Apr 152011
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Here are various tips for dyeing fabrics. I will add more over time.

Dyeing white fabrics ivoryDyeing silk satin

Tip for dyeing white fabrics ivory:

Don’t make the mistake to use a small amount of *yellow* dye. Instead, use a *very* small amount of *olive* dye, even less yellow dye and – depending on if you want a red-based ivory or a green-based ivory – add a little red (or not).

Dilute all the dyes with *lots* of water (and I mean a bucket full or so!) and – after the washing cycle of the machine has started – add that ‚colored water‘ (You should be able to see through it – like tea) to the washing machine.
This mix of dyes will give you a nice warm ivory color, while yellow will result in a more or less strong yellow.

To determine what „a very small amount of dye (powder)“ means, I can tell you how much I used for the machine dye cycle from the olive dye for the forepart and sleeves of the „Maria Di Medici“ gown: not more than I could balance on the tip of a knife; meaning less than a quarter of a teaspoon full. The yellow dye I added was even less, and just a *bit* of red (meaning, but don’t try it that way: no more than could be balanced on the tip of a cigarette).

If I would have discovered – after the dye – that I would need to darken the color a bit, I would have done another dye washing – this time with just a bit of olive and red.
The „bit“ again refers to an amount of dye which could be balanced on the tip of a cigarette (again, don’t try it that way – it’s just difficult to explain amounts of dye powder over an internet site if one doesn’t work with grams while estimating how much is actually needed!).

I could also have tea dyed the fabric, but that was something which came to my mind much later – but tea dye tends to be brownish, which I didn’t want.

The same instructions for diluting the dye with *lots* of water *before* adding it to the washing machine, by the way, also applies for dyeing fabrics in pastel colors.

The problem with silk satin dyeing:

I’ve recently read on a costuming board that some people have problems when dyeing silk satin.

Some say it’s loosing its sheen, others say it gets ugly ‚knots‘ during the washing; the next says that it afterwards has some kinds of ‚folds‘ which will remain in the fabric.

I didn’t want to say anything there, but I’m writing this here:

Hey, folks – have you ever had the idea that there might be *different* silk satins? And, no, I don’t mean the weight – I mean the quality. And that there could be methods not-so-suitable for dyeing silk satin, which can turn even a satin of good quality into a total mess?

I have never ever had any problems when dyeing silk satin. No loss of sheen, no ugly knots. But perhaps that’s because I’m not thinking of treating fabric when I dye it – I’m thinking of treating *hair*. Silk is a protein fiber, like hair, and should not be treated like fabric.

You ask what the difference is?

Well, while you can throw cotton into a boiling bath and rinse it with ice cold water, you shouldn’t even *think* of doing that with silk. Silk needs a *slow* cooling down – a bit of cold water is added to the hot bath, it’s tumbled some times, the machine takes some of the water out, adds some more cold etc. until the water finally *is* completely cold.
The same for washing silk with any detergent you might lay your hands on that doesn’t say it’s *especially* for silk *only* (Germany has a fantastic detergent called Tenestar for silk – I can just warmly recommend it!). In other words: Would *you* wash your hair with usual fabric washing detergent? If not, why not?
And don’t even *think* about tumbling your satin dry!

So how should you dye silk satin?

You should have a washing machine – front loading – which is capable of washing about 5-6 kilograms / 10-12 pounds of fabric. It should have some kind of ‚gentle cycle‘ setting – something between the ‚wool‘ program and the usual washing, which can be set to 60°C. If this gentle cycle can also be used at 95°C – wonderful. The machine should furthermore have some kind of button to add more water (though you can also do this with the help of a bucket after the washing started).

