Sunday, August 10, 2008

Differences Between Paints and Dyes

Right off the bat, the main difference between paints and dyes is that a fiber reactive dye will chemically react with the fiber itself to form a chemical bond while textile paints will merely coat the fibers with a very thin film. I have limited discussion here to acrylic paints which are used for painting fabrics. That being said, there are many times that the end results are very, very similar and impossible to tell without a trained eye. I have seen fabrics at Joann's and other vendors described as "hand dyed" when they are really painted with inks or acrylics. When I first was introduced to Mickey Lawler's work, I was very confused as she called her business Sky Dyes and yet her fabric is never dyed with fiber reactive dyes, always painted with acrylic paints(unless she has changed recently). Her work is drop dead gorgeous but it is not dyed!

So why would one use paints and why would one use dyes?

I must say I started by dyeing with Procion H dyes in a class probably 25 years ago. The pieces were pretty awful as we didn't use steam or anything but the sun to set these dyes. They are fiber reactive dyes though and many people prefer using them as there are no powders with which to deal so no masks are required. They do require heat to properly set though despite this class I took. We did get some washed out results which somehow were enough to send me off on the "Quest". This was 1984/1985 and there weren't a heck of a lot of materials out there on dyeing. I did get the book on Synthetic dyes for natural fibers which I didn't understand at all (at the time) and there was an article by Jan Myers-Newbury on dyeing gradations in the back of a quilting book. It wasn't until the early 90's that I took a dyeing class in Houston at the Quilt Festival from Don Weiner who was sitting in for Elin Noble. I also took a class from Ann Johnston at the same venue on painting with dyes.

It wasn't until relatively recently (maybe 9 years ago) that I started dabbling with acrylic paints -- probably about the time that Mickey Lawler's book called Skydyes came out. I took a one day class and was hooked on all the different things you could do with paints and all the control you had over your results -- certainly not the case for me at the time with MX dyes -- even thickened dyes. You could stamp and smush and get clear lines and get all those wonderful salt effects. You even knew pretty much what color the piece would end up! So I started delving seriously into textile paints and took a class from Elizabeth Busch who used the Pro Chem pigments with an extender; in other words, she made her own paints. She works with thick paints and we learned some very original ways to play with the paints. I was hooked but decided that these paints if thinned down, could be used just like the Setacolors and Jacquard paints I had been using. I could also control the intensity of the color a lot better so I permanently switched to these paints.

So again, what are the reasons for using either resource??

MX Fiber Reactive Dyes (or any fiber reactive dye)
  1. It is much cheaper if you buy the dyes in quantity to get a large volume of fabric dyed.
  2. You can get good rich/dark colors with a minimum of effort.
  3. Cleanup from the processing is relatively easy -- the dyes wipe up painlessly from most surfaces.
  4. You don't change the feel (hand) of the fabric or fiber when you use fiber reactive dyes.
  5. You can dye a lot of yardage in a very short period of time.
  6. It is challenging and sometimes unpredictable.
  7. The resulting dyed fibers are very lightfast and washfast (MX dyes -- I don't know about the acid dyes as I have no experience with them). You don't have to treat the resulting fabrics any differently than commercial fabrics -- in fact you should probably treat commercial fabrics more gingerly.
  8. It is easy to clean up silkscreens or brushes after using with dyes.
  9. With dyes, the back of the fabric is essentially the same as the front of the fabric. If you are painting with thickened dyes, you can get some differences between front and back however.

Textile Paints (or any acrylic paint)

  1. What you see is what you get. There are not the color surprises that you get with MX dyes after you have washed out your fibers/textiles.
  2. They are easier than dyes to clean off your hands if some lands there.
  3. You don't have to wear any kind of dust mask when mixing the liquids.
  4. You can use pearlescent and metallic paints to add pizzazz to your fabrics.
  5. There is very little if any learning curve -- in fact six to ten year olds just love doing it and there is no danger to them. You can use ANY acrylic paint or even house paint (which is an acrylic paint after all) right out of the jar/tube/can/bottle.
  6. You can't marble with MX dyes except with shaving cream which doesn't give you the flexibility you have with paints.
  7. You don't need to do any measuring or require any specialized equipment to get started.

So there are pluses for doing either!

For me, the ease of doing a lot of yardage plus the expense are a major factor in why I lean toward doing dyeing over painting. I love some of the effects I have gotten with paints. Anyone who has seen Mickey Lawler's work will understand this.

Paints do change the feel of fabric although I have found that my ProChem pigments and extender leave almost no change in the feel of the fiber even when it is painted quite darkly. Opaque paints, metallics and pearlescent paints will always leave the fabric a bit stiffer. However, controlling the speed of drying of acrylic paints and the varying the thickness of the paints, you can get some awesome effects that are just about impossible with dyes. It has been my goal over the past several years to find easy ways to duplicate the effects I get with paints using dyes instead and to do it with the ease that other dyeing techniques afford (like low water immersion).

To the above end, I have worked with thickened dyes on dry fabric pre-treated with soda ash to get many comparable results. From my other posts, you can see I have duplicated the salt effect now using dyes. Some of the commercial batiks are duplicating many of the interesting textural effects you can get with paints. So the "Quest" continues.

I think some of the confusion around words is a result of using dyes to "paint" (put color on a fabric with a brush)and using paints to "dye" (putting fibers in a liquid to get some color on it).


Unknown said...

Beth, did I understand your description of textile paints correctly - you can use salt (the same or similar way) as we do with MX? Any details you can share are greatly appreciated. Thx.

Beth Brandkamp said...

When I am referring to the use of salts with textile paints, I am talking about putting salts on top of a painted piece of fabric so that I can see the movement of the paints around. Look at some of my pieces that I have done with MX on previous posts and you will see the effect I am talking about -- probably have to go back about two weeks. It is not a reference to using salt in an immersion dyeing way. Beth

Unknown said...

Okay, I think I misunderstood. I did see your pieces with salt but thought you said you had previously used salt on top of fabric paints. I've never tried it. I've used salt with MX dyes a lot. Just wondering if I misunderstood.

anna said...

Hi Beth,
just to say thank you for writing such an informative and clear blog - I'm on the cusp of being a dyer....and this is all so useful and inspiring!

Jaime said...

Hello! I am completely new to textile printing. I have an etsy shop and want an easier way to get designs onto my fabrics, without spending the hours to embroider them. If you want to do something like a dish towel, which will be washed often, will fabric paint work ok? Will it last? Also- you said you can use any acrylic paint for fabrics? Wouldnt regular housepaint or chalk paint just chip off?

PS- After reading your article above, it occurred to me how much easier it must be now, with the internet, to pick up and learn about a new craft!

Thank you!

Beth Brandkamp said...

I would definitely not recommend painting on anything that needs frequent machine washing. Paint is very colorfast but it not great when subjected to the abrasion of the washing process. Also, paint changes the hand of the fabric and makes it less absorbent (not absorbent at all in fact). The only real alternative is fiber reactive (MX dyes) using a thickener. This is a bit of a learning process but will get you the desired results if you are working with 100% cellulosic fabrics like cotton or linen or hemp. The colors will fade a bit after many many washings but the dye won't change the hand or absorbency of the fabric.

Granger said...

Hi Beth, Brilliant article! Could you give me the name of a commercial product that would be considered an "extender." Sodium Alginate? Something else? Something from the art paint aisle? I can't wait to read more of your blog! Thank you!

Beth Brandkamp said...

An example of an extender is this from Pro Chemical in Massachusetts --

Unknown said...

Thank you