Learn how to dye fabric and clothing for sewing or just to upcycle some of your wardrobe. Dying fabric is easy and fun with a few easy tips and tricks. Learning how to dye fabric may sound simple - you have the fabric and you buy some dye add some water. Then you think someone said add some salt and away you go. Dip and dye. Is it that simple? Actually, for great results, it is not as simple as dip and dye. However, with careful instructions and very conscientious preparation, the process is not that difficult. Preparation is the key to successful fabric dyeing!
How to Dye Fabric
Start by understanding the fabric you wish to dye and then follow through with careful preparation. If you avoid this step the end result may not be exactly what you were hoping for. By following the preparation steps you will end up with a stunning, vibrant piece of new fabric. Even dyeing old clothes requires some preparation.
How to Dye Fabric - Tools
Here are the basic tools you will need when learning how to dye fabric.
- CONTAINER - Stainless steel pot or large container that won't stain or you can throw away after.
- STIRRER - Something to stir your fabric within the pot like a wooden spoon or stick. If it is not metal it will get stained so choose something you can throw away or keep just for dyeing.
- FABRIC DYE
How to Dye Fabric - Best Fabrics
Some fabrics accept dye very easily and are more suited to fabric dyes. Natural fabrics like cotton, linen and silk and wool fall into this category. Cotton knits and old t-shirts make great experimental starting points. Synthetics do not dye well.
If you are not sure of your fabric’s content check the label or try a burning test on a scrap. Natural fabrics burn more easily than synthetics. A synthetic fabric will burn and melt leaving a bead of plastic residue.
- Natural fabrics take dye better than synthetics
- Cotton fabric is considered to be one of the best fabrics to dye
- Rayon while only semi-natural, takes dye very well and is very popular for floating clothing designed for hot climates.
- Linen is a natural fiber that dyes well but pre-wash it for shrinkage first as the open fibers have a larger shrinkage rate than cotton.
- Polyester will not take the dye so is not recommended unless you want a really subtle effect.
A white background is going to dye into a pure version of the dye color you apply. Fabrics with a background color need to be tested to see how the color takes on the colored background. If you have a yellow t-shirt and you try to dye it blue it will end up green! And while green is lovely, it will be hard to control what shade of green it will be. Start white and there will be no surprises.
How to Dye Fabric - Fabric dyes
Best Fabric Dyes
Once you know your fabric you can find a suitable dye product. If you are feeling adventurous you can make your own dye. (More about natural dyes further in this article)
Check labels and read up on the different dye types, because that could make all the difference to the type of fabric you are planning to learn how to dye fabric.
Types of Dyes
- Fiber reactive dyes are best suited to fabrics made from plant material. These would be your cotton and linens.
- Acid dyes are best suited to protein fibers for example wool and silk. They are natural fibers but do not come from plant material.
- A synthetic dye is best used on cotton blends and polyester.
This is the kind of information found on the dye instructions. Remember some dyes have to be set in heated water to seal the dye color. This puts pressure on delicate fabrics. In this situation look for cold water dye.
Choosing the colors of the dye is important especially if you plan to ‘over dye’ clothing or if you plan to mix your own colors using the basic colors on the color chart.
Primary colors of red, blue and yellow will always be able to mix into other shades and black is a useful dye for dark colors. Some dye manufacturers retail different color hues. It is wise to always test the color before using it on an entire piece of fabric.
The test sample saves a great deal of heartache and unhappiness with a poor result. There are also products available to remove dye or to take the color out of an item before you go through the dyeing process.
How to dye fabric with store-bought dyes
Your result is only as good as the dye you purchase. Fabric dye can be purchased from art stores, fabric shops and online on eBay and Amazon. Store-bought dyes come in a wide range of colors. These usually come in powder form in small pots.
Some of the popular and good quality brands include:
- Rit Dye
How to Dye Fabric with Natural dyes
What about making your own dye? It is possible to use plant material, food coloring and other food materials found in your kitchen to make your own dye. If you would like to be adventurous, here are some ideas of different natural home-made dyes.
The downside of using homemade dyes is that the color result and depth of color may be difficult to control. If you have ever spilled something on your shirt and been left with a stain that won't come out you know that homemade dye can work really well.
This list gives you the color you can expect from dye ingredients using natural plant materials and kitchen ingredients.
- Yellow – onion skins, butternut squash husks, celery leaves, turmeric.
- Brown – coffee grounds, dandelion root, boiled acorns, walnut husks, tea.
- Pink – roses, strawberries, cherries, lavender.
- Red – beets, day lily blooms from the red day lily flower.
- Green – Artichokes, spinach.
- Blue – red cabbage, black iris flower.
- Purple – black iris flower but more concentrated.
- Beautiful indigo (blue-black) beans, soaked overnight.
- Soft pink – avocado peels and pips.
- Different colors according to the bottles – food coloring.
If you decide to go back to nature and make your own dye you need to boil the plant materials in some water and add salt. There are no hard and fast quantities, start with a little water and then top up as you see the intensity of the color coming through. Drain the water and store in a bottle until ready for use.
Let the dyed fabric soak for about an hour. It is always a good idea to experiment on a scrap of fabric first. Remember the color will fade as the fabric dries.
How to Dye Fabric - Step by Step
Step 1 - Pre-Washing Before Dyeing
After choosing your item to dye, it is important to wash it before you start. New items in particular often have chemicals called finishing agents to make them look crisp and new in the shop. This can stop the dye penetrating and give you a paler result.
The cleaning process used to prepare the fabric is called scouring. It is a deep cleaning procedure and is used to make sure the fabric receives the dye with a good even penetration of dye color into the fabric fibers.
