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Fabric Dyeing 101

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.)

 

40 Responses to “Fabric Dyeing 101”

  1. Tim says:

    Is it possible to have a wedding dress dyed professionally and where do you have that done?

  2. Dizzylettuce says:

    Hi Tim,
    Generally, it is not possible to dye a wedding dress. If you want to investigate the remote possibility, please drop me a note with a photo & a description of the fiber content (acetate, poly, silk, cotton, etc.).
    Best, Jennifer

  3. martha says:

    i got bleach on my olive corduroy pants (98% cotton/2% spandex).  i got some liquid dyd from Rit, and the amounts of each color to make a fairly close match.   is there anything other than pre-washing (i assume without facric softener) first, then using my sink for the dye job? 

    • Dizzylettuce says:

      Martha, I am sorry to report that generally you can’t dye over bleach spots. Somehow, the bleach changes the chemistry of the fabric so that it won’t accept dye.

  4. Angie says:

    I have a brand new (still in the package) set of white sheets, fabric is microfiber, I would like to dye them a neutral color or something in a beige tone. I’ve read all the info I can on the process, I am unfamiliar with the product casolene oil. Do you feel this is a necessity in the coloring process?

  5. Lucas Wood says:

    I bought a 50/50 blend of cotton and polyester to cut into 1′x1′ squares and tie die. The die beaded up, would not be absorbed in the material. I washed and tried again, no luck.

    I bout 100% cotton and prewashed, dryed in the the dryer and tried tie die, the die still wont soak into the cloth!!!

    I have 100% synthetic cloth of some type (sorry, its a mystery), it is a stretchy material, the die soaks in and makes cool patterns nothing like traditional tie die. Instead its a ink blott pattern type of look and the die never sets in. I skipped the cold bath, just washed and 90-95% of the die rinses right out.

    What is my problem? Why cant I make tie die!!!??

  6. Hi Lucas,
    It sounds like you need a serious study of tie-dye. I suggest that you go to http://www.dharmatrading.com & read all their instructional pages. They also sell ready-to-dye fabrics that have not been treated.

    You should be able to tie-dye your 100% cotton fabric, but it needs to be wet & soaked in textile detergent or soda ash before you start.

    Read over all the materials at the Dharma website & drop me a note if you have further questions.
    best, Jennifer

  7. Amber says:

    Hi, I have purchased summer dresses (they will be used as bridesmaid dresses) they are 50% cotton and 50% nylon. I have bought an extra dress to try to dye it but what are your suggestions for the length of time and if doing it in the washing machine would work? I am going for a light yellow but could only find lemon yellow and golden yellow. Thank you for your knowledge and time.

  8. Jennifer Thompson Miller says:

    Hi Amber,
    This is going to be very difficult. Nylon & cotton take dyes of different sorts. Since you’re going for a lighter color value, you could try it using Rit. Start with a half dose of the lemon yellow & see what happens!
    Remember, all dyeing is an experiment.
    best, Jennifer

  9. Sybil says:

    Hi Jennifer, I have a short white dress which I would like to dye. The fabric is 52% cotton, 39% polyester and 9% metal, and the lining is 100% acetate. I live in Perth, Western Australia and I have spoken to a few people in Perth and in the Eastern States who have advised that this would be a difficult task. Any advice you may have would be greatly appreciated.

    Kind regards,
    Sybil

  10. Jennifer Thompson Miller says:

    Hi Sybil,
    I am sorry, your dress can’t be easily dyed. It’s mainly the polyester fiber content that impedes you. The cotton content will take the dye, but will be very pale.
    If you want to study the subject, check out the information at http://www.dharmatrading.com.
    best, Jennifer

  11. Darlene says:

    I have a yellow corduroy vest 100% cotton which I would like to dye black.
    I want to use RIT dye as I have some from freshening up my black jeans.
    Is it possible to change the colour from yellow to black?

  12. DizzyLettuce says:

    Hi Friends,
    My comments on the article on dyeing polyester: If you want to try dyeing polyester, please go for it! The main thing to keep in mind is is that your fabric or garment must be processed in boiling water. Generally, delicate constructed garments like wedding dresses will not stand up to such treatment.

