Saturday, August 18, 2012

Tutorial: How to Tea Dye Fabric for that Vintage Look

My eyes nearly fell out from all the research I did on tea-dyeing before I tried it for the first time.  A friend asked me to help repair his childhood quilt, and we needed to "antique" the new fabrics we purchased so the replacement blocks would blend into the vintage ones.

I wasn't crazy impressed with the recommendations I found online... Tea-dyeing is not an exact science, so the best advice I can offer is pay attention, don't walk away from your fabric during this process.  Every fabric will take dye differently.  Some internet methods will tell you a certain ratio of tea bags to water, while others will tell you leave fabric soaking for hours or even overnight.  Guidelines are good; formulas are bad.  You should definitely practice on swatches or fabric you care less about before you commit that $12/yd designer quilting cotton to the process.  (As me how I know...)

Before I get too much farther into this, I should mention -- the photos in this posting show pretty subtle differences in color change.  You can use the instructions regardless, but if you don't see a difference in my fabrics from beginning to end, it's probably just due to the fact that computer monitors display photos with differing degrees of clarity.  Okay, back to the important stuff!  :)

Probably the most important question at the beginning of the process is this:  Are you dyeing your fabric to match some other antique textile?  Or are you just wanting to get that vintage look? 

If you just want a vintage look and you don't have to match anything else, you can throw your cares to the wind and cook a souffle while your fabric soaks, but if you need to match another fabric, don't you dare walk away from it! 

You'll need:

A big sauce pan.  I used a 6-Qt soup pot.
Lots of water (Apparently somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 quarts!) 
10 Lipton family-sized tea bags
fabric for dyeing

I'm dyeing this beautiful, funky Alexander Henry fabric with vibrant colors and a bright white background. I need it to coordinate with the creamier, vintage-looking off-white of the dotted panel. 

You can overcast using a serger or sewing machine.

Before we get started, you should overcast the raw edges of your fabric so it doesn't come out of the wash a raveled, tangled mess.  Overcast the cut edges -- not the ones with the writing (selvages). More good info on overcasting here.

And here's what happens when you sew distracted:

No drinking and serging!  Okay, so maybe I was just talking on the phone...
Anyway, DON'T overcast this's the other one, silly.  :)

You should also pre-wash the fabric to remove the chemicals and sizing that manufacturers put in the fabric.  Those coatings can affect how evenly and completely the dye bonds with the fibers.

The number of tea bags really can vary.  One tutorial I found recommended something like two tea bags for each cup of water and dyeing in a relatively small amount of water, like 4 cups.  It turned out way toooooooo strong.  Oh and don't believe those charlatans who say you can just wash the tea out and start over. 

Yoda on tea-dyeing:  "Go darker always, you can.  Once over-dyed, ruined it is."

No really.  He said that.

Heat your water to boiling.  Remove it from the heat and insert your tea bags.  (Dunk 'em good to make sure they're all steeping in the hot water.  Let them sit for about 4-5 minutes.  Remove the tea bags.

At this point, you're going to insert your fabric, but before you do, decide a couple of things:

- Where can you best observe the color change?  I elected to move the tea over to my white porcelain sink where I could spread the fabric out better and see how quickly the dye was setting.

- How dark is it?  Do you want to dilute it?  When I poured my tea into the sink, I added some warm tap water to dilute it further and cool it down just a tad.  Probably about 1 cup.

Time to put your fabric in.  A lot of instructions tell you to leave it for hours.  Unless you don't care how dark it gets, stay with it!  My Alexander Henry fabric was only in the tea for 3 minutes...seriously...THREE.  I cross-loaded it over to the empty side of the sink, rinsed it in cool water and squeezed it out.  If you have a single sink, you could just drain the sink.  (Use a pair of tongs or something to pull out the stopper...remember, this water was just boiling.)  I wanted to preserve my dye in case I decided to try for a darker color.  (Your fabric will always dry a little lighter than it looks while still wet from the dye, but don't let this lull you into a false sense of security.) 

It's pretty easy from there.  Just wash and dry your fabric like you will the resulting project.  I'm making an apron, so I want to make sure the dye job can hold up to detergent and warm water.  If you're really concerned about setting the dye, you can re-wash it with a cup of white vinegar.  I don't know if the vinegar removes loose dye (that's my guess) or sets it to the fibers, but the science behind it doesn't really matter.  Fabric washed with vinegar rarely ever fades again.  You can use this little tip to help fade-proof difficult fabrics like reds and blacks, too. 

Voila!  I just ironed mine and everything looks perfect to begin my project now!

I can't imagine getting a much closer match!  Happy girl!  :)