More than a year after I started ice dyeing, my son asked for a gray and red sweatshirt.

I was secretly delighted by this. My children were used to wearing a constant rotation of hand-dyed clothing, but it was rare that I got an actual request. Most of the time I just filled their drawers with my experiments and watched to see which ones they wore.

I didn’t have a gray dye, though. (I am a sucker for bright colors; it took me a long time to discover the delights of their less flashy cousins.) So I ordered Brushed Steel, a nice dark gray, from Dharma, along with Scarlet to add the red. The dyes arrived, and I went out and dyed his sweatshirt that night.

He was not thrilled with the result.

A close-up of my son’s sweatshirt, showing some of the splotching that neither of us had expected.

What had happened? I knew that dyes split during ice-dyeing, but until that sweatshirt the splitting had been mild and fun, involving gentle hints of analogous colors. Brushed Steel was not so tame.

Neutral colors are tricky because they are mixtures of colors from all around the color wheel. As you probably learned in kindergarten, mixing all three primary colors together gives you brown, gray or black (depending on the proportions used, although you probably weren’t keeping notes at the time). In ice-dyeing, that means that neutral dyes will often tend to split into wildly disparate components.

Plenty of other dyes split. Brilliant blue, for example, splits into turquoise and pink, only much of the mixture ends up still combining together in the fabric, so the predominant effect is still blue. But the splitting isn’t so jarring, because turqoise and pink feel like the right sort of neighbors to blue. The fact that streaks of them come out during ice dyeing is just cool.

But browns and grays are by definition mixtures of tertiary colors (sets of colors that form a triangle on the color wheel). This means that when they split, they can produce a huge range of shades, not all of which are ones you’d normally expect — or be happy about.

Some neutrals do this far less than others. Pewter, for example, comes across as mostly gray with just a few streaks of soft color. (I wish I’d known this for my son’s sweatshirt.) My working theory is that it has to do with how closely the solubility of the components match. If the components dissolve in water at roughly the same rate, they’re more likely to meld together and dye the fabric their combined color. If one dissolves much more quickly, it will hit the fabric first, and (depending on how the ice melts) possibly at a different place than a later color.

Regardless, it’s a fact that dyeing with neutrals can give you some interesting — and unexpected — results. If you’re thinking of trying a neutral color, definitely consider doing a sample or checking it out in my gallery to avoid an unpleasant surprise.

I’ll be honest: now that I know what to expect from neutrals, they’ve produced some of my favorite pieces.

What about you? What’s your favorite neutral to ice-dye with?

6 thoughts on “Ice dyeing with tricky neutral colors

  1. I just tried Silver Lining, which came out really nice without blotchy extras.
    I also tried Celadon, which is very interesting.
    People suggested Amber Waves, Shitake Mushroom and Camel. Loved Shitake…
    I was already excited for my next round to try New Black, Better Black, Gunmetal Grey, Mist Grey, Palomino Gold, Rust Brown, Rust Orange. But your results with Pewter are amazing, so that one will be in the next round too.

  2. Palomino Gold is great. I’d also suggest Bronze — it’s become one of my favorites! I also like Ecru, for a pale but warm mix that provides a great contrast to some of the brighter dyes. I’ll totally try out some of your suggestions.

  3. Of the browns I like Golden brown very much for splits.
    Of the greens I love cayman island and mermaids dream which both split a lot.
    Truffle brown splits include a purple that looks good if ice dyed with plum blossom and powder pink.
    The navy’s are my next frontier!

  4. I made a lot of items ice dyed in either orchid or plum blossom with periwinkle or brilliant blue and they always get compliments.

    For my goth niece’s high school graduation, I did a whole ensemble of ice dyed in raven black and it is really tricky with blotches if yellow bothering me most. Solution seems to be to mix raven black as super strong liquid dye and put the liquid over ice instead of powder. Same works best for new emerald and better blue green

  5. I love shiitake brown, the splits are gorgeous. I love neutrals so it’s been interesting to experiment. I also would add chamois to the list, it’s got a lot of interesting oranges, blues and greens.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *