Collie musing

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Tea-dyeing cloth
Tea- or coffee-dyeing cloth

Short version: haven't tried tea dyeing, but regarding coffee dyeing -- don't bother; it didn't do a darned thing. Go with a commercial dye.

General Guidelines

Coffee- or tea-dyeing is an easy way to mute fabrics or give them an older, antiqued look, by staining the fibers semi-permanently. Coffee dyeing makes your cloth brown and "old" looking, but be aware coffee is much more aromatic than tea, and your finished item will smell like coffee for a long time to come.

Tea dyeing gives a dull brown or grayish "dirty" tone to the whole piece. However, it won't dye to an "off-white" or "eggshell" color. It is next to impossible to match colors with tea dye -- don't try tea dyeing in order to get a white fabric to blend with a creamy one. Tea can also leave an irregular spotted stain over the whole piece; it is not going to give you a "perfect" or even color.

Another difference between tea and coffee is coffee will degrade your fabric less than tea. Tea will degrade it in 30-40 years; coffee-dyed fabrics will last 75-100 years. This is due to the tannic acid in the tea.

Tea dye only works on natural fibers! This means cotton, silk, linen, and maybe wool; polyester will not take color. Also, the dyeing is semi-permanent -- it will not wash out easily, but you can usually remove it with bleach. It may also fade in sunlight. It is not suggested for use on items (such as clothing) that will be washed regularly as modern detergents are designed to remove the tea stain.

If you want to color large objects (like a sheet set or a sofa's covers), or you want to be sure to get an even tone, use a commercial dye product. According to some web pages I read, hot water dyes will shrink fabric. Never "cook" the fabric in the dye bath. Cold water dyes are best. Vegetable dyes fade, even when set with a mordant.

More random web advice which I have not personally tested: Earl Grey is usually the tea of choice, but English Breakfast will work too. Tea is orangish if it contains orange pekoe tea; fabric dyed with such teas becomes more orange over time. Raspberry tea is pink, so the fabric will take on a pink tinge. Tea with no fruit content is best.

The following should work equally well if you substitute single serving coffee bags instead of single serving tea bags.

What you need:

(with a few revisions after having tried this once with coffee)

  • container to hold the coffee/tea bath
  • natural fabric
  • water & something to boil the water in
  • tea bags or ground coffee
  • strainer (in case the tea bags break -- but not necessary with coffee, which dissolves very thoroughly and nicely)
  • tongs (I ended up not needing these)
  • vinegar (for the mordant)
  • measuring spoons
  • wooden spoon (to stir and press out bubbles with)
  • mild detergent (not necessary with coffee, which has no tannic acid)

Preparing for dyeing:

(the following information has been collected and collated from numerous sources on the web. My actual attempt is detailed below)

Set the water to boil. Suggested: 4 cups of water for each yard of fabric. When the water has come to a boil add two tea bags for each 8 oz. cup of water. The longer you boil, the darker the dye; so go an hour if you can. Espresso coffee is darker than regular roast. The darker the bean, the darker the dye and the "older" the piece will look.

Let the coffee or tea steep for about 5 minutes; you should have a really dark brown liquid. Squeeze out the bags if you wish. Don't leave them in, since they might get soggy and break. Also, if the bags come into contact with the cloth, it could result in darker stains on the fabric.

Steps in tea/coffee dyeing:

Before dipping your fabric into your tea mixture, soak the fabric in extremely hot water until completely saturated, then gently squeeze out any excess water.

Soak the fabric in the container of hot liquid. It should be large enough for your fabric to lie reasonably flat -- you don't want it scrunched up or it may dye unevenly. Swish it around with a wooden spoon every so often if you want a smooth textured finish. Leave it without moving it much for a mottled finish.

Remember, the fabric stain will appear darker when it is wet. Allow your fabric to soak in the mix until the desired color is reached. I've been told a medium light tan color can be achieved after about an hour, while a richer tan can be achieved with an overnight soaking.

When the fabric has soaked enough to reach the color you want, pull it out and rinse it under cool water until the water runs clear. If you're using tea, you'll also want to add a little mild dish-washing liquid to your rinsing water. This is important because the tea's tannic acid, if left in the fabric, will weaken the fabric.

