Our Dyeing Days

white items for dyeingIt sounds terribly melodramatic, but what it REALLY constitutes is a Color Marathon.

For 10-14 days every year, (or so!) some of my friends and family members gather together to dye.

We gather natural fiber items all year long, looking forward to the week that we get colorful. We’re not the officially-unofficial “Rainbow Family” but it comes surprisingly close. Cotton, silk, hemp, rayon, wool, mohair, alpaca, bamboo, and some raffia, sisal, and even wood are all natural fibers, and will take the dyes I use.

My favorite for more than 30 years of textile arts has been Procion MX Fiber Reactive series of coldwater dyes. I have had clothing with fabric that wore out after years of heavy use before the colors faded appreciably.

Click here to see the TieDye Gallery

Dharma Trading Co. is a fabulous source of textile and clothing “blanks”, or ready-to-dye items of clothing, wearables and accessories, household items, fibers, ribbon, lace, and fabric by the yard or the bolt. They supply fiber artists with the dyes, chemical supplies, fabric paints, and books about textile arts.

A visit to their website or the appearance of their catalog in the mail is always the source of much deliberation.

And while I never order as much as I’d really LIKE to, I also end up glad that there is no more to rinse and rinse and rinse and wash when things are done at the end of the week!

I dye fabric yardage  including  silk duponi,  silk chiffon,  cotton and rayon of all sorts. The cotton stretch velour has the most amazingly soft feel and takes the dyes like a champ. I do pre-made doll bodies, silk handkerchiefs, many yards of silk and rayon ribbons, cotton lace, and put these in my Spirit Doll Kits.

We even do  cotton hats, wooden beads, rayon and cotton doll hair, and loads of tshirts and socks for good measure. We limit ourselves to around 42 colors….although of course, intermixing is encouraged!

Having done this for many years, a “system” has evolved and we’ve discovered lots of easier ways to do things. A book will eventually come of all the pictures I and information that has been collected over the course of it all, but that’s another summer’s project. Here’s a look at how it went this year!

dye colorsOur Dyeing Days usually take place in middle to late May, so as to take advantage of Spring temperatures. It takes several days, and that’s not including the many hours of cutting yardage, rolling ribbons into loose bundles, separating things into sets in plastic bags.

There’s also any folding of shirts or clothing and the cuticle- irritating rubber banding hours.

For instance, this time I had 45 bags each containing 1 foot of silk duponi, 3 yds. each of rayon ribbon, silk ribbons, cotton lace, doll bodies in several sizes, some bamboo beads and some wooden craft pieces. And that was just the start!

All the bottles of dye were mixed the day before, using two or three tablespoons of powdered dyes to two cups of a water and salt solution. It takes several hours at this quantity to mix them all thoroughly. Wear a filter mask, obtained at hardware stores or through Dharma for a few dollars each, and gloves.

You can use recycled plastic containers for mixing; but don’t use the same things you do for food preparation. I have a measuring cup and a spoon just for dyeing. All our dyes go straight into the plastic bottles that are labeled with the color name in indelible ink on top. We place a square of cotton gauze fabric over the opening and wrap with plumbers’ tape before capping, and this helps with keeping back specks of dye and stops the bottles from dripping. Dye bottles are agitated before each use to keep dyes from settling.

supplies for dyeingEvery year we try a new color or three. Chartreuse, Palomino Gold, Oxblood–2012’s new colors included Lime Squeeze, Pomegranate, and Kingfisher Blue. We keep talking about doing a dyeing with only 4 or 5 colors and mixing more….maybe next year!

We begin very early in the morning. Before we do, it is vital to remember to apply sunscreen. Wearing a hat is encouraged too, as is re-applying sunscreen often.

items used  at our dye partyDon’t allow yourself to burn when there are ways to avoid it, and this IS the biggest danger of long dyeing sessions–its not the properly handled chemicals you need fear so much as it is the solar radiation.

Here in high altitude Colorado, it might feel lovely at first to be outdoors all day, but not if you burn. You can avoid it that part and still enjoy the outdoors.

soda-ash-soakThe second danger is dehydration, which seems strange when you have your hands in a bucket of water for several days—but its VERY important to remember to drink a lot of water.

