Ice, Dye, baby!

I have recently become addicted to a cool dyeing technique that allows for maximum color effect with limited effort. It’s called ice dyeing and is very easy to get great results, even on your first try. I’ve seen a lot of technique tutorials out there and I thought I’d chime in with my version.

The steps I describe are what I have worked out for me, but as always, results may vary. If you’re unsure of something, always do a test first.

ALWAYS READ ALL INSTRUCTIONS BEFORE YOU BEGIN ANY NEW PROJECT!!!

To start, let’s gather some supplies – first off, the hardware. Remember: Once your dye utensils touch dye chemicals, they must NEVER be used to prepare food. Clearly mark all of your dye utensils that they are for craft purposes only and never store them near food. A lot of the basic stuff can be gotten at the dollar store.

A plastic tub – I use the kind that goes under a dish rack. They are cheap, deep and wide, but any small pastic tub will work.

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Measuring spoons and cups – Get a set of each;  you’ll need a variety.

Plastic stirring spoon – I like to use a long handled plastic or melamine spoon to stir my Soda Water. I’d avoid using metal, and wood tends to get funky after a while. Plastic is also the easiest to clean, in my opinion.

Face mask and gloves – I get the fine particle kind from the hardware store. You can invest in a fancy one with cartridges, but the disposables work well and you can toss them when you’re done for the day.  My advice is to not skimp on these by getting the super cheap ones. In the long run, they are WAY less expensive than an emergency room bill from having your lungs power-washed because you breathed in dye powder. For the gloves, I use the medical nitrile kind, but you can use any water resistant kind – even dishwashing gloves.

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Note: I wear glasses on a daily basis and I find that is ample eye protection. I don’t need a lot of eye protection, but if you feel uncomfortable without any eye protection, you can wear safety goggles or glasses. There is never any shame in keeping safe.

Plastic wrap – You’ll need this if your plastic container doesn’t have a lid. It just keeps any breeze from disturbing the dye powder while the ice is melting. I’ve had this particular blue cling wrap hanging around for years, so don’t think you have to get fancy stuff – the cheap stuff is just fine.

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Plastic bucket – You can just use another dish tub instead of a bucket, but I have a few of the large, clean, paint buckets so I use them. This is just used in the beginning to soak your fabric. More on this later.

Old towels – I like to cover my work surface in a large towel and then use a few small towels to clean up and catch any drips. Try not to be jealous of my insane awning striped one. 😉

Now, the chemicals.

Soda ash –A white powder that fixes the cellulosic/ MX dye to the fabric’s fiber. It is vital to the process.

Synthrapol – This is a specialized detergent that is designed to lift excess dye particles from the fabric. It is also used to scour the fabric before you dye – more on this later. I would say it is also vital in the process because no over-the-counter detergent will work the same.

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Dye powder – As I am working with cotton fabric, I am using MX/Cellulosic/Fiber Reactive dye. Don’t be confused by the different names, it’s just that different companies call it different things, but they are all the same in chemistry.  I use dye from both Dharma Trading and PROChemical. Both companies are great to work with and both offer beautiful dyes. (I tend to buy from PROChemical more because I’ve known them for years.) For my demonstration, I am using six different colors.

Ice – Yup, good-old-fashioned ice. I get a bag or two whenever I go to the grocery store so I always have it on hand. You can just use what your freezer makes, but I’d make a few large bags of it in advance. If you live in a colder environment with generous amounts of clean snow, you can use that instead.

Water –You can just use plain old tap water. If you live in a region with hard water, you can use a chemical called Metaphos- it softens the water to make the dye work better.

And finally, fabric.

You can use any 100% cotton fabric you want for this. If you want to play with the technique without a great deal of expense, you can use plain muslin – bleached or unbleached. You have to be careful with the bleached though. Sometimes, rarely, it can be so saturated with bleach that the fabric will not take the dye properly, so always do a swatch test. I find that the bleached muslin results in brighter colors. The unbleached muslin can leave the fabric with a slightly dull effect, but depending on what you are wanting, that might work.

You can use commercial prints for this technique too. Any fabric with a decent amount of white on it will work well. I tend to get a lot of black and white prints, especially stripes, to keep for ice dyeing and dyeing in general.

