Fabric Dyeing Basics Tutorial

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Fabric Dyeing Basics - In Color Order
Fabric Dyeing Basics, a photo by Jeni Baker on Flickr.
Over the past couple of years I have really enjoyed experimenting with fabric dyeing.  I've played around with wax-resist dyeing with the aid of Malka Dubrawsky's Color Your Cloth, and have almost exclusively worked with Procion MX cold water dyes.  There are a lot of advantages to this type of dyeing: the colors are pretty true, very vibrant, and even.  There are a lot of disadvantages too.  They are expensive, toxic, and the process takes about 8 hours plus setup and clean up.

A few weeks ago I wanted to see what I could do about finding alternative dyeing and resist techniques to make it more accessible.  It was fun to experiment and see what I could come up with! These techniques use RIT dye, and aren't a true replacement for the other method, but they are a great place to start if you're interested in learning to dye fabric!

Fabric Dyeing Basics - In Color Order
RIT Dyed Fabrics, a photo by Jeni Baker on Flickr.
The advantages of using RIT dye: it's cheap, readily available, less time consuming and safe (see their safety information here).  The disadvantages: It is more difficult to achieve vibrant colors. 

Fabric Dyeing Basics - In Color Order
Dyeing Supplies, a photo by Jeni Baker on Flickr.
For this basic dyeing, everything you need can easily be found at your local grocery store and craft store.  While the RIT dye is pretty safe, you'll want to designate these tools for dyeing and no longer use them for food just to be safe. You'll need:

Fabric to dye: For RIT dye I'd recommend using 100% cotton fabric, like Kona Cotton White. It can be used to dye synthetic fabrics, but you're going to get better results sticking with natural fibers.  Fabrics that are white-on-white prints look really cool when dyed because for the most part the printing stays white! Pre-wash and dry all fabrics before dyeing. If you're dyeing right after washing you can skip drying.

Liquid RIT dye: The liquid version is easier to use for this process and it can be used multiple times since you won't need much.

Salt: Plain table salt, not iodized.

Soda Ash: This is the dye fixer.  It can be found with the tie-dye supplies and dyes at most craft stores.  It is Sodium Carbonate, and is also used to raise the PH level in pools, so it can sometimes be found with pool supplies in large quantities.

Rubber Gloves: I just use a pair of regular kitchen dish gloves.

Plastic containers: I make my dye baths in big empty yogurt containers, cheap plastic pitchers or plastic dish tubs.

Measuring cups & spoons: I picked up a set of each at the dollar store.

Stirring spoon: A plastic spoon for stirring.

Basic Dyeing Technique
Fabric Dyeing Basics - In Color Order
Dye Baths, a photo by Jeni Baker on Flickr.
Okay, now that we have our supplies, let's talk about the basics of dyeing.  The instructions are for a fat quarter, but a table with conversions for other amounts is also provided.  I'd recommend wearing an apron or "craft clothes" in case you spill some dye.  I like to do my dyeing either in a bathtub or sink for easy clean up.

1. Fill your dye bath container with 1 quart of HOT water.

2. Put 2 Tablespoons of salt in the water, stir until dissolved.

3. Carefully measure out 2 Tablespoons Liquid RIT into the salt water, stir.

4. In a separate container, wet fat quarter (or 1/4 yard) of fabric.  Squeeze out excess water.

5. Put fabric in the dye.  Stir constantly for the first 5 minutes or so to ensure even coverage.  Leave in bath for 30 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes.. 

6. After 30 minutes, carefully remove fabric from dye bath.  Add 1 Tablespoon of Soda Ash to the dye bath. Stir until dissolved. 

7. Add fabric back into the dye bath, stirring for a few minutes. Leave in bath for 30 minutes to 1 hour, stirring every 10-15 minutes.

8. Remove fabric from dye bath, dump dye down the drain.

9. Rinse out fabric, starting with cold water, then warm water, then hot water until the water runs clear.

10. Wash normally with detergent on warm/cold.  If I've dyed a dark purple and a light yellow I'll often do two different loads, otherwise I put multiple colors together.  Add 1/2 cup of salt to the washer (in water for top loading, with detergent for front loading) to help reduce bleeding.  Dry or remove from washer and press with a hot iron.

I calculated these amounts based on previous dyeing experience and the instructions on the RIT bottle.  Fat quarters can be substituted for yardage.

RIT has a Color Formula Tool on their website that helps you create up to 500 different colors by mixing different RIT dyes.  Personally, I like to just wing it, but it would be a great place to start if you have a certain color in mind.

Fabric Dyeing Basics - In Color Order
Double Dye Amount, a photo by Jeni Baker on Flickr.
Doubling the dye amounts (as recommended by RIT for bright colors) Made a pretty noticeable difference for this pink color.

