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Dyeing Sweaters and Sweatshirts With Natural Tie Dye From Etsy

I’m really excited about today’s post, as it’s something that I’ve wanted to talk about for a while. So without further ado, today we’re going to talk about… drumroll please… tie dyeing!

I have really fond childhood memories of tie dyeing with my brother, sister, and mom, so I couldn’t wait to try it again with my own family. I remember absolutely loving the process when I was a child, and as expected, it was a lot of fun this time around too. (Even more so because I sourced a natural dyeing kit from Etsy and I knew that we wouldn’t be hurting the environment!)

 

 

Sometimes I can get a little impatient (don’t we all?) but I was really surprised with my patience and perseverance throughout the whole tie dyeing process. All in all, we all had a lot of fun together as a family, and I couldn’t be happier that we did it. Not only did we get some essential family bonding time in, but we now have some pretty unique, one of a kind tie dye pieces in our closets too!

If you want a great family activity to do together, Coronavirus or no Coronavirus, then I couldn’t recommend natural tie dyeing enough…

 

 


What Does Tie Dyeing Mean?

The term “tie dyeing” has been a thing since the early 1900’s, when a professor at Columbia University gave a live demonstration of the technique in 1909 (better than any lecture I’ve been to!), although the process has been used by civilizations across the globe for centuries, with the earliest known examples coming from Peru around 500 AD!

Tie dyeing as we know it though really took off in the 60’s, as rock stars – and anyone else wanting to make a sartorial statement – donned the psychedelic colors and patterns we now commonly associate with the term.

What Can You Do With Tie Dyeing?

The opportunities are endless with tie dyeing. Many people may automatically think of super bright pinks and yellows, but you can go for more subtle monotone tie dye (as is my current favorite, which you might remember from my Top Summer Trends piece back in June ) if you prefer. It’s a great, eco-friendly and cost-effective way to transform your clothes (perhaps a discolored white T-shirt that you can breathe new life into?) and as natural dye is biodegradable, it’s also good for the environment. Sustainable fashion means happy closet, happy family, and happy planet – win, win, win!

 

Carrington’s sweater – first dyed with Cochineal (pink) then re-twisted and re-boiled with Osage (yellow)


What I Used

To tie dye our clothes, we bought this natural dye kit from Etsy. Anyone who has read my blog knows just how important natural and sustainable fashion is to me, so I couldn’t be happier to find that I could do one of my favourite childhood activities without hurting the environment. The kit is fantastic because it has a great range of colors (yellow, orange, pink, purple and indigo) and there’s enough to do lots of different pieces – great for the whole family to get involved!

I couldn’t recommend this enough! If you want to try it out for yourselves and make your own eco-friendly fashion pieces  (you won’t regret it – trust me!) then here’s how…

 

HOW TO

Natural Dye

This natural dye pack allows you to dye around 500-600g of fiber, in light to medium shades of yellow, orange, pink, purple and indigo (the process for indigo is different so that is covered separately below). To put this into perspective, a medium cotton t-shirt weights around 120g. You can use different ratios if you like, the result will just be a paler color if using more fiber or darker if you use less. There are various other factors that influence the shade of your dye such as if it is an animal or plant fiber, if it is old or new or if it has been washed prior to dyeing or not. This all adds to the mystery of natural dyeing at home! The only real limitation is that you cannot dye synthetic fibers (although something with a small synthetic content like a 5% nylon jumper is fine), other than that you can go crazy!

There are several steps that you have to go through before you get to the actual dyeing (sorry, but I promise it will be worth it in the end!), so let’s start with the Scouring/Washing step.

The First Step

Many fibers, especially cotton, have natural waxes that can resist the dye so it is less even and paler than expected. Because of this, many people recommend a process called Scouring (essentially cooking the fibers with soda ash for at least an hour), alternatively you can just machine wash the fibers and get results just as good!

My sweater – first dyed with Logwood (purple) and re-twisted and re-boiled with Cochineal (pink) to add the pinkish tones. 

The Next Step

The next step is to apply a Mordant to the fiber. Mordanting is the process of adding a soluble metal, helping the dye adhere to the fiber. A common ingredient for this is alum (aka potassium aluminum sulphate) since it is a food safe ingredient and gives a clear, bright shade at the end.

Now before we move on, you have to check what the fiber is that you are dyeing, because depending on what you are using the process here is slightly different. See below for the two different methods:

 

Holland’s sweatshirt – first dyed with Logwood (purple) and re-twisted and re-boiled with Cochineal (pink) just like my own sweater. 

 

Cellulose/Plant Fibers

Plant fibers such as cotton and linen must first be treated with a substance high in tannins prior to applying the mordant. Here we will use gallnut powder, which comes from a protective secretion found on oak trees (fact of the day!).

First find a non-reactive vessel such as a plastic bucket, stainless steel or ceramic pot that is large enough to fit your fiber in (we used a 5 gallon bucket from the hardware store). Depending on the result you want, choose a large pot so the fiber can move around freely for an even dye, or a smaller pot with the fiber crammed in for a more uneven finish.

