Tutorial – Soda Soaking

For any surface treatment with dye such as dye painting, stamping, stenciling, any kind of monoprinting, or deconstructed screen printing, I like to pre-treat my cloth in a soak of soda ash, also known as sodium carbonate, also known as fixer or activator in some circles.  This prepares the molecules in the fabric with soda ash, so that I don’t have to add any extra liquid to my paint.  The fabric is ready and waiting to activate the dye as soon as I apply it.  A nice warm day is also good so that you can air dry your cloth outside on the clothesline.  You can air dry it inside also; I just happen to like to hang it outside.  Just don’t put it in the clothes dryer or iron it in any way, because it will turn brown….something about that high alkalinity…

I buy my soda ash/sodium carbonate at various places, such as pool suppliers, Walmart when they clearance the summer stuff,  and Dick Blick.  If I am at Festival or Paducah quilt show, I always purchase extra from Pro-Chem’s booth.  I never have it shipped to me because of the weight.  Of course now, I  sell it when I vend at retail shows, so I order it  from Jacquard.

My recipe is to use 1/2 cup of soda ash to every gallon of hot water.  Several dyers I know  call for 9 tablespoons, but 1/2 cup is 8 tablespoons and gives me a very high alkalinity, as evidenced by the ph tape in the picture below.  I learned this from Robbi Eklow.  Since I am usually preparing several yards of fabric at a time, I will mix two gallons of hot water with 1 cup of the soda ash in order to have plenty of solution.  I use a 5 gallon laundry detergent bucket.

DSC04590

This is one of those cups that comes in every box of granular laundry detergent.  I save them for measuring my dyeing supplies.  The smaller one is 1/2 cup (I checked), so I quickly measure 1/2 cup of soda ash into my soaking bucket.  Then using HOT water (so it dissolves), I stir with a wooden spoon which is reserved just for this task.  My ph tape tells me the alkalinity is good, so my pre-soak is ready.

DSC04591

The ph tape is available at both dye houses, Pro-Chemical and Dharma Trading Company.

Now it’s time to soak.  Since I purchase PFD (prepared for dyeing) cotton (so I don’t have to pre-wash), I  immediately submerge my cloth in the bucket.  I know some people go ahead and pre-wash their pfd to remove any oils or dirt.  I have never pre-washed mine and have never had a problem with any of it (except there was that one time I got  cloth that was  marked PFD but it actually had sizing on it…and there was a couple of bolts that even pre-washing didn’t make a difference…that’s a whole horror story all by itself).  One little trick I’ve learned since I’ve been doing this for awhile is this:  if you find the fabric wants to float in the bucket and not submerge and immediately get wet while you are pushing it down in the water, there IS sizing on it and you should pre-wash it, while hoping it’s not a permanent press finish, because if it is, you won’t get anything other than a pastel color on it.  This means it is even resisting the water, which spells trouble.

Soak it 20 minutes or longer, which will not hurt the cloth.  Using latex, vinyl or rubber gloves,  wring the pieces out and give the cloth a spin in the washer spin cycle.  Make sure it doesn’t rinse at all, or you will have to soak again.  You don’t want the washer to rinse out your soda ash.  Hang on  the line to dry, then fold up and keep separate from your other cloth.  It may be helpful to mark it in some way.  You can keep it this way for a fairly long time before using.  Leftover soda ash solution can be saved for a long time and re-used, so don’t throw that away.

DSC04593

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I probably should clarify that these are soaking instructions for cotton only!  For silk, you can use soda ash or white vinegar for the pre-soak.  My experience has been that you will get different colors depending on what the pre-soak is.  It’s an interesting side effect.  Silk cannot have soda ash on it for very long without affecting it adversely.  I do not soak silk in soda ash and leave it.  I usually treat silk  with white vinegar.

61 responses

8 06 2009
lora

Thanks for sharing your knowledge! When you say the pre-treated fabric can be kept for a fairly long time, do you have an estimate? Also, when you are ready to dye, can you/do you wet the pre-treated fabric before applying the dyes?

29 01 2010
Gloria Edinger

Thank you for this information. Knowing I can buy the soda ash/sodium carbonate in local pool supply stores or dept stores is a big help. I didn’t know about the ph tape either. New to dyeing fabric. Thank you, thank you.

29 01 2010
kathy

You are so welcome Gloria…good luck with your dyeing projects!

28 12 2010
Sharon Eley

Since Arm and Hammer washing soda is sodium carbonate, can you use this instead of purchasing a pool chemical? Also, what do you do with your cotton prints once they are made as a screen print? I’ll be taking a class with Kerr Grabowski but I think she uses a lot of silk.

