Preparing plant based fabric for tie dyeing using Procion fiber reactive dyes

In most of the dyeing techniques I explore, I use plant based fibers.  The list of choices is ever expanding, as new developments in the use of plants for cloth fibers evolves.  Bearing that in mind, I formed the below list of fibers currently used to produce fabrics and clothing.

  • Cotton
  • Linen
  • Rayon
  • Hemp
  • Bamboo
  • Ramie
  • Modal
  • Pineapple
  • Viscose
  • Blends of the above list

My preference is for 100% cotton, since it is grown in the region of the US where I live.  Rayon dyes beautifully, and rayon linen blends are a favorite of mine, too.  Where you live other materials and blends may be more common and you will develop your personal preferences.

Any fabric or garment of plant origin must be prepared to accept the dye for the chemical bond to occur and for permanent color to be achieved.  A few simple steps before hand are required.

  1.  Machine wash and dry using the manufacturer’s recommendation, omitting fabric softeners or dryer sheets.
  2. Test the fabric’s receptiveness after drying by spritzing with cold water.  If the water beads up, not readily soaking into the material, repeat step 1, this time adding about 1/2 cup of sodium carbonate to the wash tub.
  3. Mix 1 – 1.25 cups of sodium carbonate (soda ash) per gallon of warm water in a deep plastic pail.  This is best accomplished by measuring the water into the bucket first, then adding the sodium carbonate to the water slowly while stirring. ** Wear gloves when handling sodium carbonate and a mask while mixing it into water.**   This mixture is called pre-soak.  It has a shelf life of forever, and can be used until gone.  Left over pre-soak should be stored in a covered container and labeled!
  4. Loosely submerge items to be dyed in the bucket of pre-soak, making certain everything is pushed down into the pre-soak with no air bubbles holding items out of the liquid.
  5. Wait at least 30 minutes, but no longer than two days.
  6. Wearing gloves, thoroughly wring out the material to be dyed over the bucket of pre-soak.
  7. Place items in the washing machine set to spin only.  By spinning the pre-soaked fabric, excess water is removed, resulting in even absorption of the dye. If the spin cycle on the machine sprays water, try to skip past that feature, or turn off the water during the spin.
  8. Place spun items in clean plastic bags, sealing until you are ready to bind.

An important word or two about sodium carbonate.  

Sodium carbonate is a salt compound frequently used in swimming pools to raise the pH balance of the water.  It is also known as washing soda or soda ash.  All three terms mean the same and are used interchangably by dyers.  It can be purchased where pool and spa chemicals are sold, and on the detergent isle of most grocery stores.  It is the fixative that causes the dye molecule to bond with the fiber molecule to create permanent color that will not wash away in repeated laundering.  IT IS HIGHLY CAUSTIC!! Direct contact with sodium carbonate can burn the skin, irritate mucus membranes, and cause respiratory distress. Its adverse impact is cumulative, so some folks can handle it for a few years and then develop life long sensitivity.  Read the label and heed the warnings.  Keep away from children at all times.  If you get it on you, wash it off at once.  NEVER allow sodium carbonate to enter a sewage septic system as it will upset the pH balance and cause the system to not perk.  NEVER pour sodium carbonate onto the ground, as the high salt content kills vegetation.


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