Testing 1-2-3

– Posted in: Color
Collection of Procion MX dyes

How Good Are My Old Dyes?

How good are my dyes? This is a question I am often asked, and a few months ago, Kay Sorensen emailed me with just that question. She was given some older dyes, and wanted to see what she could expect from them. I outlined for her a simple process to check the strength of the dyes, and she is sharing the results on her blog today.

Here is what I shared with Kay–and now you!

  • Start with a piece of pfd that weighs 20-25 grams (which will be a smallish fat quarter). Label it with a code corresponding to the dye jar you are testing.
  • Weigh 2 grams of dye into a container, add 60 ml water to dissolve, then add ¼ tsp of salt. If you don’t have a scale, use ½ tsp of dye powder.
  • Stir again, and add  fabric.
  • Add 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon (20 ml) soda ash solution, and stir.
  • Let batch overnight, or use a dye-dedicated microwave for about 20 seconds per piece.

The exact depth of shade is not important, since you are not trying to match, only compare. So the critical thing would be to have all the pieces of cloth the same size and kind, and apply the dye to each in the same way, and batch the same length of time (or microwave the same).

Grams versus spoons—This is a topic I will take up another day. However, spoons of dye can vary widely from jar to jar. The dyes are not consistent from jar to jar by volume (spoons), only by weight (grams), so a true comparison can only be made by weighing the dye.

Since Kay’s jars of dye were a variety of mixed colors, having precise comparisons is probably not very important for her. But knowing how much dye to use for a given result is very useful information, so the tests she did will make a handy reference for her whenever she is using those colors. Curious? Check out Kay’s results at her blog.

Testing My Own Dyes

Whenever I am making new color samples, I always use the freshest dye possible for consistency’s sake. When I am dyeing yardage for myself, I will use my freshest dyes when I need to match a color, or my older dyes if I am just playing and dyeing serendipitously.

I am currently planning a new series of work, so I thought it might be a good time to test the dyes and take a look at how they are faring. It will be useful to know which can be counted on for a close match, and which to use in a more freeform way.

Besides that, a few years ago I had the geeky idea of keeping some old dye around just for testing purposes. I admit to very weird ideas at times!

With this project in mind, I have actually been saving jars of dye for a long time, never quite using up the dye in any particular jar. The jars of old dye are starting to take over my space however and it’s about time to reduce my hoarding tendencies.

I use primarily yellow, red, and blue dyes (pun intended), most of which are pure, unmixed dyes. (The warm reds are officially mixes but I find them quite useful.) From these I make thousands of colors!

All of the samples below were dyed at about a 10% depth of shade, which means that the amount of the dye is about 10% of the weight of the fabric.

The Control colors were dyed from fresh dye, as a reference for what is possible from these colors. Below the Controls are the results using dyes going back as far as 2007. The next most recent dyes, purchased in 2012, were just over a year old when they were tested after Thanksgiving in 2013. Prochem dye names are listed.

Pure Yellow Procion MX DyesPure Red Procion MX DyesPure Blue Procion MX Dyes

As you can see the yellows held up really quite well. The blues are not too bad, but the reds are where I lost quite a bit of color, even in dyes only a year old. This makes a certain amount of sense, since red dyes are the first to react. When dyes go off it is because they have reacted with the moisture in the air or been degraded from heat.

You can see that for the most part, the older dyes have lost more color than the newer ones–BUT NOT ALWAYS! Very occasionally, a dye may go off before its time, (see the Blue Page) but that happens rarely…..

My dyes are stored in my Dye Studio, a.k.a. my basement, so heat is not a problem. However it can be a little humid down there–especially in the summertime– even though I run a dehumidifier. Therefore I’m quite careful to screw the caps on the jars tightly.

Though this project took a while to do, it was interesting to see the variations in the older dyes. There is still lots of fun to be had with the old colors, and I am inspired to use some of them before they —or I— get any older!

What is the oldest dye you have ever had some fun with? I would love to hear about it in the comments!


25 comments… add one
Brenda Gael Smith January 21, 2014, 11:04 pm

Thank you for this testing formula Carol. I have been trying to clean out old dyes in my cupboard and this will help me manage my dye and fabric supplies.

Paula January 21, 2014, 11:10 pm

WOW!! That dye age experiment explains a LOT!!! My 308 red was not giving me the desired results when mixing for brick red….now I know why. THANK YOU!!
See you at Nancy Crows in May

Shannon January 21, 2014, 11:39 pm

I love the way the Fuschia and the Navy have aged! Obviously, they wouldn’t be ideal for color matching, but wow! What beautiful colors they’ve morphed into!
It would be interesting to note how the color degradation in a dyed fabric corresponds to the degradation of the dye itself, in powder form… e.g., comparing a piece of cloth dyed in 2007 with fresh dye, to a piece of cloth dyed in 2014 with the exact same dye. That would be QUITE the project, but it would be cool to see the result!

Loris January 21, 2014, 11:55 pm

I too did this experiment last year and was pleasantly surprised (because I own a lot of dye!) to find that the colors held up well for years for the most part.

Lisa Chin January 22, 2014, 12:24 am

Thanks for the formula of how to test my dyes. You got some really interesting results too!

