Dyeing Fabric with Procion Dyes: Earth-friendly Tips

22 Apr 2014

A note from Vivika: Many fiber artists love dyeing fabric, but want to be sure to use chemical dyes in a safe way to protect themselves and the planet. Today, fabric dyeing expert Candy Glendening of candiedfabrics.com shares information and tips on how to dye fabric safely.

how to dye fabric safely candy glendening
Candy uses low-water immersion fabric dyeing techniques to
create a range of colors and depth in her fabrics.
I love dyeing fabric with Procion-MX Fiber Reactive dyes, they allow me to create fabric that is just the color and visual texture that I need for each of my textile art projects. I am always inspired by the flora and fauna that surround me, so I am always trying to impact the earth as little as possible. I've researched and developed methods of using these dyes that impact our planet as little as possible, and wanted to provide my fellow color lovers with a few tips on how to dye fabric using Procion MX Fiber Reactive dyes in an earth-friendly manner.

Dyeing with Procion MX dyes requires very little:

• Dye
• Soda Ash (Sodium Carbonate)
• Salt (this is optional and unnecessary for the low water immersion dyeing I do)
• Water
• Warmth
• Time

Dye

First of all, using Procion MX dyes are earthy friendly because we need so little dye to create rich, vibrant colors that are light- and wash-fast, so that once we've colored our cloth, whatever we make with it will stay beautiful for years and years. In contrast; if you were to color cloth with natural dyes, which are pigments produced by plants (for the most part), you would need a lot more of the dyestuff to get any color, which would require a lot more land cultivation than the world has room for. Natural dyes also require a mordant to link their pigments to your fabric, most of the mordants include heavy metals that should only be used by trained professionals, and even then they need to be really careful in the handling and disposal of the waste products. (Alum is the exception to those mordants, it is safer to use and easier to dispose of, but still requires care in handling)

fabric dyeing results glendening
An example of Candy's fabric dyeing results.
This doesn't mean that there's no hazard at all in using Procion MX dyes. In its powder form, care must be taken to not inhale it, as the dust can cause irritation, and over time people can develop allergies/asthma from this. Luckily this is easily prevented by wearing a dust mask or respirator during the short time when the container of dye powder is open, as soon as you mix it with water, the concern for airborne particles is eliminated. Also, as there have never been tests done on how safe Procion MX is to eat, you should never return tools from your dye studio to your kitchen!

In powder form, if these dyes are stored in a temperature controlled environment, they can last for years, if not decades, so you don't have to worry about using them up before a certain date. Extreme heat, cold, or humidity can affect their shelf life, so don't leave them out in your garage; I store mine in a sealed plastic tub in my laundry room. And although you can find these dyes in "big box" craft stores, you don't know if they have been stored properly there, so I always recommend mail ordering your dyes from a reputable online dye source. The 2 major ones in the U.S. are Dharma Trading and Pro Chemical and Dye.

Procion MX dyes are easily broken down into harmless molecules by microbes in our waste water treatment plants and/or in our soil, so there's no-build up in toxic wastes that need to be stored or disposed of in a special way.

Soda Ash and Salt

Soda Ash is found in laundry detergents; the amount that we use for dyeing is minimal and has no effect on waste water treatment.

Some methods of dyeing with Procion MX also require salt, sometimes rather large quantities. This is still easily handled by waste water treatment, but if you have a septic system, you'd need to ask for help figuring out how much salt the microbes in your tank could handle on a particular day.

how to dye fabric safely rinsing the fabric glendening
Candy quickly rinses her hand-dyed fabric, then let's it soak in
dishpans to release undyed particles, thus saving some water.
Water

Honestly, the toughest thing on the earth when we dye is the amount of water we use. I dye using low water immersion, so the water I use there is minimal, but washing out all the un-reacted dye particles at the end can take a lot of water, and safe, clean water is a precious resource. In order to minimize my use of water, I do most of my washing in buckets on my patio, and I substitute time for amount of water. Basically, getting those undyed particles out of the fiber requires energy: if you need the fabric quickly, this usually means a multiple cycles using hot water in your washing machine; the agitation and heat knock the dye particles out of the fiber.