Fabric Dyeing Basics - In Color Order
Cherry Red RIT, a photo by Jeni Baker on Flickr.
Doubling the dye amounts did not make a noticeable difference when I was trying to achieve a true red (I used Cherry Red). You'll have to experiment a bit too!

Alternative Resist Methods
Fabric Dyeing Basics - In Color Order
Hand-Dyed using Wax Resist, a photo by Jeni Baker on Flickr.
The most common dye resist method uses wax. Wax is applied to the fabric before dyeing, and the wax keeps that portion of the fabric un-dyed. Using wax creates beautiful results (shown in the image above), but it is messy and can be difficult to remove after the dyeing process.  I experimented with a couple of other methods to see if I could get similar results.

For all of these methods I applied the resist to dry fabric before dyeing.  Let the resist dry if need be and then dye with the instructions outlined in the beginning of this post.

Fabric Dyeing Basics - In Color Order
Alternative Resist Methods, a photo by Jeni Baker on Flickr.
1. Hot Glue: This was a long shot! In a few places it worked okay, but for the most part it did not stick well to the fabric and started to come off as soon as it hit the water. It's too bad it didn't work, it was very easy to apply and dried very quickly. Peel off after dyeing and washing.

2. Crayons: I am wondering how much wax is in traditional crayons, because this was the worst method I tried.  I used a white crayon to draw on the fabric and it's barely even visible.  I wanted to try these wax-resist sticks but couldn't find them locally.  They may be worth a try, but traditional crayons are not! Crayon will come off in the wash.

3. Elmer's School Glue Gel: This by far worked the best of the three methods I tried.  It was pretty consistent and the results are pretty similar to what you can achieve with wax.  I applied it pretty thickly onto the fabric, which took most of the day to dry.  I'd recommend applying it and letting it dry overnight.  It worked well being squeezed onto the fabric and dipping a tool into it and stamping.  This is a great resist to try! Elmer's Glue will come off in the wash.

Fabric Dyeing Basics - In Color Order
Elmer's Blue Gel Glue, a photo by Jeni Baker on Flickr.
Both fabrics shown above were creating using Elmer's School Glue Gel.  For the Purple fabric I squeezed the glue straight onto the fabric, creating a shape with simple lines.  For the orange fabric, I poured glue into a small dish and dipped a cardboard toilet paper roll into it and stamped it onto the fabric, twisting it a bit on the fabric to get more glue onto it.  Both methods provided great results!

Don't hang it up to dry unless you want drip marks! Dry flat.

Fabric Dyeing Basics - In Color Order
RIT Dyed Fabrics, a photo by Jeni Baker on Flickr.
There are a few more techniques I'd like to try with this type of dyeing as well as the with the cold water dyes this summer.  I'll be sure to do an update if they're successful!

For the fabrics above I used the following dyes (purple, green, and orange were made by mixing): Cherry Red, Fuchsia, Petal Pink, Lemon Yellow, Aquamarine, and Teal.

Fabric Dyeing Basics - In Color Order
Hand-Dyed Fabrics Update, a photo by Jeni Baker on Flickr.
I hope that this post was helpful! I know that dyeing can be scary but it's really a lot of fun! If you're interested in using Procion MX dyes or wax-resist dyeing, I highly recommend Malka Dubrawsky's Color Your Cloth! All of the fabrics in the above image were dyed using Procion MX cold water dyes!

Disclaimer: I am not an expert when it comes to dyeing. I have learned some tricks and tips while experimenting on my own, but please exercise caution when working with dyes. Keep small children and pets away from dye baths and supplies. Dye is permanent and will stain clothes and tile grout. It will temporarily stain bathtubs, but can usually be cleaned up pretty easily with bleach-based cleaning products. Use your best judgement and consult the RIT website for more information on their dyes.

Happy Dyeing!


SeeLifeMarvels said...

Just what I've been wanting to do. I remember reading your original posts with the Procion dyes, but never got around to purchasing supplies. You know, it was an "eventually" project. Thanks for the update with less expensive products as now I have a Spring Break activity that my children can "play" with too. Oh, what fun!

holly | bijou lovely said...

Awesome post Jeni! Your rainbow of hand dyed fabrics is pretty impressive :) We should have another dyeing weekend this summer/fall sometime!

ColleenaMareena said...

What a great tutorial! I can't wait to try it!

Do you usually serge or otherwise prepare the edges of your FQs? It seems to me that with all that washing and stirring and rinsing you'd have a lot of fraying!

Jeni Baker said...

Personally I don't! I'd rather trim off the frayed edges when I'm done, but you certainly could serge them if you like!

