Dying Fabric in Jelly Jars

I needed some new yellows for my next quilt art project, so I pulled out my notes to do some fabric dying in jelly jars–which I haven’t done for a few years.  I had a dye “kit” that I’d purchased from PRO Chemical & Dyes at a Quilt Expo.  It was similar to a “gradation kit”, and I think mine was “Earthy Blend”:

  • 10 gm PRO MX Mustard Yellow
  • 10 gm PRO MX Bordeaux
  • 10 gm PRO MX Deep Navy
  • 1 oz Synthrapol
  • 1 oz Soften-It

I already had the Urea, Salt (Kosher), Soda Ash in my stash of dying goodies.

I first learned this process from an article published in the Fall 1995 “American Quilter” magazine by Vimala McClure entitled “Pack a Peck of Pickled Pieces”.  I’ve put my own “twist” into it (made a several changes), but I give her full credit for the idea–and (although I haven’t seen it) suggest you consider purchasing her new book.  If you want to give this a try, you can purchase supplies online through Dharma Trading Company or PRO Chemical & Dye or your local quilt store might have them.  Be sure to read their safety directions and precautions carefully.

Process for Jelly Jar Dying

Fabric:  You’ll need 30 “fat eights” of 100% cotton fabric (just cut yardage into 9″ strips, and cut them in half to make approx. 9×11″ pieces).  You can purchase PFD (prepared for dying) fabric from your local quilt store or online, or if you want to use 100% cotton muslin from your stash) you’ll need to wash it in hot water with a little Synthrapol to prepare it to accept the dye.

Fabric Ready

Preparing the fabric with Soda Ash:  Create a soda ash solution by mixing 1 gallon of warm water with 1/2 cup of soda ash (or dye activator).  I mixed mine in a rinsed-out gallon milk jug–just use a funnel to get the soda ash in, add the cap, and shake to dissolve it.  Pour the soda ash solution into a small pail and submerge all your fat eighths of fabric into it — push the fabric down with a wooden spoon or stick so they’re completely submerged.  Let the fabric soak in this solution for 15-30 minutes.  (Note that the Soda Ash solution isn’t dangerous, but I wear rubber gloves because it can be irritating to your hands.)  After soaking, put on your gloves again and take out each fat eight from the solution, squeeze the solution out so it’s only damp, and line up your little balls of scrunched fabric in a dish pan or other water proof tray so they’re ready to go. (You can save the soda ash solution to use again by pouring it back into the jug.  I’m not sure how exactly when it is not longer useable, but it will be re-usable for at least a couple of weeks.)

I used a pail I someones use to pain (please excuse the dried on paint)

I used a pail I someones use to pain (please excuse the dried on paint)

Preparing the Chem Water:  Mix thoroughly in another gallon jug

  • 1 gallon warm water
  • 3 cups urea
  • 4 tsp. Calgon water softener (optional)

Pour some of the Chem water into three large glass jars (quart size works fine)–about a cup or so in each one.

NOTE:  I should say right up front that all the utensils, jars, measuring spoons, etc., that I use for fabric dying are dedicated ONLY for dying and are never again used in my kitchen!!

Preparing the Dye:  Now is the part you need to  use the most caution.  ProMX Reactive Dye (Procion) comes in a  very fine powder form (much like baby powder).  The moment it touches any moist surface it turns into a concentrated dye color.  So be sure you’re working in an area that’s completely covered and wear old clothes.  I do mine in our basement washroom, where I don’t care if it gets on the old cement or table.  Also, you can imagine what it would do to your lungs and inside of your nose if you were to breathe it in while in the powder form…  So as a precaution, WEAR RUBBER GLOVES (so you won’t have dyed hands), AND A FACE MASK — at least while mixing the powder into the chem water.  You might even want to wear protective eye covering.  This is the only time you’ll need the extra precautions on your face.

I used the 3 packets of dye that I got in my kit (or you would measure what you need from a jar of dye) and carefully mix it into each of the water-filled jars, one at a time.  Use a plastic spoon or other utensil you can throw away or easily rinse off to gently stir (you don’t want to kick up a dust cloud of dye!).  Then fill up the jars with the rest of the chem water (you may have some water left over, that’s OK).

Once the powdery dye is thoroughly mixed and you’ve replaced the covers back on the Procion jars (or disposed the plastic bags if you have the kit) the dye is no longer a problem and you can take off your mask and eye wear–but keep your gloves on.

