Dyeing Using Philippine Indigenous Plants (Natural Dyeing)

For every mystery solved, another mystery shows up. The study of textiles and how it is made is what started this journey—a journey to uncover how Filipinos made textile in the past and present. Not less than a year ago I wove my first fabric using commercial polyester yarns. After experiencing weaving in May 2015—an extremely laborious, meticulous and meditative task—I entertained the possibility of using natural yarn as a material. This was made possible when one of my design entries became a finalist in the 53rd Japan Fashion Design Contest. In October 2015, in collaboration with the Philippine Textile Research Institute (PTRI), I managed to finish my first textile design using the fibers cotton and abaca. And now I am exploring the use of cotton and silk. Before I only got to use black dye for my textile, this time I hope to explore more dyes. Another pandora’s box just opened.

For this month’s adventures and misadventures, I knocked on the door of our local textile institute once again so that I may learn the secrets of Natural Dyeing. They were gracious enough to accommodate my request. Through PTRI we learned how to extract and apply natural dyes on natural fibers.

Fortunately, unlike before when I learned weaving on my own, I was accompanied by these two lovely ladies that made the activities more memorable. I was with Gee Roxas, a chemist (she calls herself a  ChemArtist) at the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) and Alodia Cecilia, a fashion designer of her own label.

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From Left: Alodia (Fashion Designer), Gee (ChemArtist) and Jean (Designer/Entrepreneur) in our favorite lunch area in PTRI-DOST, under a mango tree.

The seminar-workshop is only for 2 days, unlike the basic handloom weaving training which takes 5 days to complete. We were taught by the team from Research and Development Division (RDD). The training was held in their laboratory of the Chemicals, Dyes, Auxilliaries and By-products Utilization Section (CDABUS).

On the first day, a brief introduction and lecture took place in the morning and a demonstration on how to properly conduct scouring and bleaching was done after lunch. On the second day, we where shown how to do extraction, mordanting and dyeing.

The lecture and workshop was facilitated by the ever enthusiastic RDD team headed by Ms. Evangeline Manalang (OIC Chief of CDABUS), Ms. Zyg Calibho (lead facilitator and lecturer), Ms. Lucy (expert dyer) and other chemists and experts who answered our queries.

The Tradition of Natural Dyeing

Way before the synthetic dyes became a trend, even during pre-colonial times, our ancestors have long been using natural dyes to color the yarns or fibers they use for weaving. Through transfer of knowledge, some indigenous people have continued the practice of natural dyeing, relying mainly on their skills, sharp instincts and incantation to the gods to successfully dye their fibers.

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Indigenous people rinsing dyed yarns in the river. Photo taken from http://ncca.gov.ph as part of Dr. Norma Respicio’s award-winning book entitled “Journey of a Thousand Shuttles: The Philippine Weave”.

It normally took them days or weeks to dye fibers following the traditional process of natural dyeing. Natural dyes are extracted from the leaves, bark and roots of local plants and mud is usually used as a mordant — a binding agent that allows fiber to better absorb and retain the dyestuff, often affecting the saturation of the color that will eventually come out. Sometimes they also use mud as dye. Indigenous people use clay pots to dye their materials in. And since the dye stuff and mordant used were all natural, they were not toxic nor harmful to the environment.

Natural Dyes in the Philippines

To my surprise, I found out that PTRI already identified over 100 natural dye sources from local plants. Coconut (husk), Mahogany (bark), Talisay (leaves), Annato (seeds), Yellow Ginger (root crop), and Indigo (leaves) are just some of the few dye sources that can be found in the Philippines. The books Gampol (Vol. 1 written by Laarni P. Habal and Zenaida I. de Guzman and Vol. 2 written by Julius Leaño Jr.) published in the year 2003 and 2008 is a compendium of natural dye sources that has been tested by the institute. Currently, PTRI is still continuing the research on identifying natural dye sources. They even mentioned the possibility to extracting natural dyes from snails.

According to Ms. Evangeline, the research on Natural dyes began over a decade ago when the use of natural materials is still uncommon or seen as impractical by most of their target users. It is Julius Leaño Jr., Supervising Science Research Specialist of RDD, who spearheaded the research on Natural Dyes. I consider myself lucky enough to have learned of the existence of this technology 3 years ago during the Neo-Ethnic Textile Conference that was held in Heritage Hotel. It is because of the dedicated team of researchers in PTRI that the natural dyeing process has been simplified. The traditionally lengthy dyeing process which takes around two weeks to complete has been optimized to about 3 hours.

Preparing Materials to Dye

A couple of days before our scheduled training, I managed to acquire 12 cones (approx. 2.4 kilos) of commercial cotton from Valenzuela City and 750 grams of silk from Negros (approx. 250 grams of 21, 40 and 60 denier silk yarns). This is a week’s worth of sourcing, coordinating, ordering and shipping. Working with natural fibers can be expensive. While I was familiar with the skeining process prior to dyeing cotton, I didn’t expect that silk yarns required additional processing before dyeing.

When I was told this, I had to let go all expectations that I will be able to dye and bring my precious cotton and silk yarns to the Embroidery Exchange in San Pablo Laguna that weekend.

Natural dyes attach better to natural fibers. So if you plan to take up a course on natural dyeing and you want to achieve optimum results, remember to use 100% cotton and pure silk which is already degummed (the protective layer called sericin must already be removed) and preferrably twisted. These yarns must be skeined into your preferred portions so it will be easier to dye.

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From left: Skeined cotton yarns and degummed and twisted silk

Of course the preferred color is white (or the natural color of the fiber/yarn). Yarns that are already synthetically dyed are not recommended since the fiber has already undergone a different treatment.

