• Jacquelyn Zunic

How To Ice Dye: A Complete Guide

Updated: Sep 14

A detailed guide to ice dyeing methods, tools, and things to expect during the process.


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What is Ice Dye?

The simple answer: Ice dye is a technique similar to tie dye that uses unmixed dye powder over a pile of ice on top of a garment.


The long answer: Ice dyeing is the process of spreading fiber reactive powder dye over ice placed on top of a prepared set of natural fibers. It’s a low immersion method of dyeing, meaning there is very little liquid involved in the process, as opposed to tub dyeing methods.

Let’s break this down. Fiber reactive powder dyes are brilliant, permanent, easy to use, economical dyes. They require specific chemicals to ensure that the color fixes to the fabric and reaches its full, bold potential. They’re called fiber reactive because they work by reacting to the cellulose in natural fibers and create a permanent bond of the color. Cellulose is a complex carbohydrate, a structural component of the cell walls of plants. Cellulose is found in fibers such as cotton, rayon, hemp, bamboo, linen, wood, cane, rattan, and silk.


The ice melts to create the water used in dyeing, causing very textural results due to the limited immersion of the garment in water. Ice melts organically, provided the surrounding temperature is above freezing. Ice dyeing usually takes place around room temperature, and will completely melt between 12 and 24 hours depending on exact circumstance. Variations in humidity, minor temperature fluctuations, and even minerals in the water of the ice can affect the outcome of the melt process and therefore the texture of the final design. A lot of the fun of ice dyeing is not knowing exactly how your piece will turn out, because the process is mostly out of your control.

The prepared set of natural fibers means chemically treated natural fabrics. As above, cellulose is a complex carbohydrate, a structural component of the cell walls of plants. Cellulose is found in fibers such as cotton, rayon, hemp, bamboo, linen, wood, cane, rattan, and silk. If it comes from the earth, fiber reactive dyes will dye it. I’d like to note that if you don’t know what the fabric is, say if the tag says "Tencel" or "Lycra," it’s a good idea to look up what those mean and see if they’re cellulose based. Tencel is a brand of lyocell, a form of reconstituted eucalyptus pulp rayon, so you could easily ice dye it. Lycra is a brand of spandex, a synthetic petroleum copolymer perfect for stretchy compression garments, but it wouldn’t take any of the dye if you ice dyed it and would remain its original color.


Polyester and similar fabrics are petroleum-based, and while they’re great for their uses, dyeing them is fairly complicated and difficult, so it’s best to just leave that to the original factory that knows what they’re doing. If you have a poly-cotton blend, for example 50% cotton 50% polyester, you’re in luck. The cotton fibers will accept the dye and create a beautiful, pastel color that’s just as permanent as 100% cotton. My rule of thumb is to make sure at least half of the composition of the fabric is cellulose based, to ensure your colors still look good and intentional.


The chemical treatment of these fabrics means a pre-wash to remove fabric softeners, dirt, oil, or any other unwanted materials from fabric before dyeing, and then a soda ash soak to allow the dye to properly fix to the fabric. The pre-wash should consist of a professional textile detergent, a detergent formulated to ensure whites remain white, colors remain bold and in their place, and that any dye not chemically bonded to the fabric is removed. I’ve had success with pieces directly from thrift stores, from customer’s fresh washing, or other normal detergent washing. Unlike tub dyeing, there are many undyed spots left on the garment, and because of that, I tend not to stress as much over the pre-wash aspect of ice dyeing. Not to say I wouldn’t recommend pre-washing, because I do, but if you’re for some reason on an ice dyeing time crunch, it’s not going to ruin your garment to grab it from your closet and dyeing it. Note that if you use fabric softeners, you must pre-wash, as fabric softeners create too strong of a barrier for the dye and soda ash to penetrate well. The colors are dyed at their strongest with the professional textile detergent, and the process is significantly easier and more trustworthy when using it.