You do not have to buy fabric that is marked PFD (Prepared For Dyeing). It is often more expensive and frankly, not always worth it. I have purchased PFD fabrics that didn’t work as well as over-the-counter yardage in the same dye bath, but please, feel free to experiment.

When I ice dye, I never use more than two yards in a tub. I found that is the most I can use and still get a good result based on my dye powder amounts. You can stuff little pieces of fabric around the main two yards, but I tend to not cram too much in the dye bath.

 Let’s get started, but a little safety reminder first:

WHENEVER YOU ARE WORKING WITH DRY CHEMICAL POWDERS, WEAR YOUR FACE MASK. WHENEVER YOU ARE WORKING WITH A LIQUID SOLUTION, WEAR YOUR GLOVES.

Honestly, once I start the process, I just keep the mask and gloves on the entire time.

DO NOT breathe in Soda Ash powder or dye powder. I don’t want to scare you, but you do need to respect these chemicals. Just pay attention to what you are doing and make sure you protect yourself.

The Synthrapol, Dye Powder and Soda Water are not overtly dangerous once in liquid solution, but depending on how sensitive your skin is, they can cause irritation; best to be safe and always wear gloves, just in case. If you get some on your hands, just wash them thoroughly with soap and water. Dye water will stain your hands, but it washes off after a day or so. And, I know this goes without saying, but never drink any of the liquid solutions made in these instructions.

OK, NOW let’s get busy!!

Step 1 – Scour your fabric. Scouring is a fancy term for washing your un-prepared fabric to accept the dye better. The problem with purchasing fabric off the bolt is that it has been run through mechanical looms and picked up all kinds of loose dirt and oils. Normal washing detergents will get some of the finishes off the fabric, but you really need something that is designed to strip all greasy finishes off the fabric and prepare it to accept dye.

You can scour in the washing machine, just adjust your water load to the amount of fabric you are treating. I tend to do small batches when scouring because I can control them better, but feel free to experiment. The two constants that must be followed are that Synthrapol works best in hot water and you need to add Soda Ash to the scour bath. Please note, you are not going to use a lot of Synthrapol. It is very concentrated and will produce a million suds if used in large amounts.

I like to cut my fabric into two yard pieces prior to scouring.

Follow the instructions on the bottle of Synthrapol (the amounts of detergent are based on fabric weight), if you want to do it by the book, but here is the basic formula that works for me

Hot water + machine set to Small Load + Six yards of 36” wide, muslin-weight  fabric (If using 45” wide fabric, this roughly translates to about 5 yards) + ½ Tablespoon of Synthrapol + ½ teaspoon of Soda Ash

[If you are just experimenting with this technique and you want to do a couple of yards to start, use this formula: Hot water + machine set to Small Load + Two yards of 36” wide, muslin-weight  fabric (If using 45” wide fabric, the amounts are the same) + ¼ teaspoon and a couple of drops of Synthrapol +a scant ¼ teaspoon of Soda Ash]

Run a regular wash cycle like normal. If you accidently put in a little too much Synthrapol, just run an extra rinse on the machine and it will be fine.

Step 2 – Dry your fabric. I know this sounds like a counter intuitive step with what follows, but trust me on this. You’ll need to dry the fabric so that it will accept the soda water solution in the next step. It’s kinda how you use day old bread to make bread pudding – the drier the fabric, the better to absorb more liquid.

Step 3 – Make the Soda Ash water solution. You can do this while the fabric is scouring in the machine. This is going to completely depend on how much fabric you are scoring, but for these instructions, I’ll be making one gallon. This will be enough Soda Water for about 8 yards (Depending on how wide the fabric is). You can, of course half or double the recipe, but I like to have too much than not enough. Also, you need the fabric to completely soak in it without too much of the fabric touching air and I’ve found that in a large bucket, one gallon is just perfect for six yards of 36” wide fabric. Also remember, you can soak in batches if you are using a lot of yards.

Here is my formula:

Large plastic bucket + One gallon hot tap water + ½ cup Soda Ash. Stir the solution until you don’t hear any more grainy noise from the soda ash.