    Darlene, I generally do not recommend Rit dye, as it is a very mild strength. You may get a muddy yellow-gray. Try it if you want to – all dyeing, after all, is an experiment. If you are serious about dyeing the vest, I suggest the reactive dyes available at dharmatrading.com. Read all instructions carefully.

    best, Jennifer

  13. Sarah says:

    I have a new white dress that I love, but I want to dye it a different color. (I haven’t decided what color yet….) I don’t want to risk ruining it, so what are the best ways to get the best results? What brands, extra instructions, and colors are the best for getting positive results from my dress? It’s 100% cotton, except for the trimming stuff. Will the cutout trimming things (can you tell I don’t know what I’m talking about) /lace stuff all stay white, since it’s all 100% polyester? Or will there be problems where some of it gets dyed weird, but some of it doesn’t? I know the zipper won’t change color, and that’s fine. Also, there is a little bit of fishnet stuff on the inside, will any of that be a problem, or will it just not be affected? Thanks! :)

    • DizzyLettuce says:

      Hi Sarah,
      It is really hard to predict a certain outcome. Generally speaking, you can bet that the trim (the polyester part) & the lining and tulle (fishnet) will not take dye at all. I recommend the reactive dyes available at http://www.dharmatrading.com. Read all instructions carefully. You will also need soda ash & ordinary table salt. Keep in mind that the warm water plus agitation may shrink the dress. It’s true that you risk uneven dyeing outcomes, because some cotton fabrics are treated with coatings that prevent even dye absorption. Bottom line: if you want to guarantee an excellent outcome, don’t dye it. If you want to experiment, have fun!
      best, Jennifer

  14. Lou says:

    Hi Dizzy,

    I have a dress which is 59% cotton, 41% linen. It is a fairly sturdy, stiff dress. It is currently a chocolate brown, and I would like to dye it black. Is that possible?

    Thank you!
    Lou.

    • DizzyLettuce says:

      Hi Lou,
      It’s possible that you can dye this, if you want to learn about fabric dyeing. You will need at least 2 oz of Dharma Trading Co’s reactive dye in PR275 Hot Black, plus salt & soda ash. Check out the Dharma website for full instructions! You can dye this in the washing machine (for best, even results), keeping in mind that dyeing is a warm water & agitation process. Have fun!

  15. Roxy says:

    Hello,

    I love the way the mineral wash looks on Tees! I would love to try to “mineral dye” my 60% cotton 40% micromodal tees, however I would like to know if this treatment would work well with this fabric? Any feedback would be awesome! thank you!!

  16. Hi,
    I’m sorry, I really have no expertise with mineral wash at all. Cotton/modal can be dyed using the reactive dyes. Try it & see what you like!
    best, Jennifer

  17. E Brinley says:

    Hello,

    I would like to dye a skirt with the following material make-up:

    36% Viscose
    34 Acrylic
    27% Cotton
    3% Polyamide

    It says:

    Do not wash
    do not bleach
    do not iron
    dry clean only

    Presuming this isn’t going ot take dye well… but have NO idea.. can you help??

    Thanks

    • DizzyLettuce says:

      Hi Emily,
      Well, you can try it. It all depends on what color you want to dye it, what color it is now, & how much you care about the outcome. The acrylic content will not take the dye at all, & your fabric may shrink, as dyeing is a warm water process. I suggest the reactive dyes available at http://www.dharmatrading.com. Read all instruction pages carefully.
      have fun!
      Jennifer

  18. Dizzy, I want to try to dye my daughters formally white breeches which are 63% cotton, 32% micro fiber and 5% spandex. They are full seat breeches. That means there is a big section that is made of leather and that is where the problem started. The leather is black and the dye in the leather turned the rest of the breeches an uneven grey to blue grey. Can that blend of fabric be dyed. We would go for an easy cover color, just want them to be all one color and even. She got a ‘good deal’ on them, ha ha! From now on they will be washed by hand and alone… Thank you for your help. CC

  19. Carbery, I don’t know if anything can be done here. Even if you are able to remove the dye that affected the fabric from the leather, there is no guarantee that the leather dye will not continue to bleed. Leather is dyed with chemicals that are different from fabric dyes. You can try getting some Dharma Dye Remover from dharmatrading.com. This stuff is caustic, read all instructions carefully. Plus, the microfiber content throws in another wild card. Dye remover may not work on microfiber at all.
    Sorry, I can’t be encouraging.
    best,
    Jennifer

  20. Connie says:

    I have a four year old coat made of a medium weight black damask woven fabric. The raised pattern has remained black while the rest of the fabric has faded to a dark bronze-black color in a uneven way. I presume that since the woven pattern and base fabric is consistently black under the collar and arms, that this is due to sunlight fading. The fiber content is 75% polyester, 22% cotton, 3% spandex. Is there anything I can do to restore the black color so it is even from top to bottom? Thank you for your expertise.

