Fabric Dyeing

When an artist runs out of a color, what do they do? Painters can buy a new tube of paint or mix up a color and continue on. It is a little bit harder for those of us who work with fabric and hand-dye our own.

I needed a large piece of “mud” colored fabric to work on an idea I had for a piece. But I did not have such a large piece in my stash. Last week, we had one very warm day that was in the 80’s. I jumped on that chance to dye fabric.

One of the variables of hand dyeing fabric is that the dye sets best if the temperature is over 70 degrees (Fahrenheit). Since I work outside, I needed to take advantage of that heat. My friend in town, Kathleen Probst, also dyed fabric on the same day and we compared notes later.

I only did a small amount as that was all the un-dyed fabric I had.

When I would dye fabric B.C. (before taking Carol Soderlund’s workshops). I would mix the primary colors, red, yellow and blue, by eye to create the color I wanted. This was fun and I never knew exactly what the color would look like until is was all washed and dried. The color looks a little different when I mix it in a cup, then when it is added to the fabric, when the fabric is wet and after the fabric has been washed and dried.

Below is a photo of the gray fabric I dyed with the left side being wet and the right side being the same fabric dried. There is quite a difference in color.

Wet dyed fabric on the left and the same fabric dried on the right.

A.C. (after taking Carol’s workshops), I had a several books of color that I could precisely measure the dye to get the same color. It takes the guesswork out of it and doesn’t waste as much dye. However, there are still lots of variables that affect the dye color:

  • The age of the dye affects the color (older dye loses some of its strength).
  • The type of fabric used affects the color. If I want the color as close as possible to my samples, I need to use the same fabric. This time I used a different cotton, one that is organic.
  • The air temperature can affect the color (maybe not in an extreme manner).
  • The type of water. If there is some chlorine in the water or other things, that may affect the color.

With all those variables in mind, I chose to dye a few colors one step darker on the gradation scale than what I really wanted, knowing that my dye was not fresh and my fabric was not a prepared-for-dyeing fabric or mercerized. And several of those came out how I expected. One did not and I am guessing that the red dye I used was too old and not strong enough to give me the color I wanted. Same with a few other little pieces. Either the red or yellow dye was too old.

The old dyes still work, but if I am using the precise calculations to get a specific color they won’t be the same.

The bit of extra dye I had made (in case I accidentally spill some when I am working) and the extra dye poured off from the fabrics get made into a mud bath. I had a few pieces of blue dyed fabric that I figured I would probably not use as the current color they were, so I threw them in the mud bath to overdye. I like them much better now.

I am torn. I like being able to measure dyes and get close to a chosen color. But mixing colors free-hand is a bit faster, a little more fun and is better for using the old dyes up. I need to figure out a middle ground. I’ll have to order some more fabric, though, before I figure out what that is.


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