Hand Dyeing Shortcut: Make and Keep a Soda Ash Solution

No matter which fabric dyeing techniques you use, dyeing fabric can be a fun–some might even say transformative–creative experience. Pulling the hand-dyed fabric from the dye bath to reveal the colors and patterns you have created is absolutely magical.

Yet hand dyeing, especially when you use chemical dyes, takes some preparation. You must take safety precautions, protect your clothing and work space, prepare your fabrics and resists (if you are using resist-dyeing techniques) and so on.

fabric dyeing preparating
Tiny dye baths ready for hand dyeing threads.

Unless you have a dedicated wet studio, this preparation can take a lot of time. So I’m for anything that will speed up the prep process.

One way to do this is to mix up your soda ash solution in advance. When textile dyeing, soaking the fabric in soda ash changes the pH of the fiber-reactive dye and cellulose fiber so that the dye reacts with the fiber, making a permanent connection that holds the dye to the fiber.

Many people mix up a batch of soda ash solution for each dyeing session, but you can do this in advance, saving pre-dyeing time, says Carol Soderlund. Carol and Melanie Testa write about thread dyeing in the August/September 2014 issue of Quilting Arts.

Soda ash solution can be kept from dye session to dye session, writes Carol. It never goes bad. A re-purposed gallon drink container is perfect for both mixing and storing the solution.

Here are Carol’s tips for making soda ash solution for dyeing:

To mix a gallon of soda ash solution:

1. Pour 1/2 cup soda ash powder into the jug. (See Note, below.)

2. Fill the jug halfway with very warm water.

3. Shake the jug to dissolve the soda ash.

4. Fill the jug the rest of the way with more warm water.

how to hand dye fabric and threads with soda ash
Carol Soderlund shows how to dye variegated threads.

The soda ash dissolves very easily and the half-full jug is easier to shake than a full one. Once mixed, then I pour out only what I need for my project.

Note: Instead of soda ash, you can also use sodium carbonate which is found in the pool supply area of the hardware store. Called Balance + or pH Up, it is used to balance the pH of swimming pools.

Now you’re one step closer to hand dyeing your own fabric and thread!

Discover more about thread dyeing when you download your copy of the August/September 2014 issue of Quilting Arts.

P.S. Do you have any tips for fast-tracking your fabric dyeing process?Leave them below.

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Fabric Painting & Dyeing, Quilting Daily Blog

6 thoughts on “Hand Dyeing Shortcut: Make and Keep a Soda Ash Solution

  1. Not all swimming pool Ph levellers are soda ash; some are sodium bi-carbonate which is not the same thing. Washing soda, however, is sodium carbonate. Its important to read the labels or you can buy the wrong product and it doesn’t work the same way.

  2. As someone who has dyed for many years, there are some problems with this suggestion:

    1. Soda Ash settles out of solution and can be very difficult to get to redissolve into solution…..I find that i wind up with clumps and that it’s easier to mix each time for consistent or good results.

    2. The soda ash reacts with the fabric, and by doing so the concentration of the solution drops every time. I’ll talk you through it, but the calculations are made up, not real. For example, let’s say you make a solution of 2 cups to 2 gallons of soda ash solution which may be enough to dye 2 pounds of fiber. Then you dye 1.5 lbs of fiber and save off the remaining half gallon (seems like water goes down aobut 50% depending on the fiber). That half gallon is only enough for a half pound of fiber. The next time you dye, if you dye a half pound of fiber, you will probably have to extend the volume of the soak with additional water, which reduces your overall concentration. That said, you still have enough to dye a half pound, but because the solution is diluted, the fiber probably won’t take up enough of the soda ash to bite the fiber enough. If you want to dye more than a half pound, you need to add more soda ash to the solution to increase the concentration of the solution. NOw you have to calculate your starting concentration and what you need and make up the difference.

    So really, if you are doing alot of dyeing, (I dye 20-40 pounds at a time and have to refresh the bath, otherwise I get lighter colors as I go) mix the solution to the amount of fiber that you are dyeing that day or weekend, and just that amount. Why just that amount? Because it leaves a solution with the lowest concentration of soda ash as possible which saves our water treatment processes and waterways. Or sometimes, I let the solution dry up and then grind down the remaining solids, but this is a PITA.

  3. As someone who has dyed for many years, there are some problems with this suggestion:

    1. Soda Ash settles out of solution and can be very difficult to get to redissolve into solution…..I find that i wind up with clumps and that it’s easier to mix each time for consistent or good results.

    2. The soda ash reacts with the fabric, and by doing so the concentration of the solution drops every time. I’ll talk you through it, but the calculations are made up, not real. For example, let’s say you make a solution of 2 cups to 2 gallons of soda ash solution which may be enough to dye 2 pounds of fiber. Then you dye 1.5 lbs of fiber and save off the remaining half gallon (seems like water goes down aobut 50% depending on the fiber). That half gallon is only enough for a half pound of fiber. The next time you dye, if you dye a half pound of fiber, you will probably have to extend the volume of the soak with additional water, which reduces your overall concentration. That said, you still have enough to dye a half pound, but because the solution is diluted, the fiber probably won’t take up enough of the soda ash to bite the fiber enough. If you want to dye more than a half pound, you need to add more soda ash to the solution to increase the concentration of the solution. NOw you have to calculate your starting concentration and what you need and make up the difference.

    So really, if you are doing alot of dyeing, (I dye 20-40 pounds at a time and have to refresh the bath, otherwise I get lighter colors as I go) mix the solution to the amount of fiber that you are dyeing that day or weekend, and just that amount. Why just that amount? Because it leaves a solution with the lowest concentration of soda ash as possible which saves our water treatment processes and waterways. Or sometimes, I let the solution dry up and then grind down the remaining solids, but this is a PITA.

  4. Soda ash IS sodium carbonate ! There is no “instead of” about it. And as Carolne A says, not all swimming pool pH levellers are sodium carbonate – read the fine print. And Washing Soda is also sodium carbonate, BUT has a much higher water content, so you will have to use more of it to get the same results…
    I have never had a problem with soda ash settling out of solution (with over 20 years of dyeing exp) – though it does depend on just how strong a solution you have made up…
    I think Kelly D is complicating the issue slightly (apologies Kelly D !). Of course the soda ash solution is going to be weaker if you keep adding more water.

  5. Soda ash IS sodium carbonate ! There is no “instead of” about it. And as Carolne A says, not all swimming pool pH levellers are sodium carbonate – read the fine print. And Washing Soda is also sodium carbonate, BUT has a much higher water content, so you will have to use more of it to get the same results…
    I have never had a problem with soda ash settling out of solution (with over 20 years of dyeing exp) – though it does depend on just how strong a solution you have made up…
    I think Kelly D is complicating the issue slightly (apologies Kelly D !). Of course the soda ash solution is going to be weaker if you keep adding more water.

  6. Does anyone have any suggestions on dyeing spools of cotton thread? I’ve tried winding the spools looesly on other spools or tools used for yarn only to have nothing but nice colored tangled/knotted threads. Any suggestions will be appearicated.

    Thanks,

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