A practical explanation of how to dye small quantities of feathers and fur.
Colours of Fly-tying Materials. An attempt to pin down the colours of actual fly-tying materials by reference to an established standard. (Link to a Google document)
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Please be aware that I am a qualified dyer and colour matcher.
Latest news, October 2011
A dye bath additive has come to light which makes it possible to dye fur & feathers at 85deg.C rather than near boiling. This greatly reduces damage to the materials.
It is called 'Unisol MFD'.
It can be obtained in small amounts from a 'shop' on eBay or larger amounts at lower prices from www.kemtex.co.uk/index.html.
SMALL SCALE DYEING:
How to dye fly tying materials is a question which is often asked and the answers vary from just adequate to bizarre (leave the materials in cold dye for 2 to 3 weeks) to downright dangerous (the last being to " 'Kill' the acid in your dyebath when you pour it down the drain by adding bleach to it". My very strong advice is DON'T. You will poison yourself with chlorine gas.)
Advice is sometimes given as to how to dye a full cape. But if you want a dyed cape, you will have to buy one in order to dye it so it makes more sense to buy a ready-dyed cape. I have much more use for dying small quantities of feathers. Very commonly I apply Veniard's Olive Green dye to a mixture of feathers - a patch of grey speckled partridge feathers, a quarter strip cut from a grizzle cock neck, some portions clipped from white goose wing feathers and similar from Canada goose. This gives a wide range of olive hackles and herl. The two different base colours of goose feathers provide both medium and dark olive in the same dyeing. You can also include pieces cut from fur or hair patches.
The equipment needed for this is much easier to come by than that which is required for larger quantities. In fact, my dyeing vessel is a washed tin can of the 'standard' size. Even then, it only needs to be quarter to half filled with the dyeing liquor. Active boiling is to be avoided since feathers are likely to become distorted. The temperature is easily controlled at a little below the boil by standing the tin can in a pan of constantly boiling water. One should always carry out dyeing with the smallest practical liquor ratio - i.e. the smallest amount of liquor which will conveniently cover the material to be dyed. This is most important when dyeing a full shade and/or when using a dye which is not easily taken up by the feathers (or fur).
Veniard dyes are a perfectly good choice. Dyes are available from other craft supplies but are usually limited to bright colours only, which makes it very difficult to match the standard range of colours that we want. These dyes are of a kind which are combine chemically with protein fibres (and nylon). In order to be attracted onto the material the dye liquor needs to be acidified, for which white vinegar is entirely suitable.
All animal fibres must be thoroughly degreased before dyeing. For this I use ordinary washing-up liquid. More expensive detergents are available but not necessary.
Dark/dull shades are best dyed on natural coloured material. For dyed black, brown material is best. As mentioned above, green olive dyed on brown feathers will give dark olive. Bright colours must be dyed over white. Dyes can not in any sense cover or lighten the base colour of the material, but only add to it.
So, the method:
Accurate measuring of the quantity of dye is not necessary when dyeing feathers and fur, because the uptake of dye is likely to be very variable. So the following might be
described as an 'empirical' method:
First, spread newspaper wherever the dye will be handled. Any single speck of dye powder which escapes will, when it becomes damp, cause a stain which will reduce your wife to hysterics. Open the tub of dye powder in the middle of the paper and do not move it from there. Get a pan of water to the boil. Add just enough boiling water to the tin can to cover the feathers and stand it in the pan. Add a teaspoon of white vinegar and a fly's eyeful of dye powder (say enough to balance on the tip of your scissors). For a full shade of e.g. black or red you will need much more than this but start carefully.
Degrease the materials in detergent and hot water then wash all the detergent out.
Dunk them into the dye bath, pushing them in with a fork from your best cutlery. Stir gently and occasionally.
Some dyes, like Veniard's Olive Green, will 'exhaust' quickly (i.e. be taken up by the materials leaving the bath almost colourless). Check the depth of colour that you have achieved and add more dye if necessary.
Black and other full shades will need a half hour and more vinegar.
Wash the materials in warm water, press in a towel or tissue and leave to dry.
Fold all the newspaper gently inwards and discard.
It has elsewhere been suggested that citric acid is better than acetic. This is not necessarily true. At equivalent concentrations, citric acid gives a lower pH than does acetic acid. Assuming a concentration in the dye bath of about 0.1mol/l (I am guessing wildly) the pH of citric acid will be about 2.1 and of acetic acid about 2.9. Since pH is a logarithmic scale (log to base 10 of the hydrogen ion concentration) this difference is greater that it appears. The lower the pH (i.e. the 'stronger' the acid) the more quickly will the dye be taken up by the substrate. (In fact these acids are suitable only for acid milling dyes or similar. If acid levelling dyes were relevant, sulphuric acid would be needed).
HOWEVER if the dyestuff in use is one which has a high affinity for the fibre, or if a pale shade is being dyed, it might be advantageous to retard the uptake of the dye by not adding acid for the first ten minutes of the dyeing period and even then by using only small amounts of the less strong acid. If the acid is added at the start the dye jumps onto the fibre very quickly and there is the greatest incidence of unlevel dyeing. On the other hand if you are dyeing a full shade, e.g. black or bright red, citric acid would give some advantage but it is not essential - for occasional small quantities white vinegar will do the job.
Whilst our appreciation of colour is certainly subjective, dyeing is entirely objective. That is to say, it is a fully defined science. If it were not so commercial dyehouses could not exist as they do. A dyer's convention for describing a shade of a colour is also objective. If this were not so it would be impossible to pass colour information between, say, dyer and customer. Colour is three dimensional and dyers' terminology comprises three variables:
'full' or 'thin' which refers to the depth of colour resulting from the amount of dyestuff added;
hue, e.g. 'bluer' or 'yellower' in the case of a green shade;
'flat' or 'bright' which refers to the position of the shade between pure and neutral.
Finally, to those who want advice about dyeing with picric acid, I will say "Forget it." There is NO shade which can not be accurately matched with real dyestuffs with the added advantage that they do not have a strong tendency to explode.