Chemical Solution: Tie-dye Secret Formula

Containers of urea, sodium alginate, and calsolene oil laid out on a table.

At some point in your tie-dye development you may seek more control over your dyes. This is why we use auxiliary chemicals. These products can change some key properties of your dyes.

Urea, sodium alginate, and calsolene oil are commonly used to change the properties of dye solutions. Add them to your dye bottles to improve flow, control, and saturation.

How to Improve your Dyes

Not only can you put soda ash in your bottles, you can also introduce a whole array of auxiliary chemicals, each with their own unique properties.

The most common dye additives are urea, sodium alginate, and calsolene oil. Add them to your dye solution to improve your ability to dye.

While you don’t strictly need to use auxiliary chemicals, they definitely make a difference. The ability of controlling the flow of your dye cannot be understated.

Do Need Soda Ash if you Use Auxiliary Chemicals?

Yes, soda ash is still necessary. Auxiliary chemicals enhance your dyes, but are not a replacement for soda ash. You still need to add in soda ash to the equation.

There are multiple ways to use soda ash. Either presoak the shirt or use the bottle method.

1. Urea

Urea is usually the first additive new dyers will try. It makes your life easier in many ways. Not only does it keep the shirt wet longer, it also helps dissolve dye powder.

Urea is easy to use and inexpensive. Many tie-dye artists, including myself, like to include it every single time we mix dyes.

What is urea?

Urea is a naturally occurring compound. It is highly soluble and useful to many processes. In nature, it is used by the body to facilitate liquid waste excretion.

Urea is a humectant. It attracts water and keeps its surroundings moist. Synthetic urea is commonly used in multiple industries from fertilizers to skincare products.

How much urea to use?

Using too much or too little urea is not harmful. The more you use, the better humidity retention your shirt will have. Using a good amount of urea will all but ensure that your dyes won’t clump up in your bottles.

Use 1-2 tsp of urea per cup of water. One to two teaspoons per bottle is enough for most cases. It’s possible to add up to one cup per liter when preparing a concentrated solution.

How to mix urea in your dye bottles

  1. Start with a clean squeeze bottle
  2. Measure and add one cup of lukewarm water
  3. Add in two teaspoons of urea
  4. Measure 1 teaspoon of dye powder and add it to the bottle
  5. Screw the lid on and shake the bottle for thirty seconds
  6. Wait five minutes then shake again

How urea will improve your tie-dye

Adding urea helps you dissolve more dye in a given volume of water. Urea’s properties as a humectant help the shirt stay moist. Keeping the shirt wet longer allows for the dye to react fully.

Urea is used for keeping the fabric hydrated once dyed. It also prevents the dye powder from clumping. Use it to achieve superior color saturation and to prevent blockage in your bottles.

2. Sodium Alginate

Alginate is a game changer when it comes to precise dye placement. It enables you to better control the flow of dye and prevent it from spreading as much.

Sodium alginate will definitely improve your precision. It let’s you dye in thin, small lines. It makes the dye sticky and makes it stay in place on the fabric.

Alginate solutions are better prepared in advance as they take 1-2 hours to thicken up.

What is alginate?

Sodium alginate is a powder derived from brown seaweeds. It forms a viscous gel when combined with water. Alginate is used in many industries as a gelling or thickening agent.

It is used in medicine to promote wound healing. It is also popular in the food industry as an emulsifier and stabilizer for items such as yogurt and ice cream.

How much alginate to use?

You only need a little sodium alginate to make a big difference. Use one teaspoon of alginate powder per liter of water or 1/4 teaspoon per cup.

You can use more or less to change the viscosity of your dye. The more alginate you use, the more viscous the water.

Using alginate in a high ratio let’s you create a thick mixture similar to paint. This dye paint can be used to draw precise details on the fabric.

How to thicken your dyes with sodium alginate

Since sodium alginate likes water so much, you can’t mix it with a spoon. Alginate powder becomes sticky in water and quickly forms clumps. Mixing it with a handheld blender is the way to go.

  1. Measure 1 cup of warm water
  2. Add in 1/4 tsp of sodium alginate powder
  3. Using a handheld blender, mix until fully blended
  4. Let the solution rest for one to two hours until it clears up and thickens up
  5. Transfer the solution to a squeeze bottle
  6. Add in 1 tsp of dye powder
  7. Screw the lid on and shake the bottle for thirty seconds
  8. Wait five minutes then shake again

If you’re having trouble getting dye powder to dissolve evenly in your alginate solution, try adding in 1-2 tsp of urea to the mix.

