Hand Dyeing (FAQs)


Hand Dyeing

Marjie McWilliams answers Frequently Asked Questions about her hand dyeing classes.

Why are my results so pale?
I use 100% cotton. Why are my colors still pale?
Why does rinsing take so long?
Why do I have specks of color?
Why do we use plain salt?
Why do we use soda ash?
What is Urea or Organic nitrogen?
Why do we cover the wet fabric with plastic?

Rich hand dyed colors
Rich hand dyed colors

  1) Problem: Why are my results so pale? My results are quite pale and pastel.  Why don’t my results look like everyone else’s?  The colors are so dull!  My dyes rinse out of the fabric leaving just a hint or no color at all!

fabric treated with permanent press finish  fabric is 100% cotton completely untreated
Example on left is on fabric treated with permanent press finish; on right, the fabric is 100% cotton completely untreated

Answer:  9 times out of 10 the reason for this is either that a Permanent Press treatment has been added to the fabric or it is a blend of a synthetic fiber and cotton.  The best fabric for these QuiltU dyeing classes is natural colored,100% cotton with no wrinkle guard. 

  2) Problem: I use 100% cotton. Why are my colors still pale? But my fabric is all cotton without a blend or anti-wrinkling agents and my colors are still no good.

Answer:  Is it WHITE cotton?  White cottons have been bleached.  Bleach is very difficult to remove from the fibers and unless it has been Prepared For Dyeing (PFD), or mercerized, some bleach still remains causing it to make the dyes quite a bit lighter than if the cloth were left in its natural state.  You will NOT be able to get the bleach out using household products.

  3) Problem: Why does rinsing take so long? The rinsing out process takes so long! How can I speed it up so I’m not spending so long at the sink?

Answer:  Rinse well by hand in warm or cold water for about 5 minutes.  If you don’t have much time to stand there and rinse, but do have patience, separate into like colors and allow the fabric(s) to soak overnight in Synthrapol detergent or in liquid dish soap or shampoo.  Otherwise, transfer the fabric(s) to the washing machine and run through a full cycle using the mentioned mild soaps.  Synthrapol is best if used in warm water.  Very dark colors will take a cycle or two to rinse clear.  Liquid soaps can have more sudsing agents than are good for your washing machine, so be careful about using them in the machine.

  4) Problem: Why do I have specks of color? Sometimes specks of color show up on my hand dyed fabrics.  Where are they coming from and how can I avoid them in the future?

Answer:  Specks are small bits of undissolved dye that cling to the bottom or sides of the mixing container.  When you dump the dye into the larger container, these bits hide out and wait patiently for the cloth to arrive so they can jump onto the surface and make you crazy later.  The solution is to mix the powders well in a small amount of warm water, stir well when the next amount of water is added, toss the dyes back and forth from one container to another and look closely to make sure there aren’t any bits of color still left here or there.  Squash them with your gloved fingers if you find the little buggers.  Some colors are more prone to speckling than others.  Reds seem to be the worst offenders.  If you continue to have problems, use a coffee filter or a knee high stocking as a strainer.  Rinse it well each time to get the loose stuff out of there, if you plan on reusing the knee high as a filter.

Speckles from undissolved dye
Speckles from undissolved dye

  5) Question: Why do we use plain salt

Answer:  Salt is part of the chemical reaction.  Regular salt contains iodine which affects the chemical process involved in dyeing cotton fibers. 

  6) Question: Why do we use soda ash and what is it?

Answer:  Soda ash, or washing soda, is Sodium carbonate.  It is NOT baking soda or Sodium bicarbonate.  Sodium carbonate is a part of the chemical process that causes the water to become more acidic and, when paired with the salt (making the water more alkaline), helps the fibers open up to receive the dye molecules and make a permanent bond.  This permanent bond is what makes Procion Fiber Reactive dyes so long lasting and brilliant. 

  7) Question: What is Urea or Organic nitrogen?

Answer:  Urea or Organic nitrogen is called a wetting agent.  It keeps the textiles damp for a longer period of time.  The longer the fabric is damp and active with the dyes, the stronger the color will be.  In dry or arid conditions, Organic nitrogen is a good thing to add to your dye baths.  For thinner fibers, especially silks, this chemical is essential to keep things moist for as long as is necessary to get the colors we need.

  8) Question: Why do we sometimes need to cover the fabric with plastic?

Answer:  To keep the fabric as damp as possible, especially with silk dyeing.  Keeping the fabric damp for the required length of time helps attain the deepest color results possible from your dye application.

Troubleshooting- Looking at the variables:

Here is a list of the most common reasons colors do not come out right:

  • Fabric content is wrong
  • Fabric wasn’t pre-washed
  • Measuring error
  • Age of dye powder- more than 5 years old/not stored properly
  • Age of mixed dye bath, e.g., more than 4-12 hours old
  • Chemicals not added or added in wrong proportions
  • Too much fabric added to dye bath
  • Time left in the dyes-too little?
  • Fabric dried out
  • Dye bath water too hot (over 105º F)
  • Dye bath water too cold (less than 62º F)
  • Air/room temperature (less than 65º F)
  • Water content: high chlorine content or high iron content
  • Vats used: aluminum or copper can interfere.  Best are plastic or glass.
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