An Intro to Textile Dyeing

I occasionally get questions about how to dye fabric, so I thought I’d post some info and tips for anyone looking to try.  I used to work as a Costume Painter/Dyer for a large local theater, so it’s something I actually know quite a bit about!

Why might you need to dye anything for a solo dress?
One reason would be to have a fabric in a color that you can’t find for sale.  I couldn’t find a silk in the right shade of green for this dress (left), so I bought white silk instead and dyed it to my desired shade.  Another reason would be to create an ombre effect on part or all of a costume.  The second photo is from Solo Dress Pattern customer Heather O’Malley who used dye to create a beautiful fade from white to blue.  The third (right) is a set of sleeves I did for my own dress.  They are actually a double ombre; nude to blue to black.

2019, 2nd Ed pattern, Heather O'Malley

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Types of Dye | Dye Tools & Vessels | Dye Safety | Color Matching


Terminology: Fastness of Dye

A quick note on some terminology. “Lightfastness” refers to the resistance of a pigment to fading when exposed to light. “Washfastness” refers to the resistance of a pigment to fading by washing. For Irish dance costumes washfastness is less important since they are not being machine laundered. This is more important for every-day items like t-shirts of dish towels that undergo frequent washing.

Types of Dye

There are many types of dye, but I’ll just go over the few that are most useful and easily accessible to the general consumer. [Side note…my experience with accessibility is only based in the US.  Unfortunately I can’t speak to what types and brands are common elsewhere.]

Household / Union Dyes

Brands: RIT, iDye
Find it: Most craft stores and even some grocery stores
Pros: Easy to find and designed for beginner use.
Cons: More costly per volume, since half is going down the drain. Less light-fast and washfast than other options. Doesn’t work on synthetics (except nylon).

RIT and other household dyes are super easy to find and use.  They are technically a mixture of two different types of dye (Direct and Acid), which is why they are good for so many types of fabrics. They will generally work on cellulose fibers such as cotton, rayon, and linen when salt is added to the dye bath, and protein fibers like silk and wool (also nylon) when vinegar is added to the dye bath. These dyes are less fast than other options, so look for a “fixative” made by the same brand, which makes the dye more permanent.

Procion / Fiber-Reactive Dyes

Brands: Dharma, ProChemical, Jacquard
Find it: Online, or at fine art stores (occasionally craft stores)
Pros: Most permanent option, lots of colors, doesn’t require heat for cellulose fibers.
Cons: More effort to mix colors. Doesn’t work on synthetics (except nylon).

Procion Dye is my favorite dye (samples of which are featured in the header of this post)! You may have used it as a kid, since it’s what’s used for tie-dyeing. Brands like Dharma and ProChemical have hundreds of colors, which makes it easier to avoid color-mixing. It’s by far the most lightfast and washfast option; I once dyed only one leg on a pair of tights, and after several washes the other side was still white! It also doesn’t need a boiling-hot bath like household dyes. This makes it easier to dye large pieces at home where you’re otherwise limited by the size of pot you can put on the stovetop.

Disperse Dyes

Brands: RIT Dyemore, iDye Poly, ProChemical, Aljo,
Find it: Craft stores or online
Pros: Works on synthetic fabrics like polyester!
Cons: Can be less vibrant, require long hot dye bath, and are less fast than other dyes.

Disperse dyes are the only dyes that are designed to give permanent color on synthetic fibers like polyester. They tend to come in a more limited color palette so be prepared to mix colors. They also require a long hot bath and are the smelliest of the dyes, so be sure to open a window if dyeing near pets or children.

Dye Tools & Vessels

Pictured to the left is the 60 gallon dye vat I used to use at the theater. Isn’t she beautiful? I think of her often and hope she’s doing well. When dyeing at home we don’t have the luxury of large vessels like this. Your dye project is limited by the size of container you can dye in. For dyes that need to be hot, the biggest thing you’re likely to find is a 5-gallon canning kettle. For dyes like Procion that can be done room temperature, this opens up larger options like plastic bins and trash cans. Overall for dyeing, I like stainless steel, but enamel also works. Avoid porous metals like cast iron.

You will also want a tongs, and one or two smaller containers for mixing. A clean jar from the recycling bin works great for this.

Dye Safety

Dyes stain! Everything! We know this but it’s worth reiterating. This is a great time to mention that I once thought I could carefully dye a small piece of black satin in my kitchen. The packet of fine, black dye powder slipped from my hand and it traveled all over the kitchen. The hardwood floor will never be the same. If working with powdered dyes, it’s best to open them in the sink and mix them with a little water in a separate container. This is called “pasting out” and it helps to dissolve the dye evenly. But a liquid is also easier to clean up than a powder, if the worst should happen to you too! A clean jar from the recycling bin works great for this.

If you have the luxury, dyeing outside really takes the pressure off! Portable burners are cheap and easy to find, if you have access to an outdoor outlet such as in a garage.

It’s also best to wear a mask when handling dye powders, as they are a very fine powder and you will not notice if you are breathing it in. Someone once said to me “things you breathe into your lungs stay there forever” and that has really stuck with me. My lungs hopefully have many decades of life (and dancing) to go!

Also obvious but easily ignored. TEXTILE DYES ARE NOT FOOD SAFE. Do not dye using any vessels or tools you use for food. Go to the thrift store and find a big old canning kettle and a pair of tongs for $20 – your body will thank you.

For clean-up, I love Soft Scrub With Bleach. It does a great job of removing dye from pots and sinks. After washing your dyed fabric in the washing machine, I recommend

Tips for Color Matching

If you’re dyeing fabric for your dream dress, chances are you might be looking for a really particular shade! There are a finite number of dye shades available, so it’s common to have to mix two or more to get that perfect hue. Fine tune your recipe first by dyeing small swatches and keeping track of the ratio of colors used.

Want to make mixing colors easier? RIT has an online database of recipes for both their standard household dye and their Dyemore for synthetics. This is a great place to start, and you can always fine tune the exact color on your own!

Are you ready to dive into dyeing? Let us know what other questions you have about textile dyes!

2 comments

    • Earnest Threads says:

      RIT has a bunch of recipes on their website, for both their regular and polyester dyes. If you use a Fiber-Reactive/Procion dye the Dharma and ProChemical offer hundreds of colors so you can usually buy pretty close to what you need. Otherwise, some general color theory is useful as far as the mixing goes (similar to mixing paints). Trial and error is key! Cut small pieces to test the dye and adjust the color before dyeing the whole piece.

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