Do and Dye: basic DIY fabric art tips for funky rooms

March 17 | Guest post by Libby Bulloff

Those of you who read Offbeat Home may have seen one of Libby Bulloff's Blackmetal Homes & Gardens photos featured over there. Here she is with a DIY tutorial from the opposite end of the color spectrum… -Ariel

Want to add a wicked spray of color to your kid’s room, but don’t have time or money to paint or find the perfect carpet? Fabric dye is a fantastic and oft-forgotten trick for sprucing up secondhand curtains or stained sheets, and a great way to involve older children in the process of decorating their own space. An afternoon of converting the kitchen into a chemistry lab can produce one-of-a-kind, squee-worthy, upcycled textiles.

05.21.10 141/365
Photo by Mel Issa.

My favorite dyes for simple color projects are Jacquard iDye and Jacquard Procion MX dyes, both available at Blick Art Supply stores or online. Both lines host an array of wild tones that are kid-friendly, such as chartreuse, turquoise, and scarlet, and are inexpensive (one shade of iDye is about the price of a latte).

sky dye
Photo by Breigh.

iDye comes in a dissolvable packet (meaning no mess for us clumsy folk), takes to cotton or synthetics quickly, and works on the stovetop or in a washing machine. Procion MX is slightly more complicated to mix but can be used as tie-dye or in cold water, which is safer for little helpers. iDye has a tendency to be less bright than Procion MX, and may fade in direct sunlight or after many washings, but Procion requires precise measurements and patience — remember to take this into account when you choose dyes.

Tie-dye!
Photo by Diana.

I like to work with cotton textiles because they react predictably to both iDye and Procion MX. White cotton pillowcases are a sweet item to test-drive if you’ve never played with fabric dye before as they aren’t spendy, but day-glo pillows make a massive impact on the awesomeness level of bedtime. If you choose a fabric that has synthetic fibers too, you’ll want to pick up a packet of iDye and also of iDye Poly in a similar color (use both together).

Fabric art newbies should gather a few supplies. You’ll need:

  • a large bucket or cooking pot that you’re not planning on eating out of again, or a washing machine
  • stir stick or spoon (also avoid using this for food, please)
  • items to dye (cotton pillowcase, bedsheet, curtains, matching PJ pants, et cetera)
  • water
  • iDye or Procion MX
  • non-iodized table salt
  • soda ash (if you use Procion)
  • plastic bottles if you want to tie-dye
  • rubber bands
  • detergent or Synthrapol
  • rubber gloves
  • paper towels or rags and surface cleaner (just in case of a mess!)

Definitely rinse out your fabric prior to dyeing. I always run items through a hot bath with a concentrated detergent called Synthrapol (Dharma Trading also makes a Professional Textile Detergent that is more earth-friendly). Synthrapol is crucial if you want an even, consistent color, and best of all: it's inexpensive, and you only need a capful to do a small tub/sink of clothes.

Tie Dye
Photo by Wendy Copley.

Enough talk — time to dye! Most children can probably assist you with washing machine, tub dye, or tie-dye; stovetop dyeing may be safer for older kids who know their way around a kitchen. Following Jacquard’s instructions for iDye, Procion MX tub dyeing (if you want to dip-dye or color the entire item one shade), or Procion tie-dye is pretty straightforward, and I’ll let the professionals lead you forward. More tips can be found on the Dharma Trading site if the aforementioned leaves you in the dark.

What the pros DON’T tell you is that it is ok to experiment and to make messes. This blog post by Totally Smitten Mama is a perfect example. She tests iDye and has some serious snafus which she solves creatively. Starting with basic textiles, like a thrift store throw or a sheet that’s a bit ratty, can be an excellent failsafe if you're concerned about making a mistake (though I thoroughly encourage "mistakes" — that's how you get the coolest outcomes!). I will sometimes re-dye an item several times to achieve layers of unstructured brilliance. I love to throw a pair of socks in with a dye run, too–instant color coordination!

Finished tie-dyed quilt on bed
Photo by Judy Merrill-Smith.

Kids love making D.I.Y. projects with their parents, especially ones that allow them to decorate their spaces and selves creatively. Best wishes for brightly colored fun, and let me know what you make!

  1. When I had been dating my husband for a few months, I casually mentioned that it was spring, and time to tie dye my sheets. I thought I was absolutely insane, that as a 23 year old woman I dyed my sheets at least once a year.

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