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Victorian Accessories to Dye For by Madames Mercantile on 10-01-2009


By Sue McDonald from Madame's Mercantile

Have you ever been admiring lovely Victorian costumes and suddenly one in particular just knocks your socks off by how coordinated the ensemble is? That's what happened to me one day when I was browsing several websites to research a particular time period. What was it that riveted my attention? Her GLOVES! The lady's gloves were the most beautiful shade of eggplant (the Victorians called the color, "aubergine") that I'd ever seen. The unusual gloves were the perfect finishing touch to an already stunning outfit, and gave it that extra special something that made it a show-stopper. I decided at that moment that I wanted to have some perfectly color-coordinated accessories in my Victorian wardrobe as well.

The great news is that dyeing small items is very easy to do. You can dye not only gloves, but feathers, trims, lace, silk flowers, and just about anything else that will withstand a bath. (Never immerse anything that is antique, fragile or irreplaceable. Unless you are fully positive that dye will really help the item, and there is no other recourse available to make it presentable. Also, that you don't mind risking an unforeseen concern, such as an old stain coming through, etc. Always keep in mind that an item may not turn out as you originally intended, so you should always test items that you are unsure of by cautiously cutting off a tiny piece in an area that does not show, and go through the process below.) Be aware that natural textiles (Cotton, linen, silk, and wool) take dye most readily. However, many man-made fibers can also be dyed, so they just may not be as dark a shade as the natural fibers. Also, sometimes if an item is already a bright hue, such as yellow and you use red dye, the color result may be orange instead of red, unless you purge the previous color by using a separate color remover before dyeing- always do a test piece to dry first to see your results. It is much easier to dye items that do not need color removal, so they are not recommended. The great news is that ALL of the items you dye in one bath will still go together beautifully, even if the (lightness/ darkness) or shade of the color is different variations.

In addition to gloves, for those of us who like to dress in Victorian attire, color-coordinated Victorian hat feathers and Victorian trims are always both hard to find, and so, in great demand. I like to dye as many different items as possible in the same dye bath so that I can use them to embellish everything with complementary items. Don't forget to add trims and silk flowers to your dyeing collection. You just might be inspired to have a Victorian hat that matches your gloves!

First, you will need to assemble some simple tools, and take precautions to protect surfaces (and yourself) from unintended coloring. You will need a non-metal, non-porous bowl (or container) that will withstand heat, a good sized second bowl or tray to hold wet items that have been pulled out of the dye bath, rubber gloves to protect your hands, a spoon or wisk for stirring, plus a pair of tongs for shifting items in and out of various baths. You will also want to cover your countertop with a sheet of plastic or other protective covering, newspapers (or butcher paper) to absorb spills over the plastic, and wear old clothes that you won't mind if they get spotted and stained. Be very careful not to drip dye on the floor, or splash dye on walls, and wash out containers/ sink/ counter tops thoroughly to remove all traces of dye. Do not get it near mucus membranes, food/ drinks, children or animals, follow the package instructions in case of such things happening.

RIT brand dye, either in liquid or powdered form, is what Madame's Mercantile likes to use. If you are going to dye just a few items, you can use just half the product, and save the rest for another time. Follow the instructions on the bottle or box, and don't forget to add a bit of dishwashing liquid and some salt. These items act as a mordant on stuff that helps the color "grab" into the fibers you are dyeing. We have discovered that how hot the bath is rather than the length of time in the dye bath is the biggest factor in getting more intense color.

My friend Cheryl and I at Madame's Mercantile have had great luck using RIT brand powdered dye. We usually use only half a box at a time, and cut all of the required ingredients like water and salt (or vinegar) in half as well. Our experience has been that vinegar is the best mordant, and that the hotter the dye bath, the more intense the resulting color.

  1. Prepare the dyeing area carefully- this process can get messy! We cover everything with a plastic sheet first. Then set up a place for the ready-to-be-dyed items, place the dye bath next to them, then spread pages of newspaper (or butcher paper) on the far side of the dye bath to absorb splashes. You can set items like the spoon (or whisk) that you use to stir the dye onto the paper, and absorb any uncontrolled drips. A bit of planning now will save you cleanup later! Don't forget to don gloves, or your fingers and nails will be a lovely shade of whatever color you are using for several days (trust me on this!).

