Category Archives: Using Fiber Reactive Dyes

Keeping the white White

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Moon Tie Dye

A big challenge for most tie dyers is leaving no white, or undyed, areas.  An even bigger challenge is deliberately leaving an area white as part of the design, or in preparation of using the white area as a canvas for an additional design element. Several of my most popular shirts, such as my Moon and Snow Folks, have large white areas.  Frequently, I combine tie dye with ‘painting’ with fiber reactive dyes.  For the dye colors to yield true, a clean, white area is needed in which to paint.

Here is how the white area is kept white in my studio.

  • Pre soak the washed and dried garment in a solution of 1.25 cups of sodium carbonate and 1 gallon of water.
  • Wring, or spin in washer, until just damp.
  • Pleat in desired pattern.
  • Bind off the portion of the design intended to remain white with rubber bands, so tightly the bands will have to be cut off to remove.  I recommend rubber bands for this technique, rather than artificial sinew.  Why?  With rubber bands a great deal of resistance can be created due to the tension of stretched elastic.  
  • Using a zip lock- style plastic sandwich bag, cover the area.
  •  Zip the bag as far shut as possible.
  •  Wrap another rubber band tightly around the bag.
  • Place the tied item on a slanted drip rack, elevating the side of the rack nearest to the area to remain white.
  • Dye the  area nearest to the bagged portion by applying the dye close to the second band, allowing the dye to wick to the first band.
  • Batch for 12 -24 hours.

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  • Remove the bag from the protected region first, rinsing in cool water.
  • Rinse the entire item in cool water.
  • Unband under running cool water.  This first rinse should be thorough enough to remove all the sodium carbonate solution.
  • Soak the item(s) in hot soapy water for at least 5 minutes, but not longer than 15 minutes, with white areas sticking out of the soapy water.

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  • Rinse in cool water until waste water runs nearly clear.  At this point some back coloring might be evident.  If so, continue rinsing until the white is white again.

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  • Machine wash and line or tumble dry.

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Now the white area can be left white, or is available for further embellishment.

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Over Dyeing with Black

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Heather models a Rainbow Spiral Black Over Dye by Up and Dyed

One of the most enduring color combinations that I have marketed over the years is the Rainbow spectrum with a black over dye spiral, and its cousin, the black over dyed rainbow fan.

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Eric in a Rainbow Fan with Black Over Dye by Up and Dyed

Over Dyeing with black changes the entire dynamic of the rainbow spectrum, adding depth, contrast and motion to the eye-pleasing color sequence of the rainbow. It is common for patrons to ask if this process began with a black garment to achieve this end result.  No, it began life as a white garment. It is probably my most requested secret. If I had secrets.

Over dyeing with black is doing exactly that==  Applying black dye over fabric already dyed another color.  

  • Mix the black dye powder at the ratio of 1 Tblsp of dye powder and 1 Tblsp of table salt per 4 ounces of warm water.
  • Thickener can be added to the black dye to reduce spreading.
  • The garment is dyed to the saturation point on both sides in the 6 colors Yellow, Orange, Red, Purple, Blue, and Green.
  • Allow dyed item to batch for 10 minutes.
  • Apply a heavy over coat of black to ONE side of the garment.
  • Leave the item black side up on a drip rack.
  • Allow item to batch for 12 – 24 hours.
  • Wash out in very hot soapy water.

Another method for over dyeing with black is to dye or tie dye a garment, wash it out, re-pre-soak, then re-tie using arashi shibori resist techniques.  The over dye with black in shibori creates stunning contrast.

Recently, a patron requested an earth with a black over dye rainbow fan.  I took pictures along the way to share with you.  My camera is not the best and I am a poor photographer, but perhaps the lesson is illustrated well enough to follow.