How sodium alginate will improve your tie-dye

Sodium alginate is mainly used to change the consistency of liquid dyes. It is inexpensive and the only common thickener compatible with reactive dyes.

Adding alginate to your dye will give it a jelly-like consistency which enhances flow control and prevents the dye from spreading as much.

A viscous dye solution is easier to control and spreads less on the fabric. Thickened dyes give you a level of control that would otherwise be  impossible to achieve.

3. Calsolene Oil

Calsolene oil is an additive that promotes dye penetration and evenness. It is a wetting agent that breaks the surface tension of the water.

Using calsolene oil lets you dye on dry and tightly bound fabric. It makes dyeing easier, especially with advanced folding techniques.

What is calsolene oil?

Calsolene is also called sulfated castor oil or turkey red oil. It is an amber colored viscous liquid derived from the oil of the castor bean.

Calsolene is the only oil that completely disperses in water and is used in multiple industrial applications. It is used in detergents, softeners, lubricants, and dispersants.

How much calsolene oil to use?

You only need a very small amount of calsolene to make a big difference. Use only 1 ml of calsolene oil per liter of water or 1/4 ml per cup. Even a little goes a long way.

Use a dropper or syringue to carefully measure your calsolene oil.

How to mix calsolene oil in your dyes

  1. Start with a clean squeeze bottle
  2. Measure and add one cup of lukewarm water
  3. Measure 1 teaspoon of dye powder and add it to the bottle
  4. Measure and add 1/4 ml of calsolene
  5. Screw the lid on and shake the bottle for thirty seconds
  6. Wait five minutes then shake again

Calsolene oil can be used in combination with urea and alginate. Don’t forget to add soda ash before dyeing.

How calsolene oil will improve your tie-dye

This wetting agent is a must when using advanced tie-dye techniques. Some folds are so tight that dye has trouble penetrating the fabric. Calsolene helps the dye get right to the center of the fabric.

Calsolene let’s you dye dry and tightly woven fabrics. It also makes the dye spread more evenly for better color combination. It is also very helpful in dye baths to achieve even and uniform coloration.

4. Chemical Solution

The chemical solution is the ultimate dye mix. It combines all of the above ingredients to make a solution fit for even the most advanced patterns.

This is the exact formula that many tie-dye masters use on a daily basis.

What is a chemical solution?

The chemical solution is a combination of all the auxiliary tie-dye chemicals. It includes urea, sodium alginate, and calsolene oil. This solution combines all the beneficial properties of the auxiliary chemicals into one.

Can you combine auxiliary chemicals together?

Yes, it is totally possible to combine multiple dyeing auxiliaries together.

Urea, alginate, and calsolene together in water combine to a stable chemical solution. It will still keep all the benefits of each individual component.

The shelf life of a chemical solution is multiple weeks when refrigerated.

Keep in mind that adding soda ash to the mix is something you should only do right before dyeing. Soda ash drastically changes the pH of the solution, interfering with the lifespan of other chemicals.

How to make a tie-dye chemical solution

This is the ultimate recipe containing urea, alginate, and calsolene oil. This is an all-around excellent dye mix for all intermediate and advanced projects.

  1. Measure 1 cup of warm water
  2. Add in 1/4 tsp of sodium alginate powder
  3. Add in 1 tsp of urea
  4. Add in 1 ml of calsolene oil
  5. Using a handheld blender, mix for one to two minutes
  6. Let the solution rest for one hour so it thickens up
  7. Transfer the solution to a squeeze bottle
  8. Add in 1 tsp of dye powder
  9. Shake for thirty seconds
  10. Wait 5 minutes, then shake again

Why use a chemical solution

Using a chemical solution is the perfect way to make sure you have every base covered. If you’re a budding tie-dye artist then you should not leave anything to chance.

Mixing a chemical solution as the base of your dyes is the best way to use every advantage available.

Preparing large batches of chemical solution

The easiest way to prepare your dyes when you’re dyeing often is to make large batches of chemical solution. Then it’s only a matter of seconds to portion off the solution into bottles and add in your dye powder.

Chemical solution recipe (Imperial)

1 cup2 tsp1/4 tsp1/4 ml
2 cups4 tsp1/2 tsp1/2 ml
3 cups6 tsp3/4 tsp3/4 ml
4 cups (liter)8 tsp1 tsp1 ml
16 cups (gallon)32 tsp4 tsp4 ml

Chemical solution recipe (Metric)

250 ml16 g2 g1/4 ml
500 ml32 g4 g1/2 ml
750 ml48 g6 g3/4 ml
1000 ml64 g8 g1 ml
4000 ml256 g32 g4 ml