Fabric dyeing is no rocket science but for someone who has not done any kind of dyeing other than may be dye a silver hair or two, this can feel daunting, especially when I am putting at stake a favourite clothing which needs a little perk up with a new color on it, not complete destroyal.
Dyeing is interesting and a little challenging as the results are never consistent and you may ruin a nice piece of clothing in your ignorance. So learning some basics about this art is not ‘optional’ before you go buy that dye.
You need to realize some basic facts about dyeing and the steps you need to follow. That is what this post is all about.
Select the fabric for dyeing
Different fabrics react to different fabric dyes differently. So you have to know the type of fabric you have before you start dyeing. If the shop assistant didn’t tell you and you cannot make out from the label on the garment/fabric, you may have to do some testing to recognize the fabric you have. You can check out this post on testing the fabric for more details.
The best fabric for dyeing is cotton, without a doubt. You can dye cotton lawn fabric, cotton poplin and cotton muslin to beautiful colors. Fine cotton dyes far far better than coarse cotton. Blends do not take the normal dyes very well. If the cotton percentage is more it may turn out ok. Blended fabrics like cotton-polyester blends with high percentage of polyester do not take dyes too well, but they can still be dyed to lighter shades.
Bulky thick fabrics would not take dyes as well as fine fabrics. If the fabric is simply stiff, it may be stiffening and will wash off before dyeing. Old cotton clothes which have been washed many times take dye very well.
Other plant fibers like linen, hemp and even rayon takes dyes well. Silk is also frequently dyed. Synthetic fabrics do not take dyes well. Especially 100% synthetic fabrics like 100% polyester and 100 % nylon, lycra etc.
Light colored fabric is easier to dye to a bright colour than darker colors which is simple commonsense.
As I said, many fabrics you know can be dyed. But some maynot be as accepting, for eg. fabric with special finishes and some acrylics. You also cannot dye fabrics which are treated with waterproof coatings, permanent press treatment, special fabric finishes
You can also buy special “prepared for dyeing fabrics” from some speciality stores.
Select the best dye for the fabric
Fiber reactive dyes are the best dyes for dyeing cotton and other cellulose/plant fiber fabrics like linen, hemp. Fiber reactive dyes are not great on polyester, acrylic, and nylon fabrics. Acid dyes are best for protein fibers like Wool, silk and other animal fibers like mohair, angora etc. You can use synthetic dye to dye Polyester, polyester cotton blends, nylon, acrylic, and acetate fibers. You will need to heat set the dye with stove top dyeing. Some dyes never hold on to synthetic fabrics so do it at your own risk (of losing the garment for ever to the dumpster).
When you go to buy dyes you will find that there are two types of normal dyes. Ones which give you a decent enough color and they come in small packets and are very inexpensive. They give a pretty average result and are easy to use. The quality ones are expensive and the fabric need to prepared and need mordents to work but they give really good vivid coloring which is colorfast and last very well. Decide on the quality you want and make the purchase.
Related post : 10 different types of fabric dyes.
Keep some tools ready
A shallow dye vessel (that is exclusive for dyeing – you can use old stainless steel vessels), Wash clothes for cleaning up, plastic containers to mix dyes, any place to wash dyed clothes which will not contaminate food.
Use face masks / respirator and rubber gloves when mixing dyes if you are prone to allergies. I have (belatedly) realized that rubber gloves is not optional, ie if you do not want to have hands that look like the one a character from Avatar would have – all my fingers were blue, for a long time.
This photo is after I touched a just dyed cloth – and even this took a lot of scrubbing to remove.
Prepare the fabric
Preparing the fabric means pre-washing it before dyeing. You definitely have to wash any new garment or fabric you intend to dye. This will remove the starch and stuff (finishes, conditioners) that will interfere with proper color adherence. With old clothing/cloths you have to wash to remove any dirt and anything which will stand in between dye and fabric. Preferably wash in hot water and with detergent.
Some even suggest pre-soaking the fabric in a solution of soda ash/washing soda and water for making the fabric ready for dyeing. The soda ash presoak can help to alter the pH balance and result in brighter, stronger colors. 1 cup of washing soda is dissolved in 10 liters of water for this purpose. Use accordingly.
Anyways, other than prewashing, you have to wet the fabric for dyeing – because you cannot put dry fabric into your dye bath. So if you are not washing the fabric, just wet it with water.
Colors in dyeing
This is a subject in itself. To get any other color than the basic colors like blue, red, yellow , black you can mix different dyes in different proportions.