You will lose a lot of the color while rinsing, so if it isn't dark enough to suit you, soak it some more. Wring out the fabric and hang or place on an old clean towel to dry.

If the color is too dark when dry, wash with a very small amount of bleach (1 tablespoon bleach to 1 gallon of water). This will lighten your fabric slightly. Repeat this process if the color is still too dark.

"Setting" the dye

(I found conflicting information, so I'm simply presenting it all)

Method 1:

Steep tea or coffee in the water until medium-dark, then add a teaspoon of vinegar. This is the "mordant," which you need to "set" the dye.

Stir fabric for a few minutes, squeeze out the tea. Take a paper towel and squeeze until fabric is damp-dry. This will keep the fabric just the right color.

Place right side down on an old towel, and put a piece of muslin on top of the fabric. Press dry with a medium hot iron.

Method 2:

Dry a portion to check that the color is correct. If it's not dark enough, re-submerge in the solution. Let air dry; or use a hair-dryer -- you need dry only one portion of the fabric to check for color. Generally, the color will dry lighter than it looks wet.

If the color is what you want, return the fabric to same dye-bath for 5 min. more, but with 1 t alum added to the dye solution (this is for a 13" x 9" cake pan filled with dye-bath). The alum is a mordant and sets the color. Vinegar is also good as a mordant, but it smells. Don't use water with alum because the water causes the dye to bleed. Buy alum at a drugstore.

The dye-bath may be reused, but you'll get the same color as for the previous use because there's alum (mordant) in it. Time the first soak if you intend to reuse the dye-bath and want the same color.

My first attempt

Synopsis: the dyeing was unsuccessful, but the craftsy enjoyment was encouraging.

While I've not done this sort of craftsy stuff for almost 15 years, I'm remembering how much fun it was, rather than worrying excessively about it. Yeah! ;)

Since I was trying to darken a pair of pants and a tunic, I had 3.3 square yards to work with. That meant I needed a minimum of 13 to 14 cups of water, and 9 tablespoons of coffee. Unfortunately, I didn't have a large enough portable container for that amount of water, let alone one which would allow me to lay the clothing flat in it, as recommended. So I decided to try this in the bathtub.

With a bit of measurement assistance from a 3 gallon jug, I figured out where on the tub would be a marker for about 6 gallons of water to work with. That's 96 cups of water, which works out to about 2 to 3 dry cups of coffee -- not "made" coffee, but of the ground up stuff straight out of the jar. When I measured the coffee out, it was close enough to the total contents of two 3.3 ounce jars that I just tossed in the remainder.

Yes, the measuring on this was quite "seat of the pants." ;-)

I ran the water in the bathtub until it was blisteringly hot, then let it start filling. I also had about 6 cups of water on to boil, and when that was ready I poured it into the large 8-cup plastic container which was holding all the instant coffee grounds. It liquefied completely and most satisfyingly, which made me decide it probably didn't need to steep for the requisite 5 minutes. It also made the entire house smell rather nice. Why is it coffee smells so good, and tastes so bad?! ;)

So then I poured the boiling coffee mix into the extremely hot bathtub full of water, and my wonderful volunteer assistant and I added the clothing. We spent some time gently pressing bubbles out of the clothing, then left for dinner to give the clothing time to soak. It was left to soak in the coffee-water for about 2 hours.

When we came back we let the coffee-water run down the drain, squeezed the excess coffee-water out of the clothing, and rinsed with cool water until the water released from squeezing the cloth didn't run dark. I realized pretty quickly the coffee rinse probably hadn't worked, because the bright yellow cloth, which was supposed to darken, was about the color I wanted it -- and it was still wet. Wet things, as everything I read noted, are darker than they'll dry out to.

But we kept going with the process to see what we'd end up with, placing the damp clothing into the dryer on a light-warm tumble until dry. Unsurprisingly, the cloth ended up not really turning any darker. It is, however, nice and soft now. ;)

Things to consider for next time:

  • I forgot to wet the cloth first -- apparently that matters
  • I used instant coffee -- does that matter?