Yes, more dyeing tutorials! We just can’t get enough (if you haven’t yet, check out our past posts on tub dyeing with fiber reactive dyes, basics of natural dyeing and dyeing with avocados). Today’s tutorial is likely our most requested, ever since we featured a gorgeous ice-dyed rayon for one of our Elodie Wrap dress samples. I made this custom fabric when I stayed at a friend’s country house over the summer. I set up a mad scientist laboratory in her backyard; her 85-year-old neighbor thought I had lost my mind, running around wearing rubber gloves and sprinkling mysterious powders on piles of ice in the summer sun. Ah, the joys of being a maker!
Ice dyeing is an extremely easy and extremely satisfying dyeing project. The first time I encountered it was when dear Nicole sent me the handmade fabric I used to make this dress. Ice dyeing has the same unpredictable, slightly psychedelic look of tie-dye, but in my opinion looks a bit more chic than your standard Deadhead starburst.
So, what exactly is ice dyeing? Simply put, you pile ice on fabric and then sprinkle fiber reactive dye powder over it. As the ice melts, it pulls the dye down through the fabric, creating beautiful patterns and gradations. What makes this process so special is the way the dye “breaks” or splits as it comes into contact with the ice. As you may know, commercial dyes are rarely made from one solid extract. Rather, they are blended and mixed with other colours; when everything is dissolved in water (like in our tub dyeing tutorial) the colour becomes solid. However, when you sprinkle it on ice, the different extracts aren’t able to blend, so you can get some really interesting effects. It’s a bit unpredictable (feels a bit like magical fabric alchemy, to be honest) but a big part of the fun is unfurling your yardage after it’s had time to cure and revealing just exactly you’ve created. Here’s what you’ll need to get started:
Ice Dyeing Supplies
- Fiber reactive Procion dye in one or more colours (the best range of colours can be found at Dharma Trading, or check this post for a more detailed supplier list). For our Elodie sample I used mist grey, plum blossom and wisteria. For the fabric immediately below, I used celadon and wedgewood.
- A wide, deep container. My preference is for the disposable aluminum roasting trays you can find at the dollar store.
- A screen or rack to put your fabric on. It should be a bit bigger than the container above, so your fabric isn’t sitting in a puddle of dye water as the ice melts. I found a cooling rack for baking at the dollar store that was just slightly bigger than the aluminum tray – perfect! You can also use a strainer over a bowl, provided there is enough space between strainer and the bottom of bowl. Just a reminder that whatever equipment you use should be used for dyeing exclusively!
- Fabric or clothing to dye. Keep in mind that the bigger the piece of fabric, the bigger the container and rack you’ll need. Anything more than 4 yards might be tricky to handle – I was able to dye 5 yards of rayon challis but only because it was fairly lightweight and compressible. Dharma Trading has a wide range of dyeable fabrics, including rayon, silk and linen.
- Soda ash. This will be use as a mordant/fixer on fabric before applying the dye, ensuring brighter and more lasting colours.
- Ice. I prefer using the smaller cubed ice you can buy in a bag rather than the big blocky ice you make with ice trays. Somewhat craggy and crushed is ideal.
- Disposable spoons for applying the dye. I reuse mine, just be sure you are not using spoons for food – dye and food utensils separate always!!
- Mild laundry detergent or a scouring cleanser used specifically for dyeing (we recommend Synthrapol or Dharma Professional Textile Detergent)
- Plastic sheets to tarps to protect your worspace
- A face mask to protect your lungs
- Rubber gloves
- A large bucket or pot to soak your fabric in a soda ash solution beforehand
CHOOSING YOUR DYE
The biggest decision to make with an ice dyeing project is the colours you want to work with. One thing you should keep in mind is that it will be applied in a fairly deep, saturated way- a dye that creates a light grey or beige solid hue when tub dyeing will look completely different when applied with ice. The dye will split and you’ll likely see more intense or vibrant shades than you are expecting. This is why testing is KEY; before you go to town on your final garment or big piece of fabric, take the time to experiment with scraps first to make sure you like the way the dye breaks.
While you may be tempted to experiment with a variety of colours, I’d also encourage you to try single colours – since the dye breaks, with multiple dyes you may end up creating something a lot more multicolored than you have in mind. Also, fiber reactive dye is very cheap (a 2oz jar is more than enough and is less than $3) so my advice is to purchase a range so you can test them out and see what you prefer. To give you an idea of the range of effects from a single dye, I tested a bunch from my collection. Here are my results (all dyes are from Dharma):
As you can see, a single colour can break into multiple, unexpected hues! This is the fun of ice dyeing. Keep in mind that you can get less “dense” results by using less dye. In most of these test cases I sprinkled quite a bit of dye, but you can’t pretty results by using a lighter hand.
To give you an idea of what it looks like when you use multiple colours, here are a few I experimented with:
Once you’ve figured out your dyes, it’s time to get to work!
First, start by washing your garment or fabric. As we’ve repeatedly stressed, just because your fabric looks clean doesn’t mean it doesn’t have skin oils or chemicals left over from the manufacturing process that will impact dye adhesion and colorfastness. Wash with one of the professional textile detergents above, or a mild regular detergent if that’s all you have.
Next, soak your fabric in a soda ash solution for a minimum of 15 minutes. This helps “fix” the dye you’re about to apply – do not skip this step! As a general ratio, mix 1 cup of soda ash in one gallon of warm water. You can reuse your soda ash solution so it’s best to use a container with a lid.
While wearing rubber gloves, squeeze out the excess soda ash solution.
3. Prepare your workstation
If you’re not able to do this outside, make sure you thoroughly prepare your workstation. Use garbage bags or a drop sheet to protect your surfaces. We’ll be using highly concentrated dye powder which will stain anything it comes into contact with.
Next, prep your containers. Make sure that the grill or rack for your fabric is sturdy on the container – it’s really important that the fabric doesn’t touch the muddy dye water runoff.
In order to get the beautiful random, tie-dye effect of ice dyeing, you have to scrunch and twist your fabric while it’s still wet. This will create nooks and crannies for your dye to seep into. In the image below, I had 5 yards of rayon to squeeze onto the rack. I alternately twisted areas into a rope, and then scrunched others to get a random effect overall. Have fun and see what kind of effects you can achieve!
5. Ice & Dye
Now it’s the fun part! Pile your ice on top of your fabric. Try to cover as much of the fabric as possible in an even layer. Once the fabric is coated with ice, use a plastic spoon and sprinkle the dye powder over the ice (you must wear a mask during this step to protect your lungs!) You can do a fairly even coating, or break it up with more powder in some areas than others. If you have a very big piece of fabric I would use a lot of dye pretty evenly across the surface – this ensures the dye will seep in through most of the fabric.
Below you can see how the ice looks at the beginning and what happens as the ice starts to melt. Don’t be too alarmed if the colours look very strong or vibrant; I was worried I had ruined my fabric when I saw those deep pinks and purples but once it was rinsed and dried you could see the transformation into something really special.
6. Cure & Wash
While you may be super excited to check your fabric once the ice has melted, it’s really important to let it sit out overnight. Because the fabric is wet, the dye will continue to activate and spread even after the ice has melted. You can just leave it on the rack; make sure you give it a good 18-24 hours to marinate in its juices.
Once the time is up, rinse the fabric thoroughly with cold water. Once the water runs clear, wash it with textile detergent in the washing machine to prevent future bleeding and remove any lingering dye.
It is that simple! I encourage you to go forth and experiment with this technique – it’s a lovely way to really personalize your garment from start to finish, and it also makes a WONDERFUL activity to do at home with kids.
Have you experimented with ice dying? How did it go?