Dye Tips

Welcome to Dye Tips.

Here I will offer my thoughts about using natural dye extracts, raw dyestuffs and helpful hints for the natural dyeing process. I hope you find this useful and encouraging. Natural dyeing is ever-changing with limitless variables. Your work should be an individual one, from the colors you choose to the medium you work with, coupled with a healthy dose of inspiration and the courage to test new ideas. There are many ways to get great color and these notes are intended to support you as you learn, not to hold you back from experimenting. Always leave trepidation and doubt outside the door. Natural dyes are too fluid for such thoughts.

Feel free to contact me if you have questions. Never be afraid to experiment, that is how we all learn and improve our knowledge. Ultimately, the best colors from your dyepot are achieved through experimentation, understanding your variables [local water, soil, dyepots] and a strong desire for serendipity.

Before you begin dyeing get organized.

For just a few dollars you can gather all the items you need for your own dyeing enterprise. You do not want to use any pots, containers or utensils that are also used in your kitchen cooking. If you have a second hand store in your area, visit there and look for pots; stainless steel, enamel or other non-reactive materials. I like the canning pots as they are not too expensive and a good size. Just make sure there are no rust spots inside the pot as this will react with your dyeing causing color changes at the very least. Rust can be your friend [back to variables] however, if you want more unexpected results.

These are the items I would initially recommend you have on hand specifically for dyeing:

dye pot, at least 16 qt, stainless or enamel

thermometer that has a range or 50~200 degrees F

mid-weight rubber gloves that will protect your hands from hot water as well as
dye stain

measuring cups and spoons for dye measuring

scale ~ a food scale will do, found at kitchen stores that give gram and ounce readings; essential when measuring out your dyestuffs.

burner ~ a portable camp butane burner, electric hotplate or propane turkey-cooker [found in sporting goods stores such as www.cabelas.com]

a source of water nearby from a faucet or garden hose; save your back lugging buckets of water to and fro.

spoons, tongs, maybe a potholder, kitchen timer or watch for counting the dyeing time.

As you move forward in your dyeing experience you will discover what other items you need to make your dyeing experience pleasurable as well as organized and safe.

Scouring ~ the first step when preparing your fibers/fabric for dyeing is to properly wash them to remove any residues such as dirt, oils, and lanolin. The cleaner the fiber, the better the color results will be. Understand your water quality – is it hard or soft? What is its pH? Does it contain iron or other minerals? Some of the dyes are sensitive to water hardness, which can either enhance or inhibit color development, and may affect the final color of your fiber.
There are many washing agents available. In my experience, for protein fibers, Orvus Paste [4-5% on weight of goods], Unicorn Fibre products and Dawn dish detergent are suitable for scouring. They are gentle and don’t add anything back into your fibers. Be judicious with the soap you use ~ too much just makes rinsing endless. For cellulose fibers, I suggest liquid Scour and use it at the rate of 5% on the weight of goods to be washed. We sell the Scour, Unicorn products and Orvus Paste in the store.

With yarns, I suggest that you add figure eight “dye ties” in at least 3 places around the each skein to keep them from tangling throughout the wash/mordant/dye process. Tie them loose enough so they don’t cause a white spot when you get into the dyepot but tight enough to keep the skein secure, knot well. Wet your goods completely in a bucket of water. Draw a pot of water large enough to cover the goods. I like to run the scour bath at least to 160 degrees but do consider your fiber and it’s felting characteristics. Heat the water slowly and when it reaches 100 degrees add the soap/Scour and mix gently. Then add your wetted goods and slowly/evenly bring the temperature up to the desired finish temperature [i.e 160]. Let the wash bath cool to handle and rinse with the same temperature as the wash water. Once thoroughly rinsed and squeezed to damp, you may proceed straight away to mordanting.

