Tips for dyeing threads

Hand dyeing threads for quilting and embroidery is really quite simple. Here are a few tips if you fancy having a go yourself.

(My thread is mercerised cotton and I’m dyeing it with Procion MX fibre reactive dye).

I think threads are best dyed with a low water immersion technique so I’m using shallow trays (cat litter ones work fine, new of course!). Smaller quantities could be dyes in plastic pots, you could re-use ice-cream tubs for instance.

For variegated thread colours, you don’t want the skein swimming in dye, it’ll just end up one murky colour. The first layer in the tray ought to be fabric, this’ll soak up the spare dye giving you loads of control about where the colours flow and the bonus is you’ll get gorgeous fabric that coordinates perfectly with the threads!

Make sure the fabric is clean, any finish has been removed and most importantly is compatible with the dyes you’re using. If you’re using Procion MX like me then you’ll want cotton or linen. Don’t bother with polycotton it’ll be horrible as none of the poly fibres will accept the dye. Soak the fabric in soda and salt solution (I’ll put my recipe a the end) for a few minutes making sure it’s all fully saturated. Lightly wring it out (wearing gloves) allowing the excess solution to go back into the bucket. You can re-use this.

Arrange the fabric into the tray. Aim for a nice even layer, but experiment with folding and crumpling for different effects. I pack it fairly tightly in a crumpled way.

Pour on the first colour. I recommend using the lightest, brightest colour first so with the colours I favour that usually means yellow. Pour on enough dye, don’t skimp, you’ll only get pale and pasty results. Now carefully flip the entire layer of fabric taking care not to flick any dye up the walls or yourself.

Arrange the thread skeins on top. These too have been soaking in the soda bucket and have been gently wrung out. I arrange them in rows like neat soldiers so I can see where I’m putting the dye on each one. At this stage, press them down with a gloved hand. As you can see in the top photo, they’ll take on a bit of that first colour of dye.

Now comes the fun part! Add the others colours of dye you want to use. I mix each colour in a plastic jug or pot so I can pour it on easily and not bother with a spoon. Apply the colour carefully to target specific areas and think about colour theory! Too much of everything and you’ll just get brown. For rainbow effects try to apply one colour at one end of the skein, something else in the middle and something else at the other end.

Add enough dye! Peep in amongst the skeins and look for white bits. Press with your fingers to push them into the dye. It shouldn’t be pooling, there should be just enough for everything to be well saturated.

OK, so you may not be doing a quantity like me! But if you are, then depending on the depth of your tray or tub you can probably repeat the whole thing – another layer of fabric (no need to flip it this time, the underside will be coloured by the previous layer), another layer of thread skeins, more dye.
Leave them to react in a warm place. If it’s too cold for you in the room, it’s too cold for the threads. Aim for about 21 degrees C. In theory they can be ready in an hour or so, but as they’re cotton (don’t do it with silk), I tend to leave them until the next day.
So! Tomorrow I’ll rinse them and we’ll see what we’ve got. Hope you’ll come back then!
Bye for now,
Dye solutions: Procion MX Reactive dyes. I get mine from where you can also get instruction sheets. I don’t measure the dye, I have just done it so many times that I judge it by eye. Let’s say about a heaped teaspoon to about 200ml water. That’ll make something pretty strong. If you want it more intense add a bit more dye, paler, add less. You can tell I’m no scientist. Don’t hold me to these quantities! Just experiment and find what works for you and don’t forget, you can always overdye.
Soda and salt solution: I use washing soda from the supermarket. It comes in a bag as crystals. 100g per 500ml water. I make up the whole packet in a bucket. Stir well with an old wooden spoon. When it’s all dissolved add some salt. The quantity of this isn’t so important, having some there just helps the dye get out of the water and into the fibres. Let’s say about 500g for that bucketful of solution.
I feel like I should qualify all this with some health and safety. Be sensible, don’t let your children and pets anywhere near, don’t use any dyeing pots etc. for cooking, don’t drink it, eat it, pout it over yourself and so on. Seriously though, wear a mask when working with dye powders, an apron and rubber gloves at all times. Follow the guidance that comes with your dyes. Soda is nasty, observe the warnings on the packet.