26 June 2013

Fiber reactive dye for a tea-stain effect

I'm starting a quilt project with prints in a range of reds, and a range of off-whites and tans, but I had a hard time finding fabrics with compatible color tone. I want all the fabrics to have an aged, muted tone, like they were all French General prints (fabrics printed by Moda with an aged, French countryside personality), even if the prints are not all French General fussy.

The first thing that came to mind was Penny Sew Take a Hike's tea-stained Scrappy Trips quilt. The tea stain softens the chaotic colors and unifies the composition. So off to the internet I went, searching for information on colorfastness. Alas, I couldn't find anything that made me feel confident that the color would persist through washings. And though it seems very abstract compared to color-fastness, several people were worried that the tannic acids in tea would damage the fabric in the long term.

The final fabric pull, including many over-dyed prints.

I set about searching for permanent dye solutions, and found several very helpful sources. First, I came upon a post by Deborah Schlegel at Art Threads about using Ecru fiber-reactive dye to stain a cotton sweater. Next I found an old Flickr discussion prompted by Rossie Hutchinson culminating in a experiment to find the best fiber-reactive color for tea-stain effect. Of the three she tested, Rossie also preferred Ecru. Voila - a plan!

I pulled out all my fabrics with true whites -- mostly red prints, but many off-whites too -- and set about dyeing in batches. I adapted Dharma Trading's instructions for tub dyeing, using a 5-gallon bucket, 4 gallons of water, 4 cups salt, 2 Tbs Ecru dye, and 1/2 cup soda ash to dye about 2 lbs of fabric (~6 yards). That's too much fabric for that volume of water if you need completely even color, but I was open to some mottling. I did have some unexpected results, but more on that later.

My first surprise was that although I pre-washed every scrap, some fabrics sucked up the dye color, and some hardly took a sip. I did a total of three dye batches, and a few of the fabrics went through all three. Here are a few of the dyed reds next to undyed yardage. The Julie Comstock Junk Drawer print was dyed twice, and the Sweetwater Tangled Threads just once.

And here are some tans. The Metro Circles and Oval Elements prints received two batches of dye because I want them not just dingy but dark. But the fancy Japanese woven (second from bottom) was only in the dye bath a few minutes before I pulled it out, and let the others stir and soak for another half hour.

But the biggest surprise came in the color tone of a few dyed fabrics. These three prints were in the same dye bath. All were dyed primarily to reduce contrast between the print and the background, mitigate the yellow, and perhaps add some mottling. But the colors came out so differently! The keys and the birds look great, but the foliage print is so orange -- where did that come from?

I wonder if certain fabric is more receptive to a specific component in the dye, or perhaps some components of the dye are absorbed and removed from solution more quickly, leaving scraps on the inside of the fabric pile to fight for what's left when they're stirred free. Who knows? I'm sure that orange fabric is not going to be in this quilt, but I think I'll use the original.

I'll leave you with photos of the final 40 or so of each color. Not the greatest photos, but I love how the fabric turned out.

What do you know about tea staining, and dyeing for tea-stained effect? I'd love to hear.