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 Quilting Techniques : Tea Dying Quilts

For added visual interest, tea dying can be a useful technique in quilt construction. It can lend an antiqued, weathered look to the newest of fabrics, providing an additional element of design.

Although tea dying has benefits, it also has some drawbacks. Depending upon the dying process, uneven coloration may result. Noticeably darker patches may also occur. Such patches may compliment some projects, while it could diminish the overall effect of others. Before beginning, quilters should fully understand correct technique and possible drawbacks to determine if tea dying will increase or decrease their quilt's appeal.

Cautions for Tea Dying

In order to achieve the best results, it is important to understand possible drawbacks and limits of the process.

The size of your project can impact the quality of tea dying. Larger quilts are more susceptible to spotting or unevenly distributed color depending upon how the process is done. If the container in which a large quilt is dyed does not provide enough free space or if the quilt is not thoroughly agitated within the solution, the finished project could be splotchy. Some crafters prefer using a commercial dye, such as liquid Rit dye or Dylon Tea dye for larger projects to minimize this risk.

Tea dying is not appropriate for all fabrics. It works best on natural fibers, such as cotton, linen and wool, that can absorb the coloration. Synthetics, such as polyester and nylon, will not work with tea dying.

Tea contains tannic acid, the levels of which increase with longer steeping times. Tannic acid can break down and weaken fabric. If longevity and durability are important considerations for a project, using real tea may not be the best choice. Commercial dyes are better alternatives that will not compromise fabric integrity.

Dying with real tea may not be permanent unless a fixative agent is used. Most detergents on the market today are designed to remove tea stains, so repeated washings counteract the dying process. Using a fixative, such as vinegar, neutralizes the tea's acidity and increases the longevity of the dye. Laundering will then only remove brassy, yellow tones from the quilt, leaving a warm, antiqued tone.


As with any technique, it is always best to use a test fabric scrap first. In this way, the likelihood of an attractively tea dyed quilt is increased. To make a dying solution with real tea, boil four cups of water for each yard of fabric. To this water, add two tea bags for each cup of water. Any type of tea will do, orange pekoe, black, green or herbal teas. Understand, however, that herbal teas can yield considerably lighter results; all the more reason to do a test patch before dying your full project. Allow the tea to steep for five to ten minutes. The longer it steeps, the darker the resulting color.

When the solution has steeped long enough, remove and discard the tea bags. Soak the fabric in cool water before submerging it into the tea. It is important to stir or agitate the fabric well while it is in the solution to evenly distribute the color. The longer your project soaks, the deeper and richer the resulting color. The deepest tones may be achieved by soaking overnight.

Remove the fabric from the tea solution and rinse thoroughly under cool water. Do not be surprised to see much of the color rinse out at this point. If you find your fabric is too light after rinsing, it may be returned to the tea solution for additional soaking.

When the fabric is thoroughly rinsed, the dye must be set. Mix a solution of two parts vinegar, one part water and two tablespoons salt. Soak the fabric in this solution for roughly 15 to 20 minutes, stirring frequently to distribute the fixative evenly. Remove from this solution and rinse with cool water. The fabric may be dried normally in a clothes dryer.

Should the tea dying results not meet your expectations, it can be reversed by rinsing the fabric with some bleach in a washing machine. This is not a good choice, however, for older fabrics as the bleach can damage the fabric.

Tea Dying Larger Projects

Because uneven results are more common in larger projects, the usual steps of tea dying may require alteration when a great deal of fabric is involved. Rather than using a basin or oversized container, some quilters have luck tea dying large projects in their washing machines.

For this technique, fill the machine with warm water at the low or medium load setting. Brew a strong tea mixture using 4 cups of boiling water and anywhere from one half to a full box of tea bags. When the tea has steeped long enough, usually 10 minutes or so, add it to the washing machine. Agitate for a few minutes to distribute the tea evenly before adding fabric. With the fabric in the solution, agitate again for a longer period of time to allow the dye to reach all parts of the fabric. Shut the machine off and let the fabric soak until the desired shade is achieved. Rinse with cold water once or twice for the desired effect.

The dye fixative steps above may also be adapted for the washing machine to finish the project before drying.

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