Dye your own muslin background

I have a project coming up, and need a full-length muslin background, something dancers can stand on. Checking online, these can be a bit pricey, and you don’t know what’s good without either a recommendation or laying your money down and waiting for it to arrive. (there are horror stories online about buying cheap stuff off Ebay) I decided you ought to be able to do this yourself, and Googled.

The most-referenced site is Cheap DIY (Homemade) Muslin Photography Background. This is a good resource, but he went for a tie-dye effect, and I wanted a soft, mottled background.  But I went out and bought the materials and waited for a nice day (today) to be able to work outside.

I went with my wife to JoAnn Fabrics with one of her Wonderful Coupons, and sure enough, they have 108″ wide unbleached cotton muslin. I was only going to buy enough to make one background, but with her coupon the whole bolt (15 yards long) was $45, so I said “buy it all.” So I have enough fabric for three 9’x15′ backgrounds.

Went to Michaels crafts store to buy RIT dye. (you’d think the fabric store would have it, but it had only a small selection) The box powder was $2 and dyes 1 pound, the liquid dyes 2 pounds and cost about $3.50, so I bought an assortment of colors in whatever it came in. Sandi cut the first 14′ off the bolt and we weighed it on a postal scale, it was about 2.5 pounds so we were safe on the dye weight.

Today before proceeding Sandi did some more research and came across a great site for exactly what I wanted to accomplish. (natch it wasn’t in the photo searches, it was in the fabric and quilting searches!) Hand dyed fabric is a great blog post with info that pretty much made me feel comfortable about just crushing the material into the container and letting it sit, and that’s what we did. (check that link for other great ideas)

So after Sandi hemmed the cut edges of the material, I threw it in the washer with a small amount of detergent and washed it. In the meantime, I drew on my homebrewing gear to pull out my enameled canning pot to use to boil the dye. I filled it about 3/4 full of hot tap water, added the 1 cup of salt and put it on the stove with the lid on to bring it to a boil. When the material was through washing, I just tossed it wet into the dyeing tub (a Rubbermaid container) outside and put the lid on to keep it damp while I waited for my dye to be ready. I loosely “crushed” the material into the tub, with no strings to tie it.

On left is the Rubbermaid container, on right my enamled canner bought long ago for homebrewing at a REAL hardware store.

On left is the Rubbermaid container, on right my enameled canner bought long ago for homebrewing at a REAL hardware store.

When the water came to a boil, I turned off the heat, shook up the bottle of dye (thanks for reminding me, Sandi) and poured it in, and used another homebrewing utensil, a large stainless steel spoon, to stir it well. I put the lid on the pot and carried it outside (with potholders, of course), and poured it carefully into the tub on top of the material. It puddled in places, and we used a cut off golf club (from another, failed project) to poke the material down in places just to make sure it all got some dye on it. But the idea is not to evenly dye, but to unevenly dye it.

The material in the tub with dye. There's steam coming off the hot liquid. The golf club is propped in the corner of the tub at the moment.

The material in the tub with dye. There's steam coming off the hot liquid. The golf club is propped in the corner of the tub at the moment. This is how we left it to dye.

We put the lid on the tub and left it to cook for an hour. In the meantime, I walked to Dollar General and bought a clothesline (for my neighbor’s poles, since we have none), some rubber gloves and some Wrinkle Release for future use.

When it was ready, we opened the tub (the liquid was still hot!), donned the gloves and poured the dye off the material into the enamel pot (in case we needed it again). We pulled the material out for a look, and it looked pretty good, so I dragged over the garden hose and just filled the tub with cold water. I put the hose in the corner to fill the tub without spraying the material. Sandi had some Retayne Fixative and added a couple of capfuls to the rinse water; we let it soak and then dumped it into the gravel driveway, since we didn’t know what that stuff might do to the lawn. Then we took the tub to the laundry room and ran the material through a cold rinse cycle in the washer.

Used RIT Royal Blue liquid for this test.

Used RIT Royal Blue liquid for this test.

The Retayne Fixative

The Retayne Fixative

Filling the tub from the hose, with the saved dye on standby. Yes, I need to fix my walk.

Filling the tub from the hose, with the saved dye on standby. Yes, I need to fix my walk.

While the material was rinsing, I strung the clothesline, which later turned into a clown act as Sandi, Hilary and I tried to drape the wet material over it and tighten it up at the same time. Anyway, eventually the material got onto the line.

Sunny, breezy day, the background dried in 30 minutes.

Sunny, breezy day, the background dried in 30 minutes.

