Colorful Things I Wish I had Learned in Chemistry Class

Kinship of Rivers at the Red Wing Arts Association/ Depot Gallery, 2012.

Kinship of Rivers at the Red Wing Arts Association/ Depot Gallery, 2012.

When my artistic partner Wang Ping and I launched the Kinship of Rivers art project we devised a routine for dying cloth so that we could create banner upon banner made up of flags participants decorated (thousands have been made to date).

Originally I went to the local art store and bought iDye, an easy to use product which was not too expensive and offered a great palette of colors. What I liked was that I could dye yards of cotton fabric in the washing machine by tossing a dissolvable plastic packet into a hot water cycle. It did take a bit of finessing. Pickling salt had to be added by the cupful to help the dye bond to the cloth and the cycle had to be timed just right to get the desired depth of color.


I loved iDye so much that I have continued to use it for other projects such as up cycling old bedding and clothes. I recently decided that it was time to take my dying skills up a notch and learn more through a Textile Center class with local dye expert Susan Antell.

Antell teaches a recommended entry level class called Color Wheel in Cotton. A group of us gathered for the class on a Monday evening in September. Some of the participants were quilters, a couple were professional fabric designers and textile business owners and a couple of us were just interested! Antell told the class that she has been an ardent student of dye technique since 1985 and that she has studied with well known quilt and dye artist Jan Meyer Newberry.

While the class itself was affordable, there was some effort and expense to assembling the supplies. First of all I had to find seven and a half yards of PFD (Prepared For Dyeing) cotton. I found what I was looking for at a local fabric store. The best known brand is Kona and it is prized by those in the know for its crisp texture and ability to “take” the dye. The PFD designation means that the naturally ecru cotton fabric was not treated with whiteners that might affect the dye process.

A stack of fat quarters.

A stack of fat quarters.

Then there was the math: I had to cut the fabric into 36 pieces for the three color wheels of twelve different colors each that we would create in class. We would create those twelve colors using a basic palette of primary colors: red, blue and yellow. I bought two sets of dye, one in cool primaries and one in warm primaries. The Textile Center sells the dyes needed.

[For the record we used Procion MX dyes by Jacquard. For our cool color palette we used Mixing Red 108, Sun Yellow 400 and Basic Blue 300. For our warm palette we used Scarlet 104, Golden Yellow 414 and Deep Navy.]

I also purchased a small amount of soda ash (similar to but less acidic than baking soda) for a pre-soak to help prepare the cloth to take the dye. I also purchased a small bottle of synthropol, a mild, pH neutral detergent that is used to wash out the excess dye once it has set.

I felt like the owner of a new chemistry set. With that in mind, we were also asked to come prepared with rubber gloves, an apron and a dust mask—the Procion dyes come powdered and we would be mixing them by the teaspoon into containers of water. The powdered dye is “flighty” if it gets airborne so we took precautions while mixing.

We also brought along 24 Ziploc baggies, gallon size, because we would be using a method called low immersion dying where the colors and the fabric are scrunched together in a baggie and left overnight to take the dye.

We met in the Dye Lab at the Textile Center, it is essentially a well equipped laundry room with a long work table. The lab is used for teaching but is also available for rent once you have taken a couple of training sessions.

Itten color wheel (Wiki Commons)

Itten color wheel (Wiki Commons)

First Antell talked a bit about color wheels. A color wheel, for the uninitiated, is a graphic device that displays colors in a circle-shaped spectrum. We would be creating our own 12-color array of primary, secondary and tertiary colors on fabric. Antell likes the color wheel of Swiss artist Johannes Itten. His color theory is a standard for artists. I found it interesting that in this discussion of color Antell mentioned that some people have the ability to see more colors than others. They are called tetrachromats and apparently they are most often women.

We learned that Procion Fiber Reactive Dyes are favored for their vibrant color and colorfastness (as opposed to Rit dyes and others). Apparently natural dyes (plant derived dyes) are notoriously complicated to process and not very permanent. We would be using the specific dyes and the process for dying cellulose (plant-based) fabrics. For protein (animal) fibers such as wool or silk, acid dyes are used. It’s all chemistry.

We would be using just four tablespoons of the dye to color each of our fabric pieces. The process is called low immersion because it uses very little water. It is also sometimes called “scrunch dying” because we would be squeezing the dye through our soaked and rumpled fabric pieces to get a subtle resist effect.

First we put our fabric pieces into a basin of water with soda ash and soaked them for at least 30 minutes to “open up” the fibers. Then we mixed our three primary color dyes by adding a teaspoon of powdered dye to a cup of water. Then came the hard part.

Bags of color.

Bags of color.

We created 12 baggie basins and mixed up the dye using various colors by the tablespoonful. Then we plopped a fabric square into each baggie, zipped them shut and then scrunched and squeezed them until the fabric was saturated. It was fun to see the color spread and brighten up the pieces of fabric.

After we had created our first batch of 12 color baggies, Antell had us add a second piece of fabric on top of the first in each bag and scrunch them into the mix. She said that most of the dye is cast in the first 20 minutes and that the second piece of cloth would take less dye and become “pastel-colored.”

For the harvest color batch we mixed up three new primary color dyes, warmer and richer in tone. We then mixed them in 12 different proportions in zip lock baggies. Whew! Within the 3 hour time frame we had produced 36 different colors. We cleaned up and toted home our colorful baggies. They were to sit overnight to “batch.” The rest of the process would be up to us to finish.

Soaking in synthropol to fix the dye.

Soaking in synthropol to fix the dye.

I could hardly wait. Early the next morning I followed Antell’s instructions and first mixed up a bucket of tepid water with a teaspoon of the synthropol. I dropped all my blues and greens into the bucket to soak. The dark dye bloomed in the bucket like a storm cloud. I didn’t need to worry about color bleed since the dye was spent. After about 20 minutes I put the dyed fabric into the washing machine with a bit more synthropol. According to Antell, the synthopol acts like “little cages” that help the dye bond into the fabric.

The low immersion, scrunchy effect.

The low immersion, scrunchy effect.

36 colors!

36 colors!

The washed colors were as bright as candy. I then rinsed out and washed the reds and yellows in a batch. After a short turn in the dryer I took the still damp pieces to the ironing board. That was certainly the most magical part. As the fabric steamed and flattened out in the heat of the iron, subtle crystalline lines and shadowy shapes emerged. The pile of 36 rainbow hued fabric squares was a beautiful thing to behold.


One comment

  1. Reblogged this on Redwood Forest.

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