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Fabric Dye Safety =========================================================
Collection maintained by: Lisa

Original Question:

I would like to start tie-dyeing fabric for clothes for my 7-month old but
I see in the Dharma catalog a little warning about procion that reads:

"Pregnant and nursing women need to be particularly careful with all
chemicals. Best to discuss the matter with your doctor first."

Since I am still nursing Alex I thought this was good advice but my doctor
knows nothing about procion dyes so was no help at all. Do any of you know
any thing more about the specific hazards of this dye?

Alex can live without tie-dyed clothing if this is really a serious problem
but I would like to know more about the dye. I guess I could just marble
the fabric for him since it appears marbling fabric just requires fabric
paints - no dire warnings on that page of the catalog even though there are
chemicals I know nothing about - like potassium aluminum sulfate,
carrageenan, methcel & oxgall. Are these safe? Maybe I should have taken a
few chemistry classes in all those years of school.

Has anyone ever tried to marble 100% cotton knit fabrics? Does it work?

The original responses were:


I'm not sure about the other chemicals, but carrageenan is a natural
product made out of sea weed, I believe, and is used in some meat products
to add bulk without calories. The McLead Delux burgers you get at
McDonald's are made from a beef and carrageenan mix.

I've only marbled woven cotton fabric, but I have seen cotton knit t-shirts
that look fine. I haven't taken a close look, so I don't know how they look
when stretched. The big hit with my teen-age nieces for Christmas this year
was marbled cotton sneakers - they looked great!


I am very nervous about all chemicals and I don't trust most of the safety
claims. Too many people bought the "better living through chemicals" slogon
of the 60s and never learned to question safety claims. Anyway, I'll cut
myself off before I get on my soapbox. But, many of my friends who spin
their own wool, dye the yarn with Kool Aid. Seems like a good use for the
stuff to me! It makes very vibrant colors. I don't think it makes sense to
drink it, but it probably won't hurt you to touch it.


Procion dyes (the MX series powdered ones) are dangerous primarily when
they are in powder form. The particles are very fine and become airborne as
soon as you open the jar. All the dye manuals recommend that you wear a
dust mask and rubber gloves (to prevent absorption thru the skin) when
measuring and mixing your dyes. Once they are mixed with water, they are
not "volatile" any more.

As a long time dyer and mother of three, I would say that as long as you
practice safe dyeing techniques (mask and gloves, wear old clothes that you
don't wear when nursing the baby, and restricting your dye activities to an
area where food is not consumed) you could certainly dye fabric safely
while nursing. Your contact time with the dye powder will probably be less
than a minute or so. Once the fabric is immersed in the dye you can stir
with a stick and wring it out while wearing gloves.

I highly recommend Judy Anne Walter's CREATING COLOR: A dyer's handbook.
sShe has a whole section on safety that is excellent, plus lots of
exercises for making the colors of your dreams. You might also consider dye
PAINTING using Ann Johnston's method (See her excellent book DYE PAINTING
published by the American Quilter's Society). Dye painting uses the procion
dyes but is safe enough to use with grade school kids.

Marbling compounds (carageenan which is seaweed, and alum) are safe to use
even in your kitchen.

As for dyeing cotton knits, they dye beautifully. You do have to pay
attention to their weight and adjust the amount of dye accordingly. Knits
are much heavier than regular wovens, so they need more dye to produce the
bright colors. Judy Walter's book goes into detail about weight of fabrics
vs amount of dye.

Be sure the knits are 100% cotton, otherwise, the polyester content will
not take and you will have very pastel-loooking fabric.


I'm not into dyeing but I do have the Dharma catalog and my impression of
the warning was to be cautious of inhaling vapors from the dye in liquid
form and particulates from the powdered dyes (which are often very fine
powders), as well as avoiding skin contact (but then, do you really want
green hands???). A good mask and gloves and working in a well-ventilated
area should suffice.

But, one thing that might be easier is just to use the tie-dye "ropes" that
Dharma also sells--for baby clothes, you can make one set do quite a few
pieces of clothing. Just be sure to "set" the dye or it'll run over
everything (your clothes, furniture, etc.) if Alex wets or spits up on

And you can also call Dharma with your safety questions--I've visited their
store and bought from them by mail and they're very helpful people, though
they are a small shop so can be quite busy at times.