[If you are working with two yards of fabric, use this formula to make one quart of Soda Water (One quart will be enough for about 4 yards of fabric.): Large plastic bucket + One quart hot tap water + 2 Tablespoons Soda Ash. Stir the solution until you don’t hear any more grainy noise from the soda ash.]

Step 4 – Soak the dry fabric in the Soda Ash. Just submerge your dry fabric in the Soda Water for up to an hour. Here’s the deal, there are a million different people who say that there are a million different times that the fabric has to soak for. Honestly, I probably leave it in there for about 15 to 20 minutes. I will stir it a couple of times to make sure that all the fabric is getting soaked, but this time always works for me. You can leave it in there overnight, but at one point, the fabric will just stop absorbing liquid.

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Step 5 – Prepare your dye area. I ice dye in my laundry room, but any non-food use table will work. Try working in the garage or in an area that is easily wiped down if you make a colorful mess. Cover the table/washing machine in an old towel and place your dyeing tub on the towel. Some people like to dampen the towel slightly with a spray bottle of water to keep any stray, dry, dye power from becoming airborne. I don’t do this, but feel free to experiment.

Step 6 – Ring out your fabric. Once you feel that your fabric has soaked for a sufficient amount of time, pull it out of the soda water and ring it out over the soda wter bucket. You don’t need to get out all of the liquid; in fact, I leave the fabric rather damp. I just make sure that it’s not heavily dripping wet.

Step 7 – Arrange the fabric in the dye tub. I make sure that all of the fabric has some exposure to the air. I don’t like to have any heavy folds buried under the surface. There are hundreds of configurations you can fold your fabric into, but for this demo, I’m using an all-over design. Look into traditional tie-dye and shibori techniques if you want to get super creative. This method is rather basic, but yields really good results.

(In the picture, you can see that I crammed in some small, printed napkins I picked up at Anthropologie.)

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Step 8 – Cover in ice cubes. When you have your fabric arranged the way you want, cover the surface in ice cubes. You don’t have to bury the fabric in a glacier, but the ice needs to cover any visible fabric. Try not to leave any holes in the ice coverage. I find that a single layer of ice works well, but I’ll toss on a handful of extra cubes just in case I missed an obvious spot.

Before we get to adding the dye powder, let me explain how the fabric actually gets dyed. When we soaked the fabric in the soda water, we made it ready to accept the dye into its fibers. We could just add dry dye powder to the damp fabric, but the powder won’t spread and you’ll get a really blotchy effect (see notes below). This is great if that’s what you are looking for, but that’s not what we’re really after here. By adding ice to the top of the fabric, we have given the dye powder a way of traveling across the surface of the fabric when the ice melts. Because we are not agitating the fabric, the dye will stay in its relative location as the ice melts and just barely blend with neighboring colors. This is what gives ice dyeing its signature look. Having said that…

Step 9 – Add dye powder. My general rule for adding dye to fabric is ½ heaping tablespoon of dry dye powder for every 36” wide yard of fabric (For 45” wide fabric, I just use a slightly more heaping ½ tablespoon).

For ice dyeing, we are using 2 yards in the tub, so that would equal one heaping tablespoon of dry dye powder, and because a tablespoon is made of three teaspoons, I use ½ heaping teaspoons each of six dyes. This works well for me, but as always, the darker the desired fabric, the more dye you will use.

Why six colors? It’s a personal decision. I tried this with three colors and I didn’t like the results. I got interesting patterns, but the fabric lacked depth. With more colors, the fabric popped and came alive. If you are just starting out, you can use as many or as few colors as you want.

The general rule with ice dye is that it doesn’t really matter how much water you have, it just depends on how much dye you have for the volume/weight of the fiber. I’m not going to get into the science of volume/weight vs. dye because there are people out there who can explain it way better than I can, and my technique gives me the results I like. For other dyeing techniques, like vat dyeing, it’s very important that the fabric have a lot of water to move around in because the fabric is constantly shifting, but as this fabric if staying still, we only need enough water to carry the dye across the surface.

