Feb 04 07

Dyeing Heavy Threads

If you’ve never dyed fabrics before, I recommend that you read “The Lazy Dyer” section of Melody Johnson’s blog, found at
(In fact, this blog should be part of your daily reading routine, as you will learn endless valuable knowledge about many aspects of quilting, color and design.) But I digress…on to our thread dyeing journey!

This lesson refers to dyeing only threads made from natural fibers, (i.e. cottons, rayons, silks.) I use procian MX dyes and these are available from many sources, I usually purchase mine from Dharma Trading Company or Prochem. They will come as a powder and you will need to wear a face mask over your nose and mouth only during the portion of the process when the dye powder is open to the air (i.e. when you are measuring and mixing it). Once you’ve mixed your dyes and they are in a liquid state, the dyes are safe to breathe. You should wear heavy rubber gloves and clothes you don’t care about throughout the entire process, as these dyes are permanent and even though you will be careful, these dyes tend to get into places you don’t intend for them to go!

Step 1 is preparing your thread to be dyed. I don’t prewash my thread, (I point this out because you WOULD need to prewash your fabric unless you were dyeing prepared for dyeing fabric), but you need to get your thread into a state where it is dyeable. See the pic below to understand:


You need to transform it from a ball to a skein so the fibers will have a good surface area exposed. You can do this by wrapping it around the edge of a table or using a skein winder:


Once it’s in a skein, I place 4-5 strings in a figure of eight wrap around in various places on the skein and I make this wrap- around LOOSE so that it helps maintain the integrity of the skein but will be loose enough that my dye will easily make contact with all parts of the skein.


In this next picture, I’m showing you some threads which are commercially available already in the skeined state. These are cottons or silks or rayons available from Valdani. I hope you are seeing that you can dye threads which will fit in your top needle and you can also dye fibers which are REALLY big and may have cool slubs or whatever, and these would be great for couching onto the quilt surface! I point this out because there’s a whole exciting world of fibers out there!


(Yes, you also see a pack of Wright’s piping. I threw that puppy in so you’d know that you can overdye commercial piping as well. This is something that I definitely WOULD prewash, and I just prewash my fabrics and piping in my regular commercial washing machine detergent.) You can also overdye solid or variegated large or small sizes of commercially available pearl cotton skeins.

Next, you want to soak your threads/fibers in a water/soda ash solution. I mix up 1/2 cup of soda ash in about 5 gallons of warm water. I don’t actually measure this out, it’s all done by eyeball. Drop your fibers in, making sure they are totally immersed and let them soak for at least 15 minutes. (I sometimes leave them in for 10-15 hours, so don’t worry about going over the 15 min minimum). See them soaking here:


Now you’re ready to mix up your dyes. Put on your mask! I mix 1 TBSP of dye powder to 2 cups of hot water. After you’ve put your dye powder into your measuring cup, add about 1/4 cup of hot water and stir until the dye has dissolved. Then add the remainder of the hot water and stir. I pour this into squirt bottles but you can just pour it into an old plastic cup if you don’t have the squirt bottles. Do this for all the colors you want to use but make sure you clean out the measuring cup and spoon each time so you don’t inadvertently mix colors. Once you’re done mixing the dyes, remove the mask and you are ready to have some fun!

Remove your threads from the soda ash solution and squeeze out excess water. They will be damp, but you don’t want them WET. Now you want to arrange a skein so that the fibers are exposed, so spread out the skein so it forms a giant “O.” I do this on either a plastic tote lid or on pieces of flat cardboard that I have covered with contact paper (this way you can wipe it off and reuse this surface many times for future dyeing/painting). See pic below:


Now squeeze out a small amount of dye onto part of the skein. I am doing a variegated color scheme here, so I place a few dabs of color interspersed by no color. I use a cheapo foam brush to pat these areas and make sure the dye has made contact with all the threads in these zones. (Make sure you do this step, because you will be totally bummed out if you find out down the road that you have areas that have no dye!) Now you want to add your second color. Squeeze out small amounts of dye color #2 in the “blank zones.” Using a second foam brush, pat the dye in these areas but avoid touching any areas where the colors are mixing for now. Once this has been done, set aside these 2 foam brushes and declare each one as being specific only for the color you “patted” with it. (This is a good rule to remember when you’re dyeing-you only want to mix colors on the piece you’re working on, so be careful not to inadvertently “contaminate” colors where it’s not your intention to do so). See pic below:



Now, using a 3rd foam brush, pat the areas where the colors are blending. Remember, the only reason we’re doing this patting thing is to make sure there aren’t some “hidden” fibers who aren’t getting exposed to the dye. Once done here, put this fiber tray somewhere safe to sit. If it’s warm, I place it outside on the driveway and wait for it to dry. Most dyers I know cover their threads or fabric w/plastic but I don’t and I seem to get good colors anyway. If it’s NOT hot outside, (like now…it was about 15 degrees outside and maybe 55 in the garage when I did this), I just let it sit for at least 4 hours. If I’ve used turquoise as one of my colors, I leave it alone for at least 24 hours or I don’t get as vivid of a color. Pic below shows some threads batching last weekend:


And next pic shows some fabrics batching alongside them:


If you want solid colored threads, you can do immersion dyeing. Take your wrung-out soda-ash soaked skein and just drop it into the dye cup and walk away. The pic below shows some commercial piping soaking:


(If you dye threads by immersion, make sure they’re totally immersed. I let some of the piping pop out because I wanted some variegation).

Once you’ve let your threads sit in dye long enough, you’re ready to wash them out. You can wash them out by hand but I don’t do this anymore because it takes too long and it’s messy. I wash mine in the washing machine using my commercial detergent. You don’t want to end up with a mass of tangled threads, so I place mine in pieces of old pantyhose. Place your first skein in the foot of a pantyhose and then tie a knot above it, making sure NOT to get any of the threads caught in the knot. Do the same thing with each skein so that you end up with a long “beaded” looking pantyhose as below:

Do you see that long “empty” area in the middle? That’s because there’s a long run in the pantyhose in that portion and I didn’t want to put a skein in an area with a run…I did that once and when I took it out of the washer, some of that skein had wormed its way out and I ended up ith a tangled mess of thread that had beautiful color but had to be thrown out! Lesson: knot off any area involved with a run and DON’T USE IT!!

Wash 3 times in the wash…2 times is probably enough but I wash my fabrics and threads 3 times just to play it safe. Place in the dryer for awhile…they will never come out of the dryer completely dry since they’re wadded up. When done, cut a small hole in each section with scissors to remove each skein, making sure you cut in an area where you WON’T cut some of the thread. They will still be damp. I am excited by this step, feeling a need to see my colors immediately, so I grab a blow dryer and do a preliminary mini-dry for a couple minutes. Next, I hang them over a doorknob, (1 skein per doorknob) for 2-3 days to make sure they’re TOTALLY dry before I wind them onto a spool. (You don’t want to take a chance and wind them if they’re even just a teensy bit damp or you could get mildew and this will weaken your fibers). Once dry, hand wind them onto a spool, (I throw the skein over one bent knee and sit on the couch and hand wind while I’m doing something mindless like watching tv), and you are ready to get stitching! Some of last weekend’s harvest:


Notice the nice subtle variegation-enough to keep things interesting but not harsh enough to be jarring or distracting. Also know that these were dyed using dyes that were mixed up 3 months ago and sitting in the fridge all this time.

One Comment

  1. PattyAnne Says:

    Thanks! I wondered where you got your hand dyed size 12 thread! All I could find were the small balls of yarn but now I know how to do it myself!