Cargeenan isn't exactly a chemical. It's a thickener made from a kind of
seaweed. Look at your food labels, you are probably eating it on a regular

Oxgall is what it sounds like. A substance made from the gall bladder of an
ox. (I did a lot of fabric marbling a few years back and I never saw any
difference between the times I used the stuff and the times I didn't.)

Aluminum sulfate is alum. You use it in pickles. It's a mordant.

Methylcel is a cargeenan substitute. Caregeenan works just as well and it's

Marbling doesn't involve breathing either particulates or fumes or rinsing
a lot of excess dye out of the fabric, therefore it doesn't present the
hazards to a pregnant or nursing woman that procion dyeing does.


Carrageenan is safe -- it's seaweed, and one finds it in all kinds of
foods, like ice cream and salad dressing. It's used as a thickener. In a
book on marbling that I have, the authors recommend that the reader get
carrageenan from health food stores.

While you're in one getting carrageenan, you might find someone
knowledgeable (the managaer?) who might be able to tell you about the other


I read the information that you were sent on the public section of the
board and have to agree with most of it. I am the costume shop supervisor
at Dartmouth college and the safety officer for my area of the building.
This means that I have access to all of the latest information on dyes and
dying and all of the ensuing osha safety regulations. I agree that the
cotton dyes are most problematic in powder form, but we require respirators
with particulate filters, not dust masks, for any one who is working with
the dyes. The respirators are not recommended for pregnant women, because
they lower the volume of oxygen in the blood. Not enough to be a problem
for women who are pregnant, but might harm the baby.

Several things,
-Never use silk dyes while nursing. The glacial acetic acid that some folks
call "activator" is easily absorbed through mucus membranes and can cause
all sorts of problems. We use a separate type of respirator for those.
(think of it as paint thinner for your lungs) Any sort of annaline dye
should be avoided like the plague. There are so many scene painters who
have died-literally-from cancer caused by these agents that we have lost
almost a generation of brilliant artists before their time. -I think that
cotton dying with gloves and a dust mask in a discrete area is fine, I've
done it with no consequences. Make sure that you rinse the fabric really
well so that some of the dye molecules don't crock off and are absorbed by
your baby through the skin. This sort of thing happens all of the time with
commercially prepared fabric (that's why my partner has all of that pink
underwear when I dye red sweaters) but why add an additional insult to that
very tiny liver?
-There is no force on the face of this earth that could have forced me to
use any sort of yellow dye while I was nursing. Ever. Yellow is achieved
through the use of Chrome in some sort of concentration or another, this
heavy metal has disasterous effects much like lead only more insideous. It
is passed in the same manner, through particulate respiration, direct
ingestion, and through milk. Any other color of cotton dye should be fine.
Take your precautions and have a great time. Alex should look great in all
of those colors. I think you should investigate the Aljo dye company in New
York City. Their cotton dyes are incredibly intense and very very clear.
(they unfortunately say "aniline" dye on the lable, but I have investigated
and they are not the coal tar derivitive that is causing the problems)


I have a six month old baby and recently made tie dyed pants for him. I
used Dylon dyes which are recommended for home use and use in the
microwave.I used gloves, put the stuff in a plastic bowl (which I threw
away afterwards) and put the bowl in an oven bag as well. I'm breast
feeding as well and will be for ages as Christopher is allergic to both
coes milk and soy formula. I know that I really shouldn't do any dyeing
whilst I am feeding him myself but I couldn't resist as I promised to teach
our mothers support group how to tie dye and they were very keenn. I think
that probably the best / safest thing to use would be heatset
screenprinting inks. They are recommended as non-toxic for schools. They
float O.K. on carageen (which is actually edible as its a type of tea) and
wall paper paste which is non-toxic if it is the type that they use in
schools(no fungicide added). Contact me if you need help with either
screenprinting or marbling as I've done both on cotton. A friend and I made
marbled t-shirts a few years ago. They didn't sell!!!!!
Dylon Cold water dyes we buy from the chemist (pharmacy). I'm not sure but
I think they may be procion based. Procions are supposed to irritate your
lungs if you breathe in the powder and have been implicated in cancer
formation. Basically I try to avoid all dyes/inks as far as possible and am
slowly learning to piece quilts from my stash of materials until I can dye
my own again , hopefully in about 6 months time.


