Live Dye – Fine Art Tie-Dyes

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New dyer Judah makes a masterpiece

New dyer Judah makes a masterpiece – I almost wish I'd kept it (see bigger versions of these side images on your computer screen by narrowing the width of your browser window)

Techniques 3 – Chemicals

Safety First – and second (and third...)

Here is where safety is first in your work. While modern dyeing is less toxic overall than ever before, there are still risks associated with using concentrated dyes, caustics, and discharge agents. The primary dangers are from fumes when using discharge agents, so these techniques should be practiced in private before you attempt to do them with a group, particularly with children. Bleach can combine with a number of common substances to create chlorine gas, in particular ammonia and strong acid (toilet bowl cleaner). Don't you be the guy who had the party that made national news – in a bad way. There are also issues with caustics and eye and skin irritation. Bleach is not something to trifle with, particularly the new 1.5 - 2x concentrated formulations.

Dyeing with most color-fast dyes also involves strong alkalis such as sodium carbonate (caustic potash) and sodium hyroxide (lye). Again, eye and skin protection are your primary safety measures. In general, dyeing is safer than discharge, so plan accordingly. And BE SAFE.

Chemical List

Here's a list of the major chemicals used in tie-dye and their safety concerns:


RIT Dyes

The liquid dye is quite safe, if not non-toxic. Use gloves to avoid staining your skin and direct exposure to the dye, and don't drink it. The powdered dye, like all powders, is more dangerous if only for the problems inherent in inhaling powder. Consists of a blend of dyes, including acid dyes, which makes it useful if not especially effective on a variety of fabrics. Relatively poor wash-fastness, and it turns your socks pink if you wash them with your newly dyed fabrics.

Fiber-Reactive Dyes

The liquid dyes are safer, but have shorter shelf life than the powders (months vs. years). Again, protect your hands to avoid contact with concentrated dye. The powdered dyes require extra attention to avoid inhalation, and you should wear a dust mask while weighing/measuring them. Excellent wash- and light-fastness – these are the dyes used commercially to dye cellulose fibers like cotton.

Vat and Other Dyes

You should review the MSDS for all dyes, and for each new dye be careful to review the safety guidelines for use. In general, avoid direct skin exposure to liquid solutions and use a dust mask when working with powders. Excellent wash- and light-fastness, and useful on both cellulose and protein fibers – but they're not very potent on protein fibers like wool.


Caustic Potash (Sodium Carbonate)

A strongly alkaline/basic chemical, take skin contact and inhalation precautions. In addition, take extra caution when pouring, or manipulating fabrics in these solutions, as droplets that get in your eyes can cause permanent damage. Protective safety goggles (vented, for use with caustics) are highly recommended.

Lye (Sodium Hydroxide)

An even stronger base, this chemical requires all the above precautions with extra emphasis. A splash into the eyes can be blinding, contact with skin can rapidly cause burns. In addition, adding solid sodium hydroxide to water (and NEVER, NEVER, EVER add water to solid sodium hydroxide) leads to the liberation of a surprising amount of heat. I have made solutions in my laboratory that literally brought the water to the boiling point (and beyond), and this can happen rapidly around a clump of sodium hydroxide. When this happens, you create a bubble with a splash that puts concentrated lye in your face. Luckily, this caustic is not used in most tie-dyeing, with one of its few uses in dyeing found when dissovling natural indigo. Using synthetic, pre-reduced indigo allows you to use potash instead, which is much safer.

Discharge Agents

Bleach (Sodium Hypochlorite)

Bleach can be very dangerous, both from its own effects if splashed in the eyes or in prolonged contact with skin, and especially from the potential to liberate toxic, even fatal, amounts of poisonous chlorine gas. NEVER mix bleach with, well, much of anything but water. Acids (even weak ones like vinegar) and ammonia can lead to rapid release of chlorine gas, which is both toxic and can burn your lungs. It was used as a war gas in WWI, and many soldiers literally drowned from fluids released from damaged lung tissue. Don't be the guy who recreates old human evil and coincidently removes yourself from the gene pool prematurely. Even during simple discharge (without adding anything really stupid), chlorine gas is released. Rinse excess dye from the fabric if you are putting freshly-dyed fabric into bleach, which will reduce chlorine release. I do all my discharge work outside (regardless of the weather), and stay upwind. BE CAREFUL! Most instructions specify using a full cartridge respirator with acid gas cartridges - and I won't disagree. These warnings go double for the new, concentrated bleach formulations.

Check out these three pages to see the effect of bleach on commercially dyed tee from Gildan, the results from both bleach and thiox on Gildan tees, and how bleach affects fabric dyed with Procion fiber-reactive dyes.

Thiox (Thiourea Dioxide)

Used as a direct discharge agent and in vat dyeing as a reducing agent. Safer than what it replaces (sodium hydrosulfite), it still has the potential to release a bunch of awful chemicals, including hydrogen cyanide and sulfur dioxide. However, the risk is relatively low, as shown in this assessment of a fiber arts studio that uses thiox regularly for discharge. Take all precautions, don't mix it with anything, but in general its a safer alternative to bleach in my hands. BE CAREFUL! Most instructions specify using a full cartridge respirator with acid gas cartridges - and I won't disagree.