    • DizzyLettuce says:

      Hi Connie, I am sorry, I don’t think this fabric can be restored to solid black. It has too much polyester content to take any overdyeing. Sorry!
      Jennifer

  21. Debbie says:

    Hi Dizzy! I want to do a tortoise shell effect on a scarf – the base color would be amber, and a blotchy dark brown on top. My question is – do I need to dye the scarf solid amber, rinse, wash, and dry it, before doing the dark brown effect? Or can I do a solid amber dye then scrunch it up unrinsed, still soaked with amber dye, and add the brown?
    Thanks for any insight you can share! :)
    Debbie

  22. Jennifer Thompson Miller says:

    Hi Debbie, you will be doing a 2-color effect, sort of like tie/dye. Check out all the tutorials at http://www.dharmatrading.com. Be sure your scarf is cotton or silk, & follow all instructions carefully! I suggest that you get some similar materials at a thrift store to practice on first. Have fun!!

  23. Sara says:

    Hello! I know that the dyeing process is unpredictable and often requires experimentation, but I am in need of some guidance. I recently purchased a Chinese Qipao dress that is 70% silk and 30%polyester. The dress is very close to the color I’m looking for. It is a maroon fabric and I am hoping to successfully turn it more of a violet color. After looking at the dyes available from http://www.dharmatrading.com I’m wondering which type to use. Also, would you recommend a violet tint or a blue tint, seeing as the fabric is already a red-purple?

  24. Hi Sara,
    There are several factors recommending against dyeing your dress. First, dyeing requires hot water & agitation, & your dress may shrink or twist in the process. Next, its polyester content will not take any dye at all. So you will get a lighter value of the color that you add. If you still want to try, I suggest adding blue to create more of a violet. Keep in mind, all dyeing is an experiment! If at all possible, test before you try any color additions.
    have fun,
    Jennifer

  25. Anna W says:

    Hi I am a 7th grader at a middle school in Arlington virginia and for my science project I was wondering if you could answer the question what causes dyes to work on Fabrics? Also I would need to know your name and position. Thank you
    Anna

  26. Jennifer Thompson Miller says:

    Hi Anna,
    Unfortunately I am not a chemist, so I can’t answer your question with any depth of knowledge. However, here are a few things:
    1. There are many kinds of dye that are used for different kinds of fibers – synthetics (acrylic, polyester, etc), natural cellulose fibers (cotton & linen, etc.), natural protein fibers (silk, wool, etc.), & many more. These all take different kinds of dye in order to make the color stick.

    2. When dye is applied to a fiber, it makes a chemical bond that is not broken. In other words, the color becomes part of the molecules of the fiber.

    3. A simple answer to your question, what makes dye work? Is the chemical color, heat, a dispersant (this moves the dye through the fabric), & water or some other solution. These are the factors that are needed to create permanent color on fiber.

    4. I suggest that you read everything on the website at http://www.dharmatrading.com, http://www.prochemical.com, & all the articles on dyeing,etc at wikipedia. Have fun exploring!!
    best, Jennifer

  27. P.S. Anna, you can list my position as Textile Designer.

  28. Teresa says:

    I have a light jacket in weight and in color. It’s a light beige. I have looked all over for a black blazer like this, (it is midi length) It is Rayon and Acetate. I have a very simple financial situation. What dye would you recommend, and any helpful tip would me the absolute world to me. Thank you so very much in advance
    Teresa,

    • DizzyLettuce says:

      Hi Teresa,
      I am sorry, this can’t be easily dyed. It’s hard to dye anything black; rayon will take dye, but acetate will not. Keep looking.
      best regards, Jennifer

  29. Jackie Senton says:

    I bought a dress on ebay that is 100% rayon in a light plum. I find the shade too light and would like to dye it darker. There is some stitching design where the fabric inside the design is almost black and the plum is mottled (like faded denim). If I dye it darker will I lose the black and the mottled effect?
    thank you, Jackie

  30. Jennifer Thompson Miller says:

    Jackie,
    I really don’t know what will happen. If you are willing to experiment, you can try it! I usually don’t recommend Rit, but if you can find the shade you like, it may work for you. You can also look at the fabric dye section at JoAnn or at Jerry’s Artarama. Read all instructions carefully! You’ll need soda ash & table salt, as well, if you use a MX or reactive dye.
    best,
    Jennifer

  31. Jayne says:

    I bought some fabric to dye but couldn’t find out what it’s made of
    Is there any way to find out

    • DizzyLettuce says:

      I suggest that you take it to a local seamstress or tailor for their opinion. You can also do a burn test to see if it is a natural fiber. Carefully light a small swatch of the fabric; if it melts, it’s synthetic – if it burns to ash, it is a natural fiber. Another option is to try dyeing; if it takes the dye, you have a natural fiber.

  32. Judith says:

    Jayne,
    We have an article on “Fabric Identification” at http://info.fabrics.net/fabric-facts/fabric-identification/ which includes the burn test.

    Hope this helps!
    Judith
    Judith@fabrics.net