Introduction: This Orange Is to Dye For! Adventures in Fabric Dyeing and Painting

About: Enthusiastic hiker, quilter and creator with a passion for making the most of every situation and finding the best and easiest way to do anything!

This instructable will teach you how to dye fabric and make secondary colors from the 3 primary colors - yellow, red and blue - using Procion MX fabric dyes. The technique I'm illustrating is flat dyeing on a table, applying the dye by pouring it or painting it on with a brush. It is not immersion or dip dyeing.

My goal was to create graduated shades of orange fabric from two primary colors - yellow and red - in order to make interesting quilts, like the one pictured above, which I made using background fabrics ranging from light yellow to orange. I also dyed some silk scarves for almost instant gratification!

Step 1: Supplies

To dye fabric, you will need:


  1. Procion MX fiber reactive dyes in the 3 primary colors: yellow, red and blue
  2. Urea - keeps the fabric more damp during the fixing process, increasing color intensity
  3. Sodium carbonate (also called soda ash) - this is a fixative
  4. non-iodized salt, such as kosher salt - helps the dye stick to the fabric and makes colors more intense
  5. Synthrapol or TNA soap to wash and remove sizing from fabric
  6. Raycafix or Retayne to prevent dye from bleeding out

Other supplies:

  1. cotton fabric or silk scarves - white
  2. clear plastic sheeting to cover your work area, and to place between layers of dyed fabric
  3. painters tape to attach the plastic to your table, and to label dye jars
  4. cups, plastic jars or other containers for the mixed dyes
  5. paper towels, old towels for cleanup
  6. measuring cup and spoons, stir sticks
  7. brushes - a roller may also be useful
  8. dust mask and disposable gloves

If doing shibori, you will also need:

  1. elastics
  2. tongue depressors
  3. a brush

Step 2: Prepare the Fabric

  1. Prepare your fabric by washing it in Synthrapol or TNA soap to remove dirt and sizing. This will make it easier for the fabric to absorb the dye. This can be done in a washing machine or by hand, using 1/4 cup Synthrapol for a full load.
  2. On your dye day, dissolve 2 cups non-iodized salt and 5 Tablespoons of soda ash in 4 - 5 litres of hot water to create the pre-soak solution. (This pre-soak solution is stable and can be used for up to 2 months if stored in a sealed container).
  3. Soak your washed fabric in this pre-soak solution for at least 20 minutes. When ready to dye the fabric, squeeze out excess liquid and place the fabric on your plastic covered work surface.

Step 3: Mix Up Dye Solutions

For each dye colour, mix together:

  • 2 tsp of Procion dye powder (for super intense colors you can use 3 tsp)
  • 3 tsp urea
  • 1 cup of hot tap water

These dye solutions are best if used within 2 or 3 days but can be used for about 2 weeks.

SAFETY NOTE: Avoid inhaling the dye powders and do not mix dyes in any area where there could be wind. Wear a dust mask when mixing up the fine dye powder. Once the dyes are mixed with the water they are non-toxic.

Although I purchased only the 3 primary colors, yellow, red and blue, I bought 2 different shades of each (bright and golden yellow; fuschia and red; turquoise and navy blue). This was more than enough to mix up all possible colors on the color wheel.

Diluting solution - mix together:

  • 5 tsp urea
  • 2 cups hot tap water

To make up less intense versions of some of the dyes, i.e. gradation dyeing, dilute the dye with the diluting solution. For example, I made up a half-strength navy by mixing equal parts diluting solution and navy dye liquid, and quarter-strength navy by adding 3 parts diluting solution to one part navy dye.

Step 4: Experiment With Mixing Primary Colors to Make Up New Colors - Example: Orange

I made orange dye using red and yellow dye solutions.

I tried it using both shades of yellow - the bright yellow and golden yellow. Once mixed with the red, there was very little difference - either yellow makes up a beautiful orange with little noticeable color difference.

Lesson #1: A little red goes a long way - I used 2 Tbsp of yellow dye to 1/2 Tbsp of red dye.

Lesson #2: The color of the dye solution is not necessarily the way it will look when applied to the fabric. My orange dye solutions looked too red, but once on the fabric they were bright orange.

Lesson #3: These dyes are highly saturated with very intense color. Once I had the orange dye solution, I made up diluted versions, creating half-strength and quarter-strength orange using the diluting solution as described in the last step. However, even the quarter strength solutions look pretty intense when painted on the fabric. One of the photos shows gradations starting with golden yellow, then diluted orange, then the 2 full strength orange solutions made from the 2 different yellows, then red - there appears to be very little difference between the diluted orange and full strength orange.

Lesson #4: The colors will look a bit different once the dye has set and the fabric has dried. Once dried, the diluted dyes are noticeably less intense, and the colors are generally less intense than they were when wet.

NOTE - in addition to mixing the dye colors in separate bottles, another technique is to pour the two primary colors onto the fabric and watch them mix on the fabric itself. This is less controlled but can produce beautiful results.

