Printing and Dyeing on Fabric: Chemistry 101
Printing and dyeing on fabric invite endless possibilities of surface design, all the rage these days if you surf the web for tutorials, videos, and materials. We love what can be done with dyes and printing and have these past posts on botanical dyes:
Growing Indigo in South Carolina by Roxanne Lasky
Inspired by Tribal Designs: Touched by Africa – Echoes in Cloth by Morgen Bardati
The dye processes used range from simple kitchen sink experiments to using commercial chemicals and tools that call for highly trained professionals. This post just covers a few questions that I have had and since I am not a chemist, I called my friend, Diane Gerlach, who is a retired chemistry teacher and avid knitter.
But, first, here’s an example of the easy peasy kitchen dyeing process:
Diane always drops these little nuggets of information about the chemical side of things, especially when it comes to textiles. Have a stain? She not only know how to remove it, but explains the why. I usually remember something vague but over time, her enthusiasm has rubbed off and I think I have the basics down.
This should be interesting for beginners, but our TAFA experts might have their eyes rolling around in their heads…. Well, any inaccuracies are my own and you should jump in and leave a correction (or tip or resource) in the comments. 🙂
The Chemistry of Dyeing
I ask and Diane answers, as remembered by me.
What is the difference between paint and dye?
Dye is always water soluble while paint can be oil based.
But, aren’t paints thicker? From what I understand, they just sit on the surface of the fabric, which is why you can’t see it when you flip the fabric over to the back side…
Sure, but paints can also be thinned down and act like a dye. Oh, and I should mention that dye extracts are stronger than regular botanical dyes, which tend to be kind of “woody”. In the extracts, all of the plant matter has been removed.
What is a mordant?
Think of a stamp. The glue on the back is like the mordant. It helps attach paper to paper. In the same way, a mordant helps the dye molecule attach itself to fabric. Mordants can also change the color of a dye. Many plant dyes do not need a mordant, but the mordant might also help prolong the life of the attachment. Unmordanted botanical dyes attach only to the surface of the fiber. That’s why blue jeans fade…
Why is heat important to set some paints or dyes?
Heat liquefies oils which helps the pigments attach themselves to the fibers. This can have a permanent effect.
What are fiber reactive dyes?
These are petroleum based dyes that actually bond to the fiber. They are completely controlled at the molecular level, giving predictable results that can be replicated at will. The fiber and the dye wear down together without losing much color.
Elin does a demo of several techniques in this video:
When did people start using synthetic dyes?
Oh, they have been around for quite a while now. Back in the 1800’s… Queen Victoria used so much mauve that people refer to the 1890’s as The Mauve Decade, all because William Perkin was able to synthesize the color. Synthetic dyes can also be mistaken for veggie dyes in their appearance. There are cheap dyes, all over the world, that have been used in carpets, clothing and textiles. If the process is changed (time, dye quantity, etc.), then batches of dyed yarns, for example, can perform differently over time. When you weave a carpet, the line between where one color from a dye pot starts and another begins is called an “abrash“. They may look the same in the beginning, but then fade at different rates over time. People assume that when they see these variations, they must have been dyed botanically, a look that many people like. But, the synthetic dyes have been used for over 100 years so even the antique carpets might have synthetic dyes in them.
Ok, let’s talk a bit about discharge dyeing, the removal of color. What do you have to say about it?
The main thing is to use a bleaching agent that doesn’t weaken the fibers. If you use regular clorox bleach or something similar, the fabric will weaken and after a few washings, holes will start showing up. There are alternatives on the market that remove color without damaging the fibers.
Here’s a nice example of discharge dyeing:
That about covers my chemistry class with Diane for this session. We finished by talking about the HUGE pollution problem caused by reckless use of dyes in developing countries. Many of these dyes are not legal in the US because of their toxicity, but every artist who works with dyes and paints should learn about the best ways to dispose of waters used and leftover dyes and paints. Ugh.
Printing on Cloth
The same basic principles Diane talked about above also apply to printing on fabric: both botanical dye extracts and petroleum based paints can be used. Techniques again can be as simple as carving a potato and inking it with acrylics to specialized equipment and dyes. Most of our TAFA members are somewhere in between, using textile stamps and silk screens to create their designs.
