Monthly Archives: July 2014

trying to dye lichen for model foliage purposes

Name: John
Country or region: NZ
Message: Hi Paula
I am trying to dye a type of lichen for model foliage purposes. Because the lichen itself is known to produce a browny dye, when I try using a hot water dye the lichen turns brown instead of the desired green. Do you know if there is a suitable cold water dye that would work?

Hi John,

I think you probably don’t want to use dye at all, but instead a very thin transparent paint. There are only a few types of dyes that will work in cool water, and there’s not a lot of information on which of them work well on the material of which lichen is composed.

This is an interesting question, because lichens are not composed of the same material as plants or animals. Lichen is not made primarily of cellulose, like plants, nor of protein, like animals; instead it is made of chitin, the same long-chain substance used as a structural material by mushrooms, insects, and crabs. Chitin is a carbohydrate, a polysaccharide, made, like starch and cellulose, from many subunits of glucose sugar derivatives, hooked together in a long chain. The subunits in chitin are held together by the same sort of molecular linkage as cellulose, but each glucose has an additional amine group attached to it, which means that some protein dyes work on it. Unfortunately, protein dyes require heat, so they’re not useful for your question.

Cold water dyes work by chemically reacting with the substrate. Procion MX dyes, for example, which unlike other fiber reactive dyes work well at a room temperature as low as 21°C (70°F), react with cellulose or proteins at a high pH; a chemical such as soda ash is used to produce the high pH that is needed. The high pH might alter the color of your lichen just as the heat did. Of the three fiber reactive dyes I know of that have been tested on purified chitin, two worked at various pH levels, but one of them, the only Procion MX dye that was tested, did not perform well. I expect that some other colors of Procion dye might work better, but finding out which would be more trouble than I think it would be worth for you.

Chitin, unlike cellulose and protein fibers, has a positive molecular charge, so you can’t use basic (cationic) dyes with it. That’s just as well, as I do not like to recommend basic dyes, for reasons of toxicity.

I expect that you will want to use a particularly thin paint, so that it will be more like dye, and not change the texture of the lichen. A good thin fabric paint would probably be your best choice, as it is designed not to much change the texture of the fabric on which it is applied. In choosing a fabric paint, consider whether you want the paint to be opaque or transparent. Transparent paint will be thinner and give a more natural look, but, like dye, it will not be able to cover a dark color with a lighter one. If you need to lighten the color of the lichen you are painting, you must choose an opaque fabric paint, such as DecoArt SoSoft Fabric Paints, the opaque colors of Pebeo Setacolor Fabric Paint, or Jacquard Products’ Neopaque. If you do not need to lighten the color of your lichen, then you should choose a transparent paint that is very thin. Jacquard Products’ Dye-Na-Flow would be an obvious good choice–as the name implies, it is designed to be thin, to give an experience similar to using dye–as would the transparent colors of Pebeo Setacolor.

Both Setacolor Transparent paints and Dye-Na-Flow are available in several different greens, or you can alter the provided colors by mixing with other colors such as blue or yellow. For an even more transparent, lighter color, you can dilute Dye-Na-Flow with up to 25% added water, or you can dilute the Setacolor with Setacolor Lightening Medium. For a more realistic effect, you could start by painting with a light green, then paint unevenly over part of the surface with a darker shade of green; the results will be different if you apply the second color while the first is still wet than when the first color has already dried. Experiment to see what works best. All of the paint colors can be mixed with any other color in the same brand name of fabric paints.

When used on fabric that will be washed, both Dye-Na-Flow and Setacolor fabric paint are made permanent after drying by heat-setting them, but for model foliage that will not be touched, simply letting the paint dry will be sufficient. You won’t need to bother with the heat-setting step.

You can order Dye-Na-Flow or Neopaque fabric paints in New Zealand from ZigZag, which is located in Christchurch. If they have availability problems, you can order Setacolor Transparent fabric paint from Kraftkolour, or Dye-Na-Flow and other Jacquard Products paints from The Thread Studio, both of which sources are in Australia.

(Please help support this web site. Thank you.)


Can I use disperse dye in a small pot to dye a cold-water-wash polyester shirt?

Name: Caroline

Country or region: Canada

Message: Hi there I read your article on Disperse Dyes, and then the link from called “Immersion Dyeing Polyester” that you posted. I have a shirt that is 100% satin polyester, with nylon lace trim; the tag says wash in cold water on normal, and tumble dry on normal low heat. With this in mind, can I use a dispersion dying technique? Also, based off your article, I was just going to use dish soap to prepare the shirt rather than PRO dye activator. Is this ok? Also I am having trouble scaling down the measurements of ingredients. I am only planning on dyeing the one shirt which is quite small and do not have a pot that can hold 10L. If at all possible I would like the dye bath to be at most around 8 cups, because this is what my largest pot can hold, my current plan is to quarter the recipe. Thanks for all the information on your web site, it’s great!

Hi Caroline,

Several problems. One is that disperse dye simply CANNOT be used without high heat. Another is that there is no way that dish soap can substitute for dye activator. A third problem is that a very small dyebath cannot be used to make a solid color. A fourth is that I want to be sure you are buying disperse dyes, not another type of dyes.