I think most of the danger is to you as you work with the dyes and
chemicals (and to Alex if he plays around them and if you've absorbed so
much that the chemicals are in your milk).

I've got some info at home, pretty basic, as well as resources, and I'll
look them up tonight. With a bit of care, care that you should use anyway,
you can tie-dye.


When I was using Procion in art school we were told that it is absorbed
right into your skin and can affect your liver. (This was to encourage us
to keep our rubber gloves on while dyeing.) I would think that if you are
very careful not to get any of the liquid on your skin, and if you rinse
everything thoroughly, there should be no risk to the baby. You also have
to be careful with the dye powder: dispense it outdoors or somewhere where
it won't land on your cooking and eating surfaces, and be careful not to
get a lot of the powder flying around. Use separate pots for the dyebaths,
not pots you use for cooking. I had some big aluminum soup pots that I used
to use; they weren't very expensive. To be extra careful you can wear a
mask over your nose and mouth. In other words, treat it like a toxic
substance while you're using it. But once fabric has been dyed, rinsed, and
dried, it should pose no danger.

You could also call Pro Chemical and Dye Company. I think they are good
about dispensing safety information. They advertise in all the magazines, I


I do not have scientific evidence but I would like to suggest that you do
NOT use Procion dyes on clothing for babies. I suspect you should not use
the dyes/paints that are typically used for marbleing either ...... it's
the dyes/paints I would be concerned about more than the ?carragean?

The following comments are based on what the person who taught me dyeing
said. I really do not have the chemistry background to check all of this
out, but I think I would hesitate..... In particular, one way to "set"
Procion dyes is to use a solution that includes ureic acid ..... the same
stuff as in urine. For example, the most common way of using Procion dyes
for painting uses a paint-mix that contains ureic (?sp?) acid. You can find
info on this in the tons of info available from Pro Chemical & Dye.
Additionally, no matter how hard you rinse, it can be difficult to get ALL
of the dye out of hand-dyed fabrics. I often find that some of the hand
dyed fabrics DO still bleed ------ some colors are worse than others of

Based on these two facts I would suspect that the combination of loose dyes
on fabric, babies that are often slightly wet with urine (at least one
mother told me it can be impossible to keep a child *really* dry) and
contact with skin just does not sound like a good idea. Additionally
children often chew on their clothing.

With adult clothing you find: little contact with urine, seldom placed
within the mouth, often worn over other garments and lower "dye to body
weight" ratios.

My personal suggestion would be that you avoid dyed ---- and probably
marbled ----- clothing for Alex. If you chose to marble the clothing, check
what's going into the dyes and what sorts of things can be used to fix
them. I did find that marbled cloth seemed to wash-out much cleaner than
dyed fabrics and the marbling is only on one side ........ that may suggest
that it's somewhat safer than dyed cloth.

Note of course that the Procion dyes are NOT considered toxic. However they
DO have lots of warnings about using them carefully and being sure not to
ingest them (e.g. not to contaminate food vessels). I suspect that a couple
of shirts worn infrequently would be no problem whatsoever. You'll have to
judge what sorts of "risks" you want to consider.........


But, there is a Center for Safety in the Arts, 5 Beekman Street, Suite
1030, NY NY 10038 212-227-6220, which has arts hazards publications and is
a clearinghouse for research and education on hazards in the arts.

The address and phone are from a 1988 listing, but I am quite certain it's
still in existence.

If you want to do lots of research, you can find out what the components of
the materials are and go to the library and look them up in handbooks of
hazardous materials (of course some, like carragheenan, won't be listed
probably, because they aren't hazardous -- carragheenan is a seaweed
derivative and is used in foods).


(Drawing on professional training and all of that)

All of the dyes have componets which can be transferred across the
placenta, some have components which could also be transfered to breast
milk. (Expecting flack from some others - the same is true of a number of
the so-called natural dyes - just because it is found in nature does not
mean that it is safe - plants are a great source of poison and many of the
mordants are cancer producing)

You have a couple of options

1)forget it untill done being pregnant/nursing

2) use all the appropriate protective equipment, follow all safety
proceedures to the absolute letter, making sure to NEVER have the baby
around and to keep all dye activities completely seperate from food
preparation. The risk to your child is either contamination of YOU (not
good for you either) or c contamination of the house (not good for ANYONE
living there)

3) use RIT liquid dyes (not as neat - but one of the big risks - handling
of powdered dye is elimiated.

