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Fabric Dyeing

orange fabric swatchHand-dyed fabrics are very popular in the quilting and sewing world today because they can provide a range of fabrics in the same color family, or can have interesting patterns and shapes created by folding and manipulating the fabric before it is dyed or by over-dyeing or painting the dyes to achieve specific effects. There are several different methods of dyeing such as, which includes the vat dyeing and the soda ash soak techniques; and direct applications which include dye painting, stenciling, printing, spraying, splattering, and stamping. Each method produces one or more unique effects that you can incorporate into your fabric arts. I will concentrate on the different types of immersion dyeing because they are the methods that I find produce the effects I that I want for my projects at this time. Procion MX fiber-reactive dyes work well for me because of their versatility, availability and economy.

Fiber-reactive dyes are formulated to work on natural fibers such as cotton, rayon, linen, silk, wood and rattan (Let's see - gray hair = natural fiber - hmmmm, I wonder?). They will not work on synthetic or synthetic-blend fabrics. The dye bath produces a chemical change that creates a permanent bond between the dye molecules and the fiber molecules, resulting in bright, light-fast colors. Since the dye actually bonds to the fabric rather than sitting on the top of the fabric, it does not affect the hand or feel of the fabric like fabric paints do.

There are several places that sell PFD (prepared for dyeing) fabrics but don't overlook your local fabric stores. They carry many fabrics that will dye wonderfully well and give good results. Don't limit your choices - experiment with dyeing different fabrics and patterns.

These dyes produce pure, transparent color so the color of the fabric you are dyeing will create color differences - white fabric will yield clear, bright colors but ecru muslin will give more muted colors. Experiment, experiment, experiment! And have fun but do be aware that you can become totally addicted to the process - sometimes to the extent that you never get to the point of using the fabrics because it is so fascinating to make them. Different strengths of dye-stocks can give anything from pastels to brilliant, exciting colors and manipulating the fabric in different ways can create unique and wonderful patterns. Some of my favorites have been the result of serendipity - not at all what I was aiming for but perfect in a different project.

Some sources say Procion dyes are considered relatively non-toxic but I urge you to obtain and read the Material Safety Data Sheet before using them. (Anyone who sells the dyes should be able to supply the MSDS.) Then practise these basic safety precautions:

Clean-up is very easy. Simply wash utensils and/or washing machine with soap and water. I found that it was much easier for me to put a layer of building plastic down on the floor and on the counters since I do tend to be just the teensiest bit messy. The dye will wash off counters easily with a cleanser with bleach but it's easier for me just to fold up the plastic and take it outside to hose it off after soaking up most of the spills with scrap fabric. This can create interesting new pieces of fabric to use.

Fiber-reactive dyes may be safely poured down the drain but if you have a septic system and have added soda ash (makes the solution alkaline) or vinegar or acidic acid (makes the solution acidic), you should neutralize the solution by adding vinegar to an alkaline solution or soda ash to an acidic solution to avoid upsetting the balance of the septic system. You can purchase PH test strips to test the solution before you pour it down the drain.

On those occasions when none of the fabulous fabrics available today is just exactly what you are looking for, you can now dye your own.

References for this section are:

Hand-Dyed Fabric Made Easy by Adriene Buffington
Complex Cloth: A Comprehensive Guide to Surface Design by Jane Dunnewold
Dharma Trading Catalogue
Pickled Fabric Workshop by StoneyRidgeRags

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All images and text are © Marilyn Nepper and any use is forbidden except with the express permission of the owner.