Using my own hand dyed organic fabric to make clothing of my own design is thrilling. Color is my main creative passion! I love attempting to recreate a color that is in my mind such as a brilliant blue green or a neon orange by mixing my own color recipes and using that to create the hue on fabric. I’ve been dying fabric since I was a teenager. I started with lots of tie dye, have used natural dyes, taken classes, and now I focus on solid color immersion dying. I use Procion Fiber Reactive Dyes because of the rich vibrant hues that can be created and because the colors are permanent. The dye bonds directly with the molecules in the fiber, so nothing washes out once dyed properly. These dyes are referred to as Low Impact. I recently did some research into what that really means. Being as eco-friendly as possible is also one of my passions, and this is one area in which I know I am not perfect. In full transparency I’m sharing what I discovered.
Fiber reactive dyes, when used in the small amounts that a home dyer or a small business would, actually do have a pretty low impact on the environment. The waste water is easily broken down into harmless molecules by microbes in our soil and waste water treatment plants. The chemical used to make the dyes react is soda ash; this is found in laundry detergents and swimming pools and is used in such small amounts that it makes a minimal impact. Salt is also used, but when combined with the rinse water and diluted in the water system, it isn’t a problem. The only heavy metal found in Procion dyes is copper in the color Turquoise and any blends that use Turquoise. I only use basic colors, but Turquoise is one of them, so from here on out I will be adjusting color recipes to eliminate using Turquoise. Other than that they contain no toxic substances. Procion dyes work at low temperatures and have a 70% absorption rate, so little washes out.
However, there are two issues to consider when using Procion dyes. The powder form of the dye is harmful to breathe, but with the use of a face mask and gloves, proper storage, clean up, and ventilation, there are no problems. The other is that the immersion dye process does use quite a bit of water. I discovered a few techniques to reduce the water needed for rinsing and will be implementing them with my next dye batch. These include letting the fabric soak for several hours in hot water after an initial rinse, and should greatly reduce the amount of water needed for final rinsing.
I contacted Dharma Trading, a trusted company I have purchased dye from for over 20 years, for more information. As far as the production of the dyes, this is another area where environmental damage could be a problem, but they assured me that their suppliers are slowly improving their processes, and that in Europe the dyes meet all European Union criteria for being an eco-friendly colorant. It’s hard to find much more info in that area. Dharma also pointed out that the dye actually becomes part of the molecular structure of the fabric, “…so babies can chew on clothing dyed with these dyes, chemically sensitive folks can wear fabrics dyed with them, and it doesn't matter how much you sweat either. Fiber Reactive dyes are the ONLY dyes that this is true of. Natural dyes from plants and insects are not permanent. The chemical mordants used with natural dyes are metallic salts and some are highly toxic.“
With natural dyes it is not possible to create deep, dark color, and the hues created do fade and degrade over time. Very large quantities of plants and lichens, typically equal to or double the weight of fiber itself, need to be used. More time and energy is used to make color with natural dyes than with fiber reactive dyes (you need to heat the water for hours at a time.) Some of the mordants used to make natural dye react, such as tin and chromium, are toxic themselves, although the mordant Alum is safest and most common.
No matter the differences, my gut tells me that dying a gentle color with some plants has got to be better for the planet, but looking at the big picture, Procion Fiber Reactive Dyes are not a problem environmentally. You can’t get the vibrant rich shades that make my heart sing with natural dyes, so for now I will continue to use Procion Dyes with a freer conscience. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic!