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A Look Behind the Dying Process of Cotton

Christine Powell-Lawrence

Some of you already know that I dye all my yarns directly in my family's own kitchen. This year I've strived to do things a little differently and that included adding cotton into my line of yarns. During the spring 2018 fiber shows it amazed me how many comments I received from other hand dyers pertaining to the cotton yarns I was carrying. They also had many comments as to why they wouldn't touch cotton to dye. 

Welcome to my kitchenPima Cotton

This information has fueled my inspiration even more. Cotton requires a lot more dye along with some additives in order for the dye to work. It is a time consuming process as well. Let's start at the beginning here. Cotton yarn starts off in a mill just like wool does. It goes from bales to blending, mixing, and cleaning before it's made into rovings then off to be spun into yarn. Even though with modern advances in equipment there are only a few mills who comb the cotton before made into rovings. 

Why do I mention that? Well... Combed cotton produces the cleanest yarn. So as you can guess, the mills that are producing some of my yarn require some scouring before I can even dye. Speaking of scouring below in the photos are not a white wine and a light beer. The picture with the two glasses side by side are moments right after I placed the cotton yarn into the concentrated detergent then after 10 minutes of soaking of the stove. The last picture is the final water after 30 minutes and yuck! 

Water from scouring at the start and 10 minutes into the processFinal water from scouring 30 minutes on stove

Then the rinsing begins for the first round to ensure it's clean. Cotton also uses a cold or hot water reactive dye along with soda ash and urea. Reactive dyes are safe for infants and those who are sensitive to chemicals once the dye is washed properly. Soda Ash is a mild alkali which promotes the reaction for the dye to bond. Soda ash is also know as washing soda or sodium carbonate. 

Scouring 5 skeins at a timeDyes and Equipment for dying cotton yarn

 I've separated my dyes for cotton into a separate bin along with the soda ash and urea. Oh so what's with Urea? Urea aids in dissolving large amounts of dye using less water. It also helps draw and retain moisture as moisture is needed to complete the chemical reaction. In essence, both the soda ash and urea are needed when using reactive dyes. This process is much slower than dying wool. 

Organic Cotton Linen soaking in dyeRaspberry Organic Cotton LinenDenim Organic Cotton Linen

Above sitting on a plastic table (in my living area) is Raspberry and Denim all wrapped up soaking away in the dye. In order to receive vibrant colors the yarns need to remain wet with the dye up to 48 hours. After that then it's scouring again to remove any excess dye from the process. This does require a lot of my time to ensure that once you make something from the yarn it does not bleed out.

Water remaining after dying

I know I've accomplished success when the water is almost clear in color. However, I always recommend that you hand wash in cool water your finished project. 


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