12 06 2011
jeanne

like lora, i want to know how long i can keep pre-soaked cotton before painting on it. weeks? months? before the ash eats the fiber away.

12 06 2011
kathy

Sharon, if Arm and Hammer washing soda is strictly sodium carbonate, I see no reason why you can’t use it. I have heard there are other things in it. I use all the cloth I screen print in work for the wall mostly.

Jeanne, I can’t really give you an expiration date on how long to keep your soda soaked cotton. But I do have some left from last summer and it has not been eaten away. I’m not sure you have to worry about that with cotton. Silk is the fabric that you don’t want to leave the soda ash on for very long. But I have never heard of cotton having problems.

13 06 2011
jeanne

hey, thanks for the reply. both silk and wool are allergic to soda ash, so i didn’t worry about it until some t-shirts i made using the soda soak method developed holes in them soon after. this time, i’m making a huge dragon sari, and am hoping for the best.

7 07 2011
sonia

a huge secret revealed…soda ash is sodium bicorbonate,
it can be expensive when bought in bulk,
I have found that arm n hammer washing soda is exactly the same and is inexpensive and found at most grocery stores

13 01 2012
julie Larrabee

thank you, sonia for the soda ash/sodium bicorbonate clue. I am rust dyeing in Nairobi, Kenya and materials are not always available.

13 01 2012
kathy

Julie, let us know how your dyeing goes. My understanding is that soda ash is sodium carbonate…baking soda is sodium bicarbonate. I don’t believe that they will do the same thing. I once accidentally bought the bi-carbonate in the swimming pool section, but when I discovered it I was too scared to use it. Check online about the differences.

22 02 2012
ct

I’m going to be preparing first piece of cotton for painting and wondering how many yards of fabric can be safely soaked in your half cup soda in 1 gal. hot water,
thanks
ct

18 09 2012
Betty

Thanks so much for the info i’m dyeing fabric with ice and dye and let me tell you WOW i love color i fill like it gives me energy lol .

18 09 2012
kathy

I know EXACTLY what you mean! I’m a color freak too! All my dyeing life I’ve been taught that one must have 70 degrees or higher to get good colors with procion mx dyes. When people started doing ice dyeing, I scratched my head! Anyway, I haven’t given it a go yet, but it’s on my list of things to play with and soon! Thanks for commenting.

Katherine Sands creator of wild hand dyed fabrics kathy@katherinesands.com http://www.katherinesands.com blog at http://www.katherinesands.wordpress.com In God I Trust

18 09 2012
kathy

CT, I am just now seeing your post…so sorry. You can probably soak about 6 yards of fabric in that gallon of water, say three at a time, take them out and add the next three. I loosely wring them out as I take them out…keeps the water level up.

18 09 2012
kathy

For rust dyeing, I don’t use soda ash and I’m not sure you need to. I use a white vinegar soak and wrap the rusting items in the cloth…let sit for a day or two depending on how much rust I want on it. Some people use a vinegar/water mixture.

26 10 2012
Lynda Heines (@bloombakecreate)

Kathy, I just looked at my Arm and Hammer Washing Soda and it says “contains sodium carbonate.” It does not say that sodium carbonate is the only ingredient. I don’t trust it. Getting ready for Tuesday and looking at your formula.

21 05 2013
Anna

Hi Kathy,

I have some left over soda ash fixer powder from 2 summers ago that I would like to use for another tie-dye project this year. Do you know if the unmixed powder has a shelf life? It has been stored in an airtight ziploc bag.

Thanks!

21 05 2013
kathy

Hi Anna, Thanks for writing. I’m sure the soda ash will be just fine. As far as I know there is no shelf life on it. It is the stuff they put in swimming pools, so I don’t think time affects it…perhaps 20 years or so…but not sure about that either!

Katherine Sands creator of wild hand dyed fabrics kathy@katherinesands.com http://www.katherinesands.com blog at http://www.katherinesands.wordpress.com Author of “A Tale of Two Lambs”, published spring 2013 In God I Trust

22 05 2013
Anna

Thank you!

21 07 2013
Christine

Hi Kathy,

I am hosting a tie-dye party next weekend! Up to how many t-shirts should I soak in soda ash solution at once? Is it possible to soak the shirts in the soda ash, wring them of excess liquid, and then go straight to dyeing? And from what I read in your post, it would be best to have guests pre-wash their shirts before coming to the party, right? Sorry for the excessive questions. This is my first time tie-dyeing!

