatively, to create a more mottled coffee-dyed aesthetic, scatter raw coffee granules over the damp fabric and leave until the dye develops splotchy patterns.

  6. Allow the mixture to stand, stirring every so often. The longer the fabric is left in the coffee mixture, the darker it will get. For a light effect, the fabric only needs to be submerged for a few minutes. For a darker result, leave the fabric to soak anywhere from an hour to overnight

A photograph illustrating the coffee dyeing process with a spoon mixing a concoction of coffee, hot water and cotton fabric in a yellow mixing bowl by Megan Kennedy
  1. Once the fabric has absorbed enough of the coffee colouring, lift the material out of the coffee mixture and rinse it lightly under cold running water for a few seconds and wring out.

  2. To help set the coffee dye, fill a fresh bowl with a ratio of 1 part vinegar to four parts cold water.

  3. Submerge the fabric in the mix of water and vinegar for 1-5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Then, rinse the fabric under cold running water until the water runs clear.

  4. Finally, hang the fabric out to dry. Be mindful that the colour of the fabric can lighten a little as it dries.

A piece of fabric naturally dyed with coffee by Megan Kennedy
Fabric left in the coffee dyebath for about 3 minutes. The mottle is made by leaving coffee grounds to soak into the fabric unmixed
A piece of fabric naturally dyed with coffee by Megan Kennedy
Fabric left in the coffee dyebath for approximately 10 minutes


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