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by John Marshall

white fabric flat weave-.jpg

There is an expression in Japanese, mezamasu (lit. “to open something’s eyes”), which means to bring an object to life – such as sanding a piece of driftwood to bring out its hidden colors and grain. This also applies to treating fabric to bring out its luster and character.


Not only is it important to keep in mind the materials to be used in dyeing, but also the function and purpose of the fabric. Choosing the right fabric – the right texture and weave as well as fiber – will greatly enhance your finished piece. In traditional Japanese dyeing, coarse fabrics are sometimes chosen to lend a more rustic look to a bold design and jacquards are greatly admired for the complexity of light refraction they can add to subtly shaded pieces.


Fabric with a slightly open weave is easier to dye since the open weave allows for better penetration of the paste and color. With the methods outlined on this site, silks, cottons, and linens give the most pleasing results but wools and other natural fibers may also be coaxed into cooperation.


Natural fibers may be classified into two general categories: animal, including fur/hair (wool, angora) as well exuded filaments (silk) and plant fibers, including flowers (cotton) and bast fibers (all linens). The animal fibers are protein base, the plant fibers are cellulose base. Within many dye traditions the dyes used for the protein fibers and those prepared for the cellulose fibers are quite different. This is especially true with synthetic dyes.


My methods do not require you to make this distinction. The recipes and application methods presented here are the same for both categories of fiber. I pre-size all yardage with soy protein which binds equally well to animal and plant fibers. This soy sizing absorbs a great deal of the color and is the secret of this whole process, allowing for even, rich coverage.


Sizing starches used in yarn processing before the fabric is woven and various oils found naturally in the fibers may cause uneven dyeing, splotches, and sometimes even horrendous stains if they react with the dyes or prevent the dyes from actually reaching the fiber. Therefore it is important to remove any residue before dyeing may successfully begin. This is called scouring the fabric.


Any book on natural dyeing will give directions for how to scour your fabric. Sometimes this involves simmering it is a huge cauldron over a flame for an extended period of time.  I prefer to toss my fabric into the washing machine on regular cycle with the hottest water available. Use whatever detergent you use for your own laundry. Rinse the fabric thoroughly. You may throw it in the dryer to dry–just be sure to take it out while it is still ever so slightly damp.


Throwing the fabric in the dryer will help to fluff up the fiber and give your weave  the maximum surface exposure to receive the dye. Do not iron, even if the fabric becomes wrinkled.

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