Introduction: Turmeric Dyed Pants

For a class I am taking, Makerspace B, we had to come up with a project that was meaningful to us that incorporated different aspects of making. Around that time, I read this article and had a think about the fashion industry. I'd just had a favorite new pair of pants fall apart on the second or third wash, and between that and the fashion industry's issues with human rights and environmental issues, I was feeling disillusioned with the whole clothing industry.

This is my very small-scale attempt to opt out of a broken system.

I wanted to see if I could make a pair of pants that didn't contribute (as much) to pollution and human rights issues, and which would last longer than two washes. I bought organic cotton to make the pants with, and dyed them using turmeric, which is nontoxic (in fact, edible!), unlike many synthetic dyes.

I've included instructions for the whole process but feel free to skip to the dyeing part if that is what you are most curious about.

Step 1: Materials

To make the pants:

  • Detergent and laundry facilities to wash and dry cloth
  • Cotton cloth (I needed just under 1.5 yards of 60" wide fabric per pair of pants. If your fabric is narrower you will need more.)
  • Elastic for the waist and bottom of the legs (I used 1" for both- you may want narrower for the legs)
  • Iron and ironing board
  • Scissors
  • Thread (yellow-orange will work best if you dye your pants- polyester thread does not take dye like cotton fabric does, so match the thread to the color your pants WILL be)
  • pins
  • Large paper (I used exam table paper like you'd see in a doctor's office- you can get it on Amazon)
  • Tailor's chalk or a water-soluble pen (optional but helpful)
  • One large safety pin
  • Sewing machine OR hand needles and a LOT of patience

(If you have a serger, use it to finish seams, but I've never used one so I can't tell you how)

To dye pants:

  • Detergent and laundry facilities to wash and dry cloth/pants before dyeing
  • Turmeric (I used about 1.5 cups to dye the pants. This may have been overkill. You can buy this in bulk at Indian grocery stores, but I got lucky and found a big bag at Target)
  • Salt (1/4 cup)
  • Water
  • Measuring cups

Crayon "batik":

  • crayon (I tested red and orange)
  • iron and ironing board
  • paper towels

Step 2: Find a Pair of Pants You Want to Copy

Find a pair of pants that you like in your closet. Ideally these will be made of non-stretchy material.

My ideal pants were non-stretchy loose pants with elastic in the waistband and in the bottom of the legs. I loved the way they fit, but they started falling apart after about two washes because the quality of the material was so cheap.

Step 3: Make Your Pattern

There have been a lot of great tutorials about cloning garments. Here is one that uses a slightly different method than I do, and which may be more appropriate to fitted garments (mine works ok for loose things but is not perfect):

Here is my method:

1. Turn your pants inside-out

2. Lay them on a large piece of paper. I used exam table paper (See materials list)

3. Trace the pants.

If you have elastic in the waist or other places, this is a good time to ask a friend to stretch them out and hold them that way for you- you need to trace the full width of the waist or these won't fit. -

4. Trace 1" around the line you just made. (5/8" is standard but I prefer 1"- more room for mistakes!)

5. Add an extra inch and a half to the top and bottom to account for the elastic enclosure. I forgot to do this on the bottom and my pants ended up as capris! If you're worried they'll still be too short, add more to the bottom- you can always make them shorter, but making them longer isn't possible later.

6. Because my pants were loose, I could get away with making the back and front pieces identical- if you want more fitted pants, you need the back and front to be different and will need to trace the back and front of the pants exactly. This complicates the process a lot, so I won't cover it here.

Step 4: Wash and Iron Fabric

I'm making this its own step because it is very important. If your fabric is wrinkled, the pieces you cut from it will be cut wrong. If you don't wash the fabric ahead of time, the pants you make might shrink later, and all your hard work will be wasted since the pants won't fit.

Step 5: Cut Out the Pieces

METHOD 1: Pin the pattern you made to your washed and ironed fabric. Cut around it carefully and unpin. Repeat until you have 4 pieces cut out, all the same.

METHOD 2: Take tailor's chalk or a water-soluble pen and trace your pattern onto your cloth. Cut along the lines. Repeat until you have 4 pieces cut out.

Step 6: Sew Each Leg Together

Take 2 of your 4 pant pieces and sew the outside of the legs together. Also sew the inside seam together up to the crotch.

Repeat with the other 2 pieces so that you have 2 tube type things, which will be the legs of your pants (see pic).

Step 7: Sew the Two Legs Together

Making sure your pant legs are still inside-out, match up the crotch of each pant leg and pin the pant legs together from that point up the front and back of the pants. (see pic)

Step 8: Make the Casing for Waist Elastic

Make sure the pants are inside-in now.

If your waist is uneven, trim it slightly so that the edges all match up. Then, fold over a small amount (about 3/8") of fabric towards the inside of your pants. Iron the fold to keep it in place.

