I have used alcohol inks to paint on silk and wonder how best to fix the dye

Name: Tina
Country or region: usa
Message: I have used alcohol inks to paint on silk and wonder how best to fix the dye. I used a water based resist and would like to wash it out in water but am afraid the water will wash out the ink before it is set. I could iron but wonder if you recommend a fixative.

I’m afraid I don’t have the answer you’re looking for. Alcohol inks are not suitable for painting silk that will ever be subjected to the rigors of washing. They are intended for coloring materials that will never be laundered; for example, they are good for painting fabric that you are then going to frame and use as decor, or for painting wood, glass, or metal ornaments. There is no fixative that will enable the alcohol inks to function as real dyes. There is a way that you might fix it permanently in place using a colorless fabric paint, but the results may or may not be what you’re looking for. The biggest problem is that anything you can use to fix your alcohol inks will also fix the resist in place!

It is important to use the right material for a project. For painting on silk, I recommend using good silk paints or silk painting dyes. There are many excellent choices available. Take a look at the silk painting section at a good dye supplier. For example, see Dharma Trading Company’s page of “Paints and Dyes for Painting Silk, Wool, and Nylon Fabrics“. Every one of the dyes and paints on that page is far more suitable for silk painting than are the alcohol inks. It would be good to start by reading some books about silk painting, such as Susan Moyer’s Silk Painting for Fashion and Fine Art, or Mandy Southan’s Beginner’s Guide to Silk Painting. There are some differences between silk painting and watercolor painting on paper.

The most intensely beautiful results in silk painting are obtained by using dyes that are then fixed by steaming. (Unfortunately, steaming will not fix alcohol inks on silk.) Among the silk dyes Dharma carries, and which are also carried by other good suppliers, I recommend Sennelier Tinfix Design Silk Dye or Dupont Silk Dyes, if you want your dyes to be ready-to-use in a wide range of different colors; alternatively, I recommend Jacquard’s Vinyl Sulphon Liquid Reactive Dye Concentrate, if you are willing to mix your dye paint for yourself, especially if either lightfastness or economy are particular issues. (See my page, How to Dye Silk.)

Very nearly as beautiful are the results produced with silk paints, which are fixed by ironing. The effects are very similar to those of silk dyes. They contain pigments, rather than dyes; a pigment must be attached to the fabric by a fine glue-like binder, which is included in the paint. Usually the binder is one that is activated by high heart, such as by ironing to heat-set. Alcohol inks are missing this binder component. You can get lovely results by painting with a specially-made silk paint such as Pebeo Setasilk or Jacquard Products’ Dye-Na-Flow fabric paint. PRO Chemical & Dye sells a similar silk paint called PRO Silk & Fabric Paint. Fabric paints always leave at least a slightly perceptible change in the feel of the silk, unlike silk painting dyes, but the convenience of not having to use extensive steaming (in a silk steamer) to set the dye causes a great many artists to prefer it. Silk paints leave a much less noticeable change in the hand of the fabric than do other textile paints. Some water-based resists that you can use with silk paints will be fixed in place by heat-setting, while other will wash out easily even after ironing. Silk paints themselves can be used as a water-based resist for steam-set silk dyes, but they can’t be expected to wash out 100%.

Now you know what you should use next time, but how are you to salvage this current project? The first and most effective option is to preserve it by never washing it, and retain the resist that you used exactly as it is now. There is no guarantee that anything else that you try will work out satisfactorily. If never washing your painted silk is not an option, you can TRY to set the pigments in place using a clear, colorless fabric paint or fabric medium; this will inevitably fix anything else on the fabric in place permanently, as well, though, whether it is a resist or a random fleck of dirt. Dharma Trading Company (and other Jacquard Products suppliers) sells a fabric medium they call “Lumiere and Neopaque Extender” in containers ranging in size from two ounces to one gallon; the same product is listed elsewhere as listed elsewhere as Jacquard Products Neopaque Flowable Extender. This is the exact same material as the fabric paints that have colors, but without the pigments. You can dilute this material by no more than one-quarter with water (e.g., mix one ounce of the clear extender with one-quarter of an ounce of water); using more water interferes with its effectiveness at holding the pigment in place on the fabric.