As you measure your ½ teaspoons of dye, you don’t have to level off the measuring spoon. In fact, it’s OK to just have a little more on the spoon, depending on the desired amount of color depth you want. Also, don’t premeasure any of the dye powders and don’t mix all six dry colors together. If you mix them together dry, you’ll get a muddy brown or at the very least, you’ll get something you weren’t expecting, but hey, it might work for what you need, so proceed to experiment with caution.

Ultimately, I realize that I’m using a little more than ½ tablespoon of dye, per yard, in my dye bath, but if you’ll just keep it around ½ tablespoon per yard, you’ll get clean results.  But, as always, use this as a general guideline and please feel free to develop your own formulas once you get used to ice dyeing.

As far as what colors you need to use on your fabric, well, that’s completely up to you.  If you are new to color blending or dyeing in general, I suggest picking up an artist’s color wheel. They are invaluable devices that help you choose color schemes and values. If this is the first time you are doing ice dyeing, go crazy; just remember that complementary colors, when blended, produce brown.

Do each color individually like this: Open one dye container, measure, sprinkle, wipe the measuring spoon so you don’t contaminate the next dry-dye powder color, and then recover the dye container. Keep the open dye container away from your face and recover ASAP.

For spreading the powdered dye, watch the video on sprinkling the dye over the ice. Use restraint in doing this, you don’t want to go flinging the dry dye all over the place. Just be gentle and scatter the colors all over the surface. Try to sprinkle a little of one color in all four corners or develop a pattern that you like. The goal is to cover the entire ice surface in dye. If you feel that you don’t have enough dye powder on the surface even after you used your one tablespoon per yard, add some more dye powder to your desired results.

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Step 10 – Cover your work. Once your iced fabric has been covered in dye powder, cover your dye tub. I do this just to prevent any stray dye powder from getting airborne and staining the walls or your lungs. I use cling wrap, but if you are using a plastic tub with a lid, that’s just fine too.

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Step 11 – Wait for the ice to dry. This is the most frustrating step. Seriously, you will not be able to resist checking on the ice’s melting progress.  It’s kinda like watching really colorful paint dry. I know you might be tempted to bust out a hair dryer, but don’t. Just let the ice do its thing. You can place it in the sun, but really you want to let it take its time. I try to set my ice dye up in an afternoon that way, by the next morning, the ice is melted and ready for rinsing.

After your work is covered and you are gritting your teeth in anticipation of melted ice, clean up your work space. Do leave the towel under the dye tub, though. As the ice melts, the tub will sweat, just like a drinking glass, and the towel will reduce puddles, just like a coaster.

Store your closed dye containers in a plastic tub, away from direct sunlight. You can wash your dye utensils in the tub or a non-food sink. You can use soap, but I generally just give them a good rinsing in warm water. Do not put them in the dishwasher.

You can discard any leftover soda water down the bathtub drain. The soda water solution is not concentrated enough to harm septic systems, but as always, if you have questions, check out your system beforehand. When I dump it, I run the faucet a minute or two before and a minute or two after just to dilute it further.

This are a couple of pictures of the ice partially melted:

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Step 12 – Rinsing and finishing. Once your ice is completely melted (admittedly, I have, in the past, rinsed with a couple of ice slivers present) you’ll need to begin the rinsing process. How much you want to rinse and how you want to rinse is completely up to you, but here is what I do. Always wear water resistant gloves when rinsing.

First, dump out all the liquid dye solution and dyed fabric into a sink carefully to reduce splashing. Use either a stainless steel or plastic basin. Dye likes to stay on fiberglass and grout, so if you are doing this in a bathtub, be careful.

Kind of like kneading dough, start wringing out all the excess dye in the fabric while rinsing it under room temperature water. I like to keep a small stream of water running while doing this so that clean water is carrying away excess dye. Keep opening up, re-crumpling and wringing out the fabric under the running water. Don’t be scared at how much dye is coming out; I know it looks like a lot, but this is normal. After you have wrung out and crumpled it for a little while, you’ll notice that the run-off dye is lighter in color than before. At this point, I stop hand rinsing. Some people keep going until the run-off is crystal clear, but my hands usually give out before then.