After the pre-wash, the garment is soaked in a fixative, soda ash, or sodium carbonate, to ready the fibers to accept the dye permanently. Sodium carbonate is a white, odorless, inorganic alkali compound extracted from plant ash in sodium-rich soil. It differs from potash, or potassium, which is from wood ash. Commonly it’s known as soda ash, washing soda, or soda crystals, and can be found in stores under these names. Soda ash has detergent properties, meaning it can remove unwanted substances from substrate, in this case, clothing. It’s an inexpensive method for maintaining the desired acidity level for proper chemical bonding of the dye with the cellulose fibers.


The fabric is then wrung out to remove any excess solution, and is manipulated into the desired shape and placed upon a drainable surface, such as a cooling rack or mesh screen. The shape, folding, scrunching, pleating, swirling, tying, or other method of manipulation affects the final penetration of the dye. The drainable surface is raised to allow the ice melt to run off and not sit, immersing the fabric and ruining the dye pattern. Note that the draining screen should be draining into a cleanable basin.


A sufficiently large amount of ice is then spread on top of the fabric, ensuring as much coverage as possible to allow the dye to reach as much of the garment as possible. Spots without ice will most likely remain white. It may be difficult to completely cover the fabric in ice if you are using a draining screen with gaps large enough to fit the cubes, or if the draining screen is flat and the ice tends to fall off the side. This can be solved by using a draining screen with sides, or using a large amount of ice.


Once the ice is in place, the fiber reactive dye is sprinkled on top in desired locations. Multiple dyes may be used for a blending effect to create unique colors. The dye, composed of many different components to create the specific color, will split as the ice melts and create unique spots of color in the pattern. Over the course of 24 hours, as the ice melts, the dye penetrates parts of the fabric, leaving organic shapes and patterns, including ice cube shaped stamps.

Raw silk fabric dyed in bright blue green and deep purple.
Here you can see spots where the dye split into its component colors.

After the ice has melted, the fabric is rinsed until the water runs clear to remove any excess pools of dye, and then washed in hot water with the professional textile detergent, leaving the colors brilliant, the whites white, and removing any excess dye. I’ve had success with washing items that cannot handle high heat on low to medium heat, I just recommend an additional rinse cycle. The fabric is dried, preferably on high heat in a dryer, to finalize the setting of the dye. At this point, the dyeing is completed.


Definitions

Cellulose — complex carbohydrate, a structural component of plant cell walls, found in plant fibers

Fiber reactive dye — dye that reacts to and forms permanent bonds with cellulose, creating brilliant colors

Ice dyeing — a technique similar to tie dye that uses unmixed dye powder over a pile of ice on top of a garment

Natural fabric — a fabric originating from fibers containing cellulose, examples include cotton, rayon, hemp, bamboo, linen, wood, cane, rattan, and silk


Things You’ll Need

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Tools for You

Rubber gloves

Dust mask


Equipment for Dyeing

Spoon or teaspoon reserved for dyeing

A bucket or container reserved for dyeing

Cooling rack reserved for dyeing -- I use these steamer baskets, they fit perfectly in a 5-gallon bucket


Chemicals

Any of Dharma Fiber Reactive Procion Dyes

2C soda ash

1 gallon water

1 oz Professional Textile Detergent for silk, front load machines, 2 oz for top load and other cellulose fibers

Ice

Something to dye, made of a natural fiber


Warnings

In the equipment for dyeing I have all the tools marked as "reserved for dyeing." This is because the chemicals used for professional dyeing will make these tools no longer food safe, or at the very least, not worth the risk. So please, don’t use your family heirloom crab pot for the dye vat.


Material Sourcing

I get my dyes, soda ash, and PTD from Dharma Trading. If you can obtain them, I really recommend the Dharma Fiber Reactive Procion Dyes for their colorfastness and bold colors, as well as ease of use. Soda ash is also available at home improvement stores, craft stores, and in the craft areas of some department stores, however if you can't access it or are doing this project with kids, it will work okay to substitute the soda ash for table salt and dissolve it completely, using heat if necessary. If you can't get PFD, you can use a normal detergent without bleach in it, but you have to really ensure that you rinse your item incredibly well and wash it separately for a few times while the remainder of the dye is washed out. Note that the white areas will not remain super white and the dye will almost certainly bleed into surrounding areas. This can still look good, however!


