Updated: Sep 4
G’day nerds! This week, I’m going to talk a lot about fabric dyeing. It’s actually a pretty complicated subject, so I’ll do my best to keep it simple and provide you with links to more details where necessary.
What is fabric dye and how does it work?
The most common form of home fabric dyeing is called “reactive dyeing“. This means the dye forms a chemical bond with the fabric on a molecular level, which makes it permanent. This is different from something like painting or screen printing in which pigment is placed on top of the fabric but can wash or peel away eventually.
Common DIY dye brands include Rit and Dylon, which you can find at any craft store. Rit and Dylon are synthetic union dyes. They contain chemicals to dye as many different kinds of fibre as possible to give you uniform color on fabrics made with mixed fibres. A word of warning, just because the package says it will dye anything, that’s not quite true. Fabric dyeing is not a precise process and very hard to predict. You need to enter into this kind of project with the expectation that it won’t come out exactly as you’ve imagined. Part of the beauty of DIY fabric dyeing is that you’ll never know what it’s going to look like until you’re finished.
A bit less common but very good brand is Procion MX and Procion Acid dye, which you can get through Dharma Trading (US) or G&S Dye (Canada). These are intended for use on 100% cellulose or 100% protein, but it’s not much more complicated than using Rit or Dylon. There’s also iDye (for cellulose) and iDye Poly, which I’ve been told is effective on polyester.
Before you try to dye anything, keep in mind:
1. No matter what brand of dye you use, it’s going to work best on 100% natural fibre, or conversely 100% of one fibre that matches the type of dye you’re using. You’ll get mixed results from blends, but maybe that’s ok for you.
What is natural fibre vs synthetic fibre?
Natural fibres are cellulose and protein fibres that come from natural sources – such as cotton, hemp, wool, silk, and linen. They come from a natural source, are spun into yarns and woven into fabric. Synthetic fibres are processed with chemicals and extruded into yarns to be woven into fabric. This includes some cellulose plant fibres you might think are natural, but have to be processed in such a way that for dye purposes must be categorized as synthetic. This includes rayon, viscose, bamboo, nylon, spandex, elastane, and polyester.
2. What color is the fabric you’re starting with? You can overdye fabrics that already have a color, but cannot go from dark to light. Best results will be on white, off-white, or another light color. If you want to change the color of something that is already dark, like an olive, navy, dark grey, or black, you can try a color remover (NOT bleach) but that’s a whole other adventure I won’t get into.
If you have a very dark fabric and are not dyeing it black, weigh your options. You may be better off buying new fabric or making do with what you have instead of dyeing it another color.
3. How much does your fabric weigh? The amount of dye and water you need depends on how much the fabric you are dyeing weighs. Follow the instructions of your dye.
4. Don’t use anything from your kitchen that you want to put food in again. Unless you are using natural dye, it’s all toxic chemicals. A lot of craft dyes also give washing machine instructions, but unless you have a very old washing machine and/or you’re able to do 2-3 empty rinse cycles afterward to make sure it’s cleaned out, I wouldn’t risk it.
5. Read the Material Safety Data Sheet for your dye. Here are links to a few of the most accessible brands:
Rit Dye MSDS
Jacquard Products MSDS
Ways to Dye Fabric
You can dye uncut fabric yardage, or fully sewn garments. Remember that garments sometimes have other materials in them (stabilizers and thread) that might not accept dye the same as the rest of the garment. This picture is an example of a garment overdyed hoodie – notice the variation in color, especially on the seams and stitching, because the thread doesn’t match the fabric color. That’s a signature of the garment dye look.
Tie-dye or Shibori
Shibori is simply a Japanese style of tie-dye, usually done with indigo dye, but you can transfer the technique to use any color. Using thread, string, and/or elastic, bind the fabric in a variety of ways, which prevents dye from saturating some areas. Then submerge or soak the fabric and when it’s dry, untie it to see what it looks like!
Dip Dye/Ombre Dye
By only dipping part of the fabric or garment into the dye bath, you can achieve a gradient or ombre effect. It will look different if you dip dry fabric versus wet fabric. Dry dip will leave a more obvious line (like the bottom right fabric with red dye) and a wet dip will create a more smooth blended gradient (like the top right fabric with blue dye). You might want to try dipping more than once at various depths to create a really blended ombre.
This is your most basic technique, taking undyed or light color fabric, completely immersing it in a liquid dye bath, and giving it a new solid color.