I made this video for Oshiwa Designs, a fair trade group in Namibia that I help out, and if you watch it, you will see that the paints they use are very thick. That is how I have used stamps, too, braying on acrylics or thick fabric paints:
But, the Indian videos I have watched often show more of a liquid form, the dye extracts, when they block print. This one uses a more pasty one, but I just have to share it here because it is so beautiful! It shows the blocks being carved, too. Such an art in itself!
Batik needs to be mentioned here because it is also such a fascinating field with many variations on how to mark cloth. The process involves preventing dye or paint to penetrate fibers by using a resist. Many use combinations of beeswax and paraffin, but a much cleaner method uses rice or potato paste, an ancient practice found in Asia and Africa. Batiks can be made using stamps or drawn free hand with a special pen that can hold the wax or paste. It takes a great deal of patience and determination to excel at it and we have quite a few members on TAFA who are amazing!
Textiil works with weavers and batik artists in Indonesia and Malaysia and have a line of natural fabrics and pillows that are just wonderful!
Finally, silk screening uses a similar idea as with batiks in the sense that areas are blocked in order to keep the dye or paint from attaching to the fabric. This can be done through a photographic process where a photo sensitive paste is added to the screen and then washed off, leaving blocked areas on the screen. Or, a design can be cut out of a contact type of paper that adheres to the screen, leaving exposed areas where the paint can flow through to the fabric. Here’s an example of a large scale, but still manual, screen printing process:
Obviously, this post barely touches on the topic of printing and dyeing on fabric. Books have been written, documentaries made, classes taught, and it takes a lifetime to excel at any one of these areas. But, hopefully, this will whet your appetite to learn more and to explore the talent we have on this site. Visit our member profiles and be inspired!
Please note that the featured image might show only one product or technique that the artist or business works with. You have to follow through and click on over to their sites to really see what they are doing. But, this is a good place to start. Click on the following links to see our members who have been tagged with that skill: Dyed/Painted, Printed, Batik and Silk Painting. We do work with social enterprises, fair trade, other groups and ethical vintage dealers, so it will be an interesting mix!
Many thanks to our sponsors who keep TAFA ticking! These have a core focus on print or dye so do explore their links and see what they have to offer.
- Asian Folk Art
Turkish Folk Art has an exceptional online shop featuring Central Asian textiles and crafts. While most are vintage, they also support village artisans working in traditional techniques.View Profile
Driven by colour and obsessed with her love/hate relationship with the creative process, Heidi lives to dye...and dies to quilt. She lives in Canada where she stirs up all kinds of fun! She also runs with scissors...View Profile
Gini Holmes is a mixed media artist who explores new technologies with traditional media. Her work seeks to provoke thought and discussion. She partners with artist Sandy Scott in a line of adornments for body and home, Venus d’Pyro.View Profile
Hand-dyed, knit and sewn scarves by Jane Porter. Jane works with a fair trade weaving group in India who provide her with many of the scarves she dyes.View Profile
- Artist, Supplies
Based in Sacramento, California (USA) Barbetta Lockart Contemporary Art – ITSA Studio showcase mixed media art by Barbetta and a rich assortment of supplies from around the world. ITSA Studio has a large selection of ethnic and tribal beads and textiles.View Profile
- MarketPlace: Handwork of India
MarketPlace: Handwork of India, empowering women and breaking the cycle of poverty! Fair Trade and handmade, long-lasting elegance!View Profile
- Textile Artist, Workshops
Elena Ulyanova has a passion for eco and botanical dye processes and has taught her methods in many European countries. Originally from the Ukraine, she now lives in Poland. She sells upcycled garments and accessories that she dyes on Etsy.View Profile
- Artist, Teacher
Jane Dunnewold is an artist, teacher and author of surface design techniques. She teaches and lectures internationally and at her studio in San Antonio, Texas.View Profile
- School, Workshops
The Pacific Northwest Art School offers workshops and classes in Fiber Arts, Mixed Media, Painting, and Photography. Whidbey Island, Washington, USA.View Profile
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