It is always essential to test your materials and methods before spending much time and material on using them. Since you have already obtained a design that you do not want to spoil, you would need to test whether fixing it with fabric paint extender will work, or whether it will ruin what you have. Create a small quick test painting using the same inks and resist material, one that is similar in application method to your current design, on a piece of scrap silk, and do a test of the following method. Given the wide variety of things that different people will try, nobody can guarantee that a material will work the way you want it to with what you already have; you must always do a test first to see how you like the way the materials work together.

To use the fabric paint extender to try to make your alcohol ink design permanent on silk, you would paint your design, after it is completely dry, with Lumiere and Neopaque Extender on both the front and the back side of the fabric (letting the fabric dry before turning it over to do the second side). Be very careful, as the liquid in the extender might lift some of the pigment, distorting your design. After the extender you have applied has been dry to the touch for 24 hours, you can heat-set it to make it permanent. You can do this by pressing, according to the manufacturer’s instructions, with a hot iron for thirty seconds on each side, or by putting it in a commercial clothes dryer for an hour (home clothes dryers do not get hot enough). If heat-setting is impossible, some artists have reported that allowing the fabric paint to dry and cure at room temperature for a long period of time, more than one month, seems to produce an adequate degree permanence, as well, though this is not among the manufacturer’s recommendations and might not work as well.

There are other brands of fabric paint medium that might be used for this purpose, as well. In her 2008 book “Quilts of a Different Color“, published by the American Quilter’s Society in Kentucky, Irena Bluhm gives a recipe for a mixture of colorless fabric mediums that she uses to seal pigment she has drawn with ordinary colored pencils onto fabric, which she then uses for quilting. Her favorite formula is to mix 70% Jo Sonja’s Textile Medium, 20% Delta Ceramcoat Textile Medium, and 10% Versatex Fixer. The different textile mediums have different textures, and it is a matter of taste, which you prefer. Delta Ceramcoat is very thick, while Jo Sonja’s Textile Medium is thinner. These two textile mediums require heat setting, but the Versatex Fixer allows the use of this mixture with no heat setting at all. The combination of mediums with fixer must be used immediately after the Versatex Fixer has been mixed into it.

Remember that using a fabric paint extender or fabric medium in this way, in order to fix a non-permanent pigment that was never intended for permanent use on fabric to be washed, can only be regarded as experimental. How successful it will be will vary depending on the performance of the specific ink that you used, and also depending on other variables such as how thickly the ink was applied, how sturdy the silk is, or on how frequently you plan to clean it. As far as I know, there is no method that has been tested and shown to nearly always be acceptable for permanently fixing whatever brand of alcohol ink you used on silk. If this particular piece is precious to you, it would be best to save it as it is now, without washing out the resist, and to immediately invest in a proper silk paints or silk painting dyes for your next project on silk.

I’m sorry I don’t have a way that will allow you to wash out the resist without damaging the alcohol ink painting.

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[The paragraph on Irene Bluhm’s fabric medium mixture includes some sentences that previously appeared in my blog entry, “How can I set inkjet ink that I’ve already painted onto cotton?“, March 23, 2012.]

Pre-reduced indigo: natural versus synthetic

Name: Jen

Country or region: US

Message: I’m doing research on pre-reduced indigo crystals. I’m finding that they’re being called everything from freeze-dried to instant and claims of them being ‘natural’, extract, etc. This flies in the face of what I’ve also been told directly by an importer- if it comes from India it’s all synthetic. Even the stuff one seller is claiming produced in Japan has an import label from India! So you can see confusion.
Any information or insight you’d be nice enough to share is most appreciated.

Hi Jen,

I believe that I’ve NEVER encountered pre-reduced indigo that was not synthetic. Those who wish to use only plant-derived indigo must do more work to reduce their indigo themselves.

