Dyeing Irresponsibly August 24, 2014 14:32

When I was six, my kindergarten teacher announced that we were going to learn how to tie-dye. Being six, I'd never heard of it, but it soon became my favourite thing in the universe. We spent one glorious day wrapping elastic bands around our white cotton tee-shirts and dunking them in cups of food colouring, and I was hooked. I talked about it for months, wore the tee-shirt til it developed holes, begged my mom to patch it, and continued to wear it until it was see-through, faded beyond belief, and so small I couldn't get into it. I then dressed my favourite stuffed animal in it and he still wears it to this day.

So, with all of that enthusiasm and love for dyeing, it's a wonder that it's taken me this long to return to it. I suppose I found it intimidating and overwhelming, what with all the articles and books and podcasts lecturing about mordants, fibre types, water qualities, and ethical plant harvesting. Every time I'd start to read up on it, I'd learn something else that I'd been about to do wrong, and I'd quietly set aside my plans for plant-dyed scarves and yarn, thinking that I'd only make horrible mistakes and ruin all my fibre, spill dye stuff everywhere, and inadvertently wind up dyeing the cat purple. Finally, this summer I said “to heck with it”.

I'm doing it. I don't care how it turns out! The perfect opportunity presented itself on a family vacation to the beach, where I'd have plenty of outdoor work space (no mess!), and a team of assorted relatives I could dragoon into helping. Perfect! I chose black beans and turmeric as my inaugural dyes, partly for ease of transport, and partly for the disparity in colour the two of them would create. I had purchased a stack of both silk and cotton scarves, and family members had brought their own cotton tee-shirts, so I thought this might also give us some variety in results. Lastly, I decided to use seawater as a mordant. I'd read multiple articles saying that it would work, though not as effectively as metallic ion mordants. I didn't mind this as the ease of obtaining it (we were at the beach), the safety of working with it (some of my conscripted team members were ten years old), and the novelty of being able to dye fabric with common, every-day materials were all more important to me. The fabrics were all boiled and then soaked in seawater the night before, and then hung out to dry. I also set the black beans to soak overnight, well away from any light and heat. I stirred them a few times, and then in the morning I ladled the murky bean-water off the top and placed it in a stainless steel pot, ready for dyeing.


We had a perfect day for our dye adventure – cloudy and grey, but warm enough to work outside. I prepped the turmeric by boiling it with water, and then set out all the supplies I'd brought. Soy wax for batik patterns (a beeswax & sticky wax mixture is traditional, but soy wax is easier to get out of fabric!), a tjanting for drawing with the wax, copper stamps (tjaps) for stamping the wax, string for shibori tying, and stencils for wax application. I guess you could say I like options.


The kids quickly announced that my chosen colour palette was critically deficient in pink, and a pot-full of beets was offered up as a remedy to this. I couldn't remember beets being used in dyeing, but in keeping with my “to heck with it” mantra for this project, out came the beets!


To say that people had fun would be an understatement. Wax was flying everywhere, lengths of string were being wrapped around anything that would stay still, and fabric was flying in and out of dye pots faster than I could keep track.

We quickly discovered that the beans would take the longest to impart any colour, and after an hour with no discernible change in those fabrics I decided to up the ante and threw an old rusted bolt and some vinegar into the pot, hoping to put some oomph into the mordant and dye at the same time. The turmeric was a far better dye for all of us impatient sorts, as it produced a gorgeous, rich, yellow colour with only a few minutes of immersion.

The beets were starting to look like a poor idea as fabric after fabric came out of the pot with only an anemic peach colour, but some enterprising team-members decided to apply the beets directly to their work, in hopes that it would set better.


After several hours of waxing, tying, and dyeing frenzy, the fabrics were left to finish their process. Turmeric and beet dyed ones were hung to dry in the shade, and the beans (still sluggish) were placed in a dark corner to work their magic overnight.

n the morning, all the fabrics were pulled out and trundled down to the ocean to rinse.

I was going with the theory that salt water is supposed to set dyes, and a post-dye mordanting shouldn't hurt either. What I didn't count on was the difference in pH between the dye baths and the ocean!

All of our turmeric-dyed cotton darkened to a beautiful, deep orange, though the silk dyed the same way became a bright, lemony colour. The lavender purple of the black beans muted into a lovely dove grey colour, on both cotton and silk, and places where the two had mixed became an interesting grey-green. Sadly, the beets just washed right out, leaving my poor helpers without their beloved pink.

Tie-Dye Fun!
I had figured that at this point we would simply dry our work and be done with it, but it turned out there was so much more to experiment with! People were dipping scarves and shirts in vinegar water (turmeric and cotton became yellow again, beans became more purple), re-dyeing where beets had failed, rinsing with hose-water to see what colours would appear, and mixing patterns and colours until I couldn't keep track anymore of what produced what.

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Then, finally it was all laid out to dry. In the sun. Oops. So, our final experiment of the day was the power of solar energy on dyes, which informed us that turmeric is NOT light-fast, but beans are actually kind of ok. Next time, I think I would forgo the seawater in favour of a more traditional mordant (like alum) in order to get slightly more consistent and stable results, and I'd likely stick to doing just one dye at a time, so I could keep better track of results. I've since learned that turmeric is never going to produce a lightfast dye, no matter what precautions are taken, and while the black beans seemed to do ok in the sunlight, many other people report them fading over time without the use of metal ion mordants. Still, in the end, I didn't utterly fail. Everyone went home with a one-of-a-kind article of clothing, full of memories of fun, experimentation, and family. We learned a lot about what to do next time, and what not to do, and more than anything we learned that sometimes, “To heck with it” is a great way to start a project!

striped shirt