Creating an Abstract Silk Scarf

Posted: August 25, 2015 in Ramblings

I always have a few undyed silk pieces from Dharma Trading Company lying around, so that if the instant-gratification urge to craft something hits me, I’m ready.  Yesterday, that urge did hit, so I decided to write up the process in the blog in case anyone else is interested.  This way you can get an interesting silk scarf for less than $10, instead of the $100+ amounts being charged by designers.  And it will be one-of-a-kind!

Materials needed:

Undyed scarf (duh)

Acid dyes in a range of colors you like (no more than 4 colors, though, otherwise it gets muddy).  These are also available from Dharma, but you can get them at Amazon and many fabric stores as well.

Citric acid or vinegar

Long flat pan (like a lasagna pan, which is what I use for this) which will not be used for food again

Dedicated dye microwave (yes, I know this might be the dealbreaker, but see below for a cheap alternative on warm days)

Rubber gloves

small artist’s paintbrush (can also use toothpicks, or any other method of applying very small amounts of dye).   In a pinch you could use the wet tip of your pinky, in the rubber glove, but you need to remember to rinse it off between colors!  (Pfft.  Ask me how I know this…)

Some of the supplies you will need.  If you plan to heat in the microwave, remember to use a microwave-safe pan!

Some of the supplies you will need. If you plan to heat in the microwave, remember to use a microwave-safe pan!


Assemble your items.  First, put enough water in the lasagna pan to cover its bottom.  You don’t want to immerse the whole scarf in a big pot of water, the way we do for dyeing yarn, because your dye will swim all over the pot and make a brownish mess.  So, a very small amount of water.  Dissolve 1/2 tsp citric acid, or about 2 ounces of vinegar, in this water.  You want to make the water’s pH acidic.  If you have pH test paper around you can use that, and try to get the strip to an orange color, around pH 5.

Set the pan aside.  Wash your scarf with soapy water.  The purpose of this is to remove any lingering oils on the fabric (oils from the hands of people who touched it, such as the maker, the packer, or you, or oils that were used in the weaving or sewing machinery).  If you don’t, you may end up with undyed patches.  Oil prevents the dye from attaching.

Squeeze out the scarf (do not wring) and lay it in the pan , spreading it out.  Mine always end up looking like a dropped noodle, winding up and down the pan in an S-shape.  You want to make sure that the whole scarf is laid out, and that you don’t have any sections where it’s bunched up or folded over itself.  A little bunching is fine, but large areas will not have as much dye takeup.  Make sure the scarf has submerged in the acid water before you start the next part.

Dry scarf in a pan.  This is a mockup because I forgot to take a pic yesterday.  It is laid in the shape of an S, but you can't tell in this pic because this one is dry.

Dry scarf in a pan. This is a mockup because I forgot to take a pic yesterday. It is laid in the shape of an S, but you can’t tell in this pic because this one is dry.

Now for the fun part!  Wearing your rubber gloves, open one of your dye pots.  Using the small artist’s paintbrush, dip it in the powder and then dab it here and there on the wet scarf.  For the finished product below, I used some straight “dab” movements, some swirly movements, and sometimes I really mashed the color into the scarf.  When that happened, a bit of it swirled into the acid water, but that’s okay because I only did it 2-3 times.  Remember to rinse your brush out between colors or you will contaminate the dye pots.  Ahem.

For a good, balanced, artistic look, do several ‘blobs’ of each color, and spread them out and intersperse them well.  For a more unbalanced look, you could start at one end with red and work your way through the spectrum from L-R, or just concentrate areas of one color instead of spreading them out.  On mine, they were spread out for a more symmetrical effect.  You can see I overdid the red a little, but because I was going for a rose garden effect, it’s okay.

Let the scarf and dye sit in the water for another hour.  Silk takes longer to soak up dye than other fibers, though on a fine silk scarf, it’s not as bad as a thick silk yarn!

Heat your pan.  I set mine to 5 minutes in the microwave at full power, but shortly after three minutes I noticed it smoking so out it came.  (Five minutes is an appropriate time for a thick pot of water and yarn.  Not so good for fragile silk.  Should have remembered that.)  But, no harm was done, and the dye had set.

Pour out the hot liquid, wash the scarf again to get any excess dye off it, squeeze it out and hang to dry!  If you like the very pristine scarf look, you’ll need to iron it, but I don’t bother.

Yesterday’s scarf got overdyed in a weak mix of Gun Metal and Black to give it a more goth look.  Unfortunately I used the “contaminated black” which has been losing its potency.  Somewhere around here is a sealed jar of black and this might get overdyed one more time with that, if I can find it.  This scarf, as is, is paler than I wanted.

The finished scarf.  Gardeny, yes, goth, no.  If I do overdye it again, I'll put up a fresh pic when it's done.

The finished scarf. Gardeny, yes, goth, no. If I do overdye it again, I’ll put up a fresh pic when it’s done.

To overdye:  while your scarf is cooking, mix up the overdye color and acid in a container that won’t be used again for food.  I used a 32-ounce Ball mason jar; we have lots of them around.  Remember to make it weak or it will obscure all your little dabs of color!

When the scarf is done cooking, take it out of the lasagna pan and rinse out the pan, and then put the scarf and overdye solution into the pan.  Spread it out so the whole scarf is wet and submerged in the overdye bath.  Let it sit for an hour  while you clean your work area and go have some coffee.  Then take it out, dump the overdye, rinse the scarf, squeeze, and hang to dry as above.

And voila!  That scarf cost me $3.63, but I already had all the other materials on hand.  Each half-ounce pot of Jacquard Acid Dye is about $3.50 and, if you are only doing these types of scarves now and then, should probably last you most of the rest of your life!

About that dedicated dye microwave:  Obviously not every hobbyist dyer is going to have one.  You can get around this in two very inexpensive ways.

  1. Put your dye pan into a black plastic garbage bag and set it in direct sunlight for 4 hours.
  2. Leave your dye pan where it is for 24 hours.

Then proceed with the rinsing.

The dye will set in these two circumstances, but it takes a lot longer.  Heat helps the dye set more quickly.  So if you’re not crunched for time (e.g., needing a new accessory for tonight’s dinner), you can do it this way.


  1. vallere says:

    That scarf is to dye for!

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