DIY: Custom Variegated Embroidery Thread Using Liquid Dye

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In my last post I talked about how helpful making friendship bracelets has been for re-igniting my creativity after a block. I often find making simple, more “crafty” things that give me great joy easily lead into other concepts that expand my creative arsenal. In this instance the bracelets gave me a great opportunity to explore how the DMC variegated line could work up. I have very quickly become obsessed with working in these threads as they allows you to cheat easily create spontaneous texture and color shifts in your work. I’m not thrilled, however, at the limited range of colors in the DMC line and the one-tone-per-skein approach to variegation. Note: DMC does have a line of multi-color variegated thread as well, but unless your work calls for those specific hues you’re going to find that line limited as well. 

As a result I’ve spent the last few weeks exploring how DMC Cotton thread can be dyed and manipulated to create custom variegated blends with supercalifragilisticexpialidocious solid results. Today I want to share what products I use to make these blends, how I go about doing it, and what you can do to get different effects in the process.

Read on if you’re interested in making your own custom thread colors!

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Since this isn’t a step-by-step DIY per-se, but more of a book of guidelines – the pirate’s code of thread dyeing perhaps? – I’m not going to outline the entire thing like I do some other DIY projects, but I will give you a list of the supplies I used.

You Will Need:

  • Cotton Embroidery thread in white or a pale color. I used DMC 3865 and 153 for this, but anything will work as long as it is a lighter color than the dye you plan on using. If you’re not sure do some tests and buy extra skeins.
  • A surface you don’t care about to dye on, or some wax paper to protect your surface.
  • Jacquard Dye-Na-Flow dyes in colors of your choice and/or Jacquard Textile paints. I would reccomend using the Dye-Na-Flow if you can find it; I used the paints (watered down 25%) for my red and turquoise because I’m a dingus I accidentally bought the wrong pots. They worked OK, but you will get a much softer, workable thread from the Dye-Na-Flow. That being said feel free to experiment with different pot-dyes to see what works for what you do! Other brands might be good as well.
  • A paintbrush, foam brush, or anything to distribute the dye (not shown). If you want precise pockets of color make sure you have something small, but if you’re going for solid colors or large blocks of color a foam brush would work.
  • An iron you don’t care about (not shown). I invested in a travel-size iron specifically for dye-work; the colors can transfer onto the iron so I wouldn’t reccomend using an iron you also use on your clothing or clean sewing projects. Also if you have an iron you use with glue-based products or patches it also probably isn’t best as the glue residue can transfer to your thread. Blech.

 

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Adding the Dye.

Adding the dye is as simple as painting it on. You can do even blocks, little patches, whatever you like. Bunch up your skein to get random color payoff, or lay it all out to carefully paint each inch of it – the choices are all yours to make. If you want deep, solid hues make sure you use enough dye to totally saturate your skein. Remember that you probably will get some bleeding, so think about your color theory when you put colors next to each other to avoid icky browns, unless that’s what you’re going for.

The beauty of these products is how easy and versatile they are to work with and apply vs traditional dip-dyeing. Obviously for larger projects it might not be cost effective, but for small dye jobs they are perfect. I’ve used Dye-Na-Flow on this blog before  with great results. Think of it as watercolors on colored ink for fabric – they flow like ink, have intense hues, and will flow into each other like watercolor. This could be bad if you want super distinct lines of dye, but for this sort of application it is perfect. Here I’m applying a solid color and really soaking the thread to make sure the entire skein is dyed.

In the red you see above I’m using a watered-down version of the Jacquard fabric dyes, which are very similar to the Dye-Na-Flow but thicker and more like acrylic paint. I found they didn’t flow into each other as much and, though I was concerned, didn’t dry as crunchy as I thought when watered down. If you want distinct lines of color this might actually be a better product for you, but remember that it’s a thicker paint and may affect the workability/sheen of your thread depending on what you plan to use these for. Note: Regardless of which product you use this will change the texture of the thread a little. I haven’t had any issues so far, but as always do some tests if you’re worried and remember to rinse your skeins after setting to improve workability. All my threads stayed more or less soft and malleable and all could be separated into individual threads easily. 

