My mom, having finished decorating her house long ago, now has a Pinterest board for every room in my house. (As do I. Sometimes these work well together and sometimes they don't.) Her sights have been set on upgrading my kids' rooms, which they did desperately need, so this spring she generously purchased full size beds for my daughter's room, replacing their twin beds...And so started the Duvet Cover Battle of 2020 (in case 2020 needed any additional battles).
It should have been straight forward: you get big new bed, you pick a pretty duvet cover and, boom, we're done. However my 6 year old and I had differing ideas about what made a good duvet cover for her room:
She wanted unicorns or mermaids. I didn't want characters.
She's drawn to the sets that cost a. lot. of. money. I didn't want to spend all that much.
Then...she didn't want a duvet cover at all and I couldn't make her have one and why was I so mean? I entirely disagreed with that.
The 3 year old just wanted "blue"... sadly she lost on all accounts.
As things went very, very south in the duvet debacle I had a brain child like none other: we would paint a cover together and she would love it!
She informed me she would not love it.
I didn't inform her that I had already bought the duvets to dye so she had no choice.
The big day came and I excitedly started to amp her up. My 6 year old is generally level headed and easy going. She gets excited about only a few things: monkey bars, roller skates, bubble gum and baking. She was not going to allow herself to be amped up.
Then I told her she got to use special measuring cups. Measuring cups are her tools of the trade for baking so I had her attention. She wasn't going to admit that it was intriguing to her, but I could see her softening just a bit and I was going to run with it.
About Dyeing with Kids
Here's the thing about dyeing fabric with kids: it's not for the feint of heart. As in: it's a good thing my husband wasn't watching this go down. This was an INCREDIBLY messy project. We will all have pink feet for weeks.
You also need to read the crowd. If your kid can't be trusted to keep things out of their mouth, not resist the temptation to flick a dye-filled paintbrush at their sibling, or generally follow rules and guidelines---- don't take on this project (or at least not one this large).
Other than that it's super fun and, with a little preparation on your part, you can make it easy and safe for them as well!
The Dye: I use Procion Dyes by Dharma Trading Company for this project (in Black Cherry, Fuchsia Red, Amber Waves, and Terracotta). Procion Dyes work with natural fibers like cotton, silk and linen. I chose to dye cotton but they have a ton of great info on their website about dyeing other natural fibers!
Dharma Trading Company has a ton of different colors to choose from. We just selected a few from the dyes I already owned. If you don't want to buy a million you can get some of their primary colors: lemon yellow, fuchsia and turquoise and mix to your heart's content.
Essential Chemicals: Yep, you do need chemicals, but you're going to handle them-- not your kids. You want to pick up some Soda Ash from Dharma Trading when you're buying your dyes. I usually buy the bigger bags but I do a fair amount of dyeing throughout the year. If you're planning on dyeing 2 duvet covers like I did then you want the 1lb bag.
Optional Chemicals: You can also get Urea. I used a little in my dye pots but didn't have enough on hand and I don't think it made much of a difference. You can learn more about Urea from Paula Burch here (she's an excellent source of info if you're new to dyeing).
The Duvet: This was almost the hardest part. Finding a 100% cotton duvet cover was really difficult. Eventually I found it on Amazon (of course). I will say that I loved this cover in it's natural state. It had a perfect crumpled-cotton-I-just-got-home-from-the-beach-and-need-to-take-a-nap kind of look. Then my 3 year old drew all over it with pink marker and I was reminded why white duvet covers weren't going to work.
-Buckets: You need a large enough bucket that you can submerge your fabric. I used the taping style bucket you can buy from a hardware store. Each bucket was perfectly sized for a full size duvet cover and two shams.
-A mixing bucket/jar: I use these (from the Dollar Store). They are only 3 Quarts and it would be better if it was a full gallon, but either way it works.
-Dye containers: I use empty yogurt containers. They're big enough not to tip over, fit a brush and hold enough dye.
-Vinyl Gloves: Get some good ones, not these junky ones I had that ripped almost immediately! Definitely have a pair for yourself because you want to protect your hands when mixing chemicals. It's a good idea to have some for your kids but mine took this as an opportunity to really "be one with the dye" so gloves would have done nothing.
-A Dust Mask: When you're mixing the dye powder you absolutely want to have a mask on and keep your kids away (but more on that later).
-Long spoons: EVERYTHING you use for dye should ONLY be used for dye. I like to pick up a multi pack of long plastic or wood spoons from the Dollar Tree for this. I also write DYE on them in sharpie so nobody mistakes their purpose.
-Measuring Cups: Again, DOLLAR TREE and write dye all over them.