Cotton in particular needs a good clean because the fabric is full of hidden oil and wax additives or starch called sizing. The scouring of cotton needs a hot temperature of water while wool needs cooler water and a milder soap.
How to Dye Fabric Preparation:
- FIND TOOLS - Use a large, non-reactive cooking pot. Stainless steel is considered to be a non-reactive pot. You will also need something to stir the pot and fabric with.
- ADDITIVES - Put sodium carbonate or washing soda into the pot. IMPORTANT - Washing soda is caustic so protect your hands and clothing. These chemicals are often found in the laundry section of the supermarket or at the place where you purchased the dye. You also need fabric detergent or liquid soap. Even dish soap will do if it is one without additives. The scouring process is to rid the fabric of additives so don’t be tempted to use a washing product with additives. The quantities of soap are between 2 – 3 teaspoons of washing soda per gallon (3.8 litres) of water and 1-2 teaspoons of detergent. I
- ADD WATER - Pour in water into your pot on top of the soap and additive. Make sure your fabric has enough room to move around in the water. A recommended ratio of water to fabric is 2:1.
- ADD FABRIC - Add your fabric to the water and turn on the heat to bring the water to a simmer point. Simmer for 2 hours and stir every so often with a wooden spoon to keep the fabric moving in the soap and detergent mixture. You should see the water turn a yellowish, brown color as the additives and starch in the fabric is drawn out. As always be careful with boiling water on the stove and if you are a kid reading this, make sure you get help from an adult.
When this is done you can move directly to the dyeing process using the wet fabric or you dry the prepared fabric and put it away for future use.
This is the scouring process. The result is a piece of fabric ready to absorb the dye without any additives. It is a good idea to take clothing through the same process to get rid of fabric softeners and dirt and bring the garment to its cleanest raw state.
Step 2 - Preparing the Fabric Dye
Prepare the dye according to the directions on the dye packet. Always test your dye on a sample of the fabric before you launch into a whole piece of fabric or garment. If you plan to repeat this color process, it is a good idea to make notes at the time. This will ensure the repeat process is just a simple case of following a proven recipe.
How to Dye Fabric:
- DISSOLVE - Dissolve the dye in warm water, not warmer than 350 C or 950F. This is just the dissolving of the dye not actually dyeing the fabric yet. Make sure the dye powder is really well dissolved in the water. If the dye has not dissolved completely the result will be streaks and uneven color on the fabric you are dyeing. The amount of water to add should be specified on the product packaging. Different brands use different amounts depending on the concentration of the powder.
- ADD SALT - Adding a cup of non/iodized salt increases the color fastness and helps improve the color fastness of plant-based fabrics like cotton. The addition of white vinegar helps dyes set in protein-based fabrics like wool and silk.
- STORAGE - Now your dye is prepared and ready to receive the material. If you are not ready to dye the fabric yet, the dye can be stored in an old bucket or container ready for future use. Label the color and add the date of the day you bottled the dye.
Step 3 - Add Fabric
Wet the fabric that is prepared or continue with the fabric that is already wet from scouring or cleaning. Add it to your pot of dissolved dye. Put on your protective clothing and gloves to prevent discoloration of your hands and follow the dye instructions.
Let your fabric absorb the dye until you feel satisfied with the result. Remember the color fades as the fabric dries. Some dyes will specify a time on the packaging. Of course the longer you leave the fabric, the darker it will become.
Step 4 - Remove Fabric
Remove from the dye water and rinse thoroughly. Start with a warm rinse and graduate to a cold wash. At each rinse, you are aiming for a clear rinse to show any surplus dye is removed.
Step 5 - Drying
Line dry in the shade and iron the dyed fabric. Do not put it in the dryer. If you plan to continue to use this dye, and the routine you followed, then store the dye and make a note of how it worked. Fabric dye can be stored so put the date on the container to enable you to note how long you have been storing the dye.
How to Dye Fabric with Tie Dye
Tie-dye simple means some of the fabric is tied up to prevent the dye from penetrating that particular area of the fabric. Elastic bands make good ties, alternatively, string rubbed with candle wax will make it water or dye resistant. Follow all the preparation processes and then just before submerging the fabric in the dye, tie the bands around parts of the fabric. Following simple patterns of tying the fabric can result in some interesting patterns.
Learn how to dye fabric with tie dye and choose these techniques for some color fun:
This is a popular pattern for tie dye. Lay the fabric flat and with your thumb and forefinger begin to twist the fabric in a clockwise fashion. Keep twisting until the centre resemble a flat cinnamon roll. Use the elastic bands to hold the roll in place. Using more bands and winding them tighter encourages more white to remain in the final outcome.
A general scrunch up of the fabric and a wrap round of rubber bands will give a mottled random effect. The more bands used and the tighter the bands the more interesting is the design.
Scrunch up or pull together the fabric or shirt into a bundle in the center of the piece to be dyed. Take the rubber bands and wrap them around the scrunched up ball. There is no real pattern or order – just a mish mash. Dip the bundle into the dye and when it is dry remove the bands to reveal your pattern.
Lay your shirt or fabric flat on a table and fold from one side to the other in an accordion style, or like folding a fan, until you have folded from the bottom corner across the fabric to the top. This will make a diagonal tube of fabric. Wrap the elastic bands round the tube every 1 – 2 inches (2.5-5cm). Submerge the tube in the dye and allow the fabric to dry before removing the bands.
How to Dye Fabric - In Conclusion
Dyeing fabric adds another dimension to your creative experiences with fabric. Learning how to dye fabric is a chance to color your world and a colorful world is an amazing place so.....enjoy the art of dyeing fabric.