Mordanting ~ this is the next essential step when dyeing with natural dyestuffs because it is the fixative that firmly attaches the dye to the fiber. I recommend non-toxic mordants such as potassium aluminum sulfate [for protein fibers], aluminum acetate [for cellulose fibers] and cream of tartar. Alum is refined from bauxite, the raw state of aluminum ore. During the refining process sulfuric acid and potassium are used to remove impurities. The resulting alum is granulated and white, in it’s purest form. Cream of tartar is an acid, the sediment from fermented wine grapes. Use it to soften wool, brighten shades and it will change the color of some dyes such as cochineal, from a fushia to true red. It is seldom used with plant fibers.
Mordants such as chrome, tin and copper are not recommended as they are not safe for the dyer and the environment. The colors you will achieve using alum and cream of tartar will be just as vibrant without the risks associated with the heavy metal mordants.

To mordant protein fibers such as wool and silk
Soak your fibers until completely wet, in warm water, rinse and squeeze out excess water. Measure out the aluminum sulfate at 15% to weight of goods (WOG) to be dyed. Dissolve the alum sulfate in a little boiling water and add to dye pot. Cream of tartar is measured at 6% to WOG or 3 TBS per pound of goods. Bear in mind that cream of tartar will alter the hues of some dyestuffs. I suggest until you are familiar with the properties of cream of tartar that you stick to using just the alum sulfate for your protein fibers. Both the alum and cream of tartar can be used in the same dye pot. Have enough warm [110 deg] water in the pot to cover the goods. Add the clean, wet goods to the dye pot and slowly bring the bath up to 200 degrees for wool / 180 for silk over 45 minutes, regularly rotating the goods while temperature rises. Hold at above temp for additional 45-60 min. Turn off heat, let fibers cool in the bath overnight, gently squeeze the excess water and quickly rinse. Keep mordanted goods damp for a minimum of 2 days and up to a month before dyeing. This allows the scales of the fibers to open and accept the dye more readily. You may keep mordanted goods for more than a month if kept damp in a plastic bag and refrigerated, which prevents molding, until you are ready to dye. It is also acceptable to allow fiber to dry after mordanting. Just be sure to completely wet fiber before proceeding to the dyepot.

To mordant cellulose fibers, such as cotton, flax and linen
Immersion Method
Whether painting or immersion dyeing, the following procedures are the most efficient for applying the mordant to plant fibers (other than leaf fibers). The resulting colors are dark, rich, and light fast. The mordanting process includes two steps: scour followed by the application of alum acetate. This method insures maximum dye absorption, dramatically improving lightfastness and color depth on cotton and other cellulose fibers.
1. Aluminum acetate (alum acetate, alum)
Alum acetate is refined from bauxite, as well. However, acetic acid is used as the purifying agent. The resultant white powder is quite fine, much like powdered sugar. The addition of a scouring step (first bath below) prepares the plant fibers thoroughly prior to the mordanting.
First bath: immersion with scour and soda ash
1. Add enough water to the dye kettle to cover the goods well (100°F).
2. Add liquid scour at 5.5% wof*; dissolve in the above water (2 TBS per lb of goods).
3. 2% wof soda ash is dissolved in boiling water and added to the scour bath.
4. Temperature range: Slowly bring the bath up to temperature over twenty minutes; hold at 180°F for 30 minutes; rotate goods regularly while the temperature is rising.
5. After scouring rinse the fiber quickly in warm water, gently extract and proceed to the second bath.

Second bath: immersion with alum (fresh water)
1. Add enough water to the dye kettle to cover the goods well (100°F).
2. Use alum acetate @ 5% wof dissolved in boiling water (always wear a mask when dissolving alum acetate powder). Add the alum acetate to the bath water (4 TBS per lb of fiber); add the fiber to the mordant bath.
3. Temperature range: Start at 100°F and hold for one hour, rotate regularly.
4. After mordanting, rinse the fiber quickly in warm water, gently extract and proceed to the next step. Keep the fiber damp in plastic bags until it is ready to dye.
* WOF = weight of fiber

Having your goods mordanted ahead of time allows for those moments of inspiration when you want to dive into your dyepot and pull out stunning colors!

