Introduction: Dyeing Paper: an Exploration

About: In which I turn the thoughts from my head into objects in my hands

My big picture idea is to eventually build a floral lamp, but being the cautious engineer that I am, I explored the baby steps for that in this tutorial and my other Light-Up Literary Flower. The light-up literary flower helped me figure out a nice way to adhere paper onto a wire frame for petal formation, and this tutorial is targeted toward getting the ideal color effect that I want (in addition to testing thinner, tissue paper rather than book pages). While my family doesn't quite celebrate Christmas with its traditional gift exchanges, I did participate in a gift swap with a friend particularly enthusiastic with tissue paper, hence my windfall of leftover tissue paper that I got to use up. Plus I get another gorgeous flower to add to my collection; nice bonus, wouldn't you say?

While my paper dyeing led to valuable information, I ended up eliminating a lot of the "techniques" that I planned on using; tissue paper was even entirely ruled out because dyeing increased its fragility to an unusable state. I ended up using left over book pages and wire from my previous flower project. Even so, I found the mini experiments enlightening; perhaps someone else may find my trials useful.

UPDATE: Lamp has been complete, second photo above. Enjoy!

Step 1: Materials

  • different types of dye (this may include "official" dye like fabric dye, food coloring, watered out markers, watercolors, Koolaid, watered-down acrylic paint)
  • cup(s)
  • tissue paper
  • spray bottle
  • stiff wire (I used 19 gauge stainless steel wire, which is usually used for sculpting)
  • pliers (fingers are adequate, but in case you would like to protect them..)
  • floral tape (for nice texture)
  • glue

This project was a dyeing test for me, but alternatively you could skip the dyeing and jump straight into building a flower from pre-colored paper (origami paper would look lovely...).

Step 2: Dyeing Experiments

To create an ombre effect in the paper used for the flower, I wanted to either leave paper in a single color of dye for longer amounts of time or use different colors of dye. I also tried crumpling the paper as opposed to purposeful folding (see if coloring soaks up specifically in creases), in addition to using different sources of coloring, to find my ideally imagined result. For one sheet of tissue paper, I tested how using faintly colored tissue paper would work with another color of dye. There were other mini experiments along the way: read along!

Why not just use watercolors or acrylic paint to stain paper, you may wonder. I was quite adamant on using food coloring and Koolaid/edible dyes because I knew that I would be handling the dyes with my fingers, and thus I shied away from using harsh chemicals (conventional paints and dyes) that I wouldn't feel safe touching without gloves.

Food coloring was used for most dyeing experiments so I could safely handle all the water and easily mix. For consistency, my standard concoction was 10 drops of food coloring in 1/4 cups of slightly warm water (warm so that the dye could dissolve more easily since winter is here). Metal spoons were used to thoroughly mix; don't use a chopstick or similarly porous material, unless you fancy colored chopsticks.... I initially used my fingers to adjust the paper, but I turned to using spoons since the food coloring dyed my fingers (a shower fixed that easily though). Even so, I did use my fingers to gentle press out some of the food coloring so that drying wouldn't take eternities.

Step 3: Tie Dye Possibilities

Traditional tie dye on fabric relies on clever folding to create the different patterns, but I was skeptical as to whether this concept held for much thinner tissue paper. With this in mind, I tried crumpling the paper as opposed to accordion folding it before dipping into food coloring. This small scale experiment yielded the result that there is little difference, especially when the paper is stretched out/unfolded for faster dyeing as the liquid with the dye ran across the paper for thorough blending. I do theorize that with thicker paper that's more absorbent, the folding would matter.

Step 4: Ombre Failure (food Coloring + Tissue Paper)

While dipping different sections of the tissue paper into separate intensities of blue would yield approximately predetermined shades of blue (how long you left the paper in would lead to different shades though, probably-debunked later), the more efficient and less wasteful way would be to slowly pull a submerged piece of tissue paper out of some dye so that the sections that remain submerged longer get a darker shade. However, I wasn't sure how slowly/quickly I should pull out the tissue paper, so I experimented a bit with how long I should leave the paper in the food coloring. This was the cornerstone of my assumption with how to create the ombre effect I wanted, but unfortunately time was not a practically significant factor in color intensity. In the same cup, I left a full sheet of paper completely submerged as the other sheet was completely submerged gradually. Both had little difference in shades. Also, while the paper I left in the dye for 1.5 hours was darker than the paper I dipped and immediately pulled out, it wasn't by much. Realistically I didn't want to have to adjust the paper every 2 hours for ombre, but since I wanted to find a less time consuming alternative I ruled this out for food coloring as a dye (not for other dyes though.. see step 6).

I also found out that I folded my paper too much; even though I thoroughly dipped the paper in, some parts were left untouched by dye (see second image above). Thus, I tried using a spray bottle for an ink splatter-like effect, which worked very nicely for applying dye but not so nicely at creating a spatter effect as expected (water ran too much because paper was not absorbent enough).

Step 5: Printer Paper

Since the ombre technique didn't work on tissue paper, I wanted to at least ascertain that the technique worked at all. Thus, I tried printer paper, which I thought would absorb the dye better and lead to better results. Again, the ombre failed, though the staining was stronger and darker than with tissue paper.

Step 6: Transpiration

While I was dipping paper in the food coloring, I noticed a significance role for transpiration; the food coloring traveled completely up the sheet of tissue paper within 15 minutes. Thus, I also tried comparing the ombre technique of gradually submerging more of the tissue paper to only transpiration for 2 hours. Result: not much difference in shading, surprisingly. The ombre didn't really work, and the transpiration didn't even cover the entire sheet of the tissue paper (there were layers in my folding that didn't get contact with the food coloring despite transpiration). I ended up reusing the failed ombre for the step 8.

