Claire Benn: Exploring Fiber Reactive Dyes on Silk

Posted by Andrew Galli on

'100 Lines' (detail); Gold leafing, dye paints with discharge on Silk Habotai, Claire Benn.

I’ve heard it said that fibre reactive dyes aren’t great on silk fibres, and that completely befuddles me!  I worked with silk (mainly silk broadcloth) for many years, always with fibre reactive dyes and I always found the colour strike to be excellent.  I’ve also discharged said dyes successfully and added accents of gold leaf or acrylic paint to great effect.
'Dreamcatcher'; Gold leaf, dye paints and acrylic on Silk Broadcloth, Claire Benn

I didn’t treat my silk any differently to cotton: I scoured it if needed, soda soaked it, dried it (if working wet on dry) and applied the dyes in all of the usual ways; as dye paints using surface design techniques and with low or high water immersion methods.
'Dreamcatcher' (detail from above image); Claire Benn

The only caveat when working with silk is that ideally, soda-soaked cloth shouldn’t be stored for longer than a month as there is the possibility of rotting as silk prefers acid conditions to alkaline conditions.  But having said that, I’ve discovered scrumpled-up bits of silk in the bottom of my soda-soaked storage box and used them with no ill effect.
'Breathe Deeply'; Dye paints and acrylics on Silk broadcloth, Claire Benn 
'Breathe Deeply' (detail), Claire Benn
I’m aware of acid dyes and have used these on wool, as wool does not respond to fibre reactive dyes, and on silk.  In truth, acid dyes didn’t give me ‘more’ than fibre reactives, although I’m aware that extremely bright, vivid (almost neon?) colours can be more readily achieved, but in truth, I personally find these hues rather false.
Untitled; Stitch over Silk Organza on Silk Habotai with dye paints, Claire Benn

Silk paints are also an option on silk but we need to remember that silk paints are NOT dyes, they are synthetic paints belonging to the acrylic family.  Any product that doesn’t require a chemical additive as a fixative (such as soda ash in the case of fibre reactive dyes, or acetic acid (in the case of acid dyes) IS NOT a dye, it is a pigment-based paint.  If you read the label and it says ‘heat set’, it’s a paint and cannot be discharged in the same manner as fibre reactive dyes, which gives you fewer options in terms of layering.
'100 Lines'; Stitch on Silk organza on Silk Habotai with dye paints, Claire Benn

An excellent visual resource at this point would be my online workshop Exploring Fiber Reactive Dyes.  More than 7 hours of video instruction and in depth analysis of fiber dyes on a variety of cloths -- including silk. Let's watch a bit below.

I encourage you to use fibre reactive dyes on silk, following any of the methods outlined on the DVDs.  If you’re a silk painter and getting tired of using Gutta as a resist to stop liquid silk paints from blending too much, you’ll be astounded at what you can achieve with thickened fibre-reactive dyes as they open up every known surface design technique available to you.  Have fun.
To learn more about Claire Benn, please visit her website.
Ready to explore? Consider the DVD or workshop, "Exploring Fiber Reactive Dyes", available at Galli Creative.

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  • Claire Benn, You’re rocking in this blog in-terms of research & writing.

    Raghav Purohit on

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