Check out these three pages to see the effect of thiox on commercially dyed tee from Gildan, the results from both bleach and thiox on Gildan tees, and how thiox affects fabric dyed with Procion fiber-reactive dyes.

Anti-Chlor (variety of chemicals, from PRO Chemical it's Sodium Metabisulfite)

Used to neutralize chlorine bleach, it works wonderfully but you should take all the precautions for discharge agents, even though sodium metabisulfite is considerably less likely to release toxic gases in the amounts used (a teaspoon or so per gallon). BE CAREFUL! Most instructions specify using a full cartridge respirator with acid gas cartridges - and I won't disagree.



Generally quite safe, especially as the solid is pilled and exposure to dust is thus minimized. Wear gloves, don't eat it.


Very little else used in tie-dye (as I've specified it) poses any significant chemical hazards, but be sure to read your instructions carefully and download the MSDS and read it.


Chemicals that are almost harmless to your skin, or even to ingest, can nevertheless do real damage to your eyes. Think jalapeño peppers. In general, all the chemicals that I use in tie-dye are unlikely to eat through my skin, kill me by their toxicity if used with a modicum of sense, or cause people downstream of me to get cancer. However, they can damage your sight. Be good, wear goggles and pay attention to how you pour and remove items from solutions. You have to be able to see to appreciate the colors. Really, I mean it. Pay attention here. PROTECT YOUR EYES!

Disposal - The basic rule is that everything goes down the drain, not down the street. Don't dump dyestuffs and alkaline solutions directly into your aquifer.

In the quantities you are likely to be using, the dyestuffs and chemicals are compatible with the typical municipal sewage system. When you are talking thousands of pounds, you need to consider other measures, including registration with your state equivalent of the EPA. This is not true for dumping on the ground or into the gutter. These dumpings are ILLEGAL and go directly into the nearest river or water table. Be responsible, it doesn't take that much extra effort to dump it down the drain.

Preparation of Dyes & Discharge Agents

RIT Dyes

Available in powder form or in pre-mixed liquid, RIT dyes can be used on fabric without preparation, or with the use of a mordant you can achieve greater color fastness. Here is a great site that spells out the use of alum as a mordant in dyeing using natural dyes, and another that introduces other mordants. In my experience RIT dyes behave like (and probably are, or at least like) natural dyes, and so applying a mordant is a great idea. Alum is accessible, you can buy ~1 oz styptic pencils in drug or grocery stores that are basically thumb-sized chunks of alum (potassium aluminum sulfate). Dissolve the alum (which you can also buy online, for example at PRO Chemical and Dye) at about 1 oz per gallon of hot water, then wet your fabric (to prevent streaking) and place in the mordant solution. Heat to near boiling, put the lid on, and let it sit for an hour or so. Remove your fabric from the bath, squeezing it out, and let it dry. Proceed with dyeing with RIT dyes.

Her's the rationale behind using a mordant. RIT dyes intercalate into (get between) the fibers of the thread in your fabric, and over time will wash out, resulting in fading. Mordants make the dyes less soluble in water, and so retard the washing out process. It's worth the preparation time to mordant when using RIT dyes.

Another aspect of using RIT dyes is applicable to fiber-reactive dyes as well: using agents that open up the fibers of the fabric to let the dye get access. For RIT dye baths, you use salt as the fiber-opening agent. With fiber-reactive dyes, urea is the agent of choice. To a certain degree they're interchangable, but urea is a better chaotropic (chaos creator).

Fiber-Reactive Dyes

These dyes are the most commonly used dyes for coloring cellulose fibers, and do so by a covalent bond between a side chain on the dye molecule and celluose. They are therefore "permanently" bonded to the fiber, which makes them very color fast. The chemistry is quite mature, and so the current crop of dyes are relatively safe, available in a wide variety of colors, and easy to use.

I buy my fiber-reactive dyes in powder form, as they have the longest shelf life and allow for a variety of uses, from making a bucket full of dye bath for immersion dyeing to sprinking the powder itself on fabric for a variable coloring effect. Here are some of the basic recipes for using fiber-reactive dyes in tie-dye:

Immersion Dyeing (for a pound of fabric=3 med t-shirts)

Mix together 1-2 lb of salt, 5-7 tablespoons of caustic potash, and 1 teaspoon to 4 tablespoons of fiber-reactive dye powder in about two gallons of warm water. You can also use about a third as much urea instead of the salt. The ranges are about depth of color: if you want a really black black, you need 4 tbsp dye/pound fabric, and to get that to react you'll need 7 tbsp of sodium carbonate (caustic potash).

Direct Application

A day in advance, stir very well one tablespoon of alginate thickener (available as PRO Thick SH at PRO Chemical and Dye, my supplier) into a quart of water, and just leave that spoon in there. The next day you should have a thick gel, stir more and let it sit longer (covered) if it still has lumps. Dissolve 1 oz (7 tablespoons) of urea in water, and add a little water softener if your water is hard (Metaphos). Dissolve your dye in the urea solution at between 1 teaspoon and 3 tablespoons per cup, again depending on how strong/dark you want the color to be. Add thickener by the spoonful with stirring until the solution is substantially thicker than water but not like syrup.

