Information for Textile Artists on Preparation & Dyeing of Silk

Silk purchased from Silk Wholesalers contains no factory additives and is ready for dyeing or painting.


Dyed Silk, Artist: Jill Phillips

We do, however, suggest pre-washing as all Silk contains varying amounts of Sericin, a naturally occurring protein gum, which is best be removed before dyeing to support even penetration.  


Sericin is a gum generated by the silk worm and the amount found in silk will vary according to the environmental conditions, such as the climatic and regional influences and the diet of the worms.  


Silk purchased from Silk Wholesalers contains nothing other than natural Sericin. 


Preparing Silk for Dyeing  by pre-washing or scouring.

This can be carried out in YOUR WASHING MACHINE on the DELICATE/WOOL CYCLE, simply use a gentle detergent formulated for protein fibres such as silk & wool. Choice magazine (Sept 89) found SOFTLY the best detergent to use on silk/wool, for PH balance and cleansing ability. Resist the urge to use a wool wash containing eucalyptus, or other oils, as this will defeat the object and hinder your dye penetration.

We still recommend Softly over any commercial silk pre-wash.

By hand, soak fabric in warm water for 45 minutes with your ‘neutral’ detergent added to the water. Allow fabric to cool down with the water. Rinse well in warm water. Add a little white vinegar to final rinse water to rid fabric of excess alkali. Hang to dry out of direct sunlight.

The PH factor of the detergent is important for silk. Detergents particularly high in alkali and damage the silk fibre. Other things that damage the silk filament are; Heat - water in excess of 80c  and  Agitation - from boiling water, stirring, rubbing, wringing, ironing.

Damage to the silk filament will be noticed as a loss of lustre and harshness of feel. This is irreversible and will be noticeable when dry.  Artists can use this to their advantage, especially if you want crinkled or crushed silk !

Dyeing Silk

Protein fibres such as silk, wool and other animal fibres, prefer certain dye types.

ACID DYES produce bright colours which vary in light fastness. They are simple to use.

These dyes require boiling, which may affect the silk filament, altering the final appearance and feel. This can be avoided by bringing the pot to the boil without the silk, reducing to a gentle simmer and immersing the silk.

FIBRE REACTIVE DYES.  These dyes have excellent light and wash fastness, are easily mixable to form a wide range of colours and can be used in cold water. These dyes depend on a chemical reaction taking place, under alkaline conditions, in an aqueous solution, making a permanent bond with the fibres called co-valent bonding. The alkali is the fixing agent. These alkaline conditions will damage protein fibres, so this should be a consideration when dyeing silk. The alkali (Soda Ash) should be greatly reduced or replaced with acetic acid (Painting Powder) for silk. Gaubers salt can be substituted for common salt.

These problems do not occur when hand painting with fibre reactive dyes, the dye powder is mixed with water to required strength and painted on. Fixing is done by steaming or the application of a cold fix agent (Sodium Silicate)

The Sodium Silicate is painted onto the dried hand painted fabric. The fabric is wrapped completely in plastic to exclude air, left for a min of 2 hrs (overnight is preferable) and washed thoroughly afterwards. With this method there is no loss of colour. Dyes made up without additives will remain usable for many weeks kept in a dark place.

Tips for Dyeing in General


Use appropriate dye for type of fabric.

Use correct ratio of dye to weight of fabric.

Use appropriate fixative to ensure fast colour, especially if you intend to sell your work.

Scour fabric well before dyeing. Silks purchased from retail shops will certainly contain stiffeners, bulking agents, crease resistants, fire retardants, soiling repellents and even synthetic fibres. All of which may act as dye resistants.

Always immerse wet fabric into dye bath. Fabric can be soaked for 15 minutes with one drop of dish detergent added to the water, to facilitate dye absorption. Rinse well after dye fixation process.

This general information remains the property of Silk Wholesalers and is the result of experience & research. It is intended only as a useful guide to the successful dyeing of silk fabric. No responsibility will be taken by Silk Wholesalers for individual results. Copyright Silk Wholesalers 2006