You can get Purple by mixing red and blue (2:1) ; lime green by mixing blue (or turquoise blue) and yellow ( 1:6) ; Orange by mixing yellow and red ( 8:1); Leaf green by mixing yellow and blue ( 2: 1/2); Violet by mixing blue and red (2: 1/4) ; Grey by mixing black and a little green; Army green by mixing yellow and purple; Turquoise blue by mixing blue and a little black. Brown by mixing red, blue and yellow in equal measures; Magenta by mixing red and purple; Golden yellow by mixing lemon yellow with a little red.
Add black to any color to give you a jewel shade of the same color.
Prepare the dye
Decide on the shade you want for a particular color. For dark shades you need more dye concentration than for lighter shades.
If you want an exact shade you will have to test the colour on a fabric scrap – weigh the fabric and the dye and then do the test dyeing . If the shade is the one you want, calculate the exact proportion accordingly and do the dyeing.
The quantity of dye used varies with dye to dye – dye powders from different companies vary a lot. The fabric you are dyeing, water quality like level of ph, water hardness etc can all change the way the final dyed lot will look.
You will have to use the instructions and colour chart you get with dyes as a guide. Colour matching and wanting to repeat the dye process later are important aspects to consider – for this you have to record every single thing you do the first time and proceed exactly the same way.
Water for dyeing – Best is to use soft water. If you have only hard water use a water softener. Some dyes ask you to use Hot water, and some cold water. I have used warm water to dissolve the dye. But do not use water warmer than 35 degrees Celsius (95 degree F)
How much to use? This depends on the fabric – Usually for 1/2 kg of dry fabric you should use about 10 liters of water. You also need enough water to totally immerse the fabric and it should be in a vessel in which you can stir the fabric continuously easily.
How to Prepare the Dye solution
This is for the simple packet dyes. Dissolve the dye as per your dye packet instructions. 1 table spoon for 500 gms of fabric is usually the proportion. Do as the writing on your dye packet says.
Non-Iodized Salt (1 cup) is used to increase the color adherence for cellulose fiber fabrics like cotton and linen. White vinegar is used for protein fiber fabrics like wool and silk. Dissolve 3 cups of non iodized salt in 10 liters of of lukewarm water and add this accordingly proportionately. Calsolene Oil is used to even out the dye results – use about 2 teaspoons to the dye solution.
One thing is very important – you have to really dissolve the dye in water. If the powder remains undissolved in the water you will get patches on the fabric. Stir continuously and tirelessly to dissolve every tiny bit of powder. Some experts even sieve the dye solution so that there are no bursts of color.
If you find that the dye powder is not dissolving in water some suggest to use Urea to act as a dissolving agent. Urea is made into a diluted solution of 1 tbsp urea in 1 cup of water.
Ensure that you have enough dye to completely immerse the fabric.
You can use anything to keep the dye – an old bucket, old utensils, used paint pails, plastic containers, large plastic freezer bags. Some even do dyeing inside the washing machine. Just ensure that it is big enough for you to stir the whole thing comfortably
Do the Dyeing
Put your fabric into the dye bath and stir gently. You will have to keep the fabric in the dye solution for about 20-30 minutes for light colours and 1 hour for deep colors. Read the instructions that come with your dye. Some dye with just 15 minutes.
Optional step : After about 15 minutes of dyeing, add soda ash (sodium carbonate)/washing soda – warm water solution to the dye ( not directly on the fabric – if the soda ash touches the fabric it will leave stains). This is added to set the dye – a kind of Dye Fixer.
Keep the fabric to the side as you add the soda wash solution. Stir and stir again and again. (Soda ash is an optional addition for getting brighter colors and to set the dye with fiber reactive dye; some dyes may not even need it)
The proportion is this – 9 tbsp Soda Ash is added to a 3.75 liters of hot water (1 gallon). This will do for a lot of clothes.
The most important thing at this point is to stir continuously and relentlessly. Do not stir up air bubbles. When you do not stir all the time there will be spaces on the cloth which are left undyed. You wouldn’t believe it till you do it. It is ugly and blotchy. So stir!
After the dyeing is over wait for a day (this is called curing) and then wash out the excess dye – use cold water to rinse away excess dye for two or three times. Ideally, you should rinse till the water runs clear. You can then wash properly with a good fabric detergent or even better special dye adhering detergents for thorough removal of excess dye. Use hot water for this wash. Add a fabric softener to the last rinse to finish off the process.
Tips for better fabric dyeing
Buy enough dye to complete a project. You cannot buy and dye another time and get the exact shade.
If you get dye or soda ash anywhere on your body, wash away immediately.
For a long time, wash dyed clothes separately. Especially never with light colored clothes.
Do not use the same pot for dyeing and for cooking. Either dyeing or cooking. Or you die.
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Updated on October 21, 2022 by Sarina Tariq