Resolve to Save: Learn Fabric Dyeing Techniques

Last week I shared a pillow project by Candy Glendening, noting how the simplicity of the design allowed her hand-dyed fabrics to take center stage. Today I thought I’d give you some insight into Candy’s fabric dyeing process.


candy glendening how to dye baby outfits
Candy Glendening
hand dye baby clothes glendening
Colorful baby clothes ready to be
picked. By Candy Glendening.

Candy’s training as a research scientist helps her get consistent results with the rich, vibrant colors she prefers to use in her fabric art.

But you don’t have to be a scientist to emulate her results. You can start simply with a dyeing project like these “Freshly Picked” baby outfits Candy designed.

You’ll need:

  • 100% cotton snap crotch tee, pants, socks
  • PFD (Prepared for Dyeing) Fabric, at least an 8″ square (Candy usually dyes a fat quarter size)
  • 2 Contrasting Procion MX Fiber Reactive dye powders
  • Soda ash soak (1/2 cup Sodium Carbonate mixed in 1 gallon water)
  • 2 recycled sports cap drink bottles to hold your dissolved dyes (not to be used later for food prep or consumption)
  • 2 plastic containers that can hold your clothing/fabric compressed (not to be used later for food prep or consumption)
  • 2 plastic drink cups & disposable spoons (not to be used later for food prep or consumption)
  • 1 measuring cup you’ll never use for food preparation
  • Particulate mask (to wear while handling the dye powders)
  • Latex/rubber gloves to protect your hands

Candy’s directions:

1. Start by soaking your clothing and fabric in the soda ash solution (this raises the pH of the fiber so that when the dye touches the fiber it will form a permanent, washfast bond).

preparing to dye fabric
Prepare the fabric for dyeing by soaking
in a soda ash solution.


2. Prepare your dyes by placing about 2 teaspoons of dye into a plastic cup (make sure to wear your mask when working with the dry powder). In another plastic cup measure 1 cup of lukewarm water. Add a small amount of water to the dye, mixing it into a paste. Continue adding small amounts of water until the powder is completely dissolved.

3. Repeat this process with your other dye.

4. Pour this dye into your dye storage containers.

5. Wring out the soaking fabric and place the tee, socks (and some fabric if you’d like to add to your stash) in one pile, and the pants and fabric for the patch in another. Lay each piece flat and then “scrumble” it by pushing in from all sides until you’ve got a pancake of fabric about 1″ tall that has lots of nooks and crannies to hold the dye solution; this is what provides all the lovely visual texture in Candy’s fabrics.

prepare to dye fabric scrumbling
How to ‘scrumble’ baby clothes for
low-immersion dyeing.


6. Once the “scrumbling” is complete, place all the clothing/fabric you would like a single color into a plastic container that holds the fabric compressed.

7. Repeat with your other clothes/fabric.

8. Slowly start adding dye (figure 8a) until the fabric/clothes are mostly colored, but with some white still showing (figure 8b). Massage the fabric/clothes until you don’t see any more white (figure 8c), there should be very little excess dye in the bottom of the container (figure 8d).

fabric dyeing glendening
Applying the dye.

This type of dyeing is called “low water immersion dyeing.” With the dye in direct contact with the fiber, you can easily get intense colors, and with the “scrumbled” fabric, wonderful visual texture as well. Tip: When working with multiple colors, Candy keeps a container with water and a rag to quickly rinse and blot her gloved hands between colors.

9. Once you’ve added the dye and massaged all your clothes/fabric, let them sit in the sun or in a warm part of your house. After 2 hours, if the dyes were kept at room temperature, approximately 95% of the dye will have reacted with the fiber. You can wash the fabric then, or wait. Candy says she usually waits overnight to eke out that last little bit of dyeing (if your room is cool, the reaction will take longer). You also can leave these until you have time; it is at your convenience.

batching for fabric dyeing
Dyeing fabric; the batching process.

10. Dump one shirt in your sink (be careful of splashes, the dye can still stain your countertop, your grout, and your clothes!!!) Rinse in cool water until the fabric loses its slippery feel and loses very little color when squeezed. When the slipperiness is gone, so is most of the soda ash, so the odds of any dye reacting with other fiber now are remote.

11. Repeat with the other color(s). At this point you can let them sit in a big bath of water for a bit to help with diffusion.

12. After a few hours of sitting in water, wash them (all together at this point) in the hottest temp your washing machine can do. Candy uses a small amount of Synthrapol, which is a detergent that is sold to help keep any washed away dye particles from depositing on the other fabrics, but if you did that first soak in individual containers, you probably won’t need it and plain old detergent (without bleach!) will be fine.

13. After the washing machine runs all the way through, Candy usually runs it again, stopping it in the middle of the washing agitation, lifting the lid and scooping out some water in a clear glass. If you see no color, your washing days are over–if you do, back to the washing machine for you!

I love this project, because when you’re finished, you have a beautiful, functional “product,” rather than a lovely piece of fabric you put in your stash for “someday.” (Though, truth be told, I have no problem with doing the latter!)

Candy explains her methods and techniques thoroughly on her Quilting Arts Workshop video Dyeing to Stitch: A Comprehensive Guide to Creating Colorful Fabric Art. Candy’s video, and many other books, videos, and emags about dyeing fabric are available at a great price during our Resolve to Save sale, ending today. If you’ve resolved to learn more about dyeing this year, now’s the time to act.

P.S. Have you tried low-water immersion dyeing? What were your results? Do you have tips to share? Leave a comment below.

Other topics you may enjoy:


Fabric Painting & Dyeing, Quilting Daily Blog

6 thoughts on “Resolve to Save: Learn Fabric Dyeing Techniques

  1. Thanks for the instructive article. I have and love Candy’s video. When I hasd problems printing the dye instructions, she helped me via facebook. I really enjoy your artcles

  2. Thanks for a clear, well-explained article! I have one question: what is a PFD (prepared for dyeing) fabric? One that goes through soaking in the soda-ash solution? Or has some process been applied to it before the soda ash soak?

  3. In step 10, when you place one of the colored items in your sink to rinse, if you have a white utility sink, will it stain the sink? doe it have to be a stainless steel sink?

  4. I love the simplicity of low immersion dyeing, no salt and big pots to mess with. I do mine in zip lock bags. This winter I have been hanging them in a bucket over the wood stove to keep them warm!

  5. Hi,

    Glad you liked the article!

    Most commercial fabrics (and purchased clothing) have sizing in them that can interfere with the dyeing process. PFD fabric comes without this. If you didn’t purchase PFD fabric, no problem–just wash the fabric before dyeing.

    As far as staining your sink is concerned, just be sure to scrub the sink promptly after you rinse your fabrics and it should be fine.

  6. I have done a great deal of low-water immersion dyeing. My tip is to dive in and try it. You can even start with “ugly” fabric and over-dye it to help build up confidence. I have a BS in Chemistry from Berkeley and we like to joke about the tie-dye test before graduation. It takes place right after the (real) swim test. 😉

    If you want a more even color, my sister’s tip is to buy a plunger and use that to gently slosh your goods around the dye bucket.

    A gram scale is very helpful to help you get the color intensity you want on the first try. Procion dyes come with a guide for each color, e.g. 2-4% by weight of goods. I weigh my fabric on the scale. For instance, if it is 200 g, I know I need to measure out 4 g of dye (if it is a 2% color). Blues and blacks often need 4% by weight. Working in grams is so much easier than working in oz and pounds.