It is usually sufficient to prepare a shirt for dyeing by washing it with ordinary detergent in the hottest water it can tolerate. Washing with both soda ash (“PRO dye activator”) and detergent is a little more effective. You need to prewash to prepare the shirt because it may have invisible stains on it which will repel dye and produce light spots. Sometimes even washing is not sufficient, with clothing that was not sold specifically for dyeing, but it usually works, so most of us go ahead and take the risk.

PRO dye activator is called for in the ProChem disperse dye recipe not only for prewashing the shirt, but also in the recipe itself to increase the pH of the dyebath to protect the color of the disperse dye. (It is not required in the Jacquard Products disperse dye recipe.) Dish soap will not work for this. Dish soap can be used as a substitute for another detergent, such as Synthrapol. The results may not be quite the same, but they will be fairly similar. Dish soap or other detergents cannot ever be used to substitute for PRO dye activator, which is sodium carbonate, also known as soda ash. There is no similarity between these two different types of products. If you wish, you can substitute washing soda, which is another form of sodium carbonate, though you should use approximately twice as much.

If your shirt really needs to be protected from hot water, by washing only in cold water, then you can’t dye it with disperse dye. There are two ways to get disperse dye hot enough for it to penetrate the fiber in the polyester fabric. One is to BOIL it together with the fabric for at least half an hour. This means a full boil, not merely hot water. The other is to use the disperse dye as a transfer dye, by applying it to paper and then transferring it from the paper to the fabric by pressing with a hot iron.

You also need to use a dye carrier chemical, such as PRO Dye Carrier NSC, if you want to achieve a dark, bright, or intense color on polyester. You cannot substitute anything else for the dye carrier chemical, except for another brand of polyester dye carrier chemical from another company that sells dyes. The dye carrier chemical is needed only for polyester, not for other synthetic fibers such as nylon or acrylic, and you can skip using it for polyester if you are dyeing only pale pastel colors. The dye carrier chemical is rather unpleasant; I have an outdoor burner so that I don’t have to use it inside my house.

It probably doesn’t matter that you don’t already have a 10 liter pot, if you are thinking only of your cooking pots that you plan to use again for food preparation. Since you should not cook food in a pot that has been used for dyeing, you will probably need to buy another pot, anyway. Be sure not to choose an aluminum pot for dyeing, because aluminum reacts badly with both bases such as soda ash, and acids such as vinegar, and most dye recipes call for one or the other. A good dyeing pot should be either stainless steel or enamel-coated metal.

Even for a single shirt, you must not use a small dyeing pot, unless you want a variegated, tie-dye sort of effect. If you cram your shirt into a pot that is too small for the shirt to move freely in the water when you stir it, then you will get uneven coloration. The results can be beautiful, but not if what you really want is a single solid color. See my page “How to Do Low Water Immersion Dyeing“, to see what happens when you purposefully use too small a volume to allow the fabric to move freely. (The recipe described there is for dyeing cotton with fiber reactive dye, but you can get a similar effect by boiling your shirt with disperse dye in a small pot.) An 8-cup recipe will not work for dyeing a solid color, but it can work fine for a crystal LWI effect. The 10-liter dyebath recipe is for dyeing one pound of fiber. Weigh your shirt, while it is dry, on a kitchen or postal scale (if you have no other access to a small scale, you could try a vegetable scale at the grocery store). If it weighs half a pound, then, for a solid color, you can scale down to a 5 liter recipe, for which you will need at least an eight-quart pot. For a quarter-pound of dry shirt, you could use two and a half liters of water in a four-quart pot. If you’re going to be buying a pot specifically for dyeing, though, it would be good to invest in the larger pot, since it is more versatile.

If you are not wanting to invest in a pot for dyeing, I think you should strongly consider the transfer dye method. It is not suitable at all for producing a single solid color, but it is wonderful for more complex effects, and it is very easy to do. It is less likely to damage your wash-in-cold-water-only shirt. If you want a repeating motif in your design, you can color a piece of paper in that design, iron it on, and then recolor it to use again. Even without recoloring, the paper can be ironed again for a somewhat paler impression from the first coloring.

Since you’re in Canada, you may want to consider ordering your dyes from a Canadian source, rather than PRO Chemical & Dye in the US. A good source in Canada is G&S Dye, in Toronto; they carry Jacquard brand iDye Poly, which includes the dye carrier chemical in a separate packet inside the package you buy. ProChem’s disperse dyes are less expensive in bulk, but Jacquard’s are less expensive for a single garment. For using the transfer method, you can mix your own disperse dye paint from dye purchased from ProChem, or buy special transfer crayons; Crayola brand Fabric Crayons, which look like ordinary wax crayons but are composed of disperse dye, instead, can be found locally in some stores in Canada, possibly in a fabric store or a crafts store. (See, for example, Crayola Fabric Crayons at Alco of Canada.) Unlike the ProChem disperse dyes, the Crayola disperse dye crayons mean that a garment should never be machine-dried, because the Crayola disperse dye is selected for transferring with less heat and might transfer to another garment in the same load in the dryer.

