Dyeing to Experiment – Round 1

I’ve long been fascinated by the dyeing process – heck, my second-year web project at Uni was on the chemistry of fabric dyes – but it’s been a while since I last tried to dye fabric myself. I did dabble with fabric dye for the Pantone Marsala challenge a couple of years ago, but that was a pretty straightforward dye bath with Dylon – dunk, wait, rinse, wash, sew. More recently, I have been intrigued by ice-dyeing and the Japanese technique of shibori resist dyeing. Was there, I wondered, any good reason why these two techniques couldn’t be combined? I couldn’t see one! For added fun, my fabric for this experiment was printed white-on-white with a feather pattern:

Shibori + ice-dyeing + print fabric?  WTH, let’s DO this!

Originally I bought 6m of this fabric thinking that I would ice-dye it and make a dressing gown from it, although I’ve since decided to use it just for dyeing experiments and look for a different fabric for my dressing gown. To make it easier to handle, I cut it into four ~1m pieces and one ~2m piece, then washed them all with Colsperse to remove any fabric treatments. Unfortunately, I probably didn’t use enough Colsperse – after reading some fairly fruitless and contradictory results from an internet search, I emailed Colourcraft (the makers of Colsperse) to ask them directly how much I ought to use when washing fabric in a washing machine with their product (it is the 21st century and I have better things to do than wash umpty metres of cotton fabric by hand!), and what they told me suggested that I should have used three times as much. This may be relevant later on.

After looking up some shibori tutorials and ideas online (the Townhill Studio blog was especially helpful), I felt like I had a reasonable handle on what I should be aiming for, so I cut one of the 1m pieces into four very generous fat quarters and started marking up the first with a pattern of loose, wavy lines with my water-erase pen – or I tried to! Unfortunately, it’d been a while since I last used that pen and it had dried up with neglect, so I grumblingly decided to use my air-erase marker pen instead – a rather crucial decision, as I will show later. All marking and sewing was done on the reverse of the fabric.

I’m actually not a big fan of this pen in general – it disappears disconcertingly fast (except when it doesn’t), so it was a bit of a race against time between marking up the fabric and managing to get it stitched while the ink was still visible. Add a thumping migraine and I really wasn’t a happy bunny last Saturday!

Townhill Studio suggests using short lengths of white yarn or thick cotton as stoppers at each end of the stitching, but I didn’t have anything like that instantly to hand, so I used some small, cheap beads instead – it worked, kind of. I also started off using Superior Thread’s Bottom Line for the stitching, but this turned out to be a very bad idea because it snapped far too easily when I tried to draw up the threads. I found myself replacing several lines of stitching in this first piece and subsequently used Guettermann polyester thread, which is much stronger, for all stitching (although it is very much not immune to breakage if pulled too hard!). When sewing the lines, I found it went much faster if I finger-pressed along the line before I started to stitch – it made it much easier to follow the line as drawn. As mentioned, this was absolute murder to do with a migraine, but I really liked the effect once it was finished! (And I had downed some painkillers and hidden in a dark room for a bit…)

The next design I tried was some concentric circles:

I marked a staggered grid of dots 5″ apart (errrm, except for one I apparently didn’t measure right!), then used a cotton reel and a roll of masking tape as templates to draw the surrounding circles. The outer circle was sewn with a single pleat like the ripples, the inner circle was sewn with a line of running stitch and then gathered and bound firmly into a “stalk” with the remaining thread tail. I also tucked a bead into each gather and positioned it in the middle of the circle, where it became a knobbly end to the bound-up stalk.

Unfortunately I don’t have any WIP photos of the third piece of shibori I tried – it was late and I was tired! It was a random scatter of six-pointed snowflake shapes drawn in different sizes across the fabric, then each spoke was sewn with a single pleat. The fourth fat quarter was left entirely un-sewn so that I could see how the fabric dyed without additional shibori effects.

Some of the air-erase pen marks were still quite visible, but Google suggested they could also be removed with water, so I immersed all my pieces (including the un-marked, un-sewn one) in cold water overnight to remove any remaining marks. (HA!)

The following morning, I set up my dyeing rig – a set of stackable wire cooling racks and a plastic box that the racks fit into like they were made for it, both purchased from local discount store Charlie’s for £not lots.

Two racks fit neatly in the box and still allow the lid to be put on; three racks peek over the top but could still work if I really wanted them to.

Two fat quarters fit nicely side by side on one rack, so I set up two racks so that the upper fabrics would drip dye onto the lower ones. Plenty of newspaper was put down to save my floor from any potential spillage of dye.

I also armed myself with some plastic spoons for handling the dyes, the gloves that came with my dyeing kit and a dust mask to prevent inhalation of anything nasty:

For the ice, I bought a bag of party ice from the garage across the road, then smacked it repeatedly with a rolling pin to break up the ice cubes a bit:

I used about 3/4 of this bag of ice for this dyeing session.

Now I have to make a confession here. As much as I like the notion of tie-dyeing and ice-dyeing, I don’t overly like the “rainbow vomit” effect that often seems to occur when these techniques are used. Shibori usually manages to be much classier, and I have decided that a key factor in this is the restrained use of colour. Consequently, I decided that I would only use a maximum of two colours on each each of my pieces – turquoise and navy blue for one side and ultra blue and emerald green for the other side:

Six of these came in a starter kit, the navy blue, black and emerald green were bought individually.

