For many years I traveled the Southeast region of the US, marketing tie dyed and batik clothing at music and art festivals. My patrons ranged from television personalities, to government officials, to hippies, to young families, to the festival organizers themselves, and everyone in between. For the three years my studio was open to the public, visitors would often pull up a chair to watch me work. All those diverse people had the same question,”How do you keep the colors separate from each other?”
Apparently, it is a common misconception that modern tie dyeing is done by dunking the bound clothing into buckets of dye. While tie dyeing can be done by submerging the tied garment, it is a messy and undependable method. To achieve the intricate patterns, with crisp brilliant colors, most tie dyers use a technique called direct application.
Direct application gives the tie dyer control of both the volume and placement of the dye solution. For the first few years of my tie dyeing career I used syringes to apply the dye. Available in a wide range of sizes, syringes give the ability to push the dye into the tight folds of the bound item. The dye solution is held in small cups, with a syringe for each color. For me, the disadvantages were cramped muscles in my hands, and tipped over cups. Eventually, arthritis, coupled with the muscular cramping, influenced me to use squeeze bottles for direct application.
The advantages of squeeze bottles are many. Bottles are easy to fill, and come in wide variety of shapes and sizes. They are quick to clean up for dye color changes. The spouts are universal, can be replaced, and provide good control. Many times the spout’s flow can be adjusted with the snip of the scissors. Bottles are relatively inexpensive, and can be reclaimed from previous uses. Have a friend who styles hair? Have him or her save hair coloring bottles for you. One of the biggest disadvantages of bottles is, over time, the caps can begin to leak. Leaky bottles are easily remedied by wrapping the neck threads with plumber’s tape.
Other choices for direct application include, but are not limited to, eye droppers, bulb style medication dispensers, pipettes, sponges, and brushes. For fine, detail work, my preference is an eye dropper, but I still rely on syringes occasionally. I suggest you try several delivery methods to discover what works best for you. Like me, you will probably use several different types, for different purposes.
Assemble the equipment and supplies needed for dyeing by direct application.
- Old newspapers
- Cooling racks for baked goods, or other washable mesh or grid surface
- Drip trays to place under the racks
- Bottles of dye solution
- White paper towels
- Pre-soaked, tied up items to be dyed
Begin by covering the work area with newspaper, several layers in thickness. Have one clean drip rack and drip tray for each item to be dyed. By placing the item to be dyed on a rack over a drip pan the ‘puddle and muddle’ aspect of direct application is eliminated. Dye puddling beneath the item and muddling the colors together is best avoided. Rinse the racks and drip trays between uses.
Before applying the dye to the garment or fabric, drip out a spot of dye of each color you plan to use on a white paper towel. Place the drips close enough together that the colors bleed into one another. Why? Some colors make excellent next door neighbors, complimenting each other, or creating a new color that is pleasing. Other combinations, not so much. By testing compatibility on the paper towel, the risk of undesired ‘new’ colors is avoided. My workshop participants frequently tell me this method of dye color selection is their favorite part of the process. My apprentices save these paper towels in their binders to remember both the pleasing, and the not-so-pleasing color combinations.
- Once the dye colors are selected, and gloves are on, you are ready to dye.
- Place the tip of your fore finger over the spout of the bottle as it approaches the item to be dyed, thus avoiding unexpected squirts and splatters across your work.
- Using the bindings as a guide, saturate the area between the binding, one color at a time.
- Wait a few minutes, then saturate each area a second time. Most of the surface of the garment is bound tightly inside the folds or pleats. The nature of wicking and gravity pull the dye down into the fabric. Better dye penetration is achieved by two moderate applications, rather than one overwhelming application.
- Sandwich the dyed item by placing a second drip rack on top of the dyed side and flip the whole sandwich over, presenting the undyed side up.
- Dye the naked side to match the already dyed side, or not, depending on the design and the desired outcome.
- Allow to drip.
- When dripping has ceased, remove to a larger drip rack, or place in a plastic bag for batching.
What in the world is “Batching”?
Batching is a dyer’s term referring to the amount of time between dyeing the item and washing it out. It is the time period in which the slow chemical bonding takes place that produces bright, permanent color. Batching (sometimes called ‘curing’) requires the presence of moisture. Therefore the items need to remain damp for the chemical bonding to be completed. Many tie dyers wrap or seal the items in plastic bags. Because I live in a humid climate, I have never found bagging to be essential for my products. I do send my workshop students home with their items in a zip lock bag to batch, and to protect other surfaces in cars and homes from the dye. If you choose to batch in a plastic bag, do not squeeze or squish on the bags to avoid muddy the colors.
There is much variation of opinion in the tie dyeing world regarding batching methods and time. Almost as diverse as the tie dyers themselves! Years ago, I worked briefly with a more experienced tie dyer from a professional dye house in Memphis who batched for only 30- 60 minutes. Some dyers wait for 3-4 days before washing out their creations. The application of heat can speed the process, so some dyers advocate the use of microwave ovens, electric blankets, or other heating sources. In my studio, I batch for at least 12 hours, and rarely longer than 24 hours. I recommend to those of you new to tie dyeing to dye several items using different batching times and methods and decide for yourself what works best in your situation.
*Please note that a microwave oven used for batching must not ever be used for heating or cooking food again.*
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