4) convince a friend to do the dyeing for you.

There have been some good articles in the fiber magizines in the last
couple of years on dyes and safety.

Bottom line is that - unless approved by the FDA for human consumption -
all dyes (powder, liquid, plant, etc) carry some risk.

BTW - cotton knits do tie dye well, but with three kids ages four and under
(youngest being two weeks) I am hanging up the dyeing for a couple of


Nothing particularly unnatural about seaweed. :-)

(Besides, marbling is fun! Look for Marbling on Fabric by Daniel and Paula
Cohen. $12.95 from interweave Press. ISBN 0-93426-54-8. Simple steps for
the instructions impaired.


IMHO this is a classic case of CYA publishing. NOBODY should inhale (or
ingest) fiber-reactive dye powders. The other 'chemicals' you would work
with are NaCl (table salt) NaCO (washing soda - you may not have any
experience with this, but you grandmother washed all her white clothes in
it) and Urea. Oh, yes, and Synthrapol detergent, which contains small
amounts of formaldahyde and alcohol. Urea, if you are unaware, is the main
substance dissolved in water in all those wet diapers you have been
changing for the past seven months. So, wear a dust mask when measuring out
the dye powders, after you have wetted them down, there is no inhaling
hazard. The biggest precaution is to do this FAR AWAY from your son and
clean up throughly afterwards. Basically, these are household chemicals
like you use the wash clothes, dishes and floors. Enjoy your tie-dyed baby.
FYI, I am a Certified Nurse-Midwife and I believe that you can live an
active, creative life and (safely) nurse your baby.


As you recall, I received some comments about the possiblity of dyes
containing heavy metals and was a little concerned. My husband, a Chem. E.
with work experience in environmental health and safety, told me to call
the dye company and ask for the Material Safety Data Sheets for all the
dyes I ordered. These sheets are required by law to list hazards and
precautions for any chemicals. They're a little hard for the lay person to
interpret, but helped set my mind at ease that I did not have to worry
about the presence of any heavy metals and that the commonly recommended
safety procedures are more than adequate. Here are some more details.....

I got the material data safety sheets from the dye company for all the
stuff I ordered. Each procion dye color has it's own sheet, but for the
most part, the data was essentially the same. From the sheets, the major
warning was with regard to the dust, pretty much the same info. as every
dye catalog and dye instructions carry....wear a mask while measuring. They
did say that reactions to even the dust were uncommon....occasional
reactions under heavy commercial usage....or something like that. Best to
be safe though. None of the dyes were considered to be able to be absorbed
through the skin (crummy grammar on my part!), although a couple warned of
minor skin irritation in bunny tests. A few warned about eye irritation
with direct contact.

All dyes that I ordered had a note under ingestion that they were not
considered toxic and that ingestion of a small amount was not considered
harmful, i.e., don't go running to the doctor unless you feel bad.

A few of the dyes are required by California law to carry a warning thatt
some substances in them are known to cause cancer. I take this with a very
large hunk of salt, since it is my humble opinion (although I don't live in
CA) that this law is so wide-sweeping that huge numbers of things we use
everyday also carry the warning. Not to mention, it can't cause cancer if
you don't breath, eat, or otherwise absorb it into your system! Some blue
dyes were listed to contain 2.5% copper compounds, which my husband says
are one of the latest things to come under question that might be harmful.
So far, no real conclusions on that though.

Anyhow, I was greatly relieved after reading these sheets, and for myself
have decided that normal safety procedures are more thaan enough. And now
my husband will let me do this in the kitchen again! Naturally, each person
needs to make their own decisions on whether the info. presented above
qualifies these products as "safe enough." For anyone wanting more info., I
would be glad to talk via email about what I know, or they can obtain these
sheets themselves directly from the dye companies (I think the companies
are required by law to provide them on request.). Anyhow, I hope this helps
anyone trying to make an informed decision.

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