(Please help support this website. Thank you.)


Will a fabric reach a saturation point after which it cannot take any more dye, or any more dye of a given colour?

Name: Momoko
Country or region: Canada
Message: Hi Paula,

Your website is an amazing resource! Thank you so much for putting it together and sharing it.

I have a general question about fiber reactive dyeing, and a specific example in my current project: Will a fabric reach a certain saturation point after which it cannot take any more dye, or any more dye of a given colour? In other words, if I go through the dye cycle (apply dye, wash out, dry) several times, should the fabric get successively darker with each cycle, or does it max out at some point?

Right now, I’m trying to dye 100% cotton jersey to reach a rich emerald green. I’m using a mix of lemon yellow and turquoise (both pure colours from Dharma Trading). After one round of dyeing, I liked the turquoise-yellow balance, but wanted more saturation, so I repeated the process. In the second round, using the same colour ratio, only the yellow seemed to fix (the rinse water seemed to contain only turquoise), making the overall green more saturated but too yellow. So I did a third round, applying only pure turquoise, which has only barely nudged the green back to toward the bluish emerald I want, and only barely made it more saturated or darker. I still want to get more turquoise on there, but decided to seek advice before wasting more dye, soda ash and water. Has my fabric’s capacity to receive turquoise dye reached a maximum? (Also, I know turquoise fiber reactive dye is more finicky than other colours; would the situation be different for another pigment?)

Here are some additional details: I’m using the direct application method (soda ash soak, then applying concentrated dye, then letting sit in a ziploc for 24hrs, then washing in hot water). I’m following Dharma’s instructions for direct application tie dye for mixing chemicals and dyes, including urea. I don’t think my problem is a shortage of pigment, because there is a lot of excess colour in the rinse water. Ambient temperature is around 29C (summer in Montreal without AC). My dyes are about 10 months old. I think my process is generally ok, because the first round of dyeing gave a completely reasonable result in terms of saturation and turquoise-yellow balance. Really, I’m nitpicking to get a colour that’s more special (deep and glowing!) than what might be found in commercially dyed fabrics.

Thanks again for all of your time and work! I’d be very appreciative if you’d have time to consider and respond to my query.


Hi Momoko,

It is possible to max out the dye receptors on a piece of fabric, but I don’t think that’s your problem here.

It often happens that dyers max out the dye sites when working with a fine sheer silk, simply because there aren’t that many there to begin with, due to the thinness of the material. You may be able to get only two or three layers of color on a very thin fabric. However, an ordinary cotton jersey has a lot more dye receptors, due to the much greater thickness of the fabric. It can seem as though you’ve used up all the dye receptors, but then the process of washing out the excess dye and drying the fabric exposes more dye receptors, just due to the physical manipulation of the cellulose fibers in the cotton. Different bits of the cellulose fibers can be exposed to the surface. You should be able to get a difference in color for each of six rounds of dyeing, if not more.

The problem in your case, I think, is that turquoise is such a pure, clear color that you cannot get it much darker beyond a certain point. This does not mean that all of the dye receptors are used up, because if you choose a duller blue for your next round of dyeing, you will see that it find more dye receptor sites and produces a darker color. It is not because your turquoise is refusing to bond to the fabric–it sounds like you are doing everything right in that respect–it is because of the nature of the color itself. The same is true of a few other colors of Procion MX dye, as well. For example, lemon yellow (Procion Yellow MX-8G or C. I. reactive yellow 86) cannot be used to make a dark yellow color, no matter how many times you reapply it, and cherry red (Procion Rubine MX-B or C.I. reactive red 6) will always produce a clear pink, not a bright red. These colors have a distinctive spike in their color absorption spectra, absorbing only a narrow range of colors in the rainbow, whereas duller colors absorb light over a much wider section of the rainbow. With these dyes, adding more of the same color of dye does very little to intensify its color, after a certain point.

What I think you should do next, to get a deep glowing emerald green, is stop trying to add more turquoise (Procion Turquoise MX-G or C.I. reactive blue 140) and instead use cerulean blue (Procion Blue MX-G or C.I. reactive blue 163). This is a lovely pure blue that is toward the turquoise side, but it is less green than the turquoise dye. It tends to be more expensive than other Procion MX dyes, but it is such a worthwhile color that I think you need to acquire some. Other blues, such as Procion Blue MX-R (sky blue or basic blue) or Procion Blue MX-2G (cobalt blue or mixing blue), will also make the color bluer and darker, but, since they are duller colors in themselves, they will not produce as glowingly bright an emerald green.

If you haven’t already, take a look at my page detailing all of the different unmixed single-hue Procion MX dye colors, “Which Procion MX colors are pure, and which mixtures?“. Generally, these are the colors you want to consider when mixing your own dye colors; you will want to avoid using pre-mixed dye colors as mixing primaries. Not all of the unmixed dye colors are available from any one dye retailer, though many of them are available from multiple retailers, sold under different names. The chart lists the different names used by the most popular dye retailers for the same dyes.

(Please help support this website. Thank you.)