Wendy Rosen January 22, 2014, 8:16 am

Love it!!! Can’t say I’ve ever tried to test my old colors but have experienced the blues and reds loosing thier strength with age…particularly Intense Blue and MX Red! Mahalo for sharing all your great work!!!

Nienke Smit January 22, 2014, 8:39 am

Thank you for sharing, very interesting!

Cindi Moosey January 22, 2014, 5:11 pm

Thanks Carol been on the look out for this. I grabbed some of my old mix dyes and used them as powder on the snow. I was a bit surprised how mellow they were. Given it was powder I expected more depth. Now I understand why it did not happen.

Rachel January 22, 2014, 8:30 pm

I’m using some VERY old fiber reactive dyes. 15+ years. For the most part they are fine for immersion dyeing. But your interesting article explains some things. Like why a mixture of several reds turned out fuchsia. Also, when I use the dyes for painting fabric, they don’t turn out well at all. thinking of signing up for your Fall River Class in October.

Michele January 23, 2014, 1:31 pm

I have found when I use old dyes for t-shirts, they tend to fade faster after multiple washings than with fresh dyes.

carol February 1, 2014, 1:57 am

Hi Michele, this makes sense if you think about it. If you use old dyes, there is more un-reacted stuff to get rid of. It may take more washings or hotter water to get rid of the un-reacted dye. But what is bonded is really bonded. They are not really fading–they are still washing out!

Sarah Ann Smith January 23, 2014, 2:47 pm

Well that explains why I didn’t get the depth of shade I expected on the fabric I just dyed red! Totally makes sense…. and none of my dyes are exactly fresh….. I’ll remember “more red” with age to go with more blue to compensate for air temp! THANK YOU!

Johanna Fritz January 27, 2014, 8:44 pm

Thanks for the post. SUCH good information. The 60% of my dyes are 6+ years old. I have great success when I compare them with newer dyes.Curious what that the DOS comes out to be. I heard a rumor that you might be considering writing a book. I have heard such great things about your Color Mixing For Dyers I class, and the new gray and browns sounds delicious. . For those of us who are too disabled to take the class, but could work at home, PLEASE consider writing a book (even an E book) I had some great instruction from Candy Glendenning on dyeing by weight/metric online and tons of practice, but your “mixed black” recipes and your whole approach to dyeing really interest me.

carol February 1, 2014, 2:00 am

I am glad you are finding the information useful, Johanna. I am staying open to these ideas, but if you look at my teaching schedule, you will realize they have to come over time!

Chriss January 31, 2014, 2:31 pm

Thanks, Carol! Perfect timing as I am preparing to dye with some old dyes and was wondering how well they would work. Thank you for sharing your expertise with us!


Debby Harwell January 31, 2014, 3:03 pm

Love this test that you did for us. You really do love your students and the subject matter that’s for sure! Great reference tool and I’ll have to do one myself really soon to see where I stand, but thankfully I’ve been trying to finish out my jars before going on to a new jar, whew! Happy Colors to all.

Robin Fischer January 31, 2014, 4:52 pm

Thanks Carol for doing that experiment. I know for me I don’t use my dyes fast enough. Good to know we can still get colour but maybe not the depth of shade we were looking for. I too have done some tests with old dyes, just not as extensive as yours. Great blog.

susan January 31, 2014, 6:05 pm

Look outside. Snow. Snow dying gives bizarre and exciting results. I think this is the perfect use for dyes that you can’t bear to throw away.

Cat February 1, 2014, 4:10 am

What a great experiment to share! Now having better knowledge of what NOT to expect, I’ll work down my older dye inventory for more playful serendipity rather than trying to get specific with color.

Caz April 18, 2014, 9:33 pm

Hi Carol, thanks for the info and taking the time to do the study. I randomly get people giving me dyes after losing friends/family members who for one reason or another have moved on, and there is no way of knowing (apart from the label sometimes) how old they are. Where I live in Melbourne Aust, we don’t get snow, but I do use these dyes for icedyeing recycled white bed sheets for projects and because of the randomness desired, the old dyes are perfect.

Leslie May 24, 2014, 1:52 pm

I just located my 21-yr-old stash of procion dyes. Was thinking about just tossing them, but was led to your blog by a kind person on weavolution. Guess I will spend some time today playing with these old colors!

Johanna Fritz April 28, 2015, 1:51 am

What DOS do the test results (attempt) to yield? 10%? Thanks.

See you in late June at Woodland Ridge Retreat in WI

carol April 30, 2015, 11:14 am

Hi Johanna, when you use a 20 gram piece of cloth, your results should be a 10% DOS. A 25 gram piece of cloth would give you a 8% DOS. Of course, if the dye is old, it may not live up to its depth of shade while fresh. That is why we are testing!Looking forward to meeting you in person in Wisconsin!

Emily Rosenzweig July 5, 2018, 11:01 am

This is so helpful and interesting! I actually just found a stash of dyes that I bought and was using in 1999!!!!! They have been stored in dark tubs in side a dark bin, but definitely not consistently in a cool place. I’m playing around with them because… Well, why not! Curious to see…

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