-Measuring Spoons: Same deal
-A large piece of plastic: we used a roll of construction plastic that worked well. If your project is small enough, an opened garbage bag would work too.
-Disposable spoons-- 1 for each dye color
-Paint brushes: We used the inexpensive chip brushes from the hardware store. They will get very, very, very stained so inexpensive is best. We nearly had one for each color.
-Water: Everything mixes best with warm water. We were mixing outside so I used the hose for most of it and did runs with our electric tea kettle to "top" it off.
-A washing machine
I know that it seems like a lot and in the beginning it is. But if you dye multiple times than the measuring tools, mixing buckets, dye buckets and plastic all become part of a set that you have hanging around for when inspiration strikes!
The Chemically Part
1. Scour your duvet (or chosen fabric) by washing it in your machine on the hottest setting the fabric can handle (cotton can handle really hot water). This gets rid of any sizing (similar to a starch) they put on the fabric during manufacturing. You want all of that stuff gone. Plus it makes your duvet super soft.
2. Stuff your fabric into the bucket and get ready to start mixing. This is not a good thing for your young kid to help with so I recommend handling it by yourself. Don those gloves: soda ash is really tough on your skin and can dry you out so gloves are important. Measure out 1 cup of soda ash to every gallon of water. Our goal is to dissolve the soda ash into the water so warm water works best.
Stir, stir, stir until it's dissolved and then pour into the bucket with the fabric. Keep on doing this until your fabric is submerged. It took about 4 gallons of the soda ash water to submerge ours (so 4 cups or 32 oz of soda ash per duvet). Fabric likes to bubble up so keep pushing it down to keep it under water. You want your fabric to soak for about 20 to 30 minutes.
Want to make this a science lesson (you totally should by the way, I use it in my STEAM sewing camps for kids!)? Check out Paula Burch's explanation of how Soda Ash reacts with the dye and the cellulose fibers.
3. While that's soaking you're ready to make your dye pots! I highly recommend you do this without your kids as well. Let them weigh in on the colors for sure, but this is when you need to wear a mask so you don't want them near the dye particles.
If you're using urea: Rinse out the container you used for your soda ash water really well. Add about another 2 quarts of warm water. Add 3/4 cup urea to each cup of water and mix until it dissolves. I was running low so I probably added about 1/4 cup urea to about 8 cups of water. I'm not sure it even does anything at that level so it may not have been necessary. Divide this evenly among 5 yogurt containers.
If you're not using urea: Put approximately 1c warm water in each yogurt container that will hold dye.
Either way: Make sure you have on your mask and begin adding dye. Use a fresh spoon for each dye cup-- even the slightest particle of dye can mess up the color. There is no exact amount of dye you should ad but generally speaking: the more you add, the stronger the color and the less you add the lighter, but this isn't entirely true of all dyes (and there are other things that effect the saturation of the color). Some need a ton to make a saturated color and some much less. I added about a 1/2T to 1T of each dye to it's respective cup of water and my colors were pretty darn saturated. Then mix well. And then mix well again. And again. Those dyes can be tricky so you want them thoroughly mixed. We had 5 total cups of dye (the 4 you saw above plus 1 that was a mixture).
Once the dry dye has been mixed in you can take off the mask and call back the kids. The dangerous part is over and the true mess is about to begin.
And Now We Dye...
1. It should go without saying but this is best done outside. If you have a choice of days, try to pick one that isn't blazing hot. The dye permeates better and makes a more saturated and stable color if it doesn't dry quickly.
2. Spread out your plastic and weigh down the corners. Then pull that sopping mess of a duvet cover (or whatever your fabric of choice is) and try to squeeze a little of the water back into the bucket. We still want it pretty wet to get the colors to smoosh together well, but you can reuse the soda ash water for more projects (see the Dharma Trading website for more info) so you don't want to take it all with you.
3. Stretch out the fabric on the plastic-- be sure that it's right side up! I didn't give any thought to that and one of the duvet covers is technically dyed on the wrong side (you can tell at the bottom of the cover at the zipper). You won't get everything completely smooth and that's okay. The wrinkles will provide a break in dye and adds to the overall effect.
4. Now the most important part: give up any control over this situation that you think you may have. I was dreaming of a balanced white and sherbet toned duvet cover with tasteful stripes and dots and "light patterning" What I got was this:
5. Dye always looks darker when it's first applied but I knew that we weren't landing on "light patterning" so I had to embrace it! Hand the kids those paint brushes and let them go nuts!