However, letting the fabric sit in cool water for longer amounts of time will allow the undyed particles to diffuse out of the fiber as well, so after a quick rinse under running water to get the soda ash out of the fabric, I soak them in dishpans and cold water. I usually do this twice, starting my washout just before dinner time and changing the rinse water before bed. I soak similar colors together, I can usually fit 2-3 yards in a dishpan. The exception to this is yellow, which is so light in value that it can be affected by miniscule amounts of other dye colors in the first rinse, so I rinse the separately in the beginning. I then transfer the fabrics into my washing machine and fill it up with hot water and stop it, using the washing machine as a big hot water rinse bucket.

Often times the water is clear after several hours of soaking, if it's not I drain and repeat the hot water soak, this second soak usually shows that all the dye is gone, which means that those particles won't move around and perhaps bleed when I'm washing the quilt I made with those fabrics later on!

fabric dyeing jewel tones glendening
It only takes a little dye to create these rich jewel tones, Candy says.
Another earth-friendly technique is to always use your best skills: the better made something is the long it can be used and therefore it doesn't get thrown away and replaced with something else that has to be made!

Warmth & Time

The chemical reaction that occurs when we dye fabric also requires heat energy and time; the warmer the dyeing fabric is, the less time that it takes for the fabric to dye. I am lucky that so much of the year it is so warm in my Southern California backyard that a couple hours is all that is needed for that reaction to run its course. Folks in cooler climates often add heat by steaming or microwaving their fabrics, using energy that has to be produced in some way that may harm the environment to a greater or lesser extent. But you can also just wait! In the winter, I just let my fabrics batch for a full 24 hours and the fabric I dye then is just as vibrant as the fabric I batch for 2 hours when it's 105 degrees F.

I hope you've learned something about Procion MX Fiber reactive dyes, and how they fit into an earth-conscious lifestyle.

And I hope you try dyeing. The joy that comes from working with fabric you've dyed yourself is incredibly fulfilling! A good way to begin is with my Quilting Arts Workshop video Dyeing to Stitch: A Comprehensive Guide to Creating Colorful Fabric Art.


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Join Candy Glendening as she shares her dyeing techniques, explorations into color theory, her approach to quilting and free-motion machine sketched motifs.

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Comments

Calicojoan wrote
on 26 Apr 2014 9:55 AM

Well now, I have fabric dyed for years, and never realized that the dry powder did not do well with temperature changes. I have mine in big totes, but I leave them outside in my dyeing station all winter long. I guess I will stop that practice and bring them in from now on. Thanks for that tip!

fiberjoy wrote
on 27 Apr 2014 2:27 PM

Here's another water saving technique, especially useful with lots of fabric or several people (a class) rinsing: Fill 4 or 5 five gallon buckets with water. Put dyed item in the first bucket to remove much excess dye. Then squeeze it out and put it in the next bucket and the next. Most MX dyed work will be completely rinsed by the last bucket. When the first bucket is very murky, empty and refill it with clean water. Put it at the clean end of the bucket system. Change first bucket again as needed.

Also  note: Procion MX dyes don't work well in hard water - even for rinsing. If you have hard water, use Calgon or another water softener in all the water you use for dyeing. Supermarkets in hard water areas usually carry it .

hgoodwin wrote
on 11 Aug 2014 8:54 AM

Thanks for your very helpful article on dyeing using less water and sunheat as we all need to reduce the impact of our hobbies and work on the environment. (Just the growing and processing of  fiber resources takes a heavy toll on the earth.) But, please don't discourage fiber artists from trying natural dyeing -- many natural dyestuffs go in the garbage or compost -- like onions and avocado skins, flower deadheads, nut hulls, and wood shavings from sawmills. Many natural dyers contribute to gardening practices by cultivating dye plants with multiple uses.  Also -- it is easy to avoid using heavy metal mordants -- indigo requires no mordant nor do a number of plants.   Let's keep sharing ways to enjoy our art with less instead of more.