12 February 2010

Preparing a dye bath

I'm slowly making my way through dye 101...
Previously: a post about what dye to use and where to find it.
Now: preparing a basic dye bath.
Soon: preparing your fabric (including clamping it).

A couple of notes as I begin:
A. I haven’t been dying for long and still have many things to learn; this is what I do when I’m making a dye bath.  I’m sure there are better ways of doing some things, but this is what I’ve discovered so far.  I’ve researched it enough to know that it is safe; and done it enough to know that it is effective.
B. Please follow all safety recommendations mentioned here and on your dye.  It would be a grave error (and yes, that kind of grave) to be callous about your safety around these dyes.  If you can’t bother to be safe about it, please just find a different hobby!
C. I use my bathroom as my “dye studio.”  It is easy to clean, easy to keep the dog out of, and it is well-ventilated.
D. This is “tub” or “immersion” dyeing.
E. In these instructions, I’m making a 5-gallon dye bath; amounts of salt and soda ash needed for other amounts are located at the bottom of the post.


1.  Make your salt solution.
I put a five gallon plastic bucket under the faucet in my bathtub.  Then I begin to fill it with warm tap water, pouring in 1 & 2/3 cup of salt (plain, not iodized) as it fills. I turn off the water when the bucket is filled halfway, feel the bottom of the bucket to make sure the salt has all dissolved.  If it the salt has not dissolved, stirring with hand or ladle for a short while usually does the trick.

2. Prepare your dye-mixing station.

The most dangerous part about dyeing is the dye powder in its dry, powdered state; you need to set up your work space so that it will absorb any dye that falls from your measuring spoons.  Because there is no counter space in my bathroom, I started working inside a Rubbermaid tub; I’m now quite attached to doing things this way because it keeps all the noxious things in one spot…a spot you can put a lid on!  I line the bottom of the tub with newspaper, which I dampen with a spray bottle.  The damp newspaper will absorb little particles of dye dust that fall it.

I use a tub that is about 9” deep, so it is easy to work with and stores easily.

In my newspaper lined tub,  I put the jar or jars of dye I will be using that day, the measuring spoon or spoons I will be using, the knife I use to level off the measuring spoon, the bowl I use for mixing my dye, a spoon for scooping small amounts of water, the pastry brush I use to stir my dye, and finally, 1 cup of salty water (in a measuring cup.)

3. Paste up your dye.

You’re about to open up your dye jar, so you need to put on your safety gear!  You should put on rubber gloves and a respirator.  You can wear a disposable dust/mist mask if you dye occasionally, but upgrade to a respirator if you start to dye more often.

Before opening your dye, send pets and anyone not wearing a dust mask to another room.

Now you are ready: measure the amount of dye you need (how much is explained below) into your mixing bowl.  Add a very small amount of water to the dye and stir it with the pastry brush to make a paste.  Continue to add more and more salty water to the mix, stirring as you go, eliminating any lumps and making sure each bit of dye dissolves.  This is called “pasting up.”    

A couple of notes about this:
--always add liquid to powder, not the other way around 
--except for some blacks, Procion dyes should be dissolved in lukewarm salt water.
--If you are having trouble dissolving your dye completely, check out Dharma's website  for some additional tips.
--I cannot recommend using a pastry brush for this step enough!  It is so much faster and easier than a spoon.  I use a silicone and stainless steel brush that I bought for $4 at TJ Maxx.

4.  Add your dye to the salt solution.

Leaving everything else in my newspaper-bottomed bin, I take the dye mix and add it to the bucket of salty water. I put the empty mixing bowl back into the newspaper-lined tub, grab the measuring cup (which should be clean) and put the lid onto the tub (I clean the tub up after everything else is done. In the meantime, I don’t want it to cause any trouble!)  I stir the bucket with a ladle to distribute the dye.   I turn the tap on and add more water to the mix, until I have 5 gallons.

5.  Add your cloth.

Dampen your all cloth with plain water, then add it to the dye bath (how to prepare cloth will be covered in the next dye post).  Because I am dyeing a bunch of clamped pieces of fabric, it works best for me to arrange them in the bottom of several shallow dish tubs and then move the dye bath from the bigger dye bucket to them.  (I use my measuring cup to move the dye bath.)

Leave the cloth in the dye bath for 20 minutes or so.  This is when most of the chemical reaction between your fabric and dye take place, so if you are looking for even results, this is the best time to be periodically stirring and re-arranging your fabric.