Fold again, this time about an inch and a quarter. You need to fold it more than the width of your elastic or else the elastic will not fit. Iron again.

Now, pin your new elastic casing down and sew ALMOST all the way around. Leave a gap of more than an inch. This is where we'll feed the elastic in.

Step 9: Add Elastic to the Waist

This is where the big safety pin comes in handy. Pin it to one end of the elastic and use the safety pin to feed the elastic into the casing you made.

Once the elastic has made the full round of the waist, pull the safety-pin end out and detach the safety pin. Adjust the elastic so that it is as tight as you desire, cut it about 1/4 inch longer than that, and sew the ends together.

If the gap you left to feed in elastic is large, you can sew it shut now. Mine was small and hidden enough that I just left it.

Step 10: Hem the Bottom (and Add Elastic If Desired)

Like we did with the casing for the waist, do a double-fold and iron it flat. If you want elastic in the bottoms, make sure that your second fold is wider than the width of your elastic.

Try on the pants and make sure that they are the length you want them to be. If they're way too long, trim them shorter and re-iron. You can repeat as needed.

Sew the seam down. If you're adding elastic, leave a gap and use that gap to feed the elastic in with a safety pin, just like we did in with the waist. Like that step, tighten the elastic as desired, cut it, and sew the ends together.

Repeat with the other leg, making sure that the legs are the same length.

You have pants!

Step 11: Make the Dye!

You have pants! Great! Now it's time to dye them. If you're dyeing something else and skipped to this part, make sure that you washed your item ahead of time with no fabric softener.

First, you need to make the dye. This is the recipe I used. It is probably overkill, but it does produce a vibrant yellow:

  • 1.5 cups turmeric powder
  • 0.25 cups salt
  • 4 cups water (you'll need more later)

Simmer this mixture for about an hour on the stove. The result when I did this was a very thick sludge, so I added a more water after it was boiled, until it was a liquid again instead of a paste.

Note: I'm going to be honest here, I'm not sure the salt is needed. It doesn't hurt, but I have a feeling turmeric is such a strong dye that this would work even without it. If you try it without salt, let me know how it worked!

Step 12: Crayon "Batik" (VERY Optional)

I did some experiments with crayon "batik" fabric, and it turned out unexpectedly well! My initial thought was to use white crayons melted on to the cloth to protect it from dye, as in a more traditional batik dye technique. This didn't work at all- it is impossible to tell I even did it in my tests- but when I used red crayon just for fun, it dyed the fabric beautifully even once the wax itself was gone.

To do the crayon batik, simply draw your design on with crayon, cover it with a paper towel, and iron the paper towel. The ironing sets the color into the fabric- if you don't do it, the crayon flakes off without dying the cloth very much, and the result and looks bad. The paper towel absorbs any excess wax. You might want to replace the paper towel and repeat a couple of times to get all excess wax off and make sure that the design is set in well.

Step 13: Dyeing the Fabric!

This is the easiest part! Take the dye you made a couple steps ago, and stick your pants into it! Mix it well with a spoon or with GLOVED hands. If this gets onto your hands it will stain them bright yellow nearly instantly.

I let mine sit for 15 minutes, hoping that I would get a lighter color than my hour-long tests. The result was a little uneven, but not much lighter. I think I would let it sit the full hour if I did it again to make sure it is more evenly colored.

Step 14: Rinse Rinse Rinse

I rinsed the fabric in my aunt's sink, and dyed the whole sink yellow. Luckily she had a good sense of humor about it. I would suggest using a metal sink if you have one rather than a white ceramic one. We were able to get the stains off with a LOT of scrubbing with baking soda.

It took a LOT of rinsing to get the water to run clear.

After I got a reasonable amount of dye out, I ran the pants through the rinse cycle twice of the washing machine using cold water. I dried them in the dryer. In the meantime, I ran the washing machine's cleaning cycle twice, once with bleach, to make sure I didn't also dye my aunt's clothes yellow.

Step 15: Final Results

I really like the way these pants turned out, and I hope you have luck with yours, too!

Step 16: Some Notes

I tried henna powder as a dye as well, but couldn't get it to work well. My henna powder was packaged as a hair dye (but was 100% henna powder), and I tried following the hair dyeing instructions that came with it- but on fabric- without much luck.

(Recipe I used: 1 part henna, enough hot water to make a paste, let sit for an hour and then add fabric for 1 hour). If anyone gets this to work, let me know. I suspect adding salt or vinegar might help.

I'm curious about how beets would work as a dye but the beets I bought went bad after only a few days and I didn't have a chance to buy more for this experiment.

I have a theory that using a lot less turmeric will result in lighter fabric, but I have yet to test that out

I only tested orange and red crayons for the crayon batik. I can't guarantee that other colors will work as well, but I suspect they will.