Fabric Dyeing with Kids – Tips for Success

Three kids, three bowls of all purpose dye and a sunny day….a recipe for both fun and mess (the good kind!).

Honestly, this not for the faint of heart.  Big bowls of dye sitting in the grass…so tempting for little hands.  But, fabric dyeing with kids has been on my summer list.  I dye a fair amount of fabric in a basement “no kids zone,” and there is always an air of mystery about the process in our house.  So, my kids were extremely excited to give it a try!

I set up this project so that everyone, ages 3 through 6 could participate, but  I would say that 5 or 6 was a good starting age for this project.  In case anyone else thinks dye and little kids sounds like fun, here is (1) bhow we did it and (2) a list of tips for managing the chaos:

Supplies:

We used:

  • 3 boxes of Rit Dye
  • Plastic gloves (and plastic sandwich bags for little hands that were too small for gloves)
  • White prewashed fabric – I cut some fabric into 12 inch by 18 inch pieces and also included a couple of white aprons and mini totes that I had picked up at Hobby Lobby a while ago.
  • Big bucket of water
  • 3 large bowls for the dye
  • Clothes pins and rubber bands (for some shibori dyeing)
  • Pipettes (for dripping dye on fabric)
  • Clothes line or large grassy area to lay out finished work
  • Towels and paper towels for the inevitable mess

Time and Location:

Outside, outside, outside!  Clearly, this is a messy project.  There were towels, gloves, and fabric strewn across our yard by the end.  The set up for this took as long as, if not longer than, the process.  We dyed everything in less than a 1/2 hour, and I spent at least that amount of time pulling together supplies, getting kids in old clothes and setting up.

How it went down:

The Set Up

Before the kids got involved, I mixed up the dye solutions.  First, I made very concentrated cups of solution, mixing all the dye powder in about a cup of hot water.  I added that to 3 buckets each with about  2 quarts of warm water.    After reading up on all purpose dyes (like Rit dye), I learned that you need HOT water for the dye to adhere well to cotton fabric.  Clearly, with three little kids that wasn’t happening, so I made the colors concentrated and expected some washout in the end.  We were going for process here more than end result.

Before jumping in, I gave each kid a set of gloves (a set of sandwich baggies for the littlest ones) and, in an attempt to keep order, we talked about the overall process and rules.  I explained that we would be wetting the fabric in water, putting it in the dye, and then hanging it on the line to dry. The big rules were: (1) no hands in the dye without gloves and (2) we only use one bowl at a time.  The plan was to try three different ways to dye fabric: (1) clipping and tying fabric, (2) dip dyeing small bags, and (3) squeezing dye with pipettes.

Dip Dyeing

First up was the dip dyeing.  They used small sturdy bags that wouldn’t flop around or be too big for the bowl.  We were trying to go for a watermelon effect – pink, white, green. Each kid held their bag in the green dye, let it drip dye on the clothes line, and then held the top part in the pink dye.  They turned out pretty cute, but unfortunately the handles were a poly-blend and the color didn’t hold at all in the handles after being washed.  We will have to give this one another try with all cotton bags.

“Shibori” Dyeing

Next, we moved onto clipping and tying pieces of fabric and a couple of white kid-sized aprons. After putting clothes pins on and wrapping rubber bands around the fabric, the kids dipped parts of each piece into different pots of dye.

No one could wait to let them set for a few hours, so after a few minutes, we untied them all and put them on the line to dry. In hindsight, I should have insisted on wrapping the fabric in plastic and letting the dye work for at least an hour.  I bet the colors would remained brighter after washing.  Something to experiment with in the future.

However, the big reveal was probably everyone’s favorite part!

Drip Dyeing with Pipettes

We also did some drip dyeing.  I set out the fabric on newspaper and gave them pipettes to squeeze on the fabric.  This was great, particularly for the 2 year old who insisted on participating in the dyeing.  Thankfully, she got bored with the dyeing and toddled off to the sandbox for most of the dyeing session.

Before we knew it, all the fabric had been dyed, and the kids were fully engrossed in a game of making water balloons out of left over gloves. We left the fabric on the line all day and washed it on a hot cycle that night.  As expected, the colors faded some, but I would still call this a success — everyone had a blast!

So, if I had to distill the day into a few bullet points, here are my tips for dyeing with little kids:

Tips for Success

  • Be ready for the mess – have a bucket of clean water and towels near by and put everyone in old clothes.
  • Use gloves or sandwich baggies to protect hands.  Sandwich baggies worked surprisingly well for the little guys – almost like mittens.
  • Keep the dye on the ground – At least no one is pulling it down on top of themselves from a table!
  • Set up clear stations – We had 5 loose “stations” – (1) a spot to look through and clip/tie the white fabric, (2) bucket to dunk the fabric in water before dyeing, (3) the bowls of dye, (4) newspaper for drying and (5) clotheslines for hanging up the finished product.  Next time, I would separate out and clearly label the stations to space out the kids.
  • Have a combination of fabric and sewn goods to dye – The kids loved dyeing the aprons and bags because they were tangible products that they could use.  The pieces of fabric were more for experimentation – equally fun, but different.
  • Keep the fabric wrapped in plastic and wet for at least an hour after dyeing.  – We did not and the fabric that dried the fastest lost the most color in the wash