It is my pleasure to write the fabric dyeing column at Fabrics.Net! I love corresponding with you and answering your dyeing questions.
In my Ask Dizzylettuce column, I receive many questions on dyeing fabric, garments, and even on dyeing upholstered furniture. This article contains the basics of textile dyeing so that everyone can get the information in one place!
Fabric dyes that are available for use at home or in a small production facility are for natural fibers – cotton, silk, rayon, linen, hemp, wool, and all their blends and derivatives.
Some other terms for natural fibers include: for linen, flax or flex; rayon is also called viscose, tencel, and modal. Cotton is pretty straightforward; occasionally you will see it translated into other languages like algodon, coton, and baumwolle. Similarly, silk is soie, seda, and seide.
When you are considering dyeing a garment or a piece of fabric, remember these two things: the fabric must be able to withstand both agitation and warm water. This makes already-constructed garments iffy – they cannot shrink, twist, mat, felt, or otherwise be stressed by the agitation process if you want the item to come out basically as it went in.
Polyester garments cannot be dyed by mere mortals. Polyester is created in highly controlled factory settings, using toxic chemicals at high temperatures. In addition, the dye is added when the fabric is in a liquid state. Using Rit or reactive dyes would be like trying to dye a plastic bag. The dye just doesn’t stick. Similarly, acetate cannot be dyed.
If you have a garment or fabric that is half or less polyester and the other portion a natural fiber (like cotton), you can try using the reactive dyes. Keep in mind that the dye will take at about half strength. In other words, it’s very hard to get a dark color saturation. Cotton mixed with a minimal amount of spandex (5-10%) will take the dye pretty well!
Solid color dyeing cotton, linen, rayon, and silk. The best dye for vivid, color- and light-fast color are the reactive dyes, available from www.dharmatrading.com and www.prochemical.com. Some crafts stores carry reactive dyes, also. Get catalogs and instructions from these sources and study the materials carefully.
Silk dyeing. Dharma Trading Company recommends their acid dyes as best for solid-color dyeing of silk. I personally use the reactive dyes on silk because they are so simple and can be done in the washing machine. However, on silk, the reactive dyes do not come out the same colors as on cotton, so it requires experimentation to get what you want. If you want true-to-swatch silk colors and want to experiment with the acid dyes, they require very hot water, either in the washer, or on top of the stove. Acid dyes will also dye nylon.
Wool dyeing. Acid dyes are also used for dyeing wool – again, they require very hot water, so your fabric must be able to withstand any resulting shrinkage, matting, or felting. For this reason, I do not recommend dyeing already-constructed wool garments, such as coats, sweaters, or dresses, unless they are really large, and/or you are completely willing to experiment with the results.
If you want to dye fabric in order to make quilts, garments, table linens, etc., the best place to start is with the prepared-for-dyeing fabrics at Dharma Trading Co. Their fabrics have no coatings or treatments that would make them resist the dye. Cotton and linen fabrics from Dharma do not need to be washed before dyeing. They recommend washing silk fabrics with Synthropol first (also available from Dharma), in order to take out any remaining silk worm gum.
Frequently asked questions. Just to sum up.
Can I dye my wedding dress/bridesmaid dress/formal dress?
The simple answer is no. The vast majority of these dresses are polyester and acetate. Even if they are silk, the construction will probably not hold up to the warm water and agitation process. In addition, any trim may not dye or could take the dye in a different strength or color.
Can I dye my cotton/silk/linen dress?
Possibly, but keep in mind: 1, the thread and zipper will remain the original color; 2. the trim issue (see above); 3. the stress of the warm-water-and-agitation process.
With all these caveats, what can I dye?
Prepared-for-dyeing garments, including everything available at Dharma Trading Co.; all-cotton sheets and pillowcases; all-cotton towels; vintage linens (many of these are sewn with cotton thread, which will dye); natural-fiber items that have faded and you want to restore them to their original color; cotton and rayon trims and laces; cotton undies (elastic will not dye); natural fiber yard goods.
Can I dye my blue baby blanket pink?
No, because you are combining colors, just as if you were painting pink over a blue water color painting. However, you can dye a white or natural color baby blanket pink.
Is there a white dye?
Technically speaking, no. Some fabrics and colors can be changed or lightened using a good dose of chlorine bleach. Caveat: Start with a cup of chlorine bleach. Keep in mind that bleach will deteriorate fabric and if you use too much, you may end up with a shredding rag. Dharma also sells a color discharger for removing dye from fabric. If you are willing to be unattached to the outcome, you can try these methods.
Can I dye my upholstered chair/sofa/ottoman?
No. Don’t even think about it, unless your piece is white or off white, and you are willing to undertake an experiment using SimplySpray spray-on fabric dyes. (Check out available colors at www.simplyspray.com.)