Please make sure to let your fiber/cloth “rest” dampened after mordanting for at least 2 days. You will be much happier with the results…brighter colors, better lightfastness, no crocking [coming off in your fingers as you spin or knit]. After that resting period the goods may be dried. Just be sure to thoroughly wet before adding to the dyepot.

Please always practice safe dyeing practices and be sure to dye in a ventilated area. This past weekend I did indigo dyeing in a confined area and realized in short order that I needed to get the windows opened. Even with natural dyestuffs, proper ventilation is imperative.The best option is outside but if you need to be inside use fans or open windows if your space is limited. Likewise, do not lean over your dyepot and breath the vapors. Stand upwind or away a bit. Think safe, dye smart.

When dyeing with madder it is important to be sure to have hard water to get the deep red hues which madder gives. Both dug and drilled wells can have hard water but if your water is demineralized, such as municipal water and those systems with water softeners, you need to add calium carbonate to increase the hardness. Tums [antacid tablets, available at your pharmacy] are an easy way to do this. And after testing generic antacids, Rolaids and Tums, we have found Tums the best of the group. Or we offer calcium carbonate in the online store as a powder to dissolve if you prefer. Use at the rate of 1.5% on WOG.

Simply crush and then dissolve in hot water 1 Tum [500mg] per gallon of dye bath water. Add the dissolved Tums to the dyebath along with the madder and proceed with the dyeing process.

If you find the color is not deep enough and you have correctly measured the madder to your weight of goods to be dyed, just add more Tums or calcium carbonate.
My experience has found the chalkiness added isn’t worth the fiddling.
The best dyeing practice is to know your variables and celebrate the results. Play with the options but don’t fight the obvious.

You may want to do a water test to see what your hardness rating is. On our farm our water has a a hardness of 3.8; on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being soft and 10 being hard.

Hide Glue
Hide glue is a wonderful product which I recommend for both regular immersion dyeing as well as for indigo dyeing to keep your fibers soft during the dye process. An indigo vat is very alkali requiring a pH of 10.8-11.2 to yield the beautiful blues. As a result, the high pH is harsh on fiber. Add 1/2 teaspoon of dissolved hide glue per pound of fiber dyed, to the dyebath before you add your fibers. To dissolve hide glue, first soak the dried hide glue [it looks like small crystallized pieces] in cold water for about 10 minutes to soften the product. Then add boiling water enough to dissolve the hide glue completely. Stir vigorously until you see no particles. Then add to your dyebath at the above rate along with your dyestuff and proceed with dyeing. Again, I find it beneficial to add to a dyebath with any dyestuff to keep fiber lustrous and soft.
Hide glue is available in our store and it is an inexpensive way to protect your fibers, especially in the indigo vat.

Weld [Reseda luteola] is a magnificent dyestuff, offering a vivid yellow, which when overdyed with indigo yields a lovely bottle green. Weld is a biennial flower and all of the plant can be used as a raw dyestuff. It is also created as an extract. Both are available in our store.

To dye with the whole plant or just the flowers, soak dried plant material in water for at least an hour, 30% on WOG for this year’s crop or 40-60% on prior year’s crop. Bring the soaked plants and water up to 180 degrees for 1 hour, measure off the dye liquor, and repeat the extraction, adding fresh water each time to the used plant material, for a total of three times. Remove and compost the dye material. Use the dye liquor from all three extractions. Bring the dyebath and your mordanted fiber to 180 degrees for 1 hour. Let the dyebath cool and then add fiber to a rinse of ammonia/water at the rate 8% and soak for 5 min. Then rinse and wash your fiber as usual.

For the extract form measure the Weld at 3%, 4% or 10% for light, medium or dark color on the weight of goods [WOG] to be dyed. Dissolve the extract in hot water then add to the dye pot. Add mordanted fiber to the dyebath, bring up to 200 degrees over 45 minutes and then hold at 200 for 1 hour. Let the dyebath cool and then follow with the ammonia bath above and a rinse/wash.

Either way, you will have a vibrant yellow, like none other! To lighten the yellow, reduce the plant material or extract used.