Dye At Home For Pleasure And Profit


Ever wanted to dye your own stuff? It’s actually a lot easier than it sounds, it (miraculously) doesn’t take any special equipment, and the results can be a million times cooler than the basic tie-dye t-shirts the counselors made 9-year-old you do at YMCA camp.

So get your materials together, and just look her in the eye and say it’s all right Ma, I’m only dyeing.

You’re going to need everything you see here, plus a couple pots and pans, an iron and an ironing board. Being able to work in a stainless-steel sink or a washtub helps things, too. Clockwise, from top left: 1. Powdered or liquid fabric dyes in the colors of your choice. 2. White distilled vinegar. 3. White habutai silk, or another white fabric in a natural fiber. (Natural fibers generally take dye better than most synthetics, although the synthetics that are made of cellulose — rayon, viscose and Tencel — will generally take dyes intended for cottons and linens; many nylons are very difficult to dye, and some synthetics, like polyester, don’t take dye at all without industrial equipment.) Linen or cotton muslin, fine wool, or any light weight natural fiber with a flat weave and no nap will make a good scarf. Habutai is nice because it’s kind of the muslin of silks: cheap (mine was $7 a yard at Mood), readily available, and easy to work with. Allot roughly one yard per scarf for square scarves, less for oblong scarves. 4. Fabric scissors. 5. Embroidery needles. 6. Two kinds of thread: a thread in the same fiber as your scarf fabric (in my case, silk) and a regular polyester-wrapped buttonhole thread. The polyester thread can be in any color. Click any photo to enlarge.

First, cut out your scarves, and hem them. You can use a machine for this, of course, but if you do, make sure you have the right kind of foot and a very small, very sharp machine needle — thin, delicate fabric like habutai will snag easily. You may need to lower or cover your feed dogs. I decided a hand-rolled hem was worth the hassle, although I will admit that it took me two episodes of This American Life, one RadioLab, one Wait, Wait…, and one How Was Your Week? to finish both my scarves. (I also finished most of a bottle of wine, which, as always, I very much recommend.) Whether you sew by hand or by machine, be sure to work in the thread in the fiber that matches your fabric, not the polyester thread. (Polyester thread won’t take dye, so if you use that you’ll be left with bright white stitches standing out against a dyed scarf.)

Sewing a hand-rolled hem is easy, if repetitive. I work on my lap, going from left to right. My method is to secure the right-hand edge of the fabric under my right leg (or hold it down with a heavy book). I then roll the raw edge of the fabric under with the forefinger and thumb of my left hand, creating a “tube.” I pin the roll down at the left edge with the middle finger of my left hand, pulling the fabric tight across my lap. With my right hand, I sew a blind-stitch, originating from within the little fabric “tube,” emerging every 8 mm or so to catch a few threads of the flat part of the scarf in my needle, and then re-entering the tube. I pull my thread through the thumb and foreginger of my left hand, to minimize snags and twists in the thread. Every four or five stitches, I tug on my thread gently to ensure stitch tension stays even. Roll, pin, stitch-stich-stitch-stitch-stitch, tug. Repeat.

We’re going to do two kinds of dyeing for this project. One is a fairly straightforward ombré dip-dye, the other is a kind of shibori dye known as suji. Shibori is Japanese resist dyeing; there are many, many different techniques that variously involve creating dye-resistant areas in the fabric via pleating, folding, stitching, clamping, tying, or wrapping around a dye-resistant object like a pole or a stone. Shibori gives some really beautiful results. I had never done it before — in fact, until I started this project I had never dyed anything, except a little tea-dying — so I did a lot of reading up on it. This site has a great overview of shibori, with examples of many techniques. This blog explains in extraordinary detail and over the course of six separate posts how a textile artist completes one of her pleated, overdyed, shibori silk scarves. Here are some simpler step-by-step photos. There’s also this book, with instructions, examples, and a history of shibori, which you could find at your local library. And if you’re a Threads subscriber, the February/March 2011 issue had a nice article about shibori.

I did four test swatches — one test of the ombré technique, and three of my chosen shibori method, suji. The ombré was easy to get right, the suji was hard; one of my tests was too pale, another was too muddy, the third was about right. Experiment with your fabric offcuts until you get the hang of the pleating and the wrapping, and most importantly, the dye concentration level that will work for you.

When you’re comfortable, wash and iron your scarves to remove any oils, stains, or fabric finishes that might not be visible to the naked eye, and which could interfere with your dyes. Iron the scarves, and pleat one of them.

With the polyester-wrapped buttonhole thread, tie your pleated scarf tightly in the middle, and at even points all the way to the hems. Don’t worry about how the thread ties squish the pleats; that’s what creates the shapes and patterns in the dye. Tie these threads as tightly as you can. Fold the long, pleated tube in half, and tie it together.

Mix your chosen dyes according to the manufacturer’s instructions, using stainless-steel containers, if at all possible, for easy cleaning. Many commonly available dyes contain noxious chemicals, so work in a well-ventilated area and avoid breathing in any of the powders. (Wearing a painter’s mask is a good idea.) There are non-toxic dyes available; I have heard good reports about Greener Shades and Color Hue, though I have not used either myself. I found that for the suji scarf, I needed to use half the suggested quantity of water when mixing the dye, to concentrate the color. When your dyes are mixed, use an eye dropper or a pipette (or a teaspoon) to drip dye onto your tied scarf. You are Lee Krasner and your scarf is canvas, baby. Work in one color at a time, varying your mark-making — little droplets here, a big splash there, maybe a dip or two. Don’t over-saturate the scarf, or your pattern will end up muddy.

When you’re done, set aside your suji scarf to dye for about an hour (or the period suggested in your dye instructions). To make my ombre scarf, I added water to my dye pots, to take them down to the recommended concentration, and poured the lightest color — turquoise — into a large bowl. Working in the sink, I dipped about three-quarters of the scarf into the first dye, and waited 15 minutes. Then I drained the pot and replaced the turquoise color with my next dye, and dipped the scarf up to about the half-way mark. Lastly, I dipped about a quarter of the scarf into my darkest dye, navy blue.

Run each of your scarves under cold water to remove excess dye. In the case of the ombré scarf, it helps to run the water vertically, from the white edge on down.

When the water runs clear, fill a container with cold water and add a big splash of the white distilled vinegar. Soak each scarf for a few minutes to set the colors. (You will still want to wash these scarves separately in hot water the first time, in case any excess color remains.)

Allow each scarf to dry — let the suji scarf dry still wrapped and tied — then iron. I’m kind of disappointed in my ombré scarf, to be honest: my test looked a lot better, with a more even gradation and a much richer color. Which is strange, but hey. My suji scarf on the other hand is looking pretty good.

As you can see from the detail, the colors are bright, the dyes don’t run together or look “muddy,” the pattern repeats nicely, and there’s a good amount of white space.

The ombré scarf still looks pretty nice tied to my satchel, however. Best of all, dyeing at home took a lot less time, effort, and space — and wasn’t nearly as much of a mess — as I had feared. Mostly, it was fun! I could definitely see making a batch of these for holiday gifts or birthdays. Maybe with machine-sewn hems. (Sorry, friends.)

Next week, look out for a Very Special Episode of Friday DIY, in which Dodai and I team up to show you how to alter clothing for a Very Special Area — your boobs. In the meantime, to check out past Friday DIYs — including how to paint your nails with stripes, how to make a custom dress form parts I and II, how to make a fascinator, how to alter a thrift-store dress, how to make an at-home version of a Prada bag, and how to make a pair of shorts — click here.

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