I suspect that there is no difference at all between pre-reduced indigos that are listed as being freeze-dried, dried, or instant, merely different ways of describing the same product. Indigo “extracts” appear always to be the normal oxidized form which must be reduced by the dyer before use. Note that pre-reduced indigo is not 100% reduced; the various retailers all specify that their pre-reduced indigo is 60% reduced. The remaining 40%, which is in the oxidized form, is unusable unless the dyer chemically reduces it in the indigo dyeing vat. (Both synthetic indigo vats and natural fermentation indigo vats produce chemical reduction.)

Often a retailer’s advertising copy reads as though their pre-reduced indigo is natural, but if they are both reputable and careful you can see that it is not. For example, Dharma Trading Company, which is good about what claims they make, says:

As an alternative, try this Pre-reduced Indigo. Synthetic Indigo (chemically identical to natural Indigo) has been pre-reduced chemically, then dried, so it dissolves in water right off the bat….This all makes it have a lower environmental impact for the dyer than taking the original natural or synthetic Indigo from start to finish with all the chemicals involved.

Jacquard Products starts off saying “This natural vat dye exists in plants all over the world”, but concludes clearly with “Jacquard’s indigo is a synthetic organic and comes pre-reduced 60% for unprecedented ease of use.” (source)

“Organic” is a difficult word for the dyer, because an organic chemical is any chemical that contains carbon; it has nothing to do with organic farming. All dyes, whether natural or synthetic, are organic chemicals, aside from a few mineral colors that are not really of interest. However, many dyers mistake claims that a dye is organic, thinking it means it is a plant-derived dye when in fact it is not. Dye sellers sometimes purposefully exploit this confusion.

Jacquard pre-reduced indigo is available through Amazon, as well as other sources; a supplier on Amazon currently selling Jacquard pre-reduced indigo, “The BT Group”, provides misleading information claiming that what they are selling is naturally occurring. There’s an issue with resellers on Amazon, which can post wrong information about their products; it’s likely that The BT Group doesn’t know anything about what they are selling, and merely selected several phrases from the Jacquard copy without paying attention to how they have changed the meaning by omitting a key word. Similarly, Etsy sellers give blatantly false information about whether the pre-reduced indigo dye they sell is from natural sources, when what they are selling is obviously synthetic, given their suppliers.

Earth Guild makes an error, showing instructions for using natural indigo on a page whose title is “PRE-REDUCED INDIGO INSTRUCTIONS”, but I don’t think that the title of a web page amounts to a claim, given that many people who edit web pages don’t even know how to alter the titles of their pages. (source) In corroboration of this interpretation, they have a page on Lanaset dyes with this same webpage title, so it’s just a mistake.

George Weil helpfully says that pre-reduced indigo is used as “an alternative to Natural Indigo”. (source)

There are blogs that have instructions for using pre-reduced indigo which assert that the dye is natural, but in every case it seems that the blogger was insufficiently knowledgeable. Since they’re not selling the dye, they’re not legally liable for their claims in the same way that someone who is selling a pre-reduced indigo is.

If you find any additional information, I will be interested in learning about it!

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Are “Greener Shades” dyes really safer than other acid dyes?

Name: Kathe

Country or region: Denmark

Message: Hi Paula, I would like to read your article on Greener shades dyes vs acid dyes, but it not available on your site, can your help, please? I have been looking for MSDS on these dyes online, with no luck. The dyes are not available in Denmark, but I would like to find out if they really are safer than other acid dyes.

Hi Kathe, I was able to find the article you were looking for. Unfortunately I have never been able to resurrect the Dye Forum, but the Internet Archive has, wonderfully, made a record of its old postings. Here is the original query, followed by my lengthy response, and another dyer’s followup message….

