Quilting with Children

Dyeing Fabric

Selecting Fabrics

I've been dyeing fabric for several years now and when I moved to Boston from Kansas, I noticed that the first batch of fabric that I dyed didn't come out as deeply colored as I expected. I thought that it might be the fabric that was causing the problem so I did a dye test on all the white fabrics that I could get my hands on. The results of the dye test are shown in the table below.

Each unwashed piece of fabric was cut into four 11" by 18" pieces. Each piece was then pre-scoured (washed) using Synthrapol. I dyed each piece in a 16 ounce tumbler. First I soaked the fabric for one-half hour in one cup of water and the amount of powdered dye shown on the chart, stirring every 10 minutes. Then I added one-half cup of fixative solution (one tablespoon Pro Dye Activator in one quart of water) and let the fabric soak for an additional three hours, stirring every 15 minutes for the first hour. The fabrics were rinsed and washed again using Synthrapol.

As you can see in the table, the type of fabric did make a difference. I use Kona White or Kona PFD every time I dye.

1/24 t. 
PRO Red #305
5/24 t. 
PRO Red #305
1/24 t. 
PRO Blue #404
5/24 t. 
PRO Blue #404
Kona Cotton White
shrinkage 1.91%
David Textiles Quilters Cotton
shrinkage 1.56%
Kona Cotton PFD Bleach White
shrinkage .87%
Kona Cotton Natural
shrinkage 1.56%
Beachwood Country Classics Solid
shrinkage 3.13%
Roc-Lon Muslin #404 Bleached - Perm Press
shrinkage 6.42%
Kona Cotton Snow
shrinkage 1.04%
Fasco Bleached Muslin
shrinkage 2.43%
Springmaid Bleached Muslin 36"
shrinkage 5.21%
Roc-Lon Muslin #406 Bleached 36"
shrinkage 4.34%
Springmaid Southern Belle - white
shrinkage 4.34%

Other Supplies

Purchase powdered dyes and soda ash from Pro Chemical and Dye or Dharma Trading Company. Both companies also carry useful measuring devices and bottles for concentrated liquid dye as well as fabric.

Purchase disposable plastic tumblers, salt, measuring tools, and plastic gloves from any local store.


Be safe when dyeing fabric. Use a good quality dust mask when mixing powdered dyes. (Once they are in liquid form, the mask isn't necessary.) Wear gloves at all times. Don't use any utensil that you use for dyeing for cooking ever again. Cover your work area and clean up spills.

Methods of Dyeing

There are quite a few wonderful books out there about fabric dyeing. My favorites include:

I use a combination of many methods when I dye fabric. I started out as a stirrer. I used lots of water and stirred and stirred to get a smooth, even color. I measured everything precisely so I could reproduce my results. Over time I've discovered I like the accidents and the variations of color that measuring and stirring don't allow for.

My current method is to be somewhat precise in making base dye mixtures and letting suprises occur once the dye actually hits the fabric. My basic method is as follows:

  1. For each dye, mix 2 teaspoons of powdered dye, 1 tablespoon of salt, and one cup of warm water in a tumbler. This forms a very concentrated liquid dye solution. Some colors (such as yellow) may need double or triple the amount of powdered dye to make the solutions "equally" concentrated, however, I usually don't worry about this.
  2. Wet 1/2 yd. of fabric and put in a one gallon plastic baggie. Then do one of the following:
    • Mix one or more colors of dye concentrate with about 1/2 c. of water and pour into the baggie with the fabric.
    • Pour one or more colors of dye concentrate directly onto the fabric.
    • Pour 1/2 c. water into the baggie and then pour on one or more colors of dye concentrate.
  3. Zip the baggie closed (with as little air as possible inside) and either let sit or smoosh the fabric around inside to move the dye through the fibers. Let the fabric sit or pick it up and smoosh it occasionally.
  4. Mix a solution of 2 tablespoons of soda ash to 1 quart of warm water.
  5. After 5-20 minutes, add 1/2 cup or so of the soda ash solution to the plastic baggie. Close the bag and smoosh everything around. At this point there is a chemical reaction taking place on your fabric. The soda ash reacts with the dye and bonds to the fibers. This reaction is mostly spent after one hour. Though some people feel waiting longer produces better results, I usually see little difference.
  6. After an hour, dump the contents of the bag into a sink and rinse the fabric until the water runs clear. Do a final wash using Synthrapol. Ann Johnson recommends only draining the fabric in the sink and putting it directly into the washing machine. She agitates the fabric for only 2-4 minutes, then drains the water and spins it out. She does this a couple of times then does a full wash using Synthrapol.
  7. Dry fabric in the dryer until damp dry and iron.

Some people soak the fabric in the soda ash mixture first and then add the dye as an alternative to steps 2-5. I like to work the dye into the fibers of the fabric first because as soon as dye and soda ash touch, that chemical reaction starts taking place. I get a little more even color in the way I've described.

Have fun!

Frequently Asked Questions

Do you dye on commission?

No, I only dye my own fabrics for personal use. I don't dye items for other people on commission.

I have a couch/curtain/bridesmaid dress that needs to be dyed. Can I do it?

First, if the item is large and difficult to wash, such as a couch, dyeing is probably not the best solution. You might consider fabric paints or recovering the item with a new fabric to get the effect you desire.

Second, you need to determine what the item is made of before you try to dye it. Any cotton or silk item can be dyed using the methods I've described above, but if it is a synthetic, a blend, or wool, you cannot dye it using Procion dyes. Synthethic materials simply do not respond to home dyeing and wool items use other types of dye which I've never experimented with. If you can cut off a small piece of the item (say, from the inside of a seam allowance), you can do a burn test to guess the content. Burn the small swatch in a sink or ash tray. If it leaves soft gray ash, it's probably cotton or silk. If it leaves small, hard bits it's probably a synthetic or blend. If it smells of burning hair, it's probably wool.

Do you teach classes?

Yes, I do. I live in Santa Cruz, CA, and teach classes locally on basic fabric dyeing as well as advanced techniques for creating prints and textures using dyes. I also care for my three children, but would be willing to travel to teach classes. You can email me for more information.

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