Silk is commonly used in our traditional Piña-Seda or Piña-Silk (Pineapple Silk) fabric. However, the silk used here is the raw filament which is not twisted nor degummed, therefore, it was not dyed. This is why Piña-Seda is ideal for creating structural shapes when draped. The loose weave makes the fabric translucent.

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Raw silk, twisted.

Once degummed and twisted, it becomes softer. This type of silk becomes more suited for embroidery. I was also reminded of the notion of silk being smooth and lustrous, from the China silk we are so used to. Locally, I have seen some very beautiful Mindanao Silk which comes in various colors.

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Degummed silk, twisted.

Despite not being able to use the yarns I purchased, PTRI provided us some skeined cotton and silk which we used for our training.

The skeined cotton also needed to undergo scouring before dyeing. Scouring is the process of removing other impurities from the fiber. By removing impurities, you make the fiber more absorbent to dye. To achieve best results in terms of color vibrancy, the cotton fiber may also undergo mild bleaching to make it whiter.

Extraction of Dyes

During our training, we used Coconut husks (pink), Mahogany Bark (orangey or reddish brown) and Talisay leaves (greenish yellow and black) as our dye source. For these examples, extracting is simple — just chop the them into pieces and boil it for a few hours.

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Talisay leaves are chopped into finer pieces so we can get more dye stuff.
Extraction of dye by boiling pieces of mahogany barks and chopped coconut husks.

I would always associate dye extraction to preparing your tea. You just need to submerge the chopped pieces into water, and wait for all the extracts to come out.

However, extracting dyes vary from one plant to another. Because this wasn’t the case for indigo (and I look forward to experiencing this soon).

Ms. Lucy, our expert dyer, reminded us that we should only use FRESH plants and fruits for dyeing. An example would be the coconut husk. The fresher the fruit, the more dye you get to extract. So only remove the husk before you begin the extraction process to get more dye, otherwise, the color will not be as intense.

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Fresh coconut husk is chopped into larger pieces. Dye coming from freshly chopped husk produces more dye stuff.

While extraction is taking place, we use this time to prepare our mordant solution.


Mineral and metal mordants were recommended by the institute. While I imagine mud would be an exciting mordant to experience, we do not have the resources nor the time and experience to measure its metal content. And since this varies from one mud to another, we cannot expect that we will be able to achieve similar results if we do it again.

Some of the mordants used during our training were Potassium Aluminium Sulfate KAl(SO4)2, Copper Sulfate CuSO4 and Ferrous Sulphate FeSO4.

Mordants, as mentioned earlier allows fiber to better absorb and retain the dyestuff. The choice of mordant also affects the vibrancy of color produced.

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Silk yarns submerged in mordant solution of alum and copper sulfate.

We submerged the yarns into the mordant solution first before submerging it again into the extracted dye stuff. In my researches, some methods recommend mordanting in between dyeing (meta-mordanting), or mordanting after dyeing (post-mordanting). But in our case, the institute recommends pre-mordanting.

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Skeined cotton is submerged into the mordant solution at boiling point.

Colors, colors, colors!

After mordanting the skeined yarns, it is now submerged to the dye bath. And here we immediately see the dye attach to the yarns.

Ate Lucy transfers the silk from the mordant solution to the dye bath. Beginners are advised to wear gloves since the mordant solution is actually hot.
After a few minutes, the dyed silk and cotton were rinsed in clear water twice to remove any residues. The yarns were carefully hand wringed and pulled to remove excess water. It was then hung to dry.
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Ate Lucy carefully rinsing and wringing the dyed silk with water and anionic detergent to remove excess dye.
Ate Lucy hand-pulling the silk to get rid of excess water.
When drying dyed materials these should not be directly exposed to sunlight, else the colors will fade.
And here are the results of our training: naturally dyed silk and cotton. Here we see the difference in the colors achieved depending on the yarn used. I can’t wait to use this for weaving and embroidery.
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From left: 2 sets of pale yellow cotton (Talisay), corn yellow silk (Talisay), blush pink silk (Coconut), copper silk (Mahogany), rust cotton (Mahogany), baby pink cotton (Coconut), black silk (Talisay), charcoal grey (Talisay)

The Chemistry of Nature and Design

My interest in chemistry only began when I first learned about natural dyes late last year. Naive as it may sound, I never  really knew how valuable chemistry was to fashion until I wanted to make and dye my own yarns for my textile projects. PTRI gave me the opportunity to understand the dyeing process, and more importantly, dyeing using plants grown in our country’s soil.

It is fascinating to realize how nature and chemistry play a huge role in designing textiles. In the design process, nature is often considered a primary source of inspiration. Interestingly, as I found out, we can also derive our materials from nature. The realization of a design relies on these two main components—materials (nature) and process (chemistry). The result, which is textile, is man’s creation, a tribute to nature and chemistry.


Philippine Textile Research Institute – Department of Science and Technology. (2016). Extraction and Application of Natural Dyes.

Philippine Textile Research Institute – Department of Science and Technology. (n.d.). Publications. Retrieved February 2016, from Philippine Textile Research Institute – Department of Science and Technology: http://www.ptri.dost.gov.ph/publications

Cook, M. (n.d.). Degumming. Retrieved 2016, from Wormspit.com – A site about silkworms, silkmoth and silk: http://www.wormspit.com/degumming.htm

Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. (n.d.). Mordant. Retrieved February 2016, from Wikipedia the Free Encyclopedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mordant

Respicio, N. A. (2015). Journey of a Thousand Shuttles: The Philippine Weave. National Commission for Culture and the Arts..

National Commission for Culture and the Arts. (2015, August). NCCA Book on Textile Weaving Traditions Finalist for the 34th National Book Awards. Retrieved February 2016, from http://ncca.gov.ph/ncca-book-on-textile-weaving-traditions-finalist-for-the-34th-national-book-awards/

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