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.


  1. Wow - I can't wait to see the finished quilt. Unfortunately I don't have any tips on tea staining or dyeing for tea-stained effect. Your post is fascinating though - I always find fabric manipulation like this interesting. I have done a bit of fabric bleaching recently(ish) and I was surprised by some of the colours I got. If someone can provide an explanation on your rogue orange fabric I will be interested to read about it.

  2. So I know zip about either (sorry!), but thank you so much for outlining your experience for the rest of us! On a semi-related note, when I tried to bleach a batch of fabrics I was similarly surprised when certain prints refused to fade (or eventually did so too faintly to make a difference). I wonder if those same fabrics would also require several baths in a tea-stain process? I think a few were screen printed but I have no idea how that factors into all this... Hmph!

  3. I just use tea! The oldest quilt I have that contains tea-dyed fabric is 10 years old and it's a wall hanging so it's never been washed. It hasn't disintegrated yet! I'm not sure I buy into the tannin concerns since dyed fabric is rinsed out so well. I've seen 15 year old tea bags fully intact.... Your fabrics look great and I am looking forward to seeing the project come together, Dan.

  4. In the early 1960's we dyed our mesh pantyhose in tea water. Worked great... for a natural tan look. Ah the '60s in Encino, CA.
    Your experiments are interesting. The question of whether the dye will last over several washings is interesting. Thing is every individual fabric will change (as it will) over time and several washings. The charm of the art. I just made a quilt using a lot of Kona Brown and Mahogany and I fully expect those colors to change over a couple of washings. Darks. But, I LOVE the subtle look of the tea dye! Mucho!

  5. What I remember from tea dyeing fabric is, that it looked nice but it stained, bleached into the ajoining fabric (I am not sure I am saying this right in English, but I hope you'll understand what I mean). Not by washing but for instance by spraying the water soluble marker away.

  6. I know nothing about tea dyeing fabric, but I didn't let that stop me, I did the same as Poppyprint and used tea (bags) it worked well and I got the nice soft, aged effect on the fabric that I was looking for. I have several lace doilies that my Grandmother made and tea dyed, they would be over 50 years old and are still intact after several washings, and still a nice cream colour.

  7. I majored in Chem at Cal and passed a tie-dye test for graduation. ;-) (Well, it was actually a party to tie-dye our lab coats together.) I dye quite often at home.
    I started quilting after a fellow Chem major showed me her quilts and took me on a shopping trip to Poppy Fabrics in Oakland.

    I haven't tried replicating tea-dyeing with fiber reactive dyes, but I have used Dharma's Khaki Procion dye to overdye commercial fabrics. It works well and gives an ecru color when used in small concentrations.

    The orange cast of the foliage print is a mystery. Did you prewash the fabric in hot water and Synthrapol or Dharma Dyer's detergent? Something in your dyeing process reacted with some chemical(s) already in the fabric. I don't have access to a lab anymore so I can't do any forensics for you. Sorry.

    Did that fabric sample feel stiffer or rougher than the others? It might have a non-iron finish, a resin that can turn yellow/orange. I worry more about the resin in so many of today's textiles than I do about tannic acid.

    If you didn't prewash with Synthrapol, try doing so twice and then retry the dye.

    I wouldn't worry about the tannic acid in tea rotting out your cotton after you have washed the fabric. If you are really worried, buy some pH paper and test the pH of your final rinse water after you let it equilibrate with your fabric.

    Berkeley campus tap water has pH 5, slightly acidic. 7 is neutral. Test the acidity of your own sweat. You'll be surprised at the acidity of your own skin, tap water and even rainwater.

    If you want to minimize blotchiness, you can use a plunger to mix up the fabric in the bucket as seen here:

    If you want to send me swatches and have me run some dye tests, email me.

  8. Look for an upcoming DVD from Ann Johnston called "Color By Accident: Exploring Low-water Immersion Dying" due out by fall 2013. In the introduction she explains why different fabrics dye differently. It can be the fiber - mercerized cotton is best, or the chemical composition of the particular color, or as you suggest, some fabrics take up the available dye and other pieces get what's left of colors that don't fix as quickly. She shows stacks of cotton fabric all dyed in the same dye bath (Procion MX fiber reactive dyes) that come out differently, and shows how single-chemical colors vs colors made from multiple chemicals behave differently. While seeing it "in living color" on the DVD is great, if you don't want to wait, you can get the info in her venerable book "Color By Accident: Low-water Immersion Dyeing." (www.annjohnston.net) Over dyeing commercial cottons is a bit of a gamble, in any case. Nice job on yours! Looking forward to seeing the finished quilt. BTW you might want to pre-wash in washing soda. Synthrapol is formulated to bind with the non-reacted dye molecules to avoid staining when washing out the dyed fabric.

  9. Wake up Dan! Those of us on the East coast are looking for your DWR challenge post

  10. This post was facinating! Thank you so much for sharing in such detail. I really love this effect and am excited to see what you create with all of these lovelies.

  11. I like muted reds, I think that the color goes well with a lot of different quilts. I had not heard about tea stained quilts before. Your right about the prints after some of the fabrics were dyed. The foliage really does not look like either of the two designs above it.

    Please visit My Webblog: Online PhD UK Programs

  12. what an interesting post! thanks for the side-by-side comparison photos. i do love the look of the finished piles

  13. Great post and excellent photos. This looks like it must have been a very fun process! :)

    - Jenny from Kulae yoga mats

  14. How I Got My Husband Back……….. My Names is Monique Curry ,AM from United states .i never believed in love spells or magic until i met this spell caster once when i went to Africa in June last year on a business summit i meet a man called Dr oku, is powerful he could help you cast a spells to bring back my love s gone misbehaving lover looking for some one to love you bring back lost money and magic money spell or spell for a good job i m now happy & a living testimony cos the man i had wanted to marry left me 4weeks before our wedding and my life was upside down cos our relationship has been on for 3 year i really loved him, but his mother was against me and he had no good paying job so when i met this spell caster, i told him what happened and explained the situation of things to him at first i was undecided,skeptical and doubtful, but i just gave it a try and in 6 days when i returned to taxes my boyfriend (is now my husband ) he called me by himself and came to me apologizing that everything had been settled with his mom and family and he got a new job interview so we should get married i didn't believe it cos the spell caster only asked for my name and my boyfriends name and all i wanted him to do well we are happily married now and we are expecting our little kid and my husband also got a new job and our lives became much better in case anyone needs the spell caster for some help his email address: okutemple@gmail.com