Before I could dye my fat quarters, however, I needed to finish preparing the fabric by soaking it in a solution of soda ash so that the dyes would stick to the fibres better, and here is where that air-erase pen came back to bite me:

The moment the soda ash solution hit the fabric, all the purple pen marks returned with a vengeance – useful for a spy sending a secret message maybe, but since I’m not and I wasn’t, I wasn’t best pleased! In fairness, I had been half-wondering whether this was going to be a problem so although it was very annoying, it was not a huge shock. Fortunately, after half an hour in the soda ash solution, the marks seemed to dissipate quite a lot and I figured that any that hadn’t would probably be hidden by the dye anyway, so I moved onto the next stage, arranged my fabrics on the racks, covered them with chunks of ice and finally sprinkled generous quantities of my chosen dyes over each side:

RHS: Navy blue+turquoise, top: shibori ripples, bottom: shibori snowflakes. LHS: Emerald green+ultra blue, top: shibori circles, bottom: plain fabric.

I covered the box with cling film to stop everything drying out and then left the whole lot for 24 hours to melt and do its thing. Well. I did poke the snowflakes a bit at one point to make sure they were being thoroughly dripped on.

The racks did a fantastic job of holding the fabric out of the melt-water dye mix.

24 hours later, all the ice was well and truly melted and I was keen to see what results I’d got. I was really quite surprised to see what had happened to the green+blue side particularly. For a dye that claimed to be blue, it sure contained a lot of red. The green split a little too, although not as obviously. In comparison, the navy+turquoise side was much more as I expected to find it.

I used Procion dyes and clearly they’re not all pure colour – some are blends of different colours and the different dye components separated in a chromatographic fashion thanks to the movement of the water (mobile phase) over the fabric (stationary phase). Interesting, but not exactly the look I was going for! Dangerously close to Rainbow Vomit, in fact. “Ultra” blue is perhaps not all that ultra after all! However, I rinsed everything thoroughly in cold tap water and performed the rather tedious task of unpicking all the shibori stitching I’d spent so long putting in. Next time I will find some white yarn or cotton to use instead of beads – it will be much easier and I won’t feel compelled to salvage scraps of yarn like I did with the beads! A hot wash with more Colsperse and I could finally see the finished effects (the fabrics were still damp in this photos, so they’re a little darker than when dry):

It’s a bit of a mixed bag! The shibori tended to be not as distinct as I hoped, and I have some theories as to why, which I will discuss below. The circles were the most effective, probably because of the chromatographic effect of the separated dye components. I’m not mad on how the colours worked but I think there’s promise there. The plain fabric from below the circles is what I was expecting to see when I applied green and blue dyes. It’s ok, although a stronger, darker green would be nicer. The snowflakes were a fail as far as the shibori stitching was concerned (pretty much none of them came out) but the feathers against the marbled blue background is really attractive so I can’t call it a complete fail. The ripples worked pretty nicely, I was relieved to see. And not a hint of purple pen anywhere, thank goodness!

On a more general note, the colours (especially the navy blue) ended up being much less saturated than I expected and wanted them to be. Stronger colours would help improve the shibori contrast and the appearance of the feathers, so I will aim to improve upon this in future experiments.

Conclusions and Conjecture

This was a really interesting first experiment and I learned a lot. The first thing I learned is that air-erase pens are a poor choice for marking shibori designs! I’m looking into some chalk-based marking tools right now, in fact. I also learned that dyes cannot be relied on to not split when used with the ice-dyeing technique, although this may result in interesting effects when planned for.

The shibori stitches generally did not work as well as hoped, which I put down to several possible reasons: 1) 24 hours may be a long time in politics – it’s certainly a long time in fabric dyeing! Long enough for dye to wick into even the most firmly stitched folds and pleats, perhaps? I suspect so. 2) In my attempt to remove the pen marks, the fabric was really well soaked with water before application of the soda ash solution and before dyeing – I theorise that this excessive wetness may have facilitated the movement of dye into the stitched folds. A shorter soaking time may produce crisper results in future. 3) The stitching wasn’t tight enough – next time I will use yarn stoppers and better thread.

Concerning the comparative lightness of the dye colour on the finished pieces, I suspect that part of the problem was too little Colsperse during the pre-wash phase, which thus failed to remove all the “finish” on the fabric before I dyed it. This finish would prevent the dye from sticking properly to the fibres of the cotton. Certainly there was a fair bit of “loose” dye released from the fabrics during rinsing. I also wonder if the water in the very wet fabric diluted the soda ash solution too much, which would also reduce the effectiveness of the dye. A shorter soak in water and a longer soak in the soda ash solution might help. After the email from Colourcraft (and having seen the results of experiment #1), I re-washed the remaining un-dyed fabric with the right amount of Colsperse, so it should now accept dye better.

Things to Try Next

  • A different marking method that doesn’t react with soda ash!
  • Less (no?) time soaking in plain water, longer soaking in the soda ash solution
  • Less time under the ice (8-12 hours max?)
  • “Staged” dyeing process – start with the lighter dye, then add a second darker dye (possibly with extra ice) after ~8-12 hours?
  • Get a washing bag for protecting delicate items in the washing machine to reduce fabric shredding (the dyed pieces were pretty badly knotted and matted together after their last trip through the washing machine)
  • Try stitching some designs on a sewing machine with a long-ish stitch length – will not work for all techniques but might be a real time-saver for others

This has given me plenty to think about and I am not nearly done with my experiments yet!  I hope I can share more results with you soon. 🙂