It dried fast, and here’s a quick shot using on-camera flash (into a bounce card) of the material hung from my french doors.

The material hanging

The material hanging

When I get a chance to shoot something in the studio, which may not be until I actually shoot the project, I’ll post it. Sandi is going to hem the other two sides, and I plan to use spring clips to hang it from a cross pole.

One site warned about using material that said Permanent Press, as it has been treated with something that prevents the dye from taking well, but I think you can see that’s not such an issue. It looks like I got pretty close to the dye color in the darker areas, so by using less dye (box instead of bottle, or 1/2 bottle) or by dyeing a shorter time, you could get lighter effects from the same dye. In the future I plan to try the two-color effects mentioned in Hand dyed fabric post (above). I’ll let you know how that turns out. If you do a background, drop me a note and let me (and others) know how it went.



21 Responses to “Dye your own muslin background”

  1. 1 Mr. Tactful
    April 5, 2009 at 8:17 pm

    Looks cool Harv!

  2. July 7, 2009 at 9:28 am

    Where do find Retayne fixative??

  3. December 12, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    beautiful work !
    Im very happy you posted this thread , as I wanted to do this at hom as well.
    you can make for the price of one 10×20 already made one , 2 , the same siz different colors!
    thanks alot man !

  4. 6 Gio
    December 27, 2010 at 6:07 pm

    Nice and useful instructions. I need one and I am definitely making it myself. Wonder if this method is OK if you want to make it with 2 or more colors?

    Thanks, Gio

    • 7 realitytourist
      December 27, 2010 at 10:09 pm

      Yes, it will work, just remember that in some areas those colors will combine. I made a tan one last spring, and when I pulled it out I just decided the brown was too “brown.” So I mixed up a batch of rose color and crumpled the wet fabric back into the new bath. I dyed it for a shorter amount of time, but what i got was some rose tint in areas that didn’t have any color, and the tan was warmed nicely. You can see how that worked out in the photos at http://mikekellerphoto.smugmug.com/Dance/2010-RCYBE-portraits

  5. 8 Ailyn
    September 17, 2011 at 11:11 am

    Wonderful instructions I had the same issues you did with the tye-dye instructions. Thank you so much for posting this. 🙂

  6. 9 Su
    September 30, 2011 at 9:44 pm

    Thanks so much this was great! I am starting baby and child portraits practicing on my own for a portfolio. I am sick of plain black or white using cheap cotton sheeting and playing with exposure, and wanted a mottled (not tie dyed) look. I couldn’t get wide enough muslin so got a heavy duty 100% cotton dust cover, scrunched it and dipped it in green dye for about 2 minutes, it is PERFECT!! just the right weight and no fraying!! I am so happy with it I am having to stop myself making a ton of them seeing as I’m not actually flooded with clients 🙂

  7. 10 Shannon
    May 25, 2012 at 2:30 pm

    I was trying to search and search how to unevenly dye my muslin background for a Senior porttrait shoot, came across your project and was so thankful! I am going to try two different blues, and do the lighter frist the retreat with the darker, to hopefully achieve the same effect with more depth, wish me luck! Also Jo Anns now carries 120″ width unbleached muslim, and its only 7.99 a yard, got enough for a 10×10 for only $15!!!

  8. 11 Stephanie
    June 24, 2012 at 5:30 pm

    Wonderful directions. I tried this and it worked great. Instead of using the Retayne Fixative you can use vinegar. I will be making different colors soon

  9. November 5, 2012 at 10:58 pm

    Such a perfect idea. This is an extremely practical presentation that gives great examples of how to engage people in executing the plan. I found this very insightful. Well done. Thank you.

  10. May 10, 2013 at 11:36 am

    Yes! Finally someone writes about kwds.

  11. May 22, 2013 at 2:27 pm

    Hi there! I just wanted to ask if you ever have any issues with hackers?
    My last blog (wordpress) was hacked and I ended up losing several weeks of hard work due to no data backup.

    Do you have any solutions to protect against hackers?

  12. 15 craig
    August 7, 2013 at 8:09 pm

    This works great made dark brown but it looks deep purple but when shoot with light set looks more like brown
    Thanks If you would like i can send picture!

  13. July 3, 2014 at 9:51 pm

    I like the valuable information you supply in your articles.

    I’ll bookmark your weblog and check once more here frequently.
    I am fairly sure I will learn many new stuff proper here!
    Good luck for the following!

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"The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people's reality, and eventually in one's own." - Susan Sontag, On Photography
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