recipe for silk dyes

i’m tired of having to go thru my notes every time i get ready to mix up a batch of silk dyes. so i am going to write down the recipe here so i can just look it up when i need to.  this isn’t my own recipe, but is readily available somewhere on the internet, at dharma trading‘s information page, and paula burchs hand dyeing page, for instance.

first, i’m going to mix up a batch of what is called chemical water, and then i’m going to mix the individual dyes using this water.  i’m making magenta (fuscia), cyan (turquoise), lemon (i think) yellow, and better black.  these are the dharma names for the mx fiber reactive dyes i buy in one pound jars.

otoh, if you’re not into massive prepreparation, you can skip the chemical water step.  burch says “Instead of urea chemical water, I usually just use water with urea added (one tablespoon per cup, or 15 ml per 250 ml), or even just plain water, to dissolve the dye.”

burch: “In order to avoid problems with dissolving dye, first add just a small amount of water (or chemical water with urea etc.) to the dye, and stir it until it forms a smooth paste. Use lukewarm water to dissolve cool water dyes such as Procion MX, as hot water may encourage the dye to hydrolyze (go bad) more quickly than you want. You may add one drop of Synthrapol or hand dishwashing detergent for particularly difficult-to-dissolve colors.”

it should turn out to be a ph of 2.5 to 3.5 mx dyes on silk, just so you know.  you’ll want to test the chemical water, not the pots of dye.  i actually have ph test strips because of our family’s papermaking efforts.  i also have a food thermometer, but that doesn’t mean i use it.  which might be why my results always vary.

i’ve seen recipes for this water by the quart, using 3/4c of urea or 9 tbl (100 g), which i don’t know whether they’re equivalent or make a range, but here’s per cup, from prochem:
¾ cup (188 ml) warm 120 F (49 C) water
5 tsp (20 gm) Urea
1 tsp (6 gm) Citric Acid Crystals
¼ tsp (1.25ml) Synthrapol (detergent)
Water to equal one cup (250ml)

so that’s a quart of chemical water, or 4 cups. 20 txp urea, or 6 tbl, 4 tsp citric acid, or heaping tablespoon, tsp synthrapol, quart water.

i have 4 pint sized mason jars (actually 12 oz jars), and the mixed up silk dye corrodes the metal tops, so i have to keep replacing them.  can’t use them for food after using them for dyes, anyway.

i like my dyes as strong as possible, just because it’s easier to dilute them, and that means 2-4 tsp of dye per cup of chemical water.  i put the dye powder (measuring spoons i use only for dyeing) into a glass 2-cup measure (which you can use your glass utensils for food and dye, as long as the water runs clear and the glass isn’t nicked).  i add some salt, not necessarily because it helps make the colors brighter, but because it makes the dye easier to dissolve, as the salt rubs against it as i paste it up.  i add a little bit of lukewarm water and make a paste out of it, trying not to breathe in the dust.  a little more water prevents this.  when there are no lumps, which takes a bit, i add more water, and more, until i have a cup of chemical water and salty dye. (tho burch says salt makes the dye harder to dissolve in water…note:  word.)

based on my experience, i’ll use a full tablespoon of yellow and red, 2 full tablespoons (by full i mean heaping) of blue, and 3 or 4 tablespoons full of black, which i don’t use a lot of, and am sort of terrified of making too strong, even tho the dye sites all insist that you need twice as much blue as the other colors, and twice as much black as blue.  i lack the strength of will, and i can’t stand wasting thing,s or running out and having to buy more, or spending money.

so, that’s the recipe.  paula burch puts a tablespoon of urea into the cup of dye and never minds the chemical water, and otherwise it’s a quart of chemical stuff to a tablespoon or so of dye powder.  why do i have to keep looking it up?


so, here i am mixing up the dyes.  the big bowl in the middle has got a quart (well, maybe more) of water, urea, citric acid, and salt in it.  only the tiniest bit didn’t dissolve, so i was careful not to pour it into the dye bottles.

i have mixed up the yellow (2 heaping tbs) and the red (2 heaping tbs), and now i’ve got the blue (4 heaping tablespoons) pasting up in the 2-cup measure.  i’m adding urea water from the 1/4 cup measure, a little at a time, and smoothing all the lumps out with the back of the spoon.  then i’ll add 2 more quarter cups, mix them in and pour the lot into an empty jar.  and the last quarter cup will rinse the 2-cup measure, and i’ll pour that into the jar as well.

of course everything gets rinsed until it comes clear between colors.  except that when i cleaned out the jars from the last batch of dyes, i didn’t quite scrub them, and there was a residue of blue left inside the yellow dye jar.  oops.  that will gradually taint the color, so i’m going to be working with blue green eventually.  grrr.  note to self…


here’s the completed batch of dyes.  you’ll notice that the three primary colors have a lot less liquid in them than the black does.  because i measured a cup of chemical water as i mixed each color, but when it came to black, i emptied the dish into the jar.  and it turned out to be a lot more than a cup, so i was forced to mix up two more heaping tablespoons of black into a small amount of the already-mixed dye, and pour it back into the black jar.  ooops.  always measure; note to self.


another good pointer is to have a proper surface to do this on.  a towel you don’t care about.  wax paper, plastic sheeting.  altho the tile itself seems to be impervious to the black dye, the grout is a bit more dramatic looking after i got thru cleaning up after myself.  note to self:  idiot.


my hands are a different story.  some people wear gloves, but i wear dye stains like a badge of honor.  it’ll wear off by tomorrow if i do the dishes after dinner.  but tomorrow i will be starting the third test scarf of the lava in bardabunga volcano, in iceland.  i’ll have a post about that too.


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