Pre-wash the fabric before dyeing it at about 30° – you might use the wool program of your machine for that. Use the aforementioned silk washing detergent. This is to prevent the satin from getting those strange, non-dyed (or over dyed) ‚folds‘.
Remember, we’re talking about satin, and satin only here – not Duchesse silk, not taffeta, but satin (which, in case you’re in an English speaking country, will usually be sold to you either as ’satin‘ or ‚charmeuse‘, the latter being usually a very thin satin). Taffeta and Duchesse should *not* be washed and / or dyed! They’re woven too tightly and the fibers will break during the washing, resulting in the already mentioned strange ‚pleats‘. (They can be dyed lying flat in a bathtub – but that’s a mess, I can tell you…).
If it already has the ugly knots or loss of sheen after this rather gentle treatment, you can be almost certain that you have some bad quality silk satin.
This needn’t necessarily depend on the dealer who sold you that satin. In fact, not even a whole bolt of silk satin needs to be of bad quality – sometimes it’s the silk of one single worm that’s bad, resulting in one or two yards of bad fabric on that particular bolt.

Afterwards, the dye.
Salt, vinegar (if needed) and the fabric should go into the machine *first*. While the machine adds the water, you can mix your dye colors into a bucket of *cold* water. This will take some minutes (if not, wait) until the machine has added all the water it „thinks“ it needs.
Then *slowly* pour the diluted dye into the washing machine. No more than a glass full per 30 seconds (or so).

If possible, prevent the machine from tumbling the fabric after the last rinse by pressing the appropriate button. If it doesn’t have one and you have the chance – stop the machine before it wants to start tumbling.

*After* the washing and rinse cycles are all finished, you want to wash the fabric with the aforementioned specialized silk detergent. Add about two spoons of vinegar to the last rinse (instead of any fabric softener, which should also *never* be used on silk!). Let the machine tumble your fabric at the lowest possible rate – you want the fabric to get out dripping wet.
Hang it – best in a warm summer night, so it will not see the sun while drying – outside on a possibly straight clothesline.

When it’s dry, iron it from the wrong side. It may be needed to pull the satin while ironing it – this is a very time- and power consuming task, but well worth the effort.

And afterwards you’ll probably be surprised how nicely silk satin can dye, without any loss of sheen or ugly knots…

By the way, I also recommend reading my ‚First sew, then dye‘ tutorial for further elaboration on silk washing methods.

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  4 Responses to “Fabric dyeing”

Comments (4)
  1. I know absolutely nothing about dying clothing, so am i correct in assuming an ivory blouse can’t be dyed white then?

    • That’s correct. An ivory blouse can – depending on the fiber type – only be bleached but not dyed to white.
      But as I said it depends on the fiber type. Nylon, polyester, acetate and the like can’t be bleached; while cotton, rayon and silk can be bleached – as long as they haven’t been dyed with indradhene dyes, that is 😉

  2. I costume alot of childrens theater, and am always looking for princess dresses. I have often wondered if I couls dye old wedding gowns, as some of them would make wonderful princess dresses. do you have any suggestions on this? Is there a recommended type of dye to use?

    • Well, if old wedding gowns (or any other kind of clothing for that matter) can be dyed depends on a lot of things.

      Firstly it depends on if the clothing is able to be *washed*, because that is essentially what you’re doing if you’re dyeing the clothing at home in a washing machine or tub.
      Some materials can’t be washed, like, for example, silk taffeta and silk duchesse (read my essay on ‚Sew first, then dye‘ for further information). If the dress has a hem or any other kind of seam allowance that you can cut off (even just partially) to run a test wash and dye, do it before ruining an entire dress.

      Secondly it depends on the material.
      Most modern wedding- and evening dresses are made from Polyester fabrics, and while there are dyes available to dye even those, it’s possible that the fabric won’t take the dye well – same is valid for zippers, which are usually plastic (and even the fabric part may be polyester).
      Also, even if it’s a dyeable material (like rayon or silk), the seams are probably sewn with polyester thread, which doesn’t take the dye too well, if at all. Also, any kind of beading (be it beads, pearls or sequins) and embroidery may react unexpectedly to the dye.

      I have, however, seen some wonderful dye results of old rayon wedding gowns which were dyed black, then had some kind of ‚rainbow oil sheen‘ staining added by the means of silk paint which was added / painted *over* the black dyed fabric. They looked really wonderful, some sort of fairytale costumes.

      Good luck, hope this helps 🙂

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