I’m often asked whether I can guarantee that my hand-dyed threads are colourfast.

hand-dyed silk thread

The short answer is: no, I can’t. Domestic dyeing is different from commercial dyeing and the results can never be guaranteed.

The longer answer is: with due caution they probably are, if you’re careful – by which I mean (obviously, I hope) no boil washing and no bleach. A gentle warm hand wash will *probably* be fine, but no promises.

I dye my threads with Procion fibre-reactive dye, and after dyeing I wash them in the machine, on a mixed load setting, at 30 degrees with regular laundry detergent. I don’t use Synthrapol, and I don’t use a hot wash. Silk threads are delicate, and agitating them at temperatures over 30 degrees could be damaging. I set the machine to do an extra rinse after the standard mixed load wash.

Incidentally, people sometimes express disappointment that the threads aren’t dyed ‘naturally’. The reason I use Procion over natural dyeing is that Procion is quick, easy, reliable, and doesn’t require additional energy resources, as in simmering or steaming, to set the colour. I don’t own a microwave, and at today’s gas and electric prices, I’m not willing to simmer/steam several pans of thread for an hour each time – as well as the environmental impact of using additional energy for heating. All dyeing takes energy and resources, as does all textile production, but if I can keep the energy use to a minimum I’d prefer that. Many people do great things with natural dyes; I’m afraid I’m not one of them.

hand-dyed threads, two similar samples

Anyway: back to the Procion, and I did a little experiment of my own.

various hand-dyed threads before and after washing

I made two (awfully rough) stitched samples with various silk and cotton threads, all hand-dyed with Procion, on white brushed cotton. I soaked the lower sample (in the above photo) in hand-hot water with regular laundry detergent for half an hour, and then rinsed it in hot water. I can’t see any noticeable colour escape. I don’t know whether water quality affects colourfastness – the water in our area is very hard indeed. Soft water might make a difference.

hand-dyed DMC 6-strand floss

And exactly the same process above, with this DMC cotton floss. I’ve listed a few of these in the shop, just to see how they go – as usual, unique and unrepeatable colours, but I’ll hope to make some more soon. Ish.

I did expect some trouble with the magenta sections of this space-dyed thread (above), but no – not as far as I can tell. Red and magenta are notorious for leaching colour, and which of us has never accidentally dyed a load of washing pink because of an errant red sock?

So there we are. I still don’t guarantee colourfastness, and if you really need to wash something that is stitched with my hand-dyed thread, then I would advise testing it first. Mostly my threads are intended for purely decorative work, which will rarely, if ever, need washing.

New: DMC 6-strand cotton floss

And if you have washed anything that I’ve supplied, I’d be interested to know how that went.

Author: Karen

Textile and mixed media artist

13 thoughts on “Colourfast”

  1. To your very thorough explication I would add the caution that any color will be adversely affected by exposure to sunlight … I had a naturally dyed wool pincushion made in the 1980s that held its color beautifully whilst living in a drawer … over the past ten years it has been exposed to sunlight coming through the window and the colors have faded significantly

    And while I love natural dye colors, I discovered that I’m extremely allergic to working with many of them … the colors also tend to be very fugitive unless you’re a whiz at following directions for scouring, measuring, and mordanting … the last involving chemicals, some of which are quite toxic

    As for Procion, I’m a fan as I have purchased more than one hundred 10-yard skeins from a US dyer over the past several years … I believe her process is similar to yours and I’ve had very little trouble (the exceptions being some fuschia threads that ran a bit and a pair of pants mended with dyed thread that faded after being laundered dozens of times)

    All that by way of saying that I salute you for the beautiful threads you are creating, in a great variety of weights and textures no less …

    1. Ah, lightfastness is a whole other can of worms. I’ve got a piece of patchwork on the wall in my workroom that has only been up about 18 months and it’s faded a surprising amount.
      And yes, some natural dye mordants can be hazardous, and as you say, the colours can be unreliable and/or fugitive. Too much guesswork for me. Although Procion always seems to yield surprises every time too.
      I’m still testing the waters with thread types, just to see what people like best. Personally I prefer finer threads but a lot of folk like the chunkier perle 3 and 5. Whether I keep going with everything is up for debate. I may slim down the range at some point if it all gets a bit too hectic.

  2. Thank you for this post, I sure hope it answers questions to those inquiring. Your threads are wonderful no matter how your dye them. I have done natural dyeing in the past and it is quite time consuming to say the least, results are always iffy so I prefer commercial dyes. I have also purchased brand named floss stamped as colorfast and it has bled through in the wash, and also just while stitching.

    1. Wow, I’m surprised that commercial dyes can still leach colour. And yes, natural dyeing always looks beautiful when you see the subtle colours that are produced but as you say, a lot of effort and energy.

  3. Thank you for the explanation. If I use any thread that is in the red/magenta or blue—on clothing as embellishment–I use a Color Catcher in the water. That works quite well. I don’t know if you have that product in the UK. It looks like a dryer sheet–but catches any fugitive color in the water.

    1. Thanks, Janet. Yes, we have colour catchers here; I’ve used them a few times but not recently. The used ones take fabric paints really well so you can use them in mixed media work later. Just saying 🙂

  4. I love your experiments! Thanks so much for such a cogent answer!
    Whenever I am in doubt about threads I wash gently and use a Color Catcher sheet for extra insurance. They work great! That is what they are called in the States…not sure about elsewhere in our wonderful stitchery world.

    1. Thanks so much, Marie. Yes, we have colour catchers here in the UK too, and thank goodness – they can be very useful.

  5. I don’t understand why someone would be disappointed in you not using natural. If they want naturally dyed, move on and find some elsewhere. Honestly.
    I do tend to damp stretch everything I make, anything from a full wash, spray or just a damp towel underneath, and I’ve only had trouble with reds. I think they weren’t yours but it’s hard to say as I have so many even from the early early days. Even commercial reds, since the Dawn of time, can be the dodgy ones though.

    1. Yes, it’s usually the reds isn’t it? I’ve definitely known commercially-dyed threads (including some big names) to leach colour and bleed onto fabrics when wet. I think not guaranteeing anything is the way forward.

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