Monday, January 9, 2012

Adventures in Dyeing

Like most of my experiments, my fabric dyeing results are always interesting and unexpected.

Since I’m not trying to produce anything in particular, I just use good old Rit. It’s inexpensive and the Rit website has a fun color guide where you can click on any color and get the dye recipe.

My first experiment was with ombre dyeing. Let me suggest that if you want to do ombre dyeing, use a lightweight fabric or garment. I had an old bathrobe which was made of cotton brocade, lined with French terry! When this thing gets wet, it weighs at least 15 pounds.

The robe was white, and although it was elegant many years ago, white is not a good color for my lifestyle, especially in the mornings when I’m drinking coffee, feeding dogs, watering plants, and the like. So a bright color was called for.

A Tequila Sunrise was my inspiration, partly because I wear the robe at sunrise, and also because I love the color combination: violet red to orange to peachy-yellow.

The first step was easy – I just dyed the entire robe in the washing machine using yellow with a drop of red for the lightest color. The remaining color layers had to be done in the sink, and that’s when things got difficult. I had nothing from which to suspend the robe, so I had to hold it up with one hand while stirring the dye with the other. I submerged the lower half of the robe and sleeves into a red-orange mixture for 20 minutes, and then rinsed it in cold water. Finally I dunked the bottom 8 to 10 inches into a violet dye and let it absorb upwards. At this point I realized what should have been obvious: purple and yellow make BROWN, not purple. So I had a muddy rust color at the hem where I’d hoped for a deep maroon violet.

After washing and drying, I was pleased overall with the results, even if I did have brown instead of violet. It was a bit bright though, and sometimes I don’t want to see that much vivid color first thing in the morning!

Well I didn’t have to worry about that, because the next time I washed it, I must have used hot water, because half of the dye ran out.

It is now a light salmon color fading into apricot at the top. I love it, even though it was completely different from what I’d planned.

My next project, a few months later, was to give some old shirts a new life. A couple of white cotton tees and an old Indian cotton tunic went into the machine with kelly green dye and a few drops of yellow.

The result was this medium green – it’s brighter than olive, darker than chartreuse, and I don’t know what to call it. But I like it. It’s especially nice that the rayon threads in the embroidery on the tunic picked up the dye so well. Yippee! New shirts!

Most recently I was looking for some background fabric for embroidery and I got some very helpful advice from my readers: linen and medium weight cotton are the best! I just happened to have some scraps of a natural-colored, medium weight cotton-linen blend. It’s a bit slubby and uneven, and considering my stitching, a little texture in the background can’t hurt. Of course I can’t leave well enough alone, so I decided to do a little dyeing.

I wanted a water-color effect in earth and sky shades, so that the background would look like a distant landscape behind the embroidery subject. Instead of attempting ombre again, I decided to paint the colors on. I diluted blue, teal, light green, dark green, and brown, ¼ teaspoon liquid dye to 1 cup of boiling water, and painted the watery dyes onto the fabric with regular bristle brushes. When the fabric was soaked with color, I wadded it up and put it into a plastic bag, put it in the microwave, and cooked it for 2 minutes on high.

After washing and drying, here are the two dyed pieces, compared with some undyed material. I think these will be ideal for my project.

A few lessons from my brief experience in fabric dyeing:

For dip-dyeing such as ombre or tie dye, arrange your work area so that you can hang your garment from something – a tree branch, a hook in the ceiling – so you don’t have to hold it up with your hand.

With Rit, the final color will be much lighter than it looks in the dyeing tub or on the wet garment. After washing, drying, and pressing, my colors were pale versions of the color on the dye packages.

Remember basic color theory! A color mixed with its complement will result in mud. Even applying a concentrated dark color over a light pastel will result in a blend of the two.

Expect the unexpected. It’s best to experiment with items you’re not invested in. If you must have a specific color, it might be better to consult with experts at a place like Dharma Trading to be sure you have the right formulation for your fabric.

And of course, follow all dye instructions and take sensible preventive measures such as wearing gloves and old clothes, and rinsing all sinks, washers, and tools immediately after using dye.

Have you dyed anything recently?



  1. Interesting stuff.
    I've used Dylon dye lots. But not so imaginatively as your items. I love the dip dyed bathrobe.
    Wish I felt up to wearing tie dye. I still like it but not for me these days I fear. Dip dying looks like the way forward.

  2. I have two dip dyed slip dresses that I like to wear on hot summer days around the house. I did not make them, but they have inspired me to try to make some myself. I appreciate your insight; I had no idea about any of this! The only dying I have done in the past is to breath new life into something that has been stained, using the washing machine.
    Your fabric to embroider on is stunning; I can't wait to see what you make with it!

  3. Asparagus green.

    (In case you can't tell, I spent most of the afternoon reading your blog. :-)

  4. Hey Bro, awesome resource for colors, thanks. Okay, asparagus I can live with.
    Glad you found something entertaining to while away the hours. Come back anytime!

  5. awesome dress. so colorful .We have a great collection of African fabrics. Visit us hope you guys love them.
    Sequin Fabrics