25 07 2013
kathy

Hi Christine, I hope you got my reply a few days ago to your question. I sent it from my email account which usually posts here, but didn’t this time, for some reason.
Kathy

19 08 2013
Christine Paolino Bailey

i have a kit from michaels (beginner i am) it says it has soda ash in the kit already and to just wash the shirts first. should i still soak the shirts in soda ash (also can i use white vinegar and water) ?? My goal is to have brighter colors than i did the last time i tried at a church on cape cod last summer. Is there anything to soak it in after? thanks Christine

19 08 2013
Christine Paolino Bailey

PS Like Your site!!

20 08 2013
kathy

Hi Christine, and thanks….so glad you like my blog.
If you are looking for better colors on your shirts, may I suggest leaving them to sit overnight (if you didn’t the first time) as the way to enhance the colors. My experience with the kits is that there is enough soda ash in them and the shirts I did with them were very colorful. I don’t believe a pre-soak is needed in extra soda ash, but it won’t hurt to do it. My understanding about pre-soaking is this: the dye immediately begins to “strike” when hitting pre-soaked fabric (or shirts). With the kits, you are mixing the dye and soda ash with water (at least the ones I used did), which starts the chemical reaction immediately before you get it on the shirts or fabrics. If some time elapses before you get this mix on the cloth, you are indeed losing some strength in the dyes.
I hope this helps. Thanks for commenting.

Kathy

20 08 2013
kathy

In answer to your other question…vinegar is NOT the pre-soak for cotton (fabrics or shirts). It is used for silks.
There is nothing you need to soak it in afterwards. Let the dyes sit on the shirts for 4 hours at a minimum and 24 if you like. Rinse in COLD water several times before washing in hot water to remove the excess dyes.

29 08 2013
Teleskier

Soda ash is NOT sodium bicarbonate, it is sodium carbonate. It is molecularly different. Soda ash is more reactive and less stable. It is a lot cheaper the bi carb.

29 08 2013
kathy

Thanks for clarifying that, Teleskier….you made me think I had said it was Bi carbonate…and I didn’t think that I had..

9 01 2014
Jane

Great tutorial! Thanks so much. I typically create batik as fine art and therefore have not needed to use a soda ash presoak as my batiks are ironed and framed and never washed. I am wanting to batik for craft purposes and this tutorial is really helpful. I did have one question though. You stated to not iron the pretreated fabric due to browning. Does this also include not ironing after dyeing and waxing as a wax removal technique? Thanks!

11 01 2014
kathy

Thanks for reading, Jane. No, after waxing and dyeing, that is not a problem. I have a friend who made some really large dyed panels and she did not rinse the excess dye out. After a while, the excess dye turned into a powder and and flaked off the artwork. I am not sure it is good to breathe it.

16 01 2014
Jane

Thanks Kathy!

20 02 2014
Paula

Kathy…what an awesome blog! I read through all the advice and I have a question. I am an art teacher that is putting together a fine arts festival with 8 schools. There will be 42 people(adults and high school age) that I would love to have do a tie die on shirts. From reading your blog, I am thinking that I will need to pre-treat all the shirts with soda ash, then dry for them.

What would you recommend to be the best dying for large groups? I was thinking squirting the die on the crumpled/band tied shirt? We are also in an area that we have to be as clean as possible :( (not my choice) We are going to do a lino cut on top of the dye within hours. Do you think that would cause any problems with the lino print bleeding out on the wet dye background? I want to make sure the kids get a nice, clean lines print. I believe the fabric printing ink has to stay on fabric 4 days before washing…is it alright to wait that long with the dye?

I will do experimenting as well, but I was hoping you might be able to help with a couple of the questions :) Thank you so much!!!

20 02 2014
Mandi

Baking soda WILL work, but first add it to water, heat until it incorporates, sodium bicarbonate becomes Soda Ash at 122 degrees Fahrenheit. Once your there, it’s usable. C-;

20 02 2014
kathy

Hi Paula, and thanks for your questions. The problem I see with what you are asking is that it is two different processes that each need a different environment, which may be difficult to accomplish in the same day. Here’s the deal….Your shirts need to be plenty wet so that the liquid dyes will spread and do a decent job of depositing color. Then it needs to sit wet in a plastic bag or covered tub for 2-4 hours for good color. After that, if you want to print without the image running, it needs to be dry. You would need to rinse them a couple of times, then wash and dry them. Since you mentioned using fabric printing ink, you don’t need a fixer (like the dyes need) for that. My experience with the printing ink was that it washed out too easily without an extremely GOOD heat set OR there is a product that can be mixed with the ink which does not need the heat set and makes the ink permanent. You may have some different inks with different requirements for permanency.

