Experiments in Steaming

Someone wrote recently, inquiring about the soy wax dye pastes we introduced in January. She had questions about the colors not being as vivid as what we show on the website and wondered about the amount of steam or timing and pre-soaking her fabric. For those of you who don’t use dyes, in order for fiber reactive dye to bond to a fabric, there has to be a mordant or fixative. When a plant fiber, like cotton, is the fabric content, soda ash is used as the fixative. If a dye bath is the application of choice, soda ash goes into the dye bath. But if the application is painting or working with my soy wax crayons or pastes, then the fixative usually goes onto the fabric first. This is accomplished by soaking fabric in soda ash and water and then letting it dry.

The crayons and pastes require another step. Fabric colored with crayon or paste is wrapped in newsprint and steamed over boiling water. The fabric doesn’t actually get wet. The steam penetrates the newsprint and sets the wax/dye with a combination of dampness and heat.

The following is a chronicle of the experimentation it took to figure out the right combination of color application and steaming needed to perfectly pattern fabric. I’m sharing this information because dyers will benefit from my experience. And I think it’s informative to share the many trials that were required to get it right! Sometimes there isn’t an appreciation for the amount of time and energy it takes to get a product or technique figured out. Persevering is good.

In the beginning, I thought steam was steam. But over several years, and with the help of students, especially Gwen Hendrix, I discovered very interesting things about steam. It’s not as simple as you think. Steam can be varying degrees of hot. That’s one of the differences between a commercial “bullet steamer” versus an improvised tamale pot steamer. The bullet heats to 250 degrees. The pot on the stove–not that hot. I think that’s why I wasn’t so thrilled with colors when I first “invented” the paste. I was using the tamale pot and didn’t keep the heat high enough to steam as hot as it potentially could. I turned down the heat to “medium” when the water started to boil, thinking it would keep the pot from boiling dry. Fabric steamed using the tamale pot/stove system never turned brown (a later problem)  but also didn’t have the saturated color I get now, with the other steamer. I hadn’t thought about either of these issues with my earliest steaming attempts, until a colleague wrote to ask me about it last week. But the level of heat (or lack of) explains why hot plates didn’t work very well–the heat wasn’t “hot” enough on those inexpensive devices.

Here’s an overview and comparison of what I did and what I used:

First heating unit (2011 - 2012):

Hot plate, improvised pot with a stack made from plumbing duct. (Per the drawing on my website) Never got brown cotton (always soaked in soda ash) and color was ok, but occasionally washed out.

Analysis: the look was ok, but not impressive enough to continue.

Put it down for a few years. Moved into new studio and got interested in producing crayons, partly because I was hired to teach a workshop, and knew I needed a portable steamer that didn’t require electricity, just in case. Also feared hot plate not being hot enough (I think I talked to someone who said the steam needed to be more even throughout steaming and hot plate was inefficient when it came to producing a large volume of steady steam. Thanks to whoever that was!)

Second heating unit experiment (2015):

I bought an outdoor camping sort of burner that used propane. Four leg armature of steel with a single burner. Took this and propane tank to workshop–used improvised pot and stack as previously described. Worked great. In retrospect I am sure it was because the propane produced incredible steam and it was consistent. HOWEVER, cotton did turn light beige and it was a mystery….

Went home and whole set up was stolen from my shed the next month. Back to the drawing board. BTW this would be an excellent steamer to set up if you have an outdoor place for the propane tank.

Third Permutation (2016): 

Enter a friend selling a bullet steamer. I bought it. Started using it in classes. It was old so the dial didn’t have any numbers on it. I had no idea how hot the steam was. Just kept it turned up high! ALL cotton started turning brown. And wouldn’t wash out.

Then one morning I poured cold water on the hot coil and fried the electrical. Bummer. $375. to get a new coil. Note to self: put water in the steamer BEFORE turning it on.

However, new unit came with a dial that had temperature increments all the way up to 250 degrees….this was a revelation. Gwen looked up steam and introduced me to the concept of super steam.

We also began to theorize the hard water in San Antonio might be the culprit…maybe the minerals in the water were reacting with the soda ash. Tried distilled water. Fabric still went brown.

I called Jacquard, curious to know what a chemist there might say. I spoke with Asher Katz, the president of the company who told me the fabric didn’t need to be soaked in soda ash, that the steam heat alone would set the dye. This flew in the face of everything I’d been taught, but I tried it and it worked. No soda ash soak. No more brown cotton/cellulose fabric. And very vivid colors.

Now we’re full circle. If you’re experimenting with the crayons or paste, keep the stove on high, so the water boils at as high a temperature as possible. See if there’s a difference. (NOTE: Keeping the water boiling may cause water to boil over the platform in the tamale pot and then the newsprint will get wet and the dye will bleed. Improvise a higher platform by cutting the tops and bottoms out of two tin cans. Use those to elevate the platform a bit higher over the water. Hopefully, bright colors, easy wash out, no brown fabric. Problem solved.

And for those of you who have read to the end, but don’t do any dyeing, doesn’t it sound like fun? Thanks for reading, I ’m sure it’s given you a better sense of how complicated the arts can be!