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  1. The globe was painted using thickened Turquoise and Kelly Green fiber reactive dyes on the waist of a pre-soaked tee shirt, directly below the sleeve.
  2. Shirt was allowed to batch for 48 hours or until the dye is completely dry.  
  3. Re-dampen garment with water in a spray bottle, protecting the globe image from the spray.
  4.   Accordion pleated around the globe.
  5. Place bindings about two inches a part, the length of the garment.

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Dye in the rainbow spectrum repeating pattern.

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Black dye covering one side.

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Finished product.

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Color Blending with Procion Fiber Reactive Dyes

 color wheel

There is a point in every tie dye workshop that I ask the group to name the three primary colors.   The group members usually bumble around and eventually come up with the right answers, only mildly embarrassing themselves when someone says “pink”.   In the world of fiber reactive dye the primaries are lemon yellow, fuchsia red, and turquoise.  All the secondary and tertiary colors are blended from the three primaries.  In the Beginner Tie Dye Workshop this discussion of colors and their relationship to each other on the color wheel leads to an exercise with white paper towels.  We drip out the three primaries dyes in a triangle and observe the colors bleed together forming the three secondary colors.  Using that color wheel concept, the students dye rainbow spiral Tee shirts.  Nice lesson for the beginner.

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Tie Dye Rainbow Spiral Tee Shirt in three primaries and three secondaries.

In the Advanced Level Workshop, we explore color blending in greater detail. Still using paper towels as  test palettes, we experiment by controlling the value, or depth, of color as  we blend.  Plan extra time when next you mix up a dye lot for the creation of a color mixing chart of your own.

  • Create a stock solution of the three primary colors of concentrated dye solution, carefully measuring or weighing the dye powder and measuring the warm water. Add salt or urea as needed. Use the dye distributor’s recommendations for yield to determine dye powder to water ratios.
  • Dilute the stock solution with water to one half strength for medium values of each color.
  • Lighten stock solution  in 4 ounce increments, making at least three values of each color, light, medium and dark.  Make cotton color swatches, or a paper towel journal.
  • Blend small amounts, 4 ounces at a time, until the desired ratio is achieved.
  • Write down the proportions!
  • Adding dye from lightest to darkest is the preferable mixing sequence when blending new colors.

 advanced color wheel

  • Adding black or weak black in small increments can deepen many dyes.  A light touch is required when adding black.

I found these color wheels by Googling “color wheel”. And you can probably find better ones, but I highly recommend you make your own, with your dyes.  Label with the formula you created.     Your own color wheel will become the corner-stone of your favorite color combinations.   Dye is too expensive to waste making mucky looking colors and odd combinations due to poor planning of color and color placement. Learn which colors provide harmony, blending well and which ones provide pleasing contrast.  Explore ‘warm’ verses ‘cool’ colors.  Practice for hours, all on the safety of  paper towels before making final selections  on a project.  A well recorded history of your dye mixing experiments provides a valuable reference for future projects and ideas.

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Dye Thickening Agents

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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

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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.

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Dye Application and the Mystery of Batching

 

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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.

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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
  • Gloves

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.

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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.

  1. Once the dye colors are selected, and gloves are on, you are ready to dye.
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  3.  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.  
  4. Using the bindings as a guide, saturate the area between the binding, one color at a time.  
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  6. 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.
  7. 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.
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  9. Dye the naked side to match the already dyed side, or not, depending on the design and the desired outcome.       
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  11. Allow to drip.
  12. 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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Mixing fiber reactive dyes

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After a few years of mixing dyes by hand, I splurged, purchasing a submersible blender, AKA a cocktail blender. This handy little appliance costs about $10 and can be found at most department stores.  I am on my fourth one, which I bought in the after Christmas clearance at Walgreens for $3.  Friends, it is worth the investment!!  I have several traditional blenders gathering dust in the studio, because a submersible is so much faster, easier, and clean up is minimal.

Begin by assembling all the equipment and supplies needed.

