As promised, here’s the first installment in my series of tutorials on dyeing fabric. This first method is a really simple way to create beautiful, organic looking patterning on fabric. To me, the results are eye-catching without verging too far into 1960s psychedelic tie-dye territory. But you can adjust the degree of patterning as well, to make something more subtle, like the blue and green fabrics in this photo.
Note: All of the measurements below are in the English system of measurement. If you live in a country that uses a different system, please know that it’s very easy to convert measurements using Google: just type something like “convert 1/2 tsp to ml” in the search box.
Step 1: Assembling your supplies
Here is what you will need:
- MX dye powder in the color(s) of your choice – also called “fiber reactive” or “Procion MX” dye. I use dyes from Dharma Trading Company.
- Fabric made from natural fibers. Cellulose-based fibers such as cotton and linen work best. Silk will work, but the colors may not be as vibrant. Synthetic fabrics will not work at all with MX dyes. I’m using plain white quilting-weight cotton here.
- Soda ash – can be purchased from a dye company or at a pool supply store
- A large (2 gallon or larger) bucket
- A mason jar with a lid, or some other sturdy container that can be shaken and won’t leak
- Small containers such as tupperware or yogurt cups
- Measuring cups and spoons – keep them separate from the set you use for cooking!
- Plastic spoons or popsicle sticks for stirring dyes
- An old towel to cover your workspace
- A dust mask and rubber gloves
- A washing machine
- Textile detergent (optional) – get it here
Step 2: Preparing the fabric
Commercial fabric needs to be washed before dyeing, to remove chemicals (similar to starch) that have been applied to facilitate the weaving process. You can buy something called “prepared for dyeing” (PFD) fabric, although some sellers still recommend that you wash it first. So run your fabric through the washing machine with a small amount of detergent.
Cut or rip your fabric into the size pieces you want to dye. In my photos I’m using fat quarters (yards of fabric cut in half by length and width). Save this step for after you wash your fabric, to minimize fraying.
Next, fill your bucket with hot water from the tap, and add the soda ash. Use 1/2 cup of soda ash per gallon of water. (One gallon is enough to soak about a yard of fabric, so scale up or down as needed.) Stir well to dissolve, and then submerge your fabric in the solution. Let it soak for at least 15 minutes. While you’re waiting, you can go on to the next step.
Step 3: Mixing the dye solution
The amount of dye powder and water you need varies according to how much fabric you’re dyeing and how saturated you want the color to be. For a fat quarter, I mix 1/4 cup of water and up to 1/2 teaspoon of dye powder (for the most saturated color). It’s not a bad idea to err on the side of less dye powder when you’re first trying this, because if you use too much, the fabric will take a long time to rinse, and that can be annoying.
Put on your dust mask and gloves, and put the towel down on your work surface. Measure out the dye powder into the mason jar and hot water from the tap into your measuring cup. Add a small amount of the water to the dye powder, and stir it to dissolve any lumps and make a smooth paste. Add the rest of the water, screw on the lid, and shake the container to dissolve the powder. Really shake it well!
You can take off your dust mask after you put the lid back on the dye powder. Keep the gloves on.
Step 4: Applying the dye solution to the fabric
Now for the fun part! Scrunch up your fabric tightly and put it in your small container. Pour the dye over it. If you like, massage the fabric to incorporate the dye. IMPORTANT: the more you massage it, the more you’ll get an even color with less obvious patterning. If you want a dramatic pattern, just massage it a little bit.
Note: If you want to mix multiple colors of dye powder, you can either mix them and pour them on separately, or you can mix the dye solutions together before pouring them on. It depends on whether you want different colors (as opposed to just different intensities of the same color) in the final result; see below for some examples.
Step 5: Finishing
Let the fabric sit in the dye solution for 24 hours. I like to flip the fabric over a few times during this period, since I think the process of the dye moving slowly through the fabric enhances the patterning effects.
After the 24 hours, fill your bucket back up with cold water and mix in a little detergent. Professional textile detergent helps to keep any excess dye in the water and away from your fabric during rinsing. The blue colored Dawn dishwashing liquid also works for this, or you can just use your normal detergent. Rinse out your fabrics, doing one color at a time and rinsing out the bucket between each color. Try to remove as much excess dye at this stage as you can.
Wash the fabrics in the washing machine using hot water. To be safe, wash dark and light colors separately. Line dry or machine dry the fabrics, and you are done!
Here are some close-ups of the resulting fabric. The orange and green fabrics were made by mixing the dyestocks (yellow + red, and yellow + blue) before applying them to the fabric, whereas the two purple fabrics were made by pouring different amounts of red and blue dyestock separately onto the fabric.
What do you think? I’m partial to modern geometric prints for quilting, but I think a combination of dyed fabrics like these against a more neutral background, like a dark gray, could create something really striking. What about you? Would you use fabrics like these in your sewing and quilting projects? If so, I hope you give this method a try, and let me know how it goes!
In the next tutorial I’ll cover an even easier method of making patterned fabric: sun printing!