Tea- and Coffee-Dyeing Floss and Fabric

I am not an experienced dyer, but here is what I know about this topic. I strongly advise that you go to the library or search on the Web for more information!

General Dyeing Guidelines

Tea is orange-ish if it contains orange pekoe tea; fabric dyed with such teas becomes more orange over time. Raspberry tea is pink; fabric will take on pink tinge. Tea with no fruit content is best.

Earl Grey is usually the tea of choice, but English breakfast is ok, too.

Besides color changes, another problem with tea dyeing is the tannic acid [a.k.a. tannin] in it. Eventually this will degrade your work, as all acids will do. Acids are why your heirloom projects should be mounted on acid-free foamcore, acid-free mats should be used in framing, and so on. (I suspect acid is why a paper cut hurts so much for what it is!)

Coffee will degrade your fabric less than tea. Tea will degrade it in 30-40 years; coffee-dyed fabrics will last 75-100 years.

Another difference between tea and coffee is that tea imparts a "grayish" and "dirty" look. Coffee makes it brown and "old" looking.

Hot water dyes will shrink fabric. Never "cook" the fabric in the dyebath. Cold water dyes are best.

If there's a hole in original (ex.: you're making a reproduction sampler), leave a blank spot for the hole. Don't cut the fabric, as this will hasten degradation of your piece.

Vegetable dyes fade, even when set with a mordant. (More on mordants below.)


Steps in tea/coffee dyeing:

Another technique is to massage the coffee grounds into the fabric. This distresses the fabric more.

To prepare coffee for dye use:

A quick-dye technique is called "round fiber dye." Put the fabric quickly in and out of the solution. This covers only the outside of the fibers. When the fabric is cut or threads removed for drawn-thread work, the original color of the fabric will show through. Another use for this technique is like the 60s' tie-dying. Crumple up the fabric, in and out of the solution, and you'll have a mottled effect. If you don't like it, re-crumple and re-dip or go to regular long-sit dyeing.

Post-Stitching Distressing

If you can bring yourself to paint coffee or tea on your stitching after it's done, here are some suggestions!

You can tone down specific floss colors by painting coffee on them. If the coffee runs into an area where you don't want it, use a 100% cotton cottonball to soak up excess.

You can also dip the piece after stitching is complete, either long-sit or quick-dip. Do a test swatch with all thread colors used to get a feeling for the time to leave the piece in the bath for the color desired. It takes a lot of courage to do something like this!


DMC isn't guaranteed colorfast anymore. In fact, nobody's floss is guaranteed colorfast.

To dye floss, remove the paper bands and "tie" the hank together loosely at opposite ends with plastic twist-ties. Dye, then set with mordant, as desceribed. Remove the twist-ties. Put on a paper towel to dry.

Remember when you finish your project to iron with a dry iron!!!

Color Gradations

When dyeing wool for hooking rugs (I'm not talking about "latch hooking," where strips of yarn are knotted individually in a mesh backing but "old fashioned" rug hooking, in which loops of wool strips are pulled to the front of burlap backing), gradations of the same color can be made by diluting the dyebath systematicallt. Diluting by half is most common. For example, start with 1 gallon of dyebath. Dye some of your fabric/floss/whatever. Discard 1/2 gallon, add 1/2 gallon water, and dye more product. Discard 1/2 of this second bath and replace with 1/2 gallon water; dye product. Continue until the dyebath is too weak to color the product or until you have the number of gradations you desire for the piece.


Please experiment first!

Don't commit your entire piece of $500/yd. linen to the dyebath without first doing a test swatch! Don't paint coffee on your finished stitching without stitching with all threads on a test swatch and making notes on time left, strength of the dye, etc.

copyright 1999, Martha Beth Lewis
Contact me about reprint permission.

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