Fill the vessel almost to the top (just enough so it won’t overflow when you put your fiber in) with very hot water and dissolve the gallnut powder in. It should be hot enough that you can’t comfortably keep your hand in. Go ahead and put your fiber in and let it soak for 1-2 hours, stirring every now and then. Leaving overnight isn’t essential but will result in deeper colors. When you are ready, remove the fiber and rinse very gently before adding to the mordant bath.

To prepare the mordant bath, again fill the vessel with hot water and mix in the alum, add the fiber and soak for another 1-2 hours. As with the tannin bath, leaving overnight will yield deeper colors at the end as the fiber will have soaked in more of the mordant.


Protein/Animal Fibers

Animal fibers do NOT need to be treated with tannins prior to mordanting, however they DO need to be cooked in the alum rather than just soaked (for this reason we used a stock pot for this bit rather than a bucket). Fill your vessel with room temperature water and mix the alum in before adding your fibers, then slowly bring the heat up until it is almost boiling. Stir occasionally and carefully (very important to make sure the material does not felt!) while it cooks for 1-2 hours.

Remove the fabric and rinse well, it is now ready to be dyed! From here you can either go straight ahead to dyeing or let it dry and do it when you are ready.

 

Lawson’ sweatshirt – used Madder and Osage for a bright sun-like effect.


Making A Dye Extract

So your fabric is ready to be dyed, but before you can actually do your dyeing you need to make a dye extract. You get this by heating the dye in water to extract the color and straining off the liquid – this is the extract you will use to color your fabric.

Start by pouring your dye powder into a small pot, cover with an inch or so of water and heat on medium high (just under boiling) for 10 minutes. Strain off the liquid into another container, then return the strained dye powder back to the pot, cover with another inch of water and heat for another 10 minutes. Keep repeating this process until the water is more or less clear when you strain it off – this shows you have got all of the color out of the dye. I took my time doing this over the course of a few nights. You want to have all of your colors extracted and ready to go at the same time so you can mix and match the colors as you want. I placed each extract in their own 5 gallon bucket when done.



The Best Part – The Dyeing

Finally – all of your hard work is about to pay off! Take your extracted liquid and put it in a pot (we will be heating this up, so we used a large stock pot) with enough water so the fabric can move freely. This is now the time where you can get creative… if you want an even dye then put the mordanted fabric in the pot with the liquid as it is. But what we’re really here for is tie dye, so twist the fabric (as if you’re wringing water out of it) or roll it up and secure it with rubber bands before putting it in the liquid. You also don’t have to worry so much about how you fit the fabric in if you’re doing tie dye; I put two sweatshirts in at a time which was definitely a snug fit but saved me hours of time by not individually dyeing each piece!

 

Once your fabric is in the liquid, heat it on medium high for an hour or so, stirring occasionally. Let it cool in the pot and once cool, remove and rinse until the water runs clear. After this, try not to wash it for around 2 weeks to give the dye time to set in the fabric otherwise it may wash out and you will end up with a paler color.The box actually advises 2 weeks, but I washed mine after a week and they didn’t lose any color. Added bonus that we got to enjoy them sooner!

Feel free to re-twist your fabric and repeat the process with another color dye – I initially dyed my jumper purple and boiled it again to add some pink tones.

And there you have it – you should now have some beautifully vibrant naturally dyed fabric! I’ve added some info below on each dye, including how to change some of the colors, to get an even more personal look… 

 

 

Logwood – a bushy tree from south/central America, the wood of which can be used to create shades ranging from blue/grey to purple and even to black in very high concentration.

 

Osage – a deciduous tree native to the United States, also called Osage orange not because of the color (which is yellow) but due to the inedible citrus-looking fruit it produces.

 

Madder – a small perennial plant native to Europe and Asia. The dye is taken from the root which is ground into a powder producing shades of orange. You can add calcium to this (a normal antacid tablet will do) to shift it more towards red.

 

Cochineal – a type of insect native to Mexico and South/Central America. Produces vivid shades of pink or purple, depending on the pH of the water. To shift this more towards pink than purple, add some vinegar or lemon/lime juice when making the extract to make it more acidic.

 

Finley’s sweatshirt – first dyed with Cochineal (pink) then re-twisted and re-boiled with Osage (yellow).

 

Indigo Dye

Now we are going to look at indigo dyeing, which is a bit more complicated since it is not soluble in water, so you need to turn it into a soluble form using a vat. You can get shades of blue from other natural dyes which wouldn’t need this, however indigo is required for a colorfast blue. It’s certainly a more interesting process, especially because the color does not develop on the fabric until you take it out of the vat and it reacts with the air, changing color before your very eyes! You also need to repeat the process to build up the blue color on your fabric; one dip will give you a pale blue color while a dark blue will require several days of re-dipping. All will be explained below…

Let’s talk first about the most important part of this process – the vat. There are many different types available to use (fermentation, ferrous, fructose, henna and zinc lime), all of which work by providing an alkaline solution mixed with a reducing agent to “reduce” all of the oxygen out of it. This allows the indigo to become active and therefore able to dye fiber. In this case we will be using a fructose vat, using pure plant indigo extract, calcium hydroxide as the alkaline and fructose as the reducing agent.