Victorian Costume1. Dyebath

  1. Wash everything you plan to dye first before any dyeing (even the feathers) in warm soapy water. This helps to remove sizings, old dyes, dirt, dust, and prepares the fiber to evenly receive dye. For our wash, Cheryl and I use just a bit of dishwashing detergent in a sink full of warm water, and then swish everything around gently for a few minutes to saturate item(s). After the wash, you will need to rinse everything several times to ensure there is absolutely no soap residual left in the items. (Gently pat in a junk towel or lightly squeeze if the item won't wrinkle, but don't scrub.) Do not use any spot removers or bleach (these may interfere with the dye process by leaving uneven whitish streaks, spots and rings that won't come out.) Next, place your item(s) in a large bowl or other non-metal container, and set aside. Everything should stay damp during the dye process, so not let it dry out or lay on anything that could possibly stain, and they can stain each other as well. Note: Your feathers will look like drowned rats. Don't be concerned, I promise they will recover!

Victorian Costume2. Wash Boa

  1. Assemble the Dye Bath by following the directions on the Rit box. As mentioned before, we like to use only half a box, and also halve all of the other ingredients keeping ingredients proportional. If it does not seem like there is enough bath, we have added as much as two extra cups of hot water and still have had good results. Note: It is important to stir well for a bit to dissolve all of the color grains fully and completely into the liquid. Even though we use hot water, we also cover the dye bath with plastic wrap, then punch a small hole to let the steam out, and then "nuke" the dye bath in the microwave on high for about 2 minutes for addition heat. Protect your hands and be very, very careful when removing the container, the bath liquid and bowl will be very hot!
  1. Now, you are ready to dye... We like to place feathers in the dye bath first, so they have the best chance to absorb the color. If you wish lighter colored feathers, you may want to save them for last. You can add more items to the bath. Be sure everything can be submerged into the bath- do not let it "bubble" onto the bath surface, keep it submerged. If an item wants to poke above the surface, you will have to be careful to keep it moving while in the bath so the color will be even.

Victorian Costume3. Dye Bath

  1. Read the instructions for timing, watch and time item(s) carefully. When you feel item(s) have absorbed enough color (remember that it will be shades lighter when dry) remove item(s) from the dye bath, letting as much of the dye water drip back into the bath as possible to minimize mess. It is OK to gently pat, or, with non wrinkling items to gently squeeze excess from the items. Then rinse the items well in warm water until they no longer "bleed" color. This part of the process may take several rinses, especially for feathers. When doing different colors at one time, do not lay items of different colors on one another or wet items may absorb, spot or stain.

Victorian Costume4. Rinse Bath

  1. Do a vinegar and water rinse (as suggested by instructions) and rinse well again. Lay the dyed (and rinsed) items on the newspaper (or butcher paper) to dry. We put laces and fabrics into the dryer, but lay out delicate appliques' and feathers on paper. As they dry, their colors will lighten a bit. You may be surprised to discover that some items are very much lighter or darker than others, or that some seem more pink or green. This variation cannot be helped. It is due to the differences in absorbant materials and the various amounts of those materials they are made up from, reacting with the dye. Even with these variations, still you can feel comfortable that any of these items can be used together and they will all still compliment each other.

Victorian Costume5. Dry Items

  1. Final results: The most surprising thing to us was how well feathers recover from the dyeing treatment. Single plumes can be laid out on newspaper (or butcher paper) to dry, but when we dye boas, we drape them over a rod to get as much air circulation as possible. A gentle shake now and then will bring them back as fluffy as they were before the dyeing process. Here are the peach items you saw being dyed in this article.

Victorian Costume6. Peach Items

And here is an example of items we dyed using fuchsia color.

Victorian Costume7. Pink items

Finally, here are some finished items for a client. We used her fabric for the hat and purse, and custom-dyed the embellishments to go on them. As a bonus, we gave her the matching gloves that we dyed at the same time.

Victorian CostumeHat Purse Gloves

Now it's your turn! We would love to see pictures of your results. Just send them to Sue at: Madame@madamesmercantile.com, or Lisa at: bonnet@interx.net and she will send them to Sue.


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