The dye will come off their skin eventually with a good scrubbing and they are going to have an absurd amount of fun. (Obviously keep it out of mouths, eyes, nose, ears, etc. Use good common sense. It's also a pain to get off skin so I wouldn't recommend letting them paint each other or themselves with it-- it's just sometimes dye does splatter!) When I do it again I'm going to ask them to wear rain boots. More of the soda ash water ended pooling on the plastic than I expected and while the skin on their feet didn't react to it, I don't like the idea of them stepping in soda ash water!
6. When you all finally decide it's done, then it's time to wrap it up. Start jellyrolling that plastic so that the fabric isn't rolled on itself, but protected between each layer by the plastic. This will keep the fabric from drying out and let the dye do it's chemical reaction stuff.
7. Now we let it sit. This is what we call "batching". You can let it sit for a minimum of 6 hours (more on that in the next step) up to 24. The longer it sits, the longer the dye will have to bind to the cellulose fibers. I highly recommend you watch Jane Dunnewold's The Art of Cloth Dying. She goes into the science of how this all works and it's fascinating!
8. So my plan was to wash it out the next morning, about 18 hours later, until I was putting my daughters to sleep and the 6 year old said "it's going to be light pink right?" WHAT? Did you see what you painted?? So I washed it out at 5 hours instead of 6. I'm not sure it mattered, that dye had done it's work and we had some major color.
My first wash was to spray it with the cold water with the hose right out in the lawn. Sometimes this yields a ton of color tinged water. Not so much in my case this time-- that dye had really bound to the fibers. So I plopped everything into the buckets and brought it up to my washing machine. IF I had wanted to try and fix the color (meaning not have it wash out) I would have added a cup of vinegar to wash. However, I was now trying to get out as much as possible because the 6 year old, who finally agreed to do this project, was apparently dreaming of light pink. I ran the duvets through the "Rinse and Spin Cycle" first and it looked like this:
For the next wash I put in some mild detergent (we use Seventh Generation) and ran it through a hot cycle. Hot water will help the extra dye wash out. After that was done I was confident that all the extra color was released. One way to test it is to dampen a paper towel and rub it on the fabric. If color transfers to the towel you need to give it another rinse. If it doesn't then you're good to go. And of course, when you're done, pop it in the dryer or line dry it.
9. After it was dried, I decided to be sneaky and I went into the girls' room in the middle of the night and put on the duvet covers. When my 6 year old woke up she said "I thought I was in pink outerspace!". The 3 year old demanded to know where her pillow covers were. Luckily she didn't care that it wasn't blue.
So, I did not get my tasteful sherbet tones or sporadic minimalist design but I did get two very bright and cheerful duvets and two very excited and pleased little girls.
If you take on this project please be sure to tag us on Facebook or Instagram (@hartfordstitch). I'd love to see what masterpieces you come up with!
The quick and dirty:
Soda Ash- 1c per gallon of water
Urea (optional- 3/4 cup per 1c. water)
Natural fiber fabric such as cotton, linen or silk
All tools to be used for dyeing only:
Large bucket to hold fabric
Gallon container to hold soda ash water
Yogurt or similar small container as dye pots
Chip paint brushes or similar
1. Scour fabric by washing in hot water setting (if fabric allows it) to remove sizing
2. Stuff fabric into container.
3. Dissolve 1 c. soda ash into 1 gallon warm water. Pour on fabric and repeat until fabric is submerged.
4. Let fabric soak for 20 to 30 minutes.
5. While soaking, make dye pots.
-Option 1: Dissolve 3/4 c. urea for every 1c. warm water (approx 1c water for each dye pot). See descriptions above for purpose of urea. Divide into yogurt containers.
-Option 2: Add 1 c. warm water to each dye pot.
6. Put on dust mask and measure 1/2T - 1T dye per dye pot. Use a separate disposable spoon for each or wash spoon well between each scoop. Generally speaking: the more dye you use the more saturated the color will be. Stir VERY well until all dye is dissolved.
7. Spread out construction plastic on the ground and weigh down corners.
8. Take fabric out of water and squeeze excess water out. You want it to be pretty sopping wet but unused soda ash water can be used again.
9. Spread out fabric on plastic-- make sure the correct side is facing up. Straighten the best that you can, but don't worry about making it completely flat.
10. Paint your fabric. Don't let the fabric dry out.
11. Roll up the fabric in the plastic. Try to avoid any fabric rolling on top of itself. Plastic should be between each layer.
12. Let sit for 6 - 24 hours (see description above for the why!)
13. Rinse with cold water until water runs clear.
14. Rinse again in washing machine with cold water. Optional: add 1 cup vinegar to set the color.
15. Rinse again with warm or hot water and a mild detergent to get out excess dye.
16. When you're comfortable all dye is out you're done!