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Sunday, June 9, 2013

How to give stained shirts a second life

I am a clumsy person, I have to admit that, and therefore I end up with ugly stains on my shirts, which often are difficult to remove (balsamic vinegar, red wine etc.). I learned how to dye cotton fabrics with Procion MX dyes, because I didn't like the ready-to-use colours you can get that you just put in the washer with your stuff and wait to see what colour everything will turn out be when done. Procion MX dyes are relatively easy to handle (for security measures please refer to the website of Jacquard Products, a producer of Procion MX Dyes) and results are great. With a little experience you can mix any colour you want from your primary colours, and will succeed to achieve even subtle changes in hue and, when running crazy experimenting, exhilarating and fantastic designs.

Procion MX Dyes will dye anything organic, that includes your skin and hair, so wear protective gloves on your hands whenever dyeing and try not to stain yourself (I have had blue feet and red hands and can assure you that the colour vanishes in a couple of days). The dyes are sold as powders, you will have to mix them and then dilute them in water. Wear a protective mask covering mouth and nose when working with the powders. These simple masks are readily available and inexpensive.

This is what you will need:
- Old or stained T-shirts or underwear or any other natural textile (the dye will not have any or a different effect on artificial materials like plastic, so dyeing mixed fibers and fabrics can have surprising effects)
- Procion MX Dyes (I only use the primary colours blue, red and yellow plus fuchsia for some special effects)
- Soda ash
- Salt
- Plastic Buckets and/or containers (for size read below)
- protective gloves
- protective masks
- measuring instruments
- an old nylon stocking
- wooden sticks or old cookings spoons for stirring

Your workspace should be easy to clean and have access to water. I usually dye in my older "ugly" bathroom, as the the dye can easily be washed from the tiles and tub without leaving any stains, just as from my washer (my mixing surface). As an extra precaution cover your working surface with plastic foil.

Make sure the garments your want to dye are clean, if not sure wash them. Then soak them in warm water (throughout this tutorial, warm water refers to warm to the touch). When chosing the colour you want to dye your fabric consider the following aspects:
- colour of the shirt (you will need to dye a darker colour than the colour of your fabric, meaning you can't really do anything to black and very dark fabrics, but you can alter for example yellow by dyeing red in order to achieve orange and so on, or darken the colour by dyeing with bigger amounts of red on red or blue on blue)
- types of stains (if there are dark stains, dye dark, otherwise they will still be visible. I you have yellowish stains, dye orange or green so they will show less. If you have bigger stains, dye mottled colours so they will be covered up in the overall design.)
- fabric (the outcome of each recipe depends on a variety of factors apart form the actual proportions of the dyes, as for example the single fabric. It will be difficult to achieve exactly the hue you had in mind at a first try. As we are dyeing stained shirts and other textiles consider all of the elements above and you should be able to achieve the colour you had in mind, eventhough it might not be just that special hue you desired).

While the garments soak, prepare the dyes.
For solid colours you will need bigger containers, where the garment can float in the dye, and you will need to stir often. For mottled colours use smaller containers where the fabric will be crushed in the dye and left to it's own devices until time is up. The blue on the left is solid, the red mottled (you can see where it remains more yellowish and where it's more red instead of being one solid colour).

In smaller containers (I used the lower part of plastic water bottles, just cut them off with scissors) measure the quantities of dye you need. (The recipes given below are designed to dye one t-shirt, if you put more shirts, the colours will be less strong).

For simple red, blue or yellow, measure 3 tablespoons of dye of your choice into the container (we're using bigger amounts to get bright, strong colours, for lighter colours, use only half the dye, for pastels even less). For other shades you will need to mix your dyes to achieve the desired effect.

I am dyeing the following colours today:

- white stained shirt with dark stains: solid blue

left: before, enlarge the picture you can see the stains on the front

right: after

- white shirt with small spots: mottled reddish orange

left: before, enlarge so that
    you can see small dark  
    spots on  the front

    right: after

- grayish shirt with small spots: solid medium mauve

left:  before, enlarge
       in order to see the
       stains on the front

        right: after

- grayish shirt with small spots: solid light periwinkle blue

left: before,
             enlarge to see
             on the front
             right: after

As you can see in the "after" pictures the dyes had no effect on the thread, which is probably polyester, and thus remained completely white.

I used these recipes:

darker blue:  1/8 table spoon red and 4 table spoons blue
reddish orange: 1 1/2 table spoon red and 1/2 table spoon yellow
medium mauve: 1/16 table spoon blue and 1/2 table spoon fuchsia
light periwinkle blue: 1/2 table spoon blue and 1/32 table spoon fuchsia

For the last two recipes consider that the shirts I am dyeing were grayish, so the result will be different when dyeing white or differently coloured fabrics. Always take the colour of your garment into consideration, if it's already yellow and you want to dye it orange, use less yellow dye.

Now let's get started: measure your dyes into smaller containers and add half a cup of warm water. 

Stir, stir and stir until all the dye has dissolved.

Now add another cup of warm water, stir again and then add the same amount of salt and soda ash as you used dye powder (if you used a total of 3 table spoons of dye, add three table spoons of salt and soda ash; if you make the reddish orange you used a total of two table spoons of dye, thus you need to add two table spoons of salt and soda ash each). Stir again until everything is dissolved.
Now prepare your containers, bigger buckets for solid colours smaller containers for mottled colours (the containers should be big enough to easily accomodate your fabric crunching it into the container).

Start to filter the dyes into the single containers using an old nylon stocking as shown below:

When you wash the nylon stocking and your plastic containers you will see that the colour washes off easily, as Procion MX dyes do not colour plastic material.
When the dye is in the container add warm water. For solid colours add enough warm water so that your fabrics can float in the dyeing liquid as shown below:

If you want to achieve the mottled effect put just enough water to cover the fabric when it's crunched into the container (there might already be enough in there, you won't need much).

Now take your soaked garments, scrunch the water out as much as possible and put them in the dye.
For solid colours put the fabric into the container, scrunch and move a bit in order to evenly get it soaked with dye and leave it to sit for a short time. Then go to scrunch, move and stir it often in order to avoid darker and lighter spots. I go at least 10 to 12 times in an hour, but more often if I can manage.

 For mottled fabrics scrunch the fabric into the container with the dye, move it and flip to make sure every part is soaked in dye and leave it scrunched firmly in the container. Go and flip it over and scrunch it back into the container after about half an hour and let it sit for the rest of the time.

Dyeing time is 1 hour, so when time is up get the fabrics out of their dyes and rinse. Rinsing is time consuming but necessary in order to avoid bleeding of leftover dyes when washing the garments later (they will colour everything else being washed together with the garments). Rinsing similar colours together is ok, but I would for example keep orange and blue separate in order to avoid spots and stains.

Wearing your gloves scrunch the garments to get the dye out of them and rinse until the water is clear without any residue of colour.

 I use handsoap to better rinse my fabrics and, when it takes too long, I leave them sitting in warm water with soap for some time before actively rinsing again. 

With garments, and in order to avoid leftover dyes staining other garments when washing, I'd recommend to either wash them after rinsing, without any detergent, or to wash them separately after use.

When the garments are rinsed well, hang them up to dry and wait to see the beautiful result you have achieved!

If your curious and want to know more about fabric dyeing, check out Marjorie McWilliams' website, she's a great teacher and I've taken several of her classes.

Have you made a project following this tutorial? Let me know what you think. Did you like it? Was it easy to understand and to follow? Do you have any suggestions?
Write a comment or send me an email using the contact form at the bottom of the page.