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Tutorial: Dyeing Fabric

Updated: Mar 23


A before and after of a dyed fabric piece.
A before and after of a dyed fabric piece.

Now that we’ve talked about what fabric dye is, how it works, and some different techniques, I bring to you a fabric dyeing photo tutorial! I need to dye some boring fabric into something more interesting to make a T-tunic for my friend’s first LARP game in a few weeks. Tunic step-by-step tutorial is coming soon as well.


A bottle of light pink RIT dye.
A bottle of light pink RIT dye.

The Plan


I have about 2 yards of light peach/pink fabric, 100% cotton. I want to tie-dye and overdye it with this petal pink Rit liquid dye to create some depth and interest. I’m going to dye the full 2 yards uncut, then lay it out and cut and sew the tunic after it’s dry.


Materials

  • Fabric

  • Fabric dye

  • Large stainless steel pot with lid – I have a 12 qt stock pot

  • salt for cotton/linen/rayon/bamboo or vinegar for wool/silk/nylon

  • stir stick (I used a cheap wooden chopstick from Chinese takeout)

  • kitchen scale

  • liquid dish soap

  • optional rubber bands for tie-dye

  • optional kettle if you need to boil water separately

  • optional mason jar or other glass container you will never put food in

  • optional rubber or latex gloves – it depends how much you think you’ll be handling the fabric or dye solution


Preparation

Fabric being weighed on a scale.
Fabric being weighed on a scale.

Pre-wash fabric either by hand or in a washing machine. This pre-wash will remove any finishes the fabric mill put on the fabric, and it pre-shrinks if you wash in warm to hot water so you lose less fabric later on during the dye process and future washing of the garment. Most fabric does not come pre-shrunk off the bolt. You want to remove things like starch and sizing that mills sometimes add to fabrics to keep it nice and smooth on the bolt so it looks pretty in store and entices you to buy it instead of choosing a more wrinkly, sad looking fabric.


Weigh your fabric. I have a small digital kitchen scale I use for this. If you are dyeing a lot of fabric, or heavy fabric, you can cut a 6″ strip off one end and weigh that, then multiply by the yardage and get your total weight that way if it doesn’t fit on the scale. If you don’t own a scale, you can guess and use more dye than necessary, but there’s no way to tell if you have enough or too much in that case.


Math


I’m using Rit liquid dye. My fabric weighs 308.1 grams, which is 0.68 lbs. This 236mL bottle of dye is good for 2 lbs of fabric. We’re going to divide 236 by 4 (because I have about 1/4 of the 2 lbs of fabric maximum that I can dye with this bottle) to get 59mL required for 0.5 lbs of fabric and then adjust in the dye bath.


Tie-Dye

A tie-dye dress on a model.
A tie-dye dress on a model.

If you want an even all-over color, just skip this part. You’ll immerse the whole fabric yardage without any ties or elastics.


Grab a handful of elastic bands and start deciding how you want to tie up your fabric. The dye won’t reach parts of the fabric when it’s all bound up, so you get interesting surprise textures when you’re done. I chose to just randomly crumple and squish it and then bind it all up with only a few elastics.


Dye Bath


You need a really large pot if you want to do this on your stovetop. I bought this one for about $12 at Walmart. Do not use anything you intend to cook with! Don’t store it in your kitchen.

Mix 1 cup salt for cotton/linen/rayon/bamboo or 1 cup vinegar for wool/silk/nylon and 1 teaspoon dish liquid into a pot filled with enough water for your fabric to move around. Rit recommends 3 gallons for every pound of fabric.

A step-by-step of how to prepare your dye bath with a large pot, dish soap, dye, salt, and water.
A step-by-step of how to prepare your dye bath with a large pot, dish soap, dye, salt, and water.
A pot of boiling water with a thermometer inside.
A pot of boiling water with a thermometer inside.

Place it on your stove, cover, and bring to a simmer. If you’re using powder dye, you need to also boil water separately to dissolve the powder. Pour a small amount of boiling water into a container (I really like mason jars), and then scoop the powder on top of the water. You should always do it in this order because the dye particles are toxic. If you put the powder in first and pour water on top, you risk displacing toxic particles into the air. Stir or shake the mixture well to completely dissolve.


A plastic cup with a marking of how much water is inside to then fill with dye.
A plastic cup with a marking of how much water is inside to then fill with dye.

This time I’m using a pre-mixed liquid dye. I just have to shake the bottle really well before I crack the seam.


DO NOT pour directly into a measuring cup you use for food! If you’re like me and don’t have extra measuring cups laying around, fill your measuring cup with water to the volume of dye you need, then pour it in a plastic cup and mark a line with a sharpie. Now you can dump out the water and fill the cup to the same line with dye.


Pour the dye into the water, stir it around a bit and then submerge your fabric. Make sure to push it down and move it gently, ensuring full soak.

Dye being poured into the dye bath with the fabric inside.
Dye being poured into the dye bath with the fabric inside.

The longer you leave the fabric in the dye bath, the deeper the color will be. I left mine in for 30 minutes and got a very bright pink. More dye in the bath will also create a darker color. You can dip a paper towel or a test strip of fabric to check the color and adjust to your preference. I did pour a bit more dye from the bottle into the pot after stirring a bit and eyeballing it. You can also mix colors together to make new colors.


After you’ve left it bubbling away on low heat on the stove for a while, check regularly and flip or stir as needed. You can leave it up to 1 hour if you want.


When you think it’s done, remove from heat, rinse and cool by placing it under a tap and running cold water until the dye is displaced with the water. I used the laundry sink to do this part because it’s bigger and easier to get my pot into.

Dye being displaced with cold water.
Dye being displaced with cold water.

Now you need to rinse your fabric. Remove the pot and hold the fabric under running water, soak and squeeze until the water runs clear. You have to do this several times.

Elastics being removed from a newly dyed piece of fabric in a pot.
Elastics being removed from a newly dyed piece of fabric in a pot.

If you don’t need to pay your washing machines like I do, you can run a short rinse cycle. I had to stand over the sink for a while rinsing and squeezing and didn’t really get all the soap and color out. If you have a handheld shower head, adjust to strongest setting and spray it in the tub or a bucket.


Now take off all elastics, or just flap it out and lay flat somewhere to dry. You can also put it in the dryer on HIGH HEAT until it’s dry. The heat will also help set the color. If you don’t want to put it in the dryer, use an iron on the highest setting allowed by your fabric type and iron the whole thing to set the color.


You’re done!

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