Tool Sourcing

Most of my supplies are from a dollar store, Amazon, or other cheap shop. Because I do this for a living, I have pressure cooker steamer baskets I use to raise and drain the fabric, a bunch of dollar store bowls and stirring tools, a nice pair of rubber gloves from a home improvement or grocery store, and five gallon buckets. Any watertight container will work to catch the dye water. I like finer mesh strainers with walls to hold the ice easier, but wider things like cooling racks are perfectly fine for this project.


Time

Total time: 1 day, 2 hours, 10 minutes

Active time: 10 minutes


Time per step:

Pre-wash: 30 minutes

Soda ash: 30 minutes

Preparation & dyeing: 5 minutes

Melt: 24 hours

Rinse: 5 minutes

Wash: 30 minutes

Dry: 30 minutes


Instructions

1. Pre-wash with Professional Textile Detergent

2. Soda ash soak, 1:8 ratio soda ash:water

3. Scrunch fabric

4. Cover in ice

5. Sprinkle dye, a little goes a long way

6. Wait 24 hours

7. Rinse until clear

8. Wash hot with Professional Textile Detergent

9. Dry

10. Wear


Extended Instructions

1. Pre-wash the item with the detergent to remove any fabric softeners, oils, dirt, fingerprints, or whatever else may be hiding in the fabric.

Pre-washed and going into the soda ask soak
Pre-washed and going into the soda ask soak

2. As the fabric is washing, mix the soda ash and water. Remove the item from the wash and place it in the soda ash solution, making sure the item is fully saturated with the solution. Let soak for 30 minutes to 1 hour. Put on your gloves, pull out the item, and squeeze out the excess solution. Be careful, soda ash can cause skin irritation. The soda ash solution is reusable, if you have more things you’d like to dye, feel free to save it in a safe place, preferably a closed container out of reach of pets, children, or any curious friends.

Shiny, soda-ashed goodness
Shiny, soda-ashed goodness

3. Scrunch, fold, swirl, roll, tie up, pleat, do something crazy with your item. I’ve had great success with laying items completely flat, too! Place your prepped item on the cooling rack in the container. The important thing is to get distance between the bottom of the tub and the rack so that the melting ice can pool and not touch the item.

Covered in ice cubes
Covered in ice cubes

4. Cover it with ice. For strong dye effects, completely cover the item. Cover certain parts for a color block effect. Areas without ice will remain undyed as the ice melts. Crushed ice can make covering the item easier. The easiest way to obtain the amount of ice you'll need is buying a bag at a convenience or grocery store.

Sprinkled with dye
Sprinkled with dye

5. Mask up. The fine particulates of the dye powder are dangerous, so let’s avoid combining crafting and lung damage. Grab your chosen dye powder and sprinkle it over the ice. You can be totally random with this, as even as possible, or sprinkle a design. This is a great time to experiment. If you’re using multiple colors, you can create interesting blends of colors as the ice melts depending on your placement, e.g. blue and yellow dye will blend to green. Use the color wheel to your advantage here. Note that the powder may not reflect the actual color of the dye. As it hits the ice, you’ll be able to see a better idea of what it will look like. Remember that powder dyes are created of component colors, and as the powder interacts with the ice and the fabric, the components can and will split.

6. It’s time for some patience. Once you’ve placed your dye, leave it alone for 24 hours to melt. (It’s totally acceptable to take progress pics). If you’re dyeing in a place with others, please cover the dye container to keep out of reach of pets, children, or any curious friends.

7. The water at the bottom of the tub will look like a scary brown mess if you used multiple colors. No worries, that’s why the rack was elevated. Rinse the item under cold running water in a sink or tub until the water runs clear.

8. Throw it in the washing machine with professional textile detergent and hot water. For items that can’t handle it, I’ve washed with cold and it’s come out fine, I would recommend another rinse cycle or another wash with regular detergent just make sure it’s completely rinsed and clean before you wash it with other items.

9. Dry it in the dryer.

10. Congratulations, you’ve created a one of a kind piece of art that you can wear, frame, or use.


Infographic


Here’s a handy infographic perfectly sized for Instagram stories or your phone wallpaper, so you can reference the steps as you go!

Colorful infographic with steps to ice dye
How To Ice Dye Infographic

Seem like a lot? Click here, I can dye it for you!

✌ jcq

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