Up Cycling with Fiber Reactive Dyes


BedSpread Up Cycled with Dye

“Up Cycling is the art of transforming something old and funky into something new and funky”, said Ruth in 2009.

Have you been curious about the name of this blog and my business?  Since I am an up cycler, and a dyer, the two art forms are pulled together in a quirky name that also reveals my hill billy roots.  Growing up in Appalachia, the phrase ‘up and died’ referred to an unexpected, untimely, natural death,  such as, “Earl was out hoeing in the cotton patch and just up and died, leaving Earlene with the farm to run and all them younguns to raise.”  Or, the phrase can mean the sensation of a shameful experience, as in “When I saw Little Earl pickin’ his nose during his Pa’s funeral, I ’bout up and died!”  Or, the term might refer to the aftermath of a highly amusing incident, such as, ” Remember that time Earl Junior got stuck in the hay baler?  I laughed so hard I nearly up and died!” So a little mountain terminology history, a dab of humor, and three words that describe exactly what I do as a fiber artist.

Up cycling is a relatively new term for an old-time tradition of re-purposing discarded household wares into new usable items.  Some fiber related examples that leap to mind are patchwork quilting, rag weaving, braiding rugs, using feed sacks to make garments, and remaking clothes to fit a younger sibling or cousin.  Dolly Parton (another Appalachian) immortalized up cycling with her ballad  “Coat of Many Colors” about her mother making a winter coat from multicolored rags.  My Daddy tells of wearing under drawers his mother made from flour sacks in the 1930s.  The new era of up cycling stems, in part, from  artists seeking beauty and functionality in worn out, discarded items, and the Green Living movement.  I recently read that 85% of the clothing purchased in the USA is discarded EVERY YEAR.  What a wasteful society we have become!

There is a great deal of satisfaction for me as an up cycler and an artist in rejuvenating a stained or discolored garment with fiber reactive dyes.  The transforming of a “ruined” piece of clothing into a fun, colorful ‘new’ piece of wearable art is both challenging and exciting.  Patrons frequently bring me items they consider unwearable and I barter store credit with them.  Often after I have up cycled the clothing, those same patrons will buy their own clothes back!  Many up cycling tie dyers scour yard sales and thrift shops for items to revive with dye treatments.  Here are a few tips about what to look for, what to avoid, and how to deal with the unknowns.

Seek garments or linens made from plant fibers, including but not limited to:

  • Cotton
  • Linen/Flax
  • Rayon
  • Hemp
  • Bamboo
  • Viscose
  • Ramie
  • Modal
  • Pineapple
  • Sisal
  • Jute
  • Rattan
  • Raffia
  • Blends of any of the above list

Inspect all  snaps, buttons, buckles, and zippers for functionality.  Sometimes minor repairs can be made, such as replacing a missing button, or sewing up an open seam. But replacing a zipper, or broken snap is a lot of trouble and probably not worth the time and effort. Look for thin areas by holding the garment or bedding up to the sun or a bright light.  Check the collar and cuffs for frays.  Turn the garment in side out during the inspection and check all the seams, especially in high friction areas that are frequently stretched or stressed.  Do not be concerned about ink marks, stains, or discolorations, as those will be concealed under the dye application.

Check the fiber content on the label, as well as any other information offered.  All new garments and yard goods have a product sprayed on during the manufacturing process at the mill called ‘sizing’.  It is a starch- based substance that keeps garments and yard goods wrinkle- free on the rack or shelf.  Sizing washes away in the first laundering of the garment.  But there is another chemical substance frequently used in the garment, fabric, and bedding industry that is invisible and can not be removed called ‘permanent press’, also known as  dura-press, perm-a-press, no iron, and easy care.  Permanent press came into being in the mid 1950s and revolutionized the household chore of ironing.  It keeps garments and linens from wrinkling in the laundry.  House wives love it.  Dyers, not so much.  Permanent press creates a chemical barrier that is difficult to dye through.  Fabrics treated with permanent press dye very blotchy, and uneven, absorbing the dye poorly.  How can permanent press be detected, since it can’t be seen and is not always noted on the tag or label?  Machine wash and dry the suspect item.  If it comes out of the dryer mostly wrinkle free, it has been treated with permanent press and is therefore unsuitable for dyeing.  If it comes out in a big wrinkly mess, it is suitable for dyeing.

Often the fiber content label or tag is missing, or illegible, from a used garment, leaving the tie dyer unsure if the item is appropriate for dyeing with fiber reactive dyes.  A simple burn test might help in the determining fiber content, thus, dye-ability.

Snip or pull a strand or two from an inside seam or hem.  Not the thread with which the item is constructed, but part of the woven material.  You might have to use a needle to pick out a strand from within the stitching.  In a shallow metal container (I use a retired metal lid) burn the strand of fibers taking note of the residue remaining after the burn and the odor as it burns.

  1. Plant based fibers that are suitable for dyeing with fiber reactive dyes will burn very quickly, leave a whitish ash residue, and smell like burning paper.
  2. Synthetic fibers not suitable for dyeing will almost flash burn, leave a hard bead-like residue, and smell like burning plastic, or chemical-like.
  3. Animal origin fibers suitable for dyeing using ONLY acid based dyes will burn more slowly, leave a substantial greyish ash, and smell like burning hair.

I recommend conducting some trials until you are familiar with the results of burn testing.  Blends of natural and synthetic fibers generally burn as synthetic.

Now that you have ascertained that your second-hand find is suitable for dyeing,

  • Machine wash and dry, adding 1/2 cup sodium carbonate to the washer load.  Omit any fabric softeners or dryer sheets.
  •  Pre-soak in a sodium carbonate solution  for 20-30 minutes, as described in an earlier blog.
  • Tie and dye with fiber reactive dyes, as desired.
  • Batch for 12 to 24 hours.
  • Wash out excess dye and machine launder.

Please note that although previously worn and laundered items will cause the pre-soak solution to discolor and become smelly, the performance of the pre-soak solution is not affected.

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





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