Walmart (and other places) sell tie dye kits which have the soda ash already in the bottles with the dye powder. This makes it very easy to dye shirts with. I did a kids’ class with these kits…it made the whole process very easy. We got their shirts wet (did not need extra soda ash, I just used water), tied them, and squirted the dye on, then the shirts went in bags to do the wait time. They were washed later that day, but we didn’t do any extra printing on them.
Hope this helps…you have your work cut out for you!
I would plan for an evening printing session if you want to do it all in one day, or at least late afternoon.

20 02 2014
kathy

Hi Mandi, I have never heard anyone share this before about baking soda. You may be right, but I’ll probably just stick with purchasing soda ash and avoid an extra step that takes time. What I do already takes plenty of time! The only thing I don’t do is weave the cloth…and I’m not even going to go there.

20 02 2014
kathy

Paula, one more thing about keeping the area clean…make sure all the kids work inside a dish tub or some sort of container that is big enough. I use plastic shoeboxes for the bottles and cups of dye when I teach…too many accidents. Everything sits in the shoe boxes after mixing. The shoeboxes confine the dyes if someone knocks something over. I make sure to cover the tables with a light plastic drop cloth and the floors too. You’d be surprised who gets it on their shoes and walks around leaving dye footprints. Everyone needs to wear gloves while handling the dyes. Make sure there is rinse water in a tub or shoebox for everyone to get to. Just some tips to help minimize mess. When I teach a basic fabric dyeing class, we do it in plastic bags; it’s the cleanest method out there.

20 02 2014
Paula

Kathy~Great ideas! We will be there all day, from 8am till 6pm. I am thinking that I can do the bottle mixing dye, placed in the bag you mentioned. Maybe they can keep it in the same bag to set up for 2-4 hours. Then we can go to a lino lesson while it is setting. Go to lunch, come back and wash out. Then possibly use a heat gun to dry the section of the shirt that the printing is going to adhere to? Kathy, I really appreciate your opinion, thank you so very much for your time on this. ~Paula

20 02 2014
kathy

oh yes, the bag is to leave it there for “batching” (which is the term used in the dyeing world for letting it sit in the dyes) Yes, a heat gun would work to get the section dry enough. Dry would be good, but even a bit damp probably wouldn’t hurt. Those inks are thick. Good luck!

20 02 2014
Paula

Thanks for your advice and tricks of the trade! I’m out of my area of expertise on this one-lol Your wonderful.

20 02 2014
kathy

Your plan sounds good…I would definitely go for the 4 hour batch if you want brilliant colors.

20 02 2014
kathy

one more thought…use gallon freezer bags, slide lock…. reason? regular bags are too thin and can bust (they can squish the dye into the shirt from the outside of the bag) and the slide lock bags can be handled with gloves. I always use freezer slide lock bags.

20 02 2014
kathy

You are most welcome…I have been teaching dyeing for a number of years. I have learned along the way what works the best and have taught it in carpeted areas and nice gymnasium floors. I think I have seen it all. lol! The shoebox idea came after a lady knocked over a whole cup of liquid dye in the gymnasium, then got it on her shoes. After that I said they are going to mix inside another container!

20 02 2014
Paula

Super idea. I love the small hints that make things easier! I will definitely go that way. :) I will be experimenting this weekend. :)

21 02 2014
Paula

Kathy,
I am sorry to ask but…But with your vast knowledge in teaching this…Do you buy specific colors of dye when your teaching? Or do you go with the standard primary colors that everyone can mix?

I am trying to figure out if I should get specific colors with 42 people (like a set of cool colors~blue and purple and a set of warm colors~red and yellow) for all to choose their cool or warm color scheme from, in a station format… Or go with a already assorted color scheme right from Jacquard that I can put on their table-like the primary scheme that they themselves can mix on the shirts (the schools will have their own table of 6 people to share).
Last question…I swear! LOL
Thanks,
Paula

21 02 2014
kathy

Hi Paula 42 people is a lot of people. I would probably simplify this as much as possible. When I did the large class, I think I bought two different types of kits so there was a bit of choice, but the kids didn’t really care, they just went for it. You could have a variety of colors and let them make choices…you would just need to have plenty of dye for that many people. I might choose 10 colors or less (not sure how much variety you want) and have plenty on hand. Just let them choose which colors they want to use. The printers primaries are lemon yellow, fuchsia, and turquoise. Other variations that I have used before would be indigo, red and golden yellow. Good luck! That is a lot of people!

