Monday, May 23, 2011

My Process for Hand Dyeing

Hand-dyed Fabric

Like many of you, when I began working with fabric I used printed commercial fabric. As my vision grew in regards to what I wanted to do with fabric, I realized I wanted to learn to hand dye my own fabric and my search began.

I own and have read many books on the topic but after experimenting with many processes I have settled on one that suits me and gives me great results. This process uses many standard mixes and processes but perhaps not in the exact way that you will find in print.

My Process and Materials

Kaufman Prima Cotton fabric - Kaufman no longer manufactures this fabric so I'll be fabric shopping soon. You will want to purchase 100 percent cotton fabric which is PFD which means it has no surface treatments such as permanent press. Scour the fabric by washing it in hot water with 1 tsp synthrapol and a 1/2 tsp of soda ask. You can was several yards at a time.

Soda Solution - A mix of 1 gallon warm water and 9 Tbs of soda ash. Place this in a bucket with a lid as it will keep and be used many times.

Dye Concentrate - 1 Cup Warm Water + 2 -4 Tbs Granular Urea + 2 Tbs Dye Powder (double this for Black) Make your concentrates and store in plastic bottles. Unused concentrates can be kept in the fridge for sometime before it loses it's potency.

Chemical Water - 1 cup warm water + 7 tsp urea. Place this in a plastic container. It also can be kept and used as needed and it is not necessary to refrigerate.

Dye Solutions - I am not going to cover exact dye mixes here - but using your dye concentrate and chemical water you make the quantity of dye solution you need for each piece of fabric you plan to dye. Example: 1/2 C dye concentrate + 1/2 C Chemical Water = 1 Cup dye solution for 1 yard of soda soaked fabric.

Painters Plastic Pail + 1 Baggie per piece of fabric you will be dying

Scour the fabric and then immerse it in a bucket of Soda Solution to soak for a minimum of 10 minutes. When it has soaked, remove from the soda solution and squeeze most of the liquid out of the fabric. Place the fabric in a small holding pail.

Prepare enough dye solution for each piece you will be dying. Each will be in it's own small container.

Using a 3 gallon container, place the fabric loosely in the bottom.(remember, the fabric has already had most of the soda solution squeezed out) Pour the selected dye solution directly onto the fabric and squeeze, swab, press, swirl, etc. the fabric in the dye solution. This is not a gentle swishing of the fabric, it is a workout on the fabric to make sure the dye gets into the fabric.

When you have really worked the dye into the fabric, squeeze most of the dye out of the fabric and place the piece into one of the baggies and then into one of the pails. The pail is placed outside in the sun to batch. If it isn't sunny, put the fabric in the bag without the pail in a heat box which consist of a 30 gallon storage container with a lid and a 60 watt light bulb inside the box. The fabric is allowed to cure for at least 24 hours.

When the fabric has cured, give it a rigorous hand washing in cold water and synthrapol and then hot water and synthrapol until the run-off is mostly clear. The fabric is then washed in hot water in the washing machine.

This process does not produce perfectly flat color. There will often be dark areas but it does eliminate heavy texture. Some dye colors are more prone to making the dark areas than others.

I do not know Ann Johnston but I recommend her two books on dying. The information is very clear and in both books she presents many options for dying fabric.


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  1. This is almost exactly how I dye cotton fabric when doing 1 yd or less at a time. And I do use urea in both the dye concentrates and the chemical water, as I tend to mix up batches of primary colors in concentrates and have them ready to go when I want to have a dye day. Yes, I know the potency of the dyes diminishes over time when in solution. But I'm an old hand at the dye pot, and so I just eyeball it, and compensate with generous measurements.

    Thanks for posting this Terry. Great reference for new dysers.

  2. Hi Terry, good tutorial.
    Not much variation in the dye chemistry when using Procion MX. I omit adding the dye to the fabric in a bucket and add it to the fabric in the baggie. I squeeze the excess air out of the baggie, and then close and roll up the baggie with the fabric and dye solution. I massage and knead the bag, rolling and squeezing it back and forth. Also I don't wring extra dye out, but do use just enough dye to thoroughly wet the fabric. Sometimes I leave the fabric baggie outside for several days (SoCal, almost always 70 degrees). I'm always happy when there is almost no dye run off, and the first rinse is close to clear.
    Do you use the dye you wring out to dye a second piece of fabric?

  3. Thank you Yasmin. I have tried using the "baggie system" but find it doesn't suit me. That is one of the wonderful things about dye, there are many ways to apply it and most work pretty well! I often do use the excess dye but not always.

  4. Nice tutorial Terry. I want to try dying and I envision that when someone does dye fabric, it's an all-day or half day event. I'd like to know from you and others how often and how much does a person dye at a time? Is it most efficient to dye one color and dye color values? or do you dye many colors at one time? thanks!

  5. Hi Christine! You will enjoy things more if you begin by setting a whole day aside for your first session to get comfortable. Once you understand how the work flows you will be able to do half days and still get a lot done and enjoy the event. I suggest you begin by dyeing a color wheel. Then you might pick one color and dye a set of values etc. You'll want to do it ALL!!

  6. Seems like colour is flying around the blog world at present.(Lisa Call is doing some exciting bright work at the moment) Your posts on colour are so informative and interesting Terry, it's making me want to get out the buckets. But... I must admit I have committed myself to recycling cloth and using colours that are available, trying to make the best use of what is. The thing I wonder about is the impact of dyes on the environment, even though this is not industrial scale dyeing. Also I have seen Ann Johnston's books so it looks like I need to read them at least!! ....The lure of dyeing is strong and as a textile student I loved spending time in the dye house..Sorry for taking up so much space's obviously hit a nerve!

  7. Hi Maggie! Thank you for writing. Dyeing the fabric is a wonderful part of my process which inspires me and give me pleasure. I can not honestly tell you the true impact of the dye on the environment and I applaud you for working with the found materials. Thank you for commenting!

  8. Terry,

    I have a new water-saver washing machine with only spraying water, no tub filled with water to immerse the fabric. Do you think I can still prewash the fabric w/ synthrapol and soda ash in this machine? Or does the fabric need to be soaking during the 10-12-minute wash cycle? (Seems to me I could not-- if time immersed in the solution is required.)

    Can I use it for the final wash? (Seems like I could.)

    Thanks, Nancy

    1. Hi Nancy. I am not familiar with this type of machine but it should work. The machine is designed to remove dirt from soiled laundry and a prewash is needed to remove residue on the fabric from the manufacturing process. So, both process are performed to remove dirt. Good luck and let me know how it goes. Thanks, Terry