Dye Thickening Agents


The first 15 years of my career using procion fiber reactive dyes, I unknowingly limited my artistic flexibility and growth as a fiber artist.  When I began using dye thickeners, a whole new avenue of control over the medium was opened for me to explore.  The use of thickeners gives the dyer control over  spreading and absorption of the dye products, allowing for far greater versatility of direct application.

I must share this story with you to help you understand the full value of today’s blog.  In the early 1990s, I began to produce a very popular design, the Peace Symbol.  My first peace symbols were SO bad, that a family purchased one at a festival thinking it was an ‘Earth’!  I worked on the technique for the peace symbol, got it looking better, clearer, crisper.  At the same time, I began marketing ‘earth’ shirts, by making a blue sphere filled with green blobs.  It was a very weak interpretation of the globe, but patrons recognized the image, so I continued  marketing that creation for several years.  Until I discovered the wonders of using a dye thickener.


There are basically two products from which to choose.  Both are available from Dharma Trading Company in various quantities.  I recommend purchasing a small quantity of each, and evaluate the performance of each in several projects.   Both agents have their advantages and disadvantages:

  • Sodium Alginate is derived from seaweed, sold under the name Manutex, is all natural, does not affect the shelf life of the dyes, is very economical,  and is formulated for use with cotton (HV), or with silk (LV).  The disadvantage is that it is sold in a granulated form and must be mixed with water and then allowed to thicken for several hours before using.  It also has a oceany odor that might be offensive to some folks.
  • SuperClear is ready to use directly from the container, is odorless and clear, mixes readily with the dye.  However, it is expensive, and in my experience, it exhausts the dye mix very quickly.  It is best used for quick projects requiring only small amounts of thickened dye.  SuperClear is a synthetic product.

Normally, I stock both products in my studio, but primarily use sodium alginate to thicken fiber reactive dyes.

To prepare and use sodium alginate:

  1. Measure 1 cup of  hot tap water into a deep, wide-mouthed container.
  2. Using a submersible blender, begin stirring the water.
  3. Slowly add one to two Tablespoons of the granules as the blender is running.
  4. Continue blending as the liquid thickens, about 45 seconds.
  5. Stop blending and immediately rinse the blender head.
  6. Allow the mixture to cool and thicken for several hours before use.
  7. Divide the mixture into small, lidded containers, one for each color of dye.  Left over sodium alginate can be stored in a sealed container in the refrigerator for several days.
  8. Stir liquid dye into the small container until the desired consistency is achieved.  Test the spreadability of the resulting mixture by dripping onto a paper towel.  Wait 30 seconds to evaluate the spreading.  Water can be added to thin the consistency.
  9.  A thin mixture, similar to syrup, will slow the spread of the dye and can be used in a syringe or squeeze bottle.
  10.  A very thick mixture, similar to mayonnaise, will stop the spread of the dye, and can be used with a paint brush or sponge or stamp, or in a squeeze bottle.
  11. Use on fabric presoaked in sodium carbonate, left slightly damp.  If the fabric is dry, spritz with water first to aid in absorption.
  12. Store leftovers in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator.
  13. Shelf life is about one week, with blues and greens exhausting quickest.
  14. Wash tools used in sodium alginate in warm soapy water, with clear rinse.

To use SuperClear:

  1. Pour a small amount of SuperClear into each applicator bottle, shaking to mix,  to slow the spread of the dye.
  2. Use on fabric presoaked in sodium carbonate solution, slightly damp.  If the fabric is dry, spritz with water to aid in absorption.
  3. To stop the spreading completely pour 2-3 ounces of SuperClear in a small, lidded container.
  4. Mix liquid dye into the SuperClear a teaspoon at a time until the desired consistency is achieved to stop the spreading.
  5. Dry dye powder can also be mixed into SuperClear for deep, intense color.  Much stirring is required to dissolve dye powder into the gel.
  6. Test spreadability by dripping onto a paper towel.  Wait 30 second before evaluating the spread.
  7. Use with a brush, sponge, or stamp, or in a squeeze bottle.
  8. Shelf life of SuperClear mixed with dye is about 24-48 hours, with blues and greens exhausting most quickly.
  9. SuperClear can be saved in a tightly sealed container.
  10. SuperClear with dye solution added can be saved in a tightly sealed container, but hardens into a plastic-like substance if left in brushes or sponges that can not be removed.  Wash tools in warm soapy water and rinse in clear water to maintain suppleness.


Thickened dyes can be used as an enhancement to tie dye, by adding features such as facial features, pupils to eyes, or accents.


Thickened dyes can be used in batik (wax resist) to ‘paint’ images that are then coated with melted wax.  After the wax has hardened, the background of the garment is dyed.


The dye spreading is slowed to fill in areas between the wax applications, creating multi shades in the layering process of batik.


Used as a paint, the dye can be applied with brushes to produce crisp images, subtle shading, with no bleeding of colors at all.


Because the thickener washes away, leaving only the dyed fibers, the resulting product is just as soft and pliable as the original fabric.  Unlike a painted surface, the ‘hand’ or feel of the fabric is unchanged by using thickening agents.  A white plastic ice tray makes a great  container, or palette tray for small amounts of thickened dyes.  Wash out brushes or sponges after each color change in warm water, and in warm soapy water at the end of a dyeing session.

I hope you found this information useful.  If so, please consider making a donation to help keep my site advertisement free.






Filed under How to, Using Fiber Reactive Dyes

5 responses to “Dye Thickening Agents

  1. Well done Ruth! You have created an amazing blog here, so generously sharing everything a person needs to know about dyeing. I look forward to each new blog post you write. Please feel free to share links to your blog posts in “The Dyers Studio” group on Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/groups/ProcionMxandEcoDyeing/

  2. Thanks for the post! I am getting ready to dye a baby wrap and want to draw birds on it. Is there certain dyes that this will not work with? Any specific dye it works best with? Thank you 🙂

  3. Sybella

    Thanks for this it has helped me get another style of designing clothes I’m going to try it doing it African way I love it because it’s simple. I’m also inquiring if it doesn’t fade away and the mistakes I would make with this so as It wouldn’t give me a good product

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