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You don’t have to totally saturate the thread if you’d like some of the original color to show through. This photo shows an example of almost “dry-brushing” the thread, or applying a smaller amount of dye on the surface of the skein without penetrating the entire thread. This is the technique I used with the skeins I’m holding at the top of the post and is a great way to take advantage of the original DMC color as the base for the color variations. This specific technique is gorgeous in embroidery bracelets, examples of which I will show at the end of this post.

Setting the Dye

Once your dye has dried you will need to set it with an iron to keep the full vibrancy of the hues. You can choose to play with this step if you want to get faded colors or have some parts stay vibrant while others fade. Here’s an example to explain what I mean:

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Both of these skeins were white based and dyed with the same colors in the same pattern and left to dry completely. The skein on the right was ironed for about 30 seconds while the skein on the left was not. I then rinsed both skeins in cold water. Here are the same skeins again once untangled:

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Here you can really see how the skein we didn’t set with the iron got washed out, while the set skein maintained the exact intensity of the original dye. If you wanted to get a faded or distressed look you could play intentionally with not setting your dye, or only iron sections and rinse the rest. How you decide to set the dye can create a myriad of effects in your thread, so play with it! Note: If you do choose to go with the faded “stained” look it’s still a good idea to use the iron to set-it once you are satisfied with the final colors to prevent them from fading anymore. Remember to always wait until the thread is dry before you iron it. 

How to Use Your Custom Thread

Now that you’ve made a million samples of dyed thread with all the colors your heart pines for, what the heck are you supposed to do with them?

Obviously I started making these with the idea of friendship bracelets, and they are great for that indeed. Instead of painstakingly following a pattern you can get a variety of color shifts and patterns using very simple knotting techniques.

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This bracelet uses the two variegated threads shown at the head of the post worked in an outer V pattern without concern for where the threads started in the pattern. As a result you get an almost tye-dye look to the finished bracelet, which I love, and it works up very quickly. You can also see in this piece how the “dry-brush” technique creates variegation even within each knot, a unique look that you couldn’t get with store-bought variegation.

Also, even though I just wrote a whole post on how I’m not preoccupied with making higher-end work anymore, I did find that these threads looked gorgeous in stretched wall pieces, and I might have to go back on that statement and start making what an art school eye would call “real art” again. At least until I get sick of it and make my way back to crafty lady land.  

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This skein was dyed using primary colors (and their bleeds) only and much of the pale blue-ish white was left to show through. As a result using one thread at a time quickly creates this gorgeous texture that begs to be used to fill geometric spaces. The 1-inch or so section above, worked on thick touch canvas, only took me maybe 15 – 20 minutes to work up. Imagine how long this would take if you used different, individually anchored threads for every color?!?!? No way Wade. 

What Else?

What else can you do with this thread? Pretty much anything you would do with store colors, but now new-and-improved with your own custom colors and blends. You can always make some samples to test where you want your colors to change, or just go with the flow literally! Try:

  • Abstract cross-stitch or colorful backstitching
  • Samplers (Rainbow blackwork letters? Count me in!)
  • Floral work
  • Nature-inspired work (imagine custom dyeing to fill a butterfly wing!)
  • Embellishments
  • Patches (Try dyeing a skein pride colors or your team’s colors to make a quick statement patch!)
  • Custom hair colors on portraits (Get some easy high and lowlights in your mermaid hair ladies and gents)
  • Sunsets and custom skies
  • Small-scale weaving or rainbows of lace-work
  • etc, etc, etc!

I’m sure I’m not the first one to do this, but I hope I see more work using custom thread because it totally elevates your work into special, OOAK, un-copyable stuff. And when you’re a fiber artist on the internet, doing whatever you can to stand out and be unique is going to make a HUGE difference. Crap maybe I shouldn’t of shared my secrets – but my loss is your gain!

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I’ve made a few bracelets using the samples I dyed for this post and should have them up on my Etsy by the time this post launches, so take a look if they strike your fancy.  The nature of my work is also changing and evolving as always, so if you like some of the other work I have up there snatch it while you can before it all turns into something new.

If you use these techniques I would love to see what you’ve made, so please share in the comments and in my inbox! Im also always happy to answer questions as with any of my DIYs.

Now get off the internet and go CONQUER something awesome!

 

 

 

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