Direct Application With Steaming

Add 1 teaspoon of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) per cup of prepared dye solution. Recognize that this will decrease the shelf life of your dye solution from a week or more (if refrigerated after use, and not used in the heat) without baking soda to about a day. I have also used the dye solution without baking soda for steaming using the same process as overnight dyeing without any ill effects. In other words, rather than applying dyes to fabric that's been "activated" by soaking in a solution of caustic potash, and then letting the dye react with the fabric overnight at room temperature, you can instead take this same fabric and steam it for 10-15 minutes to get the same effect. Or you can include baking soda in the dye solution, steam, and also get good color. The baking soda method is safer when dyeing with the young and less responsible.

Vat Dyes

I typically use vat dyes by immersion, and if you want to use them directly there are instructions on the PRO Chemical site. I make a three gallon dyepot with lid, and into it I put three gallons of warm water. Start heating it. I dissolve three tablespoons of lye (sodium hydroxide) in 1.5 cups of cold water in a pint container (a half-liter Gatorade bottle works great, they seal well). You'll need to swirl the water, and it will warm as the lye dissolves. You can actually boil water with lye to the point that it spits boiling water out of the container (and perhaps into your eye), so be careful. Once it's dissolved, add a generous tablespoon of Thiox (thiourea dioxide), and swirl to dissolve. Add this to the heating water.

Make a suspension of the vat dye in water, I use about three or four tablespoons into 1.5 cups warm water. It doesn't really dissolve, but get it suspended pretty well by shaking. Add that to the warming water as well, and rinse out the container into the vat. Don't get a lot of air into the water from now on. Vigorous stirring, violet dumping into the bath, and even letting drops drip off the piece back into the vat are to be avoided. Keep the lid on as much as you can. Bring the dyebath to 140 degrees F (60 degrees C), and you're ready to dye.

To replenish after a session, I add another tablespoon of dye in suspension, and another tablespoon of Thiox dissolved in very warm water. Once the bath is back up to 140 degrees, you should be good to go. I also tend to run the bath a bit hotter than recommended using a temperature-controlled hotplate, as the Thiox bleaching action is better hotter, and I like the bleached area it creates in a thin line around the vat dyed regions. Don't let it get too hot: we destroyed a bath by heating it to near boiling.

Discharge Baths

Household Bleach

I do both direct application and immersion in my work. I prefer working with the new, concentrated bleach formulations, which are about 8% sodium hypochlorite. This is about double the strength of a bargain brand bleach, and is worth the extra. I use squirt bottles with straight concentrated bleach and two dilutions of bleach, 1 part in 3 and 1 part in 10. The 1 in 3 is the workhorse, the 1 in 10 is a "connector" that bridges areas that receive more concentrated bleach, and the straight bleach is for highlights. I apply resists, then hit them with the 1 in 3, spray more liberally with the 1 in 10, and highlight with the straight concentrate.

The immersion bath works well with warm to hot water at a rate of 1 cup concentrated bleach to the gallon. I have a big bleaching container that I holds about 4 gallons of the bleach solution, and I suspend the pieces that I don't want to bleach all over from strings, wrapping plastic bags around the areas I don't want bleached with rubber bands and running the string through the bands to hold them up. Check out our Discharge Galleries to see some of the possibilites.

Thiox (Thiourea Dioxide)

I'm still working on Thiox, we've used it in the standard immersion format and have tried a few ways to apply a concentrate to get highlights. The standard bath is just 1 teaspoon of Thiox and 1 tablespoon of sodium carbonate (dye activator, caustic potash) per gallon of water that's been heated to 175 degrees F (about 80 degrees C). Keep that bad boy lidded and watch out for the vapors. Let me emphasize good ventilation, using a cartridge respirator, and just being careful with the hot stuff. Hot caustics can be MUCH more active than cold ones – don't be the guy who gets blinded while playing with color. As for direct application, we've tried using discharge paste (recipe here) to good effect, but it's too gloppy. We apply a thinned version from a squirt bottle, steam the shirts in a microwave or steamer, and then do the immersion step. Remember, if you use metal clamps or hemostats or other metal in resists, you can't use the microwave. Check out our Discharge Galleries to see some of the possibilites.

Elaboration on Chemical Safety

Our dyeshop , like most, didn't take safety seriously until we got burned. Specifically, we worked with sandals on, and the bleach and thiox and vat dye solutions would inevitably get on bare feet, bare legs, hands, and the like. It sucked. We learned. Luckily we didn't learn by getting blinded.

Please do your own homework on this before doing elaborate techniques like Thiox discharge. This stuff is dangerous, and it can bite you. My disclaimer is that you are warned, and on your own. I gave the best advice I could, BUT IT ISN'T ENOUGH. Experience, seeking your own knowledge, scrupulousness and integrity, and a sincere desire to make this process FUN is what's required. Do your legwork, because if you build in the safety you make the fun possible. Please have fun!