How I hand dye fabric: a dye tutorial

I’ve received several emails requesting more information on how I dye fabrics. Let me preface this post, then, by disclaiming my expertise! I am by no means a chemist nor even a particularly well-schooled dyer. I have been dyeing by the seat of my pants for about 13 years, but I do end up liking most of what I dye. I am very loosey goosey, and if that technique will bother you, I suggest you click out of here before I bug you too much!

Much of my dyeing knowledge comes from reading the Dharma Trading website and catalogue, the Prochem website and catalogue, and many blogs, in particular, Paula Burch’s site.

I am particularly enamored with the low-water immersion technique of dyeing, and if you’ve seen the dyed fabric I’ve posted recently, you’ve got an idea of what this looks like. If you’re new to my blog, here are some sites to check out: my Etsy shop, Judy Rys’ blog, Lora Martin’s blog, and Deb Lacativa’s blog.

What you need to get started (the Wild Onion way):

  • Procion MX dye powders. Buy a couple of pretty colors to get started. If you like dyeing, you can buy more! I buy from Dharma, since it’s nearby, but you can buy Procion in lots of places, including some craft stores.
  • Soda ash (aka sodium carbonate). This is not baking soda or baking powder. It is 100% pure soda carbonate, and you can buy it at most hardware stores or pool supply shops.
  • Urea. Or not. I usually don’t. Adding a few spoonfuls to your dye water helps mix the more recalcitrant dyes. It also acts as a wetting agent, but that is useful for a different dye technique…. Urea is your call.
  • Salt. Plain old table salt.
  • Rubber gloves. You can use a pair of dishwashing gloves (don’t use them to wash dishes after you’ve used them for dyeing!). I finally bought a pair of rubber gloves made for chemical use at the hardware store– they are thicker rubber and longer than the dishwashing gloves. You can use the type of gloves used by the medical profession, but you will probably end up with dye on your hands.
  • Dust mask. Buy one. Use it. The dust produced by the dye powder is very fine, it spreads out without your even noticing it, which means you will breathe it. Once the powder has been stirred into the water, you can remove the mask.
  • Plastic cups and spoons. Don’t use these for food after they’ve been used for dyeing.
  • Plastic tubs. A shoebox type will hold about 1/2 yard of cotton fabric, to give you an example of sizes you’ll need.
  • Fabric! I dye cotton and silk with Procion MX. I dye white fabric, and I dye light-colored fabric– keep your color knowledge in mind if you’re going to dye light colored fabric!

Okey doke. You’ve got your supplies. On to the fun stuff. Remember, this is loosey goosey, and not meant to do anything other than give you a taste of dyeing in a relaxed environment. You will absolutely get some wonderful fabric that is permanently dyed!

  1. Pre-wash your fabric. Known as “scouring”, which sounds very forbidding, but you do not need to get out a washboard. Just wash your fabric in the washing machine with regular detergent if you don’t have any Synthropol around. I don’t use Synthropol, and now I’m sure I’ll get emails about what a bad dyer I am….
  2. Wring out your fabric. You don’t need to put it into the dryer!
  3. Make some soda ash soak. The soda ash “opens” the fibers of your fabric, in preparation for your dye molecules to permanently bond with the fabric. Ooooo, chemistry! To make soda ash soak: put on your mask and gloves. Dump 1 cup of soda ash (aka sodium carbonate) into 5 quarts of water. Don’t dump the water onto the soda ash– it’ll clump into a hard mess. Break up any clumps of soda ash, mixing the soda soak.
  4. Add your damp fabric to the soda soak. Let it soak for at least 15 minutes while you mix up your dye water. Swirl it around a few times.
  5. Mixing dye water: put on your mask and gloves. Mix up a bucket of warm water and a cup or two of salt. You will use the salt water to mix the dye water. Don’t ask why– it’s chemistry, and we’re doing fun, not chemistry.
  6. Into a plastic cup, mix 1 tsp of dye powder with a small amount of warm water– about 1/4 cup. This will make a bit of a paste, but your plan is to make sure that the dye gets wet and doesn’t clump at the bottom of your cup. Top up your pastey dye with a cup of salt water. Stir stir stir. Hey! You made some dye!!
  7. Continue making cups of dye until you’re bored and have enough colors. You can mix up your own colors, too. Drip a little bit onto something white– a coffee filter, a paper towel, etc– to figure out if you like the color you’re making.

Now for the fun!

To get a one color fabric that is kind of mottled, add your fabric to a plastic tub. Pour enough dye water over it to get the fabric really wet. Knead and mush the fabric. The more you mush, the more the color blends out into the fabric, making the color application more even. Some people do this in a baggie. It’s not really my thing, so I’m only briefly touching on it, in case it’s something you want to do.

To get fabrics like mine, or Judy’s, or Lora’s, etc. you will use the low-water immersion technique:

Take your damp fabric. Scrumple it into a tub. The looser you scrumple, the less textured your color will look. I scrumple about a 1/2 yard of fabric into a shoebox sized tub:

You can pleat, twist, swirl your fabric to get different looks:

Experiment and play. You can kind of direct how your fabric will end up, but mainly you have to let go and let the fabric and dye decide.

You don’t need to immerse the fabric in dye water, but you do need to get the fabric “wet” with dye. There will be small puddles of dye at the bottom of the tub, and the longer the fabric sits in the tub, the more it will wick the color around.

The size of the tub is determined by the amount of fabric. If you stuff the tub totally full of fabric, then there’s not much room for the dye. You will create a resist (think of it this way– if you twist fabric really tightly, then run it under water, the inner parts of the twist stay dry. You’ve created a resist!). Experiment with how much color to add. Sploosh dye only around the outsides of the tub. Sploosh dye over the top of the fabric. Create splooshed spots of dye. Play and have fun. Resist the urge to handle the fabric, and you’ll wind up with fantastic textures.

