The Basics of Fabric Dyeing

 

I worked in an independently owned art supply shop on and off for over five years. Between the sales representatives, demonstrations, online videos and trade shows, I've managed to learn a bit about most things art-related. (Though, some I just sideeye from afar. I'm talking about you, metals section.)

In all of my time there, the section that got the least love was probably the textiles section. The dyes and chemicals sat, collecting dust, as people walked by, not even sparing a glance. At the time, I understood why. All those ratios! How would I know what to do? Wouldn't I need lots of supplies? It all just seemed so complicated.

Gather round, friends. Yes, even those of you protesting, "But I can't even draw a stick figure!". Guess what - no drawing involved. 

 
 

Now, let's talk about what you'll need.

For this project, you'll want a cellulose fabric (cotton, linen, et cetera). You'll need a tub for the dyebath, measuring tools, and gloves. Make sure that any measuring tools are for dye only - once used with dye, they should never be used with food again.

Pick the color(s) of your dye(s), then decide how light or dark you'd like your color(s) to be.

General amounts of dye, salt and soda ash per 3 gallons of water and one pound of fabric:
For very pale shades: ¼ to ½ teaspoon dye, 1½ cups salt, ¼ cup soda ash
For light shades: ½ to 1 teaspoon dye, 1½ cups salt, ¼ cup soda ash
For medium shades: 1 tablespoon dye, 1½ cups salt, ¼ cup soda ash
For darker shades: 2 tablespoons dye, 2 cups salt, ¼ cup soda ash
For darkest shades: 4 tablespoons dye, 3 cups salt, ¹/³ cup soda ash

Before you begin, prewash your fabric to remove any grease, dirt or chemicals.

Fill the tub with water

For one dry pound of fabric (between three to six square yards of fabric), you will use roughly three gallons of water. Temperature of water will depend on the dye powder - some will call for hot water, some for cold.

Most manufacturers will recommend a stainless steel pot for this. Since I have yet to find a swimming pool filled with dollar bills in my backyard, I went with a standard kitchen trashcan. It worked for what I was doing. If you want your fabric to be a smooth, even color, then you want a wide enough tub to be able to stir the fabric repeatedly.

Also, wear gloves. Do as I say, not as I do. (Seriously, just trust me on this.)

 
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Add plain salt

Add the amount of salt based on the desired value, between 1½ cups - 3 cups. Stir thoroughly.

Salt isn't a fixative and doesn't make dye last longer - but it is still definitely important. By creating an ionic solution, the salt essentially forces the dye out of the water and onto the fabric.

 
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Add dye

Add the amount of dye based on the desired value, between ¼ tbsp - 4 tbsp.

I'm rather fond of Jacquard's Procion MX dyes. The Procion MX line includes over 40 different colors that can be mixed to your heart's desire. 

For my fabric, I used a jar of 072 Medium Blue and roughly half a jar of 071 Teal. I ended up with a bright peacock blue - just what I was hoping for.

 
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Add wet fabric

After I prewashed my fabric, I didn't run it through the dryer. It was still damp when I added it to the dye. I was working with standard cotton home decor fabric.

I was intentionally aiming for an uneven dye. I like the imperfect, organic look. Because of this, I wadded up my fabric with lots of creases and didn't stir it that much. If you're looking for a clean, even dye then you should stir the fabric every two to five minutes. To stir, lift the fabric from the dyebath (wear gloves!), unfold the creases and return the fabric to the dyebath in a different configuration.

 
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Continue stirring (or, in the case of an intentional uneven dye, puttering around on your computer and making sure your cat doesn't swan dive into the bucket) for approximately twenty minutes.

Add dissolved soda ash

 
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Soda ash promotes the chemical reaction between the dye and the cellulose fibers that make up the fabric.

Mix the ¹/³ to ¼ cup of soda ash in hot water until dissolved. Remove or lift the fabric, then add the soda ash solution to the dyebath and stir. Place the fabric back into the dyebath. Stir (or don't!) for another 30-60 minutes, depending on the intensity desired. I waited about 50 minutes.

Rinse thoroughly

 
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While wearing gloves, rinse the dyed fabric with cool water. Rinse another three or four times with increasingly warmer water, until the water runs nearly clear.

 
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Congrats! You've dyed your own fabric! Need some project ideas?

If you make something because of this tutorial, be sure to tag me (twitter / instagram / pinterest) or comment below and let me know. I'd love to check it out! I'll be posting where this fabric ends up soon enough. I have big plans for it.

Have you ever dyed fabric? Does it seem less intimidating now?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one or more of the products or services mentioned above for free in the hope that I would mention it on my blog. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”