Step 5: Prepare Work Area and Apply Dye to Fabric

  1. Tape plastic sheeting to your table. (and to floor if working inside)
  2. Place another large sheet of plastic on top of the plastic sheet on your table. Because we were working outside, we put paperweights or rocks around the edge so the wind wouldn't blow this sheet away.
  3. Place your first piece of wet fabric on top of the plastic sheet and spread it out so it lies flat.
  4. Apply dye to the fabric by pouring it - this allows the colors to mix in an interesting, somewhat uncontrolled way and creates a very intense color. It is easier and safer to pour from a small plastic cup than from the whole jar of dye.
  5. Alternatively, apply dye with a paint brush.

Once you've finished applying dye to one piece of fabric, put another plastic sheet on top of it. Spread out your next piece of pre-soaked fabric and apply dye. Repeat until you have used up all your fabric (I usually stop after about 10 layers).

Put another piece of plastic over your last layer of fabric.

If you have poured dye onto your fabric, you will have lots of excess dye pooling around (and possibly over) your table. Use a roller or brush, on top of the final layer of plastic, to move the excess dye to the edge and off the table. If you have worked outside, the dye will not harm your lawn. Use old towels or rags to mop up excess dye.

Pick up the entire pile of layered plastic and fabric and move it to a location where you can let the wet fabric sit for at least 2 days.

Step 6: Shibori Options

Shibori is a Japanese resist dyeing technique dating back to the 8th century. It involves pleating, binding, stitching, folding, compressing or tying fabric before dipping or painting the fabric with dye, to create patterns from the areas which "resist" or do not take up the dye. Tie-dyeing is a popular form of shibori.

I found some simple shibori folding ideas on this website.

I tried a few simple techniques using elastics and tongue depressors, as illustrated in the photos.

Start by folding your wet fabric, then add the elastics or tongue depressors, then paint all exposed surfaces of the fabric with dye. I experimented with painting different areas with different shades of the same color dye.

Put the dyed shibori piece in a plastic bag, and seal the bag with a twist tie or clip.

Step 7: Setting the Dye or "Batching"

Leave your wet dyed fabrics in their plastic sheets or bags, for at least 48 hours, at room temperature or higher.

This helps the dye to penetrate and set in the fibres, at a molecular level. Shortcuts on this step can result in less intense colors.

Step 8: Rinse Out Dyes

Rinse out each fabric piece separately at first. Start by soaking for about 10 minutes in cold water, then pour out the rinse water which will likely have quite a bit of excess dye in it (it's safe to pour it down the drain).

For the second rinse, you could put items that are similar colors together and rinse them in warm water. Keep rinsing until the the water is clear.

If the water is still not clear after several rinsings, treat fabric with Raycafix or Retayne: 1 tsp of Raycafix per yard of fabric, mixed with very hot water (the hottest tap water possible and/or add some boiled water to bring it to at least 160' F.) - soak fabrics in this solution for 10 minutes.

For the next rinse, rinse in warm water with some some TNA soap, Synthrapol, Zero, or blue Dawn dish soap - basically any mild soap that does not contain a bleaching agent.

Finally, rinse out the soap with cool water, squeeze out excess liquid (rolling in a towel helps) and hang fabric to dry.

NOTE - if your hands or work area have picked up some dye, Vim is quite helpful for cleaning it off. Stubborn stains on hands will come off in a few days, or you can use Reduran/Kresto Color hand cleaner.

Step 9: Dye Results - Shades of Orange!

The first photo shows my test sample, starting from golden yellow and moving through orange to red.

The second photo is the shibori piece - this is the result of the piece folded into a triangle with 2 elastics, photographed in Step 6.

The third photo is the silk scarf, pleated and clamped in 2 places with tongue depressors (photo in Step 6), painted with yellow, orange and a bit of red dye. The last photo is a close up of the silk scarf.

Step 10: Dye Results - Poured Dyes

This photo illustrates the effect of simply pouring, rather than painting dye on the fabrics.

There is a lot of dye, so the color is very saturated, and you get interesting, though somewhat hard to control colors where the red and yellow dyes meet to produce a deep orange.

Step 11: Dye Results - the Color Purple

Purple was easy to make using a mix of navy and fuschia. By changing the ratios of each, I was able to make gradations of purple. The navy is more powerful than the fuschia dye so I started with a 2:1 ratio of fuschia to navy to make purple, then added more fuschia to get different shades. I applied different shades of purple to a shibori folded piece of fabric to create the fabric in the last photo. Gorgeous!

Step 12: Dye Results - Napkins

Square napkins are the perfect thing to make from your dyed fabrics.

These are some examples of fabric which I've shibori folded and dyed to make napkins.

Step 13: Enjoy Your Finished Fabric!

Once your fabric has dried, iron it and enjoy!
Make notes of what worked well and what didn't, for future reference.

It's interesting to note that the same dye solutions do not produce the same results on silk as on cotton - each type of fibre reacts slightly differently to these fibre-reactive dyes. The dye looks a bit more intense and lustrous on the silk scarf above than it does on the cotton fabric, but on both fabrics, the orange is to dye for!

Colors of the Rainbow Contest

Participated in the
Colors of the Rainbow Contest