Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Tie dyeing a quilt

I've been wanting to change the color scheme of our master bedroom to blue. Finding the time to paint, however, has been another matter. I started thinking that I could at least get a blue quilt for the bed, and I looked around for something eye-catching but not too expensive. I found nothing. Then I started to think, well, I could make my first "real" bed quilt. I realized that was an outlandish idea. We have a king-size bed, so how would I quilt it without a long-arm machine? By HAND?!? Nope.

I noticed that Target had plain white cotton quilts. The thought flickered across my brain cells: you could dye it. The thread is polyester, so it won't take the dye, but white cotton should dye up great. Immediately, I knew I would do something funky -- why dye it a solid color when it could be more interesting? I remembered some instructions I'd seen on the Dharma Trading Company website for a "crystal wash" technique. It's a cross between tie dyeing and "low immersion" dyeing. You cram the fabric into a small container, then apply the dye without a lot of extra water. The folds in the the fabric stay white, so you get a tie dye effect.

I've done enough dyeing to know that a king-size quilt was going to be a big job, because it would be very heavy while wet. But knowing that I have a strong, helpful husband, I didn't hesitate to buy the white quilt.

I did some research on the web, then ordered 4 blue dyes and Glauber's salt, which Dharma Trading recommends you use instead of soda ash for procion dyes containing turquoise. I also ordered their dye fixative, knowing that the turquoise colors can run a lot, and figured it might help. The package arrived one fine day. I opened it, said "cool," and had no time to think about actually doing it until after Christmas.

(I laughed when I got the company's follow-up email. It read something like: "By NOW you must have used the products that you ordered; what did you think of them?" I don't think I used them for another 6 weeks.)

On a Sunday afternoon, I put on old clothes, got out the dyes and chemicals, gloves and dust mask, and dove in. First I washed the quilt in Synthrapol detergent (also available at Dharma Trading) to remove any grease or dirt. As soon as the washing machine finished the cycle, I began to tie the quilt with old polyester macrame cord that I'd found at the thrift store. (If I'd had any clean cotton rope, I would have used it, and gotten some blue rope out of the deal.) Tying the quilt was my way of making sure some of the fabric would stay white. Then I placed the quilt into a plastic storage tub, where the actual dyeing would take place.

Tied quilt

Tied quilt in tub

The crystal wash instructions suggest that instead of mixing the dye with water, you can apply it directly as powder, and pour the Glauber's salt or soda ash solution onto the powder. This makes for interesting blotches and spots on the fabric. Therefore, I needed some sort of shaker for the dye powders. Not finding anything suitable at the dollar store, I punched holes in some plastic storage container lids. It wasn't the most elegant solution, but it worked. (Later, I covered the original dye containers with doubled aluminum foil and secured it with elastic bands. Carefully punching holes in the foil with a toothpick, I created a better shaker.)

Dye in makeshift shakers

I moved into our basement bathroom for the actual dyeing. It has a shower stall, and the plastic tub easily fit. I could do the messy work in there and then wash away any stray dye. Perhaps more importantly, I could shut the door to keep out my two curious cats, Gus and Bubba. I didn't want any blue kitties, or blue cat tracks throughout the house!

I had mixed a gallon of the Glauber's salt solution, and I poured some into a large squirt bottle (the type used for ketchup in a diner, or for liquid dyes when you're tie dyeing). I squirted a little salt solution onto the quilt, then shook on the dye powders, then applied more solution. I had tied the quilt so that the "right" side was facing up, because I didn't want to dye both sides. I worked my way around the quilt, making a haphazard blue mess. It was fun! (Even if the cats were scratching at the door a lot.)

Dyed quilt, before the first rinse

I put the quilt in a large garbage bag, tied it, then put it back in the storage tub, and placed the lid on the tub. After cleaning up, I let the cats investigate the bathroom, but they couldn't get to the quilt at all. (Ha! Victory!)

After 24 hours, it was time to rinse. I wrangled the quilt into our laundry tub, and started rinsing with a garden hose. I quickly realized that this was where the helpful, strong husband comes in. Chris helped me rinse as I untied the ropes and moved things around. He also helped me squeezed out as much water as we could before we hauled the quilt to our washing machine.

Rinsing dyed quilt in sink

I was disappointed that there was still a lot of white fabric on the quilt. I probably hadn't needed to tie it at all. But it was an easy problem to fix: dye it again, without the ties!

Too much white!

After washing the quilt in Synthrapol again, it was back to the shower stall for more dye on the white places. This time, I only used turquoise and electric blue. To get more splotches, I decided to apply the salt solution only after I'd applied the dye powder. It was a more concentrated effect, but I also found out that one of the dyes (the turquoise, I think) tended to leave red marks if you didn't apply the salt solution first. Oops. The red isn't horribly noticeable, but it's there. If I were to use this technique again, I'd make sure there was at least a little solution on the fabric first, no matter what colors I was using.

So: Another 24-hour wait. Another rinse in the laundry tub. Then a hot water wash with Synthrapol, with two extra rinses. The water was still coming out blue, but I decided enough was enough. It's not as if I'm going to wash this huge quilt with any clothes, so it's not going to hurt anything if it keeps bleeding. The last step was to soak the quilt with the dye fixative, rinse, then dry. (And dry, and dry. This whole process is not very energy- or water-efficient. Not to mention the chemicals you're using. You will not earn green brownie points here. End of liberal tree-hugger disclaimer.)

I gotta say: I think it's an eye-catching quilt.

Finished tie-dyed quilt

Bubba was very annoyed with being locked out of the bathroom twice, but I think he likes the results.

Bubba on dyed quilt

Finished tie-dyed quilt on bed

Now I have to paint the bedroom blue!


Joanne said...

Awesome effort, Judy. It does look good on the bed, too. I smiled at the curious cats trying to come see what was going on!

Cotton Picker said...

Judy, I applaud you for your determination to go to all that trouble for a blue quilt. The result is fantastic and it looks like Bubba agrees. :)

Suzee said...

Wow - what a PITA! I guess that's why you get beautiful one of a kind things in your home, and mine is a bit more bland ;) I love to paint - such a big difference when you are done - like a whole new space :) I'd help you paint if it wasn't so far away :)

Alma said...


I love that speckled shade of blue.
You did an awesome job.