Dyeing with Fiber Reactive Dyes in an Earth Friendly Manner

Dyeing with Fiber Reactive Dyes in an Earth Friendly Manner

I love dyeing with Procion-MX Fiber Reactive dyes, they allow me to create fabric that is just the color and visual texture that I need for each of my textile art projects. I am always inspired by the flora and fauna that surround me, so I am always trying to impact the earth as little as possible. I’ve researched and developed methods of using these dyes that impact our planet as little as possible, and  wanted to provide my fellow color lovers with a few tips on using Procion MX Fiber Reactive dyes in an earth friendly manner.

Dyeing with Procion MX dyes requires very little:

  • Dye
  • Soda Ash (Sodium Carbonate)
  • Salt (this is optional and unnecessary for the low water immersion dyeing I do)
  • Water
  • Warmth
  • Time

Dye

First of all, using Procion MX dyes are earthy friendly because we need so little dye to create rich, vibrant colors that are light- and wash-fast, so that once we’ve colored our cloth, whatever we make with it will stay beautiful for years and years. In contrast; if you were to color cloth with natural dyes, which are pigments produced by plants (for the most part), you would need a lot more of the dyestuff to get any color, which would require a lot more land cultivation than the world has room for. Natural dyes also require a mordant to link their pigments to your fabric, most of the mordants include heavy metals that should only be used by trained professionals, and even then they need to be really careful in the handling and disposal of the waste products. (Alum is the exception to those mordants, it is safer to use and easier to dispose of, but still requires care in handling)

This doesn’t mean that there’s no hazard at all in using Procion MX dyes. In its powder form, care must be taken to not inhale it, as the dust can cause irritation, and over time people can develop allergies/asthma from this. Luckily this is easily prevented by wearing a dust mask or respirator during the short time when the container of dye powder is open, as soon as you mix it with water the concern for airborne particles is eliminated. Also, as there have never been tests done on how safe Procion MX is to eat, you should never return tools from your dye studio to your kitchen!

In powder form, if these dyes are stored in a temperature controlled environment, they can last for years, if not decades, so you don’t have to worry about using them up before a certain date. Extreme heat, cold, or humidity can affect their shelf life, so don’t leave them out in your garage; I store mine in a sealed plastic tub in my laundry room. And although you can find these dyes in “big box” craft stores, you don’t know if they have been stored properly there, so I always recommend mail ordering your dyes from a reputable online dye source. The 2 major ones in the U.S. are Dharma Trading and Pro Chemical and Dye.

Procion MX dyes are easily broken down into harmless molecules by microbes in our wastewater treatment plants and/or in our soil, so there’s no build up in toxic wastes that need to be stored or disposed of in a special way.

Soda Ash and Salt

Soda Ash is found in laundry detergents; the amount that we use for dyeing is minimal and has no effect on wastewater treatment.

Some methods of dyeing with Procion MX also require salt, sometimes rather large quantities. This is still easily handled by waste water treatment, but if you have a septic system, you’d need to ask for help figuring out how much salt the microbes in your tank could handle on a particular day.

Water

Honestly, the toughest thing on the earth when we dye is the amount of water we use. I dye using low water immersion, so the water I use there is minimal, but washing out all the un-reacted dye particles at the end can take a lot of water, and safe, clean water is a precious resource. In order to minimize my use of water, I do most of my washing in buckets on my patio, and I substitute time for amount of water. Basically, getting those undyed particles out of the fiber requires energy: if you need the fabric quickly, this usually means a multiple cycles using hot water in your washing machine; the agitation and heat knock the dye particles out of the fiber. 

However, letting the fabric sit in cool water for longer amounts of time will allow the undyed particles to diffuse out of the fiber as well, so after a quick rinse under running water to get the soda ash out of the fabric, I soak them in dishpans and cold water. I usually do this twice, starting my washout just before dinner time and changing the rinse water before bed. I soak similar colors together, I can usually fit 2-3 yards in a dishpan. The exception to this is yellow, which is so light in value that it can be affected by miniscule amounts of other dye colors in the first rinse, so I rinse the separately in the beginning. (rinsing out picture) I then transfer the fabrics into my washing machine and fill it up with hot water and stop it, using the washing machine as a big hot water rinse bucket. Often times the water is clear after several hours of soaking, if it’s not I drain and repeat the hot water soak, this second soak usually shows that all the dye is gone, which means that those particles won’t move around and perhaps bleed when I’m washing the quilt I made with those fabrics later on!

Another Earth friendly technique is to always use your best skills: the better made something is the long it can be used and therefor it doesn’t get thrown away and replaced with something else that has to be made!

Warmth & Time

The chemical reaction that occurs when we dye fabric also requires heat energy and time; the warmer the dyeing fabric is, the less time that it takes for the fabric to dye. I am lucky that so much of the year it is so warm in my Southern California backyard that a couple hours is all that is needed for that reaction to run its course. Folks in cooler climates often add heat by steaming or microwaving their fabrics, using energy that has to be produced in some way that may harm the environment to a greater or lesser extent. But you can also just wait! In the winter, I just let my fabrics batch for a full 24 hours and the fabric I dye then is just as vibrant as the fabric I batch for 2 hours when it’s 105oF.

I hope you’ve learned something about Procion MX Fiber reactive dyes, and how they fit into an earth conscious lifestyle. I have a series of online classes that can teach you all sorts of dyeing techniques that incorporate these earth friendly techniques, click here to learn more about them. I hope you try dyeing with it, the joy that comes from working with fabric you’ve dyed yourself is incredibly fulfilling!

4 Responses to Dyeing with Fiber Reactive Dyes in an Earth Friendly Manner

  1. Thanks for this article! I have been interested in natural dyeing recently, but the more I learned, the more discouraged I was getting in terms of the mordants and such. I think I will stick to what I have tried with Procion and incorporate your earth friendly tips!

    • I’m glad this resonates with you Laura! We dyers need to do what we must to ensure that the dyes are being made for us in the safest way possible!

  2. Thank you for this – an excellent explanation Candy. The natural dyeing craze has been around here in New Zealand for the past few years, and one of my concerns is how stable the products are. If you are selling your artwork (or if it comes to that, just putting huge effort into making it) surely there is a responsibility to make certain it is going to last – indeed, be “fit for purpose”. The most ridiculous example I can recall is a person who was given a scholarship to study natural dyeing and, as part of her (very impressive) display, she showed a pretty little size000 woollen singlet which had a viola flower stamped on to it. Problem …. it was not washable!!

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