Using Colour

An article by Mary Dayton

Recycling and Pointillism

Our work with textiles can be more exciting if we aim to blend small quantities of many shades and tints of closely related colours rather than use large areas of a single hue. Using of recycled materials and scraps will encourage this way of working – the eye will mix colours for you. The impressionist painters led the way with this approach.


Need for contrast

Choice of colour is very personal and you will probably find that your own discarded clothing will reflect your preferred palette. We tend to accumulate many items in the mid-value tones and have to make a conscious effort to collect the very light and dark fabrics that bring our work to life. Plenty of contrast is needed if designs are to read clearly from any distance.

New life by dyeing

We often have fabrics in our stash that we cannot imagine ever using but that are too good to throw away. Here over-dying can give them a new lease of life. It is possible to produce a large quantity of colour coordinated fabric suitable for say, a lively background. Put several, not quite matching, fabrics into the same dye pot to achieve a mixture that suggests you have spent many hours searching and collecting. Small quantities can be produced by heat setting dyes using yoghurt pots and an old microwave oven (kept for this purpose).

Wool is easy to dye

Wool is probably the most versatile material for floor rugs and felted jumpers are a favourite material. These can be dyed using acid dyes that usually come with their own mordants. Stock solutions can be made up that keep well

Give It A Go

Rag Art really encourages students to try dyeing their own fabrics. It is much easier than you think. The natural dyes are quite beautiful and somehow all seem to work well together. Start with onion skins for a range of yellows then look at some of the good books now added to our web site or that can be ordered from the library.

Natural Dyes ARE Wonderful

I really love the natural dyes which seem to have a lustre all of their own. However, I have to accept that dying is a skilled craft in its own right. It requires an investment of considerable time, knowledge and willingness to experiment to become accomplished. The colours from natural dyes are the result of many factors acting together. The time of year and conditions under which material is collected; temperature; ph of water (how acid or alkaline it is), mordant used, material being dyed etc. I am always pleased when I make the effort, but with natural dyes it is quite difficult to get the same results on another day so I have to admit to cheating, more than a little, for some acceptable and quicker results.

Commercial, Acid Dyes

Wool is my favourite material, whether it is in the form of yarn, knitted garments, woven fabric or even unspun fleece. It accepts acid dyes very easily to give deep, rich, colour. The simplest are now available with mordants included so that you can avoid the step of having to use chemicals to prepare your materials to accept the dye. This makes it very easy to apply colour in a variety of ways (a simple paint brush will suffice) and there are more easy ways to heat set this colour.

Also, Dye Silk and Old Tights

The same acid dyes will also dye silk, other protein fibres and nylon fabrics. (Try it on your old tights – you can remove most of the existing colour by simply boiling them with a little soap powder). If you over-dye greys, beiges and other dull fabrics you will get exciting, but slightly, muted new colours.

Safety First

You must heed a few safety precautions but mixing the dye from its powder form into a liquid stock solution is probably the most 'tricky' part. If you do this out of doors or in a well ventilated room you should not experience any problems. It is sensible to work carefully – don't 'chuck' the powder into a container causing dust to fly around as this could be an irritant to some people. Once you have your liquid dye, colours can be mixed like paint to give an almost infinite range. Staining your hands or floor is the biggest hazard. Clear your work area, keep special tools and containers just for dying, use rubber gloves, protect work surfaces and the floor and avoid eating, drinking or smoking while working with dyes.

Practice and Play for Success and Confidence

Do make some time, with a friend – this helps. Or, come on a workshop. You will be amazed at what you can achieve and once you can control getting the colours you want you won't need nearly such large collections of fabrics. Of course that is a theoretical idea, as I have yet to meet a textile addict who can avoid accumulating more!

Colour for FREE

Still feeling nervous? Try getting hold of some strong coloured woollen garment say red or royal blue, coating is good for this. Just cut off a sleeve or some part (very scientific!) Put in an old saucepan and cover with water – add some soap powder and bring slowly to the boil. The colour will start to run and you can then add some white or cream wool to collect some of this colour. When this has taken up sufficient dye to give a colour you are happy with add a cup of white vinegar and 'cook' for 15 minutes more. Remove from pan and rinse well. Cake colourings and some children's drinks will also dye some fabrics so there is nothing to be afraid of when using these. Natural dyeing using mordants IS more challenging but the results ARE worth the effort.

New Book

I was really impressed when I visited Eve Lambert in her studio, 'Shilasdair' on the Isle of Skye. Her naturally dyed yarns display the subtle colourings that can be achieved. Her book, co-authored with Tracy Kendall is generous in sharing their wide expertise. This new book by Search Press is excellent value at £12.99. It is full of hints, tips and illustrations that are well worth reading. Even if you intend to simplify some of the processes you will have your eyes opened to the exciting world of colour.


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