  •   Deep, wide-mouthed containers, one for each color.  I am partial to retired peanut butter jars.
  • Measuring implements.
  • Procion fiber reactive dyes
  • Urea (optional)
  • Salt
  • Dust mask
  • Latex or vinyl gloves
  • Funnel
  • Squeeze bottles, syringes, eye droppers, or pipettes.  I now use squeeze bottles exclusively due to arthritis.
  • Old newspapers
  • White paper towels

A word or two about Procion Fiber Reactive Dyes

The dye is sold in a powdered form and can be purchased from several sources on-line.  All of the dye distributors have their merits and similar products.  I do not recommend kits from craft stores or department stores.  Dharma Trading Company offers kits for the beginner in a variety of sizes that are very affordable.  I was a long time customer of Dharma Trading Company, until discovering CustomColours based in North Carolina.  Although I still maintain an account with Dharma for purchasing many items, CustomColours offers the lowest prices for bulk dye purchases.

Once mixed with water, the dye has a limited shelf life, thus should be used within a few days. If not used up quickly, the color intensity (yield) is greatly diminished.  Unfortunately, the yield can not be determined until the final washout phase is completed.  So, only mix as much dye as you estimate is needed for the current project.  More on how to arrive at that estimate later.  It is easy to mix up more dye to complete a project, but heart breaking (and expensive) to pour old dyes down the drain.

 SAFETY FIRST. Work in a well ventilated area.  Before even opening the canisters to view the powdered dye, please put on a dust mask, or better yet, a respiratory mask.  Keep it on until all the mixing is completed and every canister is re-sealed.  Why?  In its powdered state the dye is very light weight and easily airborne.  Inhaling the particulates is a serious health hazard.  The lung is like a wet sponge.  When the particulates are inhaled, they can not be exhaled.  Follow the distributor’s safety warnings to protect your self and your work area.  Never mix dyes with children or pets present, and never leave canisters open longer than necessary to scoop some out.

Let’s get mixing!  I make a ‘stock solution’ of each color that is very concentrated.  I dilute the stock solution as needed to achieve the desired hue as I am working.  This saves time, energy, and gives flexibility with a broader color range available.

  1. Cover the work area with newspapers.
  2. Pour 16 oz. warm water (slightly above body temperature) into each of the mixing jars.  Fill one jar for just plain water.  I mark my jars with Sharpie at the 1 cup, 2 cup, and 3 cup intervals, avoiding constant measuring.
  3. Put on gloves and mask.
  4. Measure 4 Tablespoons of dye into the waiting warm water.  Double the amount for turquoise and colors containing turquoise,  Triple the amount for black.  This seems like a lot of dye, but remember it will be diluted later.
  5. Add 1-2 TBLSP of urea, if you wish.  Urea is a nitrogen compound harvested from animal urine.  (Vegans be aware) It is odorless and colorless.  It assists in the yield of some of the darker colors, especially reds, and is a moisture drawing agent.  It functions to keep the materials damp longer during the batching time.  Because I live in a humid climate, I do not normally use urea.
  6. Add 1-3 TBLSP of salt to blacks and navy blues.
  7. Use the submersible blender to mix each color for about 30 seconds.  Rinse the blender between colors in the jar of plain water you prepared in Step 2.

Note: Some of  the mixed dyes will have a foamy ‘head’  from the action of the blender.  Allow a few minutes for the foam to disperse before bottling.

Using a funnel, fill each applicator bottle half way, or less, with the stock solution.  I use 12 oz. bottles because they fit my hands best.  Completely fill the rest of the way with warm water.  Test each color by dripping a spot on a white paper towel.  After 30 seconds the drip spot will be an accurate representation of the final color yield on the fabric.  Desire a lighter tint?  Use more water and less dye stock solution.  Desire a darker shade?  Use less water and more stock solution.  Want it even deeper?  A smidgen of black stock solution can be added to deepen some colors.  Experiment!  Remember what you have done in a notebook to recreate at a later date.  My apprentices keep the paper towels in a binder with formulas for the colors they produce.  Cover the jars of stock solution until the bottles need refilling, as evaporation can occur.

We are ready to dye.

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