Once I’m satisfied that the run-off dye is weakening, I switch to the washing machine. You are going to follow the same procedure as scouring except that you do not add any soda ash – the rinsing process uses only Synthrapol. On my washing machine, I have a “super wash” cycle that runs a little longer than the normal cycle, and that is what I use. I use one super cycle with Synthrapol and hot water, just like scouring, then one regular cycle with a little less Synthrapol and hot water, then I do an extra rinse without any detergent, in cold water. I know that sounds like a lot of rinsing, but believe me, you want to get out all the excess dye you can.

Once you are done rinsing, you can toss the fabric in the dryer or hang it on a line to dry. When it comes out of the dryer, you can press it. If you see that along the outer edge, you have sharp pleats or wrinkles, you can spritz a little water on them at the ironing board then press with a hot iron to flatten them.

And that’s it. It’s a fairly straightforward process. I have probably written out more explanations than necessary, but I wanted everyone to have as much information as possible before starting this process.

 Some tips and tricks:

– I don’t have a second sink to hand-rinse the fabric in, so I use my kitchen sink. I know, I know, it’s not the best of ideas, but hey, it’s what I have. When I do this, I cover all the counters in old towels and I move any and all food products and utensils to the other side of the kitchen. I rinse in one sink basin and afterwards, thoroughly clean the sink with bleach-like cleaner. Fun fact: if you stain your “stainless” steel in the rinsing process, the magic secret to getting out the stains is Scrubbing Bubbles. Don’t ask me why it works, but it just does.

– If you stain your fiberglass tub, I have found that a two part cleaning works well enough to get the stain out. First, cover the stain with Easy-Off cold oven cleaner and let it sit overnight. Rinse it away the next day then use Greased Lightning on the area. This two pronged approach has gotten out some tough stains on my fiberglass tub. It cleans fiberglass tubs in general. You can also try a 50/50 bleach and water combo to get the stain out first.

– Wear old clothes to dye in. Nothing I wear is that special so I usually just use an apron, but unless you own all Tyvek clothes, chances are you’ll dribble a little color somewhere.

– For fun, take a small piece of 100% cotton fabric, soak it in soda water solution, ring it out until just damp and use this piece of fabric to wipe your measuring spoon in between dye powder colors.  You’ll get a funky little piece of fabric and you won’t really waste any stray dye powder. Once you’re done dyeing everything, just toss it in a little plastic baggie to cure then you’ll rinse and dry this fabric along with the main yardage.

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– Some people set their crumpled/tied/arranged fabric on a wire grate over the tub. This allows excess water from the ice to pass through the fabric and drip into the tub and preventing the fabric from siting in a dye bath. I personally prefer the more mottled effect of the fabric soaking in the solution. What the grate does is it allows you to control the dye pattern more. It’s completely up to you; feel free to experiment.

Caring for your hand dyed fabrics:

When possible, wash them in Synthrapol before use. This will help remove any extra, loose dye particles. Yes, even after all that rinsing, loose dye particles still reside in your fabric. Reds, blacks and turquoises are notorious for not setting correctly.

Heat and water reactivate dye no matter how well rinsed it is. Keep this in mind of you are patchworking something together with light colors or white. That beautiful, hand dyed fabric will have no problem ruining your project by bleeding over everything. You can use a product called Retayne to help keep the loose dye in the fabric, when you wash patchworked things, but do try to remove as much dye as possible in the initial rinsing process.  Think of it like this: Synthrapol before you start the project; Retayne after the project is completed.

Any questions? Ask away in the comment section.

(Note: In the above videos, the lighting in my laundry room isn’t great so I apologize for my Homer Simpson yellow arms.)

I hope you’ll try this fun technique. It really is an easy way to get amazing results with very little effort.

If you need to get any of the mentioned chemicals or dye, take a look at PROChemical’s site and Dharma Trading’s site. At both places, you can find lots of good information on dyeing and tons of supplies at good prices.

I’ll do another post in a week or so about all the projects I’ve been working on.

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3 thoughts on “Ice, Dye, baby!

  1. I have been trying to ice dye for a long time. In the videos they NEVER tells you how MUCH dye or how to best to apply it . THANK YOU very much. Susan Guthrie

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