Sunday, September 03, 2006

Crafts: Dying T-Shirts

A little background: Last year for Christmas, a friend gave me a copy of Alterknits by Leigh Radford. This book is full of knitting inspiration--unusual projects, gorgeous full-color photos (including shots of my former city of residence: Portland, Oregon), and lots of extra notations on various techniques. The project that very first caught my eye was for a t-shirt rug. "These simple rugs knit up quickly in garter stitch on size 19 needles and give you something creative and useful to do with t-shirts that have passed their prime" the opening project description promises. "Perfect!" I thought. We inherited one particularly 'interesting' rug from the previous occupants of our apartment that I've wanted to replace for some time. And surely, I thought, we must have 26 adult large or extra large t-shirts lying around the apartment just waiting to be cut into ribbons and reincarnated as a living room rug.

Setback Numero Uno: Alas, 26 adult large or extra large t-shirts were not to be had. That's a lot of shirts, my friends, even for a pack rat like me. No problem--I decided to put up flyers around my office asking people for t-shirt donations. Interest was expressed, eye brows were raised, my status of resident office crazy person was reaffirmed, and the donations trickled slowly in.

Setback Numero Dos: Despite the generosity of my co-workers, I still didn’t have enough t-shirts for my rug. Following the advice given later in the introduction to the project, I decided to hop over to Goodwill to round off my t-shirt supply. Unfortunately, the t-shirts were quite a bit more expensive than I’d hoped. At $3 a pop and needing another 10 t-shirts, I realized I might as well go out and BUY a rug for around the same price. At this point, I was starting to get a bit discouraged.

Setback Numero Tres: While mulling over my options, I decided I could at least start cutting up the t-shirts I had. The directions (and common sense) say to start at the bottom and cut one solid ribbon (about ½ inch thick) upwards in a spiral until you hit the armpits, then discard the top of the shirt. Easy-peasy, right? These are supposed to be “simple rugs” that “knit up quick,” right? All I have to say is, “ug.” Cutting a single shirt took me a good hour and a half to do, and man did my hand ache afterwards. Lucky for me, I was entrenched in catching up on the first four seasons of CSI and had many hours of crime scene sleuthing to take my hand off the slow cramping of my fingers. (If any of y’all want to follow my example and try this project out for yourselves, be sure to equip yourselves with a good pair of fabric scissors. I can’t imagine trying to do this with an ordinary pair of Fiscars. Double ug.)

Ok, so far, so very discouraged. But, as our friends over at Mason-Dixon Knitting say, “No project is too ambitious if you crave the result enough.” The more discouraged I became, the more determined I was to see this project through. And it was with this realization that the Knitting Gods finally decided to smile upon me.

Enter my co-worker, G. Just as I was about to lose all hope, I walk into my cube one morning to find two huge bags absolutely STUFFED with men’s extra large white cotton s
hirts. My jaw dropped. Tears filled my eyes. I may have blubbered a bit. G. pops his head in and says, “Oh, you got my t-shirts, then? I kept forgetting to bring them in. Hope they’re ok. See ya!” There had to be at least forty shirts in those bags. A few days later, another co-worker, E., dropped off another bag stuffed with (primarily white) t-shirts. Then my mom says, “Say, when your aunt and I come to Boston, why don’t I bring along some of my leftover fabric dyes and we can dye those shirts?” My bliss was complete.

Here follows One Girl’s T-Shirt Dying Story:

The dyes we used came from Dharma Trading Company. This is the company My Mom the Artist has always used, and my teenage tie-dye wardrobe can definitely attest that their colors truly are as brilliant and permanent as advertised. If you want to undertake any dying project, I recommend using their products: and

Meet the Dying Crew: My lovely mom and lovely aunt. Their help and guidance was much appreciated. In fact, if it weren’t for my mom motivating me to do this and carting her left-over dye from Minnesota, those white t-shirts would probably still be languishing in my closet.

With our bounty of white t-shirts, we decided to mix up several vats of dye: lavender, turquoise, chartreuse, and chocolate brown. A vat of dye is essentially a proportion of powder dye, warm water, and LOTS of plain table salt. Soda ash is then added later in the process. Soda ash fixes the dye into the fabric so it doesn’t wash out or fade. How much of each depends on how many pounds of dry fabric you want to dye (instructions and details for the exact amounts of ingredients will come with your dye order.)

1. Dissolve the salt in warm water.

2. Dissolve the powder dye in a small amount of warm water and then mix it into the larger vat of salt water.

3. Add fabric to vat and allow to soak for about 20 minutes. During this time, the fiber is absorbing all the dye it can. It’s important for the fabric to be completely bone-dry so that it can absorb as much as it can.

4. Dissolve soda ash in a small amount of very hot water and then add it slowly to the vat of fabric and dye.

5. Stir frequently and allow to soak for 30 minutes to an hour.

6. Squeeze excess water from fabric.

7. Rinse with cold water to remove any excess dye. (Do this a few times—the water won’t run clear, but it should be lighter in color.)

8. Wash fabric with detergent in hot water in a washing machine.

In the first batch, the lavender, turquoise, and chartreuse came out wonderfully. The brown faded to a rather unpleasant dirt color, so we decided to re-dye it. We also had a lot more white shirts left over, so we decided to mix some new powder dye into the vats already made to make some new colors. Into the turquoise, we mixed royal purple and made a nice deep violet. Into the lavender, we mixed hot pink and made a warm maroon. Into the chartreuse, we mixed emerald green and made a lime-green. The colors in this second round didn’t ‘take’ quite as well to the fabric and faded during washing. Mom and I realized that this was probably because the soda ash that was already in the dye from the first round prevented the new dye from being adequately absorbed and fixed into the fabric. Ah, well. Live and learn.

Next step is to cut all these t-shirts into ribbons. I think this calls for a Harry Potter movie marathon, fo shizzle. "I crave the result...I crave the result...I crave the result..."


Dominique said...

Wow, what an amazing project. I can't wait to see where this goes and the end result. Would love to see all those T-shirts cut into ribbons, like a fabric compost pile!
Am happy to be your "blog friend", haven't made it to the sourdough yet, but will be canning apples soon in various forms and tasty treasures.

suebelle said...

Missy Emma!!! Lovely to see the women in your life bonding over the craft! I'll be checking in to see how your project develops (and perhaps get inspiration to start my knitted log cabin rug).

Anonymous said...

I like the way you describe your project, it's really inspiring.
It will be really cool to see the next few steps in the process.
Thanks for sharing!

I'm from Taiwan and I was looking for some dyeing techniques and your blog helped me a lot.