A non-sugar snack or two at regular intervals is a good idea, as are breaks for rest, food and other necessities every few hours. Its easy to get caught up in the fun and then exhaust yourself, so remember pacing, just as in running other kinds of Marathons.


We use three or four plastic wading pools, tables covered with plastic, lots of plastic bags, metal foil trays, plastic gloves, plastic boxes–these dyes to not “take” on plastic, only natural fibers.

This year, we started using black plastic gardeners trays meant for holding sprouts and plants. They are are fabulous for dyeing! Also they are 5 for $16 for the inexpensive ones, and they make containing projects easy even when doing shibori on poles.

tiedye-tray clothespinsOne wading pool, holds all the dyes near work tables. Another is placed AWAY from this area and 20 gallons of water are mixed with approximately 5 pounds of soda ash.

We put that one up on a table–before filing it!–and its much easier on our backs. There’s also a table next to it for folding and tieing in the shade. Shade is good!!  Sometimes we use clothespins as a resist, and the wooden clothespins end up colorful too!

The fixative that activates the dye process is soda ash, and that is applied directly to the fiber items, not added to the dyes. It can irritate skin, especially after hours of contact, so get in the habit of wearing the gloves.

I especially like the blue nitrile gloves, as latex can also be very irritating to some people, and frequent exposure can cause allergies. The dye only stays in items with the soda, and this makes cleaning up the yard and the supplies much easier. Hot water is required in a gallon or two to get the soda to dissolve, but the rest of the water is cold.

All items to be dyed are soaked in this till saturated. It is *The Clean Pool* and no dye is allowed near–there is a bucket at the work table for rinsing gloved hands BEFORE you go get another piece to dye. This saves on the accidental fuchsia or turquoise spots where you DONT want them. dyed-ribbons

When items are saturated fully, they can be removed to the bucket so that you can drain off some of the excess. Items are then squirted with dye solution straight from the bottle. Use the cookie sheets  or plastic trays to catch the excess as it drips or sit an item in the puddle to absorb the dye in sections.

Or, dye solution can be poured into a plastic container and items repeatedly dipped to fully saturate the cloth. With ribbons and other small pieces, and folded/tied clothing, plastic zip lock bags in various sizes are used to hold the saturated items in the dye overnight.

This makes for very intense, wash fast colors, with variations in the final coloration due to folds in the fabric, etc. The sealed bags are left to sit overnight in the grass or on a plastic tarp. A shower curtain works, too.

The next day, all the bags are opened and the excess dye poured out along the fence in a weedy patch. We rinse out the bags–again using the wading pools–and reuse them every year. Plastic is wonderful that way; there’s no reason to throw it away when it can be useful for a long time!

Then, its time to rinse. And rinse. And rinse.

dyed   cotton hatsWe use a wading pool, buckets and the hose, and pour the excess down the hill, staggering where it goes so as to water the yard but not make mud holes.

Rinse, then soak and rinse some more, till the water runs clear or pale….after that, items are washed. Adding Synthrapol (also available from Dharma) to the wash water along with a non-bleach detergent makes the colors stay in the fibers, and reduces bleeding onto other items.

Use mesh laundry bags for ribbons, and separate them from cloth yardage or clothing. This reduces the tangling issue a lot, but its still work to untangle it all! I urged my resident teens to help. And my sister, and my mother…we all spent a good bit of time untangling after things were washed. “Hey, Kids–It’s Party Fun For The Whole Family!!”

It is time like these that a little bit of obsessive-compulsiveness really becomes useful. dyed woodAlso pay attention to items that may be “hand wash only”–like the hats. Some things get dried in the sun and others go in the dryer afterward–the hats, doll hair, small doll bodies and wooden pieces dry outside. Items CAN be line dried, but will be stiffer without the tumbling. Here are some hats, and turned wooden pieces. They took the dye well, and I’ve got some projects in mind for them–at the time, I just wanted to see if they would take the dye and they did! Plus I hate to let the dye pots go to waste if there’s something else that can be thrown in!

It all ends up being a LOT of labor, and very physical labor at that–the kind that makes one very glad to own a washing machine, and NOT have to be carrying pails of water daily up and down a hill.

And as an end result, all the piles of white and neutral items have become gorgeously transformed with color…LOTS of color!

dyed dolls