Let the fabric sit for at least 4 hours. After about 24 hours, the dye has been exhausted and won’t do anything, but you can leave it in the dye longer if you need to– you won’t hurt the fabric.

Now comes some important washing instructions:

  1. Rinse your fabric one by one in COLD water. You must get the soda ash out of your fabric! Warm water might re-activate any loose dye molecules, and you could end up transferring color where you don’t want it. You don’t need to rinse until the water runs clear, just rinse until you get impatient to rinse another piece of fabric.
  2. Soak your fabric in cool water. The soaking really loosens up the excess dye. I used to rinse and rinse and rinse. I’d rinse until the rinse water ran clear. Then when I was soaking the fabric in preparation for washing, I’d notice more dye running out. Now, in deference to the preciousness of water, I rinse less, soak more.
  3. I soak like colors together. Or I soak each piece but use smaller tubs, not a whole sinkful of water for one fat quarter. I also do 2 soaks– one in cool water, one in warm.
  4. I have a top loading washing machine, so this is how I wash the fabric. If you have a front loader, please research how to complete your final wash! Set the water to the highest level (unless you have a very small amount of fabric). Add some detergent (I don’t swear by Synthropol, but some dyers do.) Dump your fabric in, and let it soak for about half an hour. Close the machine and run the Knit/Delicate cycle. Repeat. I check the machine at the second wash’s rinse cycle– if the water is clear, I’m done. If not, I’ll wash again.
  5. To save even more water: if I notice that the rinse water is pretty clear on wash #1, I will take out that fabric, and wash load #2. Then the two (or more) loads all get washed for the second time together. I usually wash all my fabrics together for their third time through the washing machine.
  6. Dry as usual. Iron as usual. A note: ironing your hand dyed fabric is a visual treat– enjoy!

I hope this helps. I really do dye loosey goosey with usually great results. I will throw dye baths together in between stirring spaghetti sauce (if you do this, make sure that you don’t use your dye spoon to stir your spaghetti sauce).

Let me know how it goes for you!


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23 responses to “How I hand dye fabric: a dye tutorial

  1. Great instructions, Susan. I think half the fun of dyeing your own fabric is the joy of discovery as you open it out after the final wash, so loosey-goosey instructions are perfect. And it is nice to hear it all from beginning to end since we wouldn’t be quiet long enough for you say all this on dye day. Thanks!

  2. Wow . . . now that’s a tutorial. I’m speechless, and you know that doesn’t happen too often! LOL I’ll never have to ask you another dyeing question ever again. Thanks again, it was a lot of fun.

  3. No Way

    Super post! Where do you find the time. I can bearly keep up with my favorite blogs let alone write my own… Way to go!

    By the way, I found some cheap safety masks online that I bought to try this. Just an FYI

  4. Neat! Sounds like fun. This is a very good tutorial. I snapped up some, no lots of cotton muslin at auction and have been thinking about dyeing some. Now I am also looking forward to flying by the seat of my pants and being loosey goosey!

  5. Pingback: Environmentally friendly? | halitrax

  6. Great tutorial! And I love your fabric. Just love opening a piece up -like a present! I’m Looking forward to exploring your blog.

  7. Pingback: I’ve been dyeing… « HandmadebyClaireBear

  8. marilyn smith

    I have a question about dyeing. I dyed several different fabrics. They were all cotten. I used a deep blue procion MX dye. When all was said and done……..4 pieces were blue and the rest were a reddish blue. How could that happen? Marilyn

  9. Tracy Pizza

    When you dye the silk, do you still presoak in soda ash?

    Thanks for your help 😉 from a newbie dyer


  10. Dana Paternoster

    Can you give me any hints or a link to more instruction on fading one color to another? I don’t want it to look perfectly smooth, but a nice straight line. My plan it make a baby wrap that is split lengthwise grey and purple. Thanks, and thank you for your great instructions.


    • Susan wrote: Wow– what a cool idea! I don’t have any tips for you, but if you come across something, let us know!

      • Stacey

        Two rectangle tubs next to each other, almost full with the fabric folded across the middle- the fabric should wick liquid up to the middle, where it might be a little lighter than what’s at the bottom, but should work.

  11. Fab tutorial on dyeing thanks for all the tips:)

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  13. Thank you so much for your advice/tutorial and encouragement. We bought the dyes and made a start and very impressed with the first effort. Many thanks

  14. max harwood

    Hey with the low-water immersion technique do you simply scrunch the fabric up in a bucket THEN pour multiple colors over top in different areas to achieve the patterns you create? Wanting to try this and need some clarification, Thanks so much!

  15. Judy Welch

    Soda ash is the same as Arm & Hammer washing soda (NOT baking soda). It can be found in the laundry section of most grocery stores.

    • Susan wrote– great tip! It’s twice as expensive as soda ash from Dharma or Pro chem, or even the soda ash at a pool supply store, but if you are in a pinch, the Arm & Hammer washing soda might be more locally available.

  16. Hello do you have any video doing an example of how to do that?

    Cheers, Patrícia Rodrigues

  17. So instead of adding the soda ash to the dye water you simply per soak the fabric? Everything I’ve read says you have to remove the fabric and then add soda ash to the dye bucket. I’d love it if per soaking worked nicely. 🙂

  18. Jan Calveard

    I want to play with you. My house or yours?

  19. Elizabeth Hoffman

    I am unable to pre-fill my washing machine (it doesn’t have load pre-sets.), even though it’s a top loader. Plus, once it’s filled with water, it locks until it’s empty. Any ideas????

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