Greener Shades vs Acid dyes

Hey all, I am a professional dyer who has been dyeing with Acid dyes for years with wonderful results. All my colorways are based on these Acid dyes. Recently, I have begun to wonder about the impact of what I do on the environment and so have looked at Greener Shades dyes. After reading the instructions, I see they are actually very similar to the Acid dyes (in processing the color). That makes me wonder if they are really substantially better for the environment or if they are just saying that to sell the product. The label says they do not release heavy metals but I was wondering which class of dye does? Do Acid dyes release these heavy metals or are they referring to vat dyes or Lanaset dyes or what? I want to be sure, before I go to all the time and expense of completely changing my line, that I am in fact doing something to help the world and not just falling for an advertising gimmick. Could anyone one who has looked into the facts please tell me what they have discovered? I would greatly appreciate it. Gale

By gale evans at 2011-08-09 06:24

Greener Shades not so impressive

The Greener Shades dyes are chrome-free acid dyes, but, 1, that’s true of many dyes already on the market, and 2, chrome-containing premetalized dyes are not all that bad, at least when used in the small quantities needed for hand dyeing. The fact that the Greener Shades company does not give any Colour Index names or any other generic names for their dyes makes it impossible to know whether to trust their MSDS forms (which incidentally, are very confusing, apparently ranking midnight black as both severely hazardous and perhaps not hazardous at all – very bad MSDS writing!).

Apparently the Greener Shades do not have Colour Index names at all, which makes me suspect that they might be too new to have had thorough safety testing. They list their Organic Processing Compliance Testing Results, but apparently these refer only to heavy metal content, and say nothing else about the safety of these dyes for the environment! There are plenty of dyes which are free of significant metal content but which will kill fish if they get into streams. If a dye persists in the environment and is toxic to animals, plants, or microbes living in it, it would be no better than a dye that contains a little heavy metal.

What bothers me the most about their claims is that, while their MSDS pages give too little information to reassure me, they have no safety testing certification at all. I need to know what the generic names for dyes are, so that I can look them up elsewhere to find out whether they pose any particular hazard. Since Greener Shades does not give this information at all, we can have no idea how safe these dyes really are to use.

Chrome dyes, by the way, are a class of synthetic dyes that are mordanted, as natural dyes can be, with dangerous carcinogenic hexavalent chromium (sold as potassium dichromate). They have both better leveling AND better washfastness than other classes of wool dyes, where normally a wool dye’s leveling is inversely proportionate to its washfastness, and vice versa. However, I do not recommend the use of chrome dyes by artists (not that any of us have a good source for buying them), just as I do not recommend the use of natural dyes that are mordanted with chrome. There’s too much risk of exposure to the hexavalent chromium, and such a large amount of the hexavalent chromium in the mordanting process is used that it’s bad for the environment, as well. Metal complex dyes, or premetalized dyes, which includes many of the Lanaset dyes, are NOT dangerous like the chrome dyes and the natural dyes that are mordanted with chromium. Metal complex dyes have a smaller number of chromium atoms included in their molecular structure, and they are in the vastly safer trivalent form. Only the hexavalent form of chromium is a known human carcinogen. Incidentally, most exposure to hexavalent chrome occurs in applying industrial processes that do not include textile dyeing.

My conclusions for now:

1. Go ahead and use those of the Lanaset dyes or other premetalized dyes that contain chromium, in small quantitities, mixing up no more dye than you are likely to use, and disposing of them as per EPA regulations, which require that the dyes be diluted if they are put down the sewer (household waste water being suitable for this purpose). (As I explained in my All About Hand Dyeing Blog here, “a dye painting solution of 1 teaspoon of Jet Black Lanaset dye that contains 2.5 grams of dye, dissolved in one cup (250 ml), contains 0.08 grams (which is equal to 80 milligrams or 80,000 micrograms) of chromium. After being diluted with 50 gallons of uncontaminated water, this dye concentration would meet the US EPA standard for chromium content of drinking water in the US, which is 100 micrograms per liter.”)

2. If you want to avoid heavy metals, use only those Lanaset dyes which are metal free (see my page, Which Lanaset dye colors are pure, rather than mixtures?), or use other classes of acid dyes which do not contain heavy metals, such as most of the WashFast Acid Dyes (with the exception of the Jet Black, which is a premetalized dye).