 

Step 1 - Washing

First step as before is to wash. This is especially important if using indigo and if you are aiming for a darker shade you may even want to wash twice to make sure the fiber is extra clean and able to take the dye.

Step 2 – Creating The Vat

Good preparation is key here, as the vat will work best the day after you make it. You can still use it on the same day if you are pushed for time, but not all of the indigo will have had time to dissolve and your fabric will be paler.

Take your non-reactive vessel and fill with hot water as before – just enough water so the fiber can move around freely and hot enough so you can’t comfortably keep your hand in.

Pour in the contents of the three packets one at a time (indigo extract, calcium hydroxide and fructose) and stir after each one to dissolve. Continue to stir the vat gently in a whirlpool motion for another few minutes to make sure everything is fully dissolved and mixed in. Important note here is to stir GENTLY – you don’t want to create any bubbles and add more oxygen to the mix (which we are trying to get rid of), so no splashing!

Over the next hour or so give the mix a gentle stir every 10-20 minutes, and ideally leave it until the next day to allow all of the indigo to dissolve. Leave it somewhere that isn’t too cold, ideally covered, and check it for a quick stir 3-6 more times over the course of the day. Now you wait for the transformation to begin! As you check it, keep an eye on the color of the solution, the end result should be a green liquid – if the liquid is blue then the dye will not work! Do not worry though if the surface of the vat looks shiny or blue, if you give it a stir you should be able to see the green below. A healthy vat will also have a slightly metallic looking foam on top (referred to by dyeing experts (which I guess you are now?!) as the indigo “flower”).

The solution should have turned green in a few hours, at which point you will be ready to dye, although it will work best if left until the next day. Another thing to consider is that your vat may need reheating if left in a very cold space, in this case warm it back up again until it is around a normal warm room temperature.

To test if it is indeed ready to dye, place a piece of white fabric in the vat and leave for 10 minutes. When you take it out it should be a green color and slowly turn blue as you hold it as it is exposed to the air. If you hold it without moving your fingers then let go, the bit where your fingers were should still be green as it wasn’t exposed. Magic!

 

London’s sweatshirt – dipped 3 times in indigo, then boiled in Osage (yellow) to create some green tones.

Step 3 – Dyeing

A very important note before moving on to the actual dyeing – just like with the stirring, you have to be very careful not to reintroduce too much oxygen to the vat or the indigo will become inactive and unable to dye. After all of the effort to get here, we wouldn’t want that! This applies to when you are putting your fabric in the vat when you are giving it a stir, and when you remove the fabric to make sure it does not drip back into the vat. With that out of the way, in we go!

First, soak your fiber in a bucket of warm water, or run it under the tap until it is completely wet. As with everything else, the longer you leave it to soak the better, especially if you are after an even dye with no streaks or marks. When you are ready, gently lower the fabric into the vat, leaving it submerged for at least 15 minutes and anywhere up to 30 minutes. Again, if you want an even dye go ahead and give it a gentle stir a few times to move it around in the dye, or for a tie dye effect make sure you have your rubber bands in place.

When you are ready to remove the fabric, pull it out very gently along the side of the vessel and lift it out to drip over a separate container, being very careful not to let it drip back into the vat. If you are dyeing very large items you should gently squeeze some of the liquid back into the vat as you pull it out (trying not to create too many bubbles) otherwise you may not have enough liquid left for more dips later on.

Now just sit back and watch the magic happen! As with the test piece, your fabric should have come out looking green (or turquoise if you’ve already done a few dips) and slowly change to blue as the air hits it. It will need to oxidise properly between dips, you can do this either by hanging it wherever it is exposed to air or by dunking it in cold water and agitating the water, then hanging it up. Either is fine and won’t affect the end product.

After 15-20 minutes it will be ready to dip again, and just keep on dipping until you have your desired shade of blue (remembering that it will be a few shades lighter once dry). 3 dips will give you a soft, pale blue, 4-6 dips for medium shades and as many as 10-20 dips for a dark blue (very dark blue may only be possible on smaller or fewer pieces). Just remember to be patient and work slowly, and the best results will come if you do this over the course of a few days.

 

The Final Step – Rinsing and Neutralizing

When possible, allow your fabric to oxidise for 24 hours before rinsing after the final dip. If you did tie dye, remember to take the bands off before this 24 hour period.

First do a quick rinse in water, then neutralize the pH of the fiber by dunking it in a bucket of water containing either 1/3 cup vinegar or the juice of two lemons/limes. This acidity is required to neutralise the alkaline from the vat, and is especially important for animal fibers like wool.

Now do a complete rinse in water, repeating until the water runs clear (this may take a while!). You’re now done and can enjoy your indigo fabric!


All in all, the most enjoyable part of this is the dyeing itself, and seeing how unique and beautiful each piece was when I took the rubber bands off. It really is a mystery, and there’s something quite exciting when you’re waiting in anticipation to see what the finished pieces are going to look like! As for the rest, it is definitely a long process (funnily enough I didn’t remember that bit from when I was young!) but the end result is very satisfying.

Give it a try and let me know how it goes in the comments!