Step 7: Koolaid (alternative Dyes)

I had a pack of Koolaid that I wanted to try out; similarly you could use Jello or other powdered colorings. I added the full pack to 1/4 cup of water before dipping some tissue paper in and slowly submerging more of it in (15 minutes per 1 inch). I also tried a standard concoction of red food coloring for comparison. The Koolaid gave the paper a nice nice red stain with a slight ombre fade; much darker and stronger than the red food coloring, which turned out pink rather than red and failed to show an ombre fade at all. The cherry smell of the Koolaid did stick to the paper (smells more like marshmallows), though there was no stickiness from the sugary agents.

Heads up when you handle the Koolaid dyed paper: the Koolaid will stain your fingers quite strongly..

Step 8: Paint (alternative Dyes)

In addition to Koolaid, I tried out diluted paint as a dyeing agent. I added a tablespoon of lime green paint into 1/4 cup of warm water before slowly submerging tissue paper in the mixture. The ombre didn't really work, but the tinting of the tissue paper turned out well. The smell was noticeably bad, since the paint wasn't, you know, cherry-scented.

Step 9: Mixing Colors

I wanted to see how mixing colors would turn out so I used my failed green ombre and dipped it into my blue food coloring. I really loved this effect; the blue and green shades went together very nicely, and the mixing in the middle was very smooth. Unfortunately, I never ended up using this method for my intended tissue paper flower because I eventually figured out that the tissue paper turned out even more fragile post-dyeing and would not work for making wire flowers. Similarly unfortunately, the tinting was nice only until the paper was completely dried; the color was significantly reduced once the sheet was fully dried.

Step 10: Colored Tissue Paper

I had a sheet of peach-colored tissue paper that I really liked, and I wanted to try blending pre-colored tissue paper with dye to see how the ombre dye pattern might be affected as two colors battled it out. I tried two colors in case, and good thing for that; the green left an extremely faint shade in the peach whereas the blue showed up more prominently. The ombre actually didn't show up in the blue shading, but the blue-on-peach still looked nice. The peach background did interfere with the blue's usual shade in the tissue paper, though admittedly not by much.

Step 11: Dyeing Book Pages

Since tissue paper failed, I decided to color book pages and make sure it would work on one of the extra petals from my previous flower tutorial. I decided on the spray bottle method. I really liked the blue and green ombre, so I sprayed blue on the bottom of the petals and green at the tips. This turned out well so I went ahead with building the flower!

Step 12: Tissue Paper Flower; Alternative

Because my beautifully dyed tissue paper couldn't be used for its intended purpose, I at least wanted to share an alternative project for it. Here's a link for classic tissue paper flowers (not going to post picture tutorial for it because it's not my original idea):

Step 13: Wire Frame

With the dyeing out of the way, the rest of this tutorial roughly follows my previous tutorial, Light-Up Literary Flower, for the completion of the flower. From that tutorial, I learned that I wanted longer petals (since the previous flower's petals were short and squat) with a different shape; thus, I added a sharper point as well as a less rounded shape closer to the stem. See step-by-step instructions in the notes of the pictures above.

Step 14: Gluing

Since the tissue paper deteriorated in fragility after dyeing, I couldn't use that anymore. Thus, I used book pages like last time since I had a lot left over. (plus absorbed food coloring much better than tissue paper.

Spread glue on a sheet of paper before placing a wire frame on top and another sheet of book page to finish the sandwich. Repeat for all wire frames and stick them into a cup on pens so that they stand up and dry faster that way.

Wait for complete drying (At least 3 hours! Overnight is best.) before trimming off excess edges.

Step 15: Dyeing

For coloring the petals, I used a spray bottle to apply blue at the middle and green at the tips. I waited for the blue to dry a bit first so that the colors wouldn't mix too much except at the overlapping parts. Also, I stood the petals up (tip pointing to the sky) as the blue dried so that the coloring would be concentrated at the bottom. Then for the green, I hung them from a clothes hanger so that the color was concentrated at the tips.

Step 16: Arrangement of Petals

I made the different petal shapes in groups of three so that I would have different layers in staggered and eclipsed conformations (look up "Newman projections" to understand the organic chemistry reference).

First layer consisted of the long, thin stamen-like figures. I curved them into an S shape before arranging all three at 120 degrees from one another. Then I secured them as they were with floral tape wrapped at the bottom before arranging the next trio (smallest actual petals) in staggered formation (so petals placed between the stamens, not directly behind them). Then I secured that layer before adding the second layer of petals, and so on until all my petals were used up.

Step 17: Wrapping

Slowly wrap the tape around the rest of the wire, making sure that the tape is nice and taut. Don't worry about the leaves until you've finished the stem; just maneuver around them first.

Once the stem is done (wrap twice for good measure), go back and wrap the leaves with floral tape. Finish up by curving the stem to give it a more organic touch.

Step 18: Finished

Voila; all finished! While my dabbling in dyeing paper was unsuccessful with regards to the original tissue paper idea, the result still ended with a gorgeously colored wire flower.

Overall results of the dyeing investigations: tissue paper is not good for absorbing food coloring (plus the paper I used was slightly waxy to the feel...). Paint and Koolaid were excellent for staining the paper rich shades, but in all cases with all colors, ombre (gradually submerging every 15 minutes for 2 hours total) was a miserable failure. Maybe it was just the dyes or paper I used, but no luck in that respect. Spraying was the best option for me.

As always, feel free to leave comments if you encounter questions, and I shall do my best to answer at my earliest convenience. Enjoy!

Dyeing for Color Contest

Second Prize in the
Dyeing for Color Contest