6. Add soda ash.

After 20 minutes, you need to add soda ash to the dye bath.  Soda ash is what “fixes” the dye and makes it permanent. According to Dharma’s website, you need 2 tablespoons of soda ash for every gallon of water in your dye bath.  If you’ve distributed the dye bath into several tubs as I have, you can either pour it all back into the big bucket to mix in the soda ash or just add soda ash to each tub separately.  I find it easiest to pull all my fabric out of the dye baths, pour all the dye back into the big bucket stir in the soda ash, then put everything back where it was.

However you chose to do it, just be sure that you add the soda ash to the dye bath without dumping it directly onto your fabric.

7. Let it soak.

The bulk of your work is now done.  All that remains is waiting, and periodically checking on the dye baths, rearranging the fabric, and stirring.  I usually check on my dye projects only two or three times in eight hours.

8.  Rinsing and washing.

After eight hours (sometimes more, sometimes less), I pull the fabric from the dye bath and pour the dye baths down the drain.

I rinse out my fabric under the tap, starting with cold water, gradually warming it up to hot until the water runs clear. (I just learned that this is the proper way to rinse, apparently, warmer water can mess with the soda ash, so you want rinse out the soda ash with cold, but eventually use hot to get out as much dye as possible.)

Now, your fabric just needs to be washed.  It is recommended that you wash it with Synthrapol or Textile Detergent, though I’ve used regular detergent before.

While I suppose you could put your fabric in the dryer, I prefer to take it from the washer, then either press it or just smooth it out and let it air dry.

9.  Clean up.

Okay, so now I’ve got a dye-splotched bathtub, a Rubbermaid tub with dye-covered supplies, and some the buckets and tubs that need rinsing.  Time to clean up!

Keep your safety in mind as you clean up.  There might be loose dye about.  Since I use the newspaper-lined tub as my work area, all my tools are gathered there and clean-up is pretty simple. I put the tub near the bath, rinse my tools off under the faucet, roll up the damp newspaper (if the newspaper in the tub has dried out, re-wet it with your spray bottle before rolling it up) and put it in a garbage bag, then rinse out all the buckets and tubs. 

I put fresh dry newspaper in my Rubbermaid tub and put my rinsed tools (brush, spoons, bowls, and jars) in there, ready for next time.

Soft Scrub with Bleach is ace for scrubbing any parts of the bathtub that were dyed.

Two important notes about the supplies used here:
--Once a dye tool, always a dye tool. If you use food utensils as dyeing tools do not reuse them for food preparation.  I recommend buying dye tools that don’t look like your kitchen tools so that it isn’t possible to confuse the two.  My measuring cup and spoons for dyeing are plastic, in the kitchen I have pyrex and stainless steel.
--Procion dye will react with copper and aluminum, so stick to plastic, glass, pyrex, silicone, and stainless steel.

Where to find tools on the cheap:
-Scrounge around in your basement and garage; most of my buckets and tubs were found, not bought.
-TJ Maxx and Home Goods often have cheap, well-designed measuring spoons, cups, and pastry brushes.
-Dollar stores often have buckets and tubs.
-Rubbermaid bins seem to go on sale in the fall, you can also get them cheap after major holidays, so long as you don’t mind having them in holiday colors!

Scaling up and down: how much salt, dye, and soda ash to use:
**For every gallon of dye bath:  1/3 cup salt
**For every gallon of dye bath: 2 tablespoons soda ash.
**How much dye to use?
The short answer:
a teaspoon for lighter shades (for example to get a pink from a berry-colored dye); a tablespoon for deeper shades (rich berry color from a berry-colored dye).

The long answer:
Fill in the chart below to get a good starting guess at how much dye you need.
Remember that there are three teaspoons in one tablespoon.
Dyeing is inherently imprecise, but this is how I find a starting point.

(You'll notice that I got the same answer with the short answer as with the long.  Also, sometimes I just scoop out a random amount of dye and don’t worry about it. Life is too short to fuss so much all the time.)

You can of course, print this whole post, but if you just need a friendly reminder to post near your work space, here's a pretty little cheat sheet:  click here to get downloadable cheat sheet

As always, let me know if there are questions!

edited to add: Lynn, a reader, customer, and generous lady, made a PDF of this blog post, with some resized images to save paper. She emailed me the pdf to share with you all. You can view and/or download the printable pdf here:  print-ready version of whole "preparing a dye bath" post


  1. Thanks for the wonderful information

  2. Thank you for putting so much effort in to writing this, very helpful.

    Emergency Plumbers


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