17 03 2014
Joni

I am interested in dying silk. Can you give me more details about how much white vinegar is needed per gal of water?

18 03 2014
kathy

Joni, I generally use the vinegar full force, but I have read where others dilute it by half. Hope that helps.

2 06 2014
Angela samuel

Hi my name is Angela. I am happy to have read your comments on how to use the soda ash and saving it as well. Good information. I am preparing a wedding gift for a friend, tie dye bed sheet and pillow cases. Excited about the results. Thanks for your help

2 06 2014
kathy

You are so welcome, Angela. I hope everything comes out beautiful!

3 06 2014
Angela samuel

How can i send you a picture of my final product? Smile

3 06 2014
kathy

Angela, you can send it to kathy@katherinesands.com. Thanks!

4 06 2014
Lori

HI, I am planning on putting a design on my tie dyed shirts and am planning to draw it on with dye resist (Tulip brand) after pretreating with soda ash and before dying. Have you ever used this? If so, how does it work and do you have any recommendations? Thanks!

4 06 2014
Lori

Also, does it matter how long you leave the shirts in soda ash? I left one batch in over night (about 10 hours). SHould I leave the second batch in for about the same amount of time in order to get as much of the same result as possible? Again, thanks!

4 06 2014
kathy

Hi Lori, I have not used Tulip resist. My guess is that it will be acrylic and will stay permanently on your shirt. The dyes won’t affect it as the acrylic “seals” your design in the shirt. I have used other acrylic products to create a resist on fabric and then dyed over it. The dyes don’t bother it at all.

4 06 2014
kathy

The soda soak really only needs 15 to 20 minutes. Extra time in that doesn’t guarantee extra color. That is determined by how much time cloth is left in the dyes.

7 06 2014
Pat

What an interesting site. I am taking a 3 day workshop dying fabric and surface design. It was suggested that we do a soda wash to get the fabric ready for use. This answered all my questions. I have Arm and Hammer Washing Soda on hand to use. I am happy to have found this information. Thanks.

7 06 2014
kathy

Hi Pat , Thanks for writing.
Regarding soda wash to prep fabric: I don’t merely suggest it! I MANDATE it!!! For printing the fabric simply must be ready to receive the dyes IF you want crisp images. If you want a softer look, the soda ash could be applied as you print. A squirt bottle is one way, or mix it with the dyes or dye paint, in which case, you have to work fast because the chemical reaction starts when you mix the dyes and soda ash together.
I hope the washing soda works for you….a previous commenter said the box says it “contains” sodium carbonate. I have not used it so I cannot weigh in on its effectiveness. Perhaps someone else can tell us if they have used it and had the same results as using straight sodium carbonate?

28 06 2014
happyhatchers

Great info! Thanks so much for sharing your craft. For an easy and inexpensive resist, I’ve been using Elmer’s gel glue. It’s easy to draw with and doesn’t drip. I let it dry on the fabric over night, then scrunch and spray my dyes. So far, so good. You can see a shirt I finished here: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=883313145017077&set=pcb.883314401683618&type=1&theater

Again, thank you for sharing your expertise. I am a novice and eager to learn as much as I can. I’m still trying to figure out the dyes. I haven’t used soda ash, yet. Next on my list. Thanks!

17 07 2014
Christine

Hi Kathy. I previously tie dyed a t-shirt in a horizontal stripe pattern. Now I want to add a heart design on top of the previously dyed shirt. Should I soak the shirt in soda ash? Will it affect my previous design on the shirt?

17 07 2014
kathy

Are you going to paint the heart on with paint or dye? That will decide. If you are going to use acrylic fabric paint, you don’t need to soak the shirt at all; you should paint it on a dry shirt. If you are going to use thickened dyes, you will need the soda ash. Let the shirt dry after the soak, then paint your heart on and let it batch or sit for 24 hours covered in plastic, then wash. It will not affect the previous design, EXCEPT where the heart hits the stripes, the colors will change. Hope this helps and is clear as mud!

24 10 2014
Lizzie p

Using the above method can you tell me can I print on my fabric with my inkjet and will it make it colour fast

24 10 2014
kathy

Hi Lizzie, I have never heard anyone teach that. A product called Bubble Jet Set is the product to use with your fabric and inkjet inks. I have never messed with it. I purchase prepared cotton sheets. Sorry I can’t be any more help than that.

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