Yes, we’re more used to drinking them, preferably from a nice hot mug with a book or good company on the side. But tea and coffee can be used as dyes as well. This year, I’m particularly exploring dyes that are either locally gathered or produced, or otherwise environmentally sound choices. The tea I used to dye yarn belongs to the former category: it came from the Charleston Tea Plantation, located on Wadmalaw Island in the heart of South Carolina’s Lowcountry. (Yes, tea grown in our state — fairly awesome, don’t you think?) The coffee grounds I used, on the other hand, are most decidedly not locally produced, but they are diverted from the local waste stream. You can pick up used coffee grounds at most local coffee shops — in most places, the barista will be happy to give you a big bag — and use it at home for your compost pile, in the garden to keep nitrogen-hungry plants happy… or to dye fibers. Dan and I are not big coffee drinkers anymore, so it would have taken me a very long time to collect enough used coffee grounds for this project, but the café down the street gave me a sack of espresso grounds almost heavier than I could carry, enough for compost and garden and a little bit of dyeing.
These are among the easiest dye projects to try. Whether you are using tea or coffee, simply heat up enough water that your fibers can move freely in it, then add your tea bags or coffee grounds, and let steep for 20 minutes, or an hour, or even overnight if you want to get darker shades. The amount of tea or coffee is also up to you — you’ll have to experiment with how intensely caffeinated the dye bath has to be for you to achieve the desired shade of brown. After the steeping, remove tea bags or filter out the coffee grounds using a cheesecloth, immerse your textiles in the liquid, and bring to a gentle simmer (about 180 F) for 15-20 minutes. For stronger results, leave to cool overnight.
Tea or coffee dyes can be used on either animal or plant fibers. Mordanting ahead of time is not necessary, although it can help yield darker, more long-lasting results. Espresso beans are roasted darker than regular coffee beans, so they are more likely to create darker browns. As for tea, there’s no need to stick to regular black tea: see what happens with rooibos, green tea, etc. Once you’ve achieved your desired shade of brown, simply rinse the fibers well and hang to dry.
I’m really happy with the end result — the neutral but warm shades of café au lait (top) and milky chai (bottom). It was enough to inspire me to make a pot of chai to drink while enjoying my newly dyed yarns. Notice the similarity of color?