3. If you order from Greener Shades, insist that they give you certification of environmental safety testing, not only for lack of heavy metals, as provided by a named third party company, but also for the potential environmental dangers of the specific dye molecules used. Do not ever accept vague claims of safety that are not backed up by a certification and the contact information for the company that did the testing, because it’s so easy for a company to make claims that are not backed up by any proof.

To find out whether the acid dyes you use contain heavy metals, check the MSDS information for them. Your dye supplier should give you this information; both ProChem and Dharma make things easy by supplying them on their website, but others will send you the MSDS with an order, or following an order, for whatever you have purchased from them. You could also post about your favorite dyes here, so we can discuss their safety.

If a dye contains a heavy metal in its chromophore, it’s probably only a problem when it is used in large industrial quantities. There is absolutely no reason, for example, for a hand dyer to worry about the 2% of the weight of turquoise dyes that is present as copper; almost all good bright turquoise dyes contain a copper atom in their chromophore. (This is true of the Greener Shades aqua color, as well!) The copper ion remains bound in the dye molecule until it is broken down, and it is not present in harmful quantities unless you are running a large dyeing factory. The salt used with the dye is probably of larger concern, environmentally.

You mention vat dyes. The environmental and safety aspect of using vat dyes, such as natural indigo, is that you must use significant quantities of lye and other chemicals, unless you are using one of the very slow and less predictable fermentation baths; however, these chemicals are not bad once their pH has been neutralized. Vat dyes do not require mordants.

In most lines of dye, a few colors contain small amounts of heavy metals such as copper. Other colors often do not.


By pburch at Tue, 2011-08-09 07:11

Greener Shades Coral Reef Agua

This color does contain copper and does not meet organic specs. This info is buried on the Greener Shades FAQ page, http://greenershades.stillrivermill.com/faq.php. But this info is hard to find and not front and center on the main page. Further if their non-toxic quality is the reason for selling them as “Greener shades” why is it being sold at all? Many dyers are shocked to get this info after using them.

“Why do you carry a dye, Coral Reef Aqua, that does have a heavy metal in it?”

“To get a really true and bright aqua or turquoise color, it is extremely difficult to do so without the introduction of some sort of metal compound. Our customers demanded a turquoise color, so we had to compromise on this one color. The heavy metal used is copper and the dye analaysis is listed in the “Dye Info” section of our website. This color does not meet the requirements of the Organic Trade Association for organic textile processing, but it is still manufactured with the same high quality performance and sulfonation balance as our other colors.”

By brigidsfarm at Tue, 2011-08-16 09:18

I can’t, as I write this, view the Greener Shades website because for some reason my web browsers are telling me that the site is not safe to connect to, so I can’t see if their current claims have changed at all. However, the Greener Shades Dyes FAQ is printed on the website for the C & M Acres Fiber Mill; it claims that the dyes are safer solely because they do not contain metals, although in fact one of them does, and metals are not always a significant danger for dyers. Furthermore, there are many dyes which are quite dangerous to use, in spite of their being free of heavy metals, such as some of the Naphthol dyes; I’m sure that the Greener Shades dyes are much safer to use than the more dangerous of the Naphthol dyes, but the fact that they are metal-free is irrelevant with respect to the many dangerous organic chemicals that exist. We need Greener Shades to supply more proof of the safety of their dyes, before we can have any reason to believe their claim that their dyes are safer.

There is one group of acid dyes that are probably safer than other acid dyes, which are the food coloring dyes. Unlike (as far as we can tell from the information they supply) the Greener Shades dyes, food coloring dyes have been proven to be quite safe to work with, because they have been tested for being reasonably safe even when eaten (though I confess to feeling that people should not eat them often, and certainly never in the quantities found in a confection called Red Velvet cake). See my page, “Using Food Coloring as a Textile Dye for Protein Fibers“.

You can browse the Internet Archive’s copy of the Dye Forum at their website at


You are also always welcome to ask me to help track down any information I can find.

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