You’ll have 3 quart jars:  A, B, & C.  These can be any colors you choose, mine were A=Mustard Yellow, B=Navy Blue, C=Bordeaux. In the photo below, I’m just starting to mix them in–after mixing I’d fill them to the top (it’s hard taking photos & dying fabric at the same time!!)  😉


Prepare the Jelly Jars:

Line up your glass jelly jars (lids off).  For the kit I was supposed to use 30 jars, but I ran out — no problem, I also used different size jars and plastic zip-lock bags. Anything waterproof with a lid will probably work.  I placed them all in a water proof tray, just in case some of the dye might leak out.  Put 1 tsp of salt into each off the jars.  Later, after we add our “recipe” of dye, be sure to stir to dissolve the salt.

Now the tedious part! Mixing the dyes–measuring them into the jars:

The Dye Recipe:  You need to use some kind of consistent method to measure and mix the dyes together in the jars to create 30 different colors of fat-eight fabric!  So exciting…

Here’s the chart I used from my purchased PRO Chemical Dye kit:

Jar #1 5 Tbsp 0 0
#2 4-1/2 T 1/2 T 0
#3 4 T 1 T 0
#4 3-1/2 T 1-1/2 T 0
#5 3 T 2 T 0
#6 2-1/2 T 2-1/2 T 0
#7 2 T 3 T 0
#8 1-1/2 T 3-1/2 T 0
#9 1 T 4 T 0
#10 1/2 T 4-1/5 T 0
#11 0 5 T 0
#12 0 4-1/2 T 1-2 T
#13 0 4 T 1 T
#14 0 3-1/2 T 1-1/2 T
#15 0 3 T 2 T
#16 0 2-1/2 T 2-1/2 T
#17 0 2 T 3 T
#18 0 1-1/2 T 3-1/2 T
#19 0 1 T 4 T
#20 0 1/2 T 4-1/2 T
#21 0 0 5 T
#22 1/2 T 0 4-1/2 T
#23 1 T 0 4 T
#24 1-1/2 T 0 3-1/2 T
#25 2 T 0 3 T
#26 2-1/2 T 0 2-1/2 T
#27 3 T 0 2 T
#28 3-1/2 T 0 1-1/2 T
#29 4 T 0 1 T
#30 4-1/2 T 0 1/2 T

Using measuring spoons (used only for dying) I measured 5 Tablespoons of Mustard Yellow from Jar A into jelly jar #1.  Then 4-1/2 Tbsp into jar #2, etc. Make sense? (Be sure to rinse your measuring spoons, etc., in-between colors–the dye is very concentrated and can “contaminate” your next color.)

Next, I went down the chart using JAR B (navy blue) and  put nothing in jar #1,  measured 1/2 Tbsp into jar #2, etc.

Finally–following the chart carefully, I measured the dye from JAR C into each container.

You’ll notice that there will be 5 Tablespoons of dye in each container (they all add up).  Be sure to dissolve the salt by stirring each jar–use a fresh plastic spoon or rinse between every few jars so you don’t contaminate colors from one jar to the next.

Now the FUN part!  Adding the fabric.

Keeping your gloves on, take one of the scrunched up damp fat eights and carefully push it into the first jelly jar so it soaks up the dye.  Screw on the lid fairly tightly and turn it upside-down.  Continue doing this for all 30 jars.

For the next two hours you’ll come back, put on your gloves, and turn the jars every 20 minutes or so.  So put in a DVD and set your timer.  After 20 minutes, go down and give each jar a little shake (to help the dye be absorbed) and turn them over.  Twenty-minutes later, go down and do it again.  Repeat until the 2 hours is up.

Submerge JJ

After that, is the HARDEST part:  Waiting:

Now the fabric has to “pickle” or cure.  So leave it alone for at least 24 hours (if the timing is inconvenient for you–don’t worry; you can let them sit up to 2 weeks.  (But I could never wait that long!).

I ran out of the smaller jars, so used other sizes I had on hand as well as zip lock bags.  Anything works, even washed out yogurt containers.

I ran out of the smaller jars, so used other sizes I had on hand as well as zip lock bags. Anything water tight will work…but never use the container again for anything but dying!

The reveal…to be continued…come back in 24 hours…