Kristi - Put a Quilt on It said...

Great post. Thanks for all the details and the beautiful photos. I'm very inspired to give this a shot. Have you sewn anything lately with all of your hand dyed fabrics?

marslaura said...

Thank you for posting such a clear and simple outline of how you use both the cold water baths and the rit dyes. I appreciate the information from your experience in comparing these two dyes. I am just beginning to play with dye techniques and LOVE it! I wonder if you have heard of using various starchy foods as resists? These are reportedly ones that work well: flour, oats, grits, potato dextrin, mashed potatoes? I have not tried it yet. If you do a google search on fabric art with mashed potatoes you will find several links to magazine articles on this from Quilting Arts and Interweave as well as several great blogs posting about these! HAVE FUN AND GOOD LUCK!!!

Jeni Baker said...

I haven't yet!

Jeni Baker said...

Thanks! I have but haven't tried any yet!

Dianne said...

You do such wonderful tutorials. I have read a lot about dyeing over the years but this is the first time I actually feel like I could tackle it! Thanks so much.

2paw said...

Thank you, I did try some dyeing last year but the fabric faded with washing. Now I see where I went wrong. So many greens, I love them, and the resist dyeing too. I shall never want for green material again!!!

Sew and Sow Farm said...

Wow! Jeni! That is a very impressive group of hand dued fabrics! I have to give this a try! The possibilities are endless! Thank you for posting this tutorial. Hope it stays up for awhile!lol

Mademoiselle Marie said...

You make dying sound so easy and fun - I haven't tried it - yet - but I've bought some undyed yarn to try dying with kool aid. After seeing this post I have to try dying some fabrics, too! I hope dying with kool aid also works on fabrics...

Sharon Dawn said...

Great ideas! I have never heard of using glue! I love your color wheel!! Wonderful colors! Thanks for sharing!

sarah elizabeth :: {no} hats said...

Love this rainbow spread! I definitely need to get my {chemist} sister to help out with this ;)

pizzaeater said...

Thank you for the great tutorial. I have been wanting to dye fabric but fearful of the toxic aspect of dying. I am definitely going to try Rit dying now!

Angel said...

Have you ever tried batiking with corn meal mush? I have this page bookmarked for it, but haven't tried it yet: http://tashanda-africa.blogspot.com/2009/05/how-to-make-sadza-batik-tutorial.html It seems to produce a much more traditional cracked organic looking resist, as opposed to the more modern style Malka embraces. =) Happy dyeing!

AnneMarie said...

Wow - what a wealth of information! I would love to try this some day. I should start collecting those white on white prints.

Unknown said...

I sooo love this!!1 I am a girl scout leader and this is EXACTLY what I have been looking for!!! Do you think the glue would withstand tie-dying?

Unknown said...

hey!! in your experience, what dye brand/color should i use to get a very saturated cranberry red color… almost ruby red?


CivilDoor said...

Great article! Are you saying the Elmer's glue method is better than the wax method? Also, does the Elmer's glue wash off afterwords in the washing machine?


Jeni Baker said...

The Elmer's glue is definitely better than the wax crayons, but the traditional beeswax/paraffin method yields the best results for sure! The Elmer's glue washes right out in the sink or wash!

Ashlyn said...

Do you peel the school glue off after dyeing the fabric or does it just come off in the wash or some other technique?

Jeni Baker said...

It comes off in the wash!

Unknown said...

I have a couple of questions. How does the glue come off after? What dye would you recommend for a panty hose type fabric? Lastly, if you only wanted to dye inside the shape, how would you do that? I'm trying to make patterned butterfly wings for a costume.

Jeni Baker said...

The glue is washable, it comes off with water. I'm not sure, it would depend on the fiber content of the fabric. I'd recommend painting it on rather than dyeing it.

Kelly Wilson said...

Your glue gun experiment gave me an idea - rather than using it and submersing (which sadly didn't work) in a dye bath, maybe it would work with a mist of color applied over time? Or as a resist to a light spray of bleach? As long as the fabric never got too damp. I'll have to experiment!

janetts said...

I'm wondering if it would work to apply glue with a rubber stamp. Has anyone tried that?

Melanie said...

What type of fabric are you dying? Can't wait to try this with my girls :)

Jeni Baker said...

I'm not sure! I think just make sure there is enough glue on the stamp.

Jeni Baker said...

All of the fabrics I dyed in this post are quilting cottons!

Jeni Baker said...

That's a great idea!

Jenny said...

Does your fabric have to be white in order to dye it? I have brown cushions that I want to make blue

Jeni Baker said...

You could try dyeing it, but the brown would affect the final color, especially if it's a dark brown. The only way to ensure you get a true blue is to start with something white!