About Dye and Dyeing

By | May 10, 2016

I adapted this from a piece written a few years for a Doctor Who cosplay LJ community. No point in re-inventing the wheel… – Ed.

About Dyeing Fabric – My Quick-And-Dirty Guide

Every now and then some optimist will inquire about the feasibility of dyeing a store-bought garment they’ve found in order to get it “screen accurate”. Often it’s something like a green shirt they want to make pink.

Oh dear.

If you want to do anything color-related to a piece of fabric, check out these FAQs at Dharma Trading, especially their introduction to tub dyeing. It’s an excellent starting point for any neophyte.

I also strongly recommend visiting Jacquard’s Dye pages as they have some very handy tutorials. They also make some great fabric paints as well as their dyes, btw.

Simply put, there are two factors to consider when dyeing fabric: the fibers involved, and the color (both what you’ve got at the start and what you want at the end).


Different fibers require dyes of a different chemical composition. Is your fabric a plant fiber (eg. cotton, linen), a protein fiber (wool, silk) or a synthetic fiber (polyester, nylon, acrylic)? Determining what your fabric is made of is essential. Check out the Introduction to Fibers to learn more.

As a rule, plant and animal fibers – when not mixed with an artificial fiber – are relatively easy to dye as long as you’re not running afoul of the color wheel (more on that below). Artificial fibers are more difficult to dye, but sometimes, it can be done, depending on your starting point and what you want. Jacquard make a good dye for some artificial fibers, called iDye Poly. Again, check out the links, above, to learn more.

Is your fabric white? Rejoice, as you can probably dye it to your desired color.

Is your fabric a light color? Challenging, unless you’re looking to bring it down to something darker. However, you can’t just turn a yellow fabric into a red fabric by dunking it into a red dye bath. If you’re lucky, it’ll come out orange – because red and yellow make orange, obviously. If you’re unlucky, it’ll be a gunky orange, no matter what you started with – especially likely if you’re attempting this on an artificial fiber. For some reason, they love turning gunky orange when everything goes wrong.

Is your fabric a dark color? Unless you want to make it darker still, you’re probably out of luck. It is extremely difficult to make a dark garment lighter. More on that, below.

When all is said and done, you want your fabric to be black? Then that’s probably possible, but you’ll still need to pick the right dye(s) and conduct some tests.

Just always keep in mind that when you pour one color over another, that original color is still there. You can’t make blue into yellow by pouring yellow dye onto it – but you could probably turn blue into green! Dharma has a handy color tutorial.

What about “color removers” and bleach? Some manufacturers offer a “color remover”. As far as I know, these are only effective on natural fibers and not always effective at that – the fabric could still have a tint of the original color after processing. It will NOT work on artificial fibers.

Bleach is an even dodgier option. It’s take the color right out of cotton, alright, sometimes leaving a yellow tint behind, but the cotton will have a shorter useful life, because of the damage done by the chlorine. NEVER use chlorine bleach on artificial fibers or wool, as they will MELT and quite possibly give off toxic fumes, too.

I’ve read that you can bleach wool with hydrogen peroxide, but I’ve no experience with that, so I can’t speak to it. (If you can, please do so in the comments!)

What dye should I use?
That really, really depends on your fiber and what you want to do with it. In my experience, I’ve had a lot of success with the Jacquard line. They offer a wide range of products for different fibers and in lots of colors. Their online instructions are extremely helpful, too.

I’ve used iDye Poly for polyester fabrics with a lot of success but the stuff SMELLS, so open lots of windows. Better yet, set up a camp stove and do it outside. I’’ve read a horror story from one user accidentally dyeing the paint on her kitchen wall adjacent to the stove. She was able to clean it up with a Magic Eraser, eventually, but yikes!

A noteworthy point about iDye Poly is that it’s made to be complimentary with the manufacturer’s range of dyes for natural fibers (simply called iDye). So, if you have a light-colored bit of poly/cotton that you wish to turn black you can, in theory, make a dye bath mixing regular iDye and iDye poly in a single pot and thus dye both fibers in your fabric. A netizen of my acquaintance speaks of her experience in doing this.

Rit, I consider the last resort. It offers a wide range of colors, but inconsistent results.

When all is said and done, you should do some research, starting at the URLs mentioned above, and determine what’s best for your needs. Don’t just buy a box of whatever’s on sale and wing it. Bad idea.

Have you considered paint?
I’ve resorted to this once or twice. It takes a lot of experimentation, but can produce some interesting results when dye – for whatever reason – isn’t an option. Cotton takes up watercolors a treat. Jacquard does some eye-popping metallic and interference colors. You can put it on with a brush, a spray bottle (I’ve gotten some interesting effects with that), an airbrush, a sponge… You get the idea.

There’s a tradeoff – heavy paint use will make a fabric stiff, some colors (such as a water-based color) will totally come out in the wash, so you’re going to have to rely on Febreze and sunlight to keep the garment smelling sweet, etc, etc. But when no other option presents itself, it’s something to consider.

Other quick tips
— Always, ALWAYS, test swatches of your fabric in your dye bath, first. Don’t just dunk your garment and hope for the best! If you’re trying to dye a store-bought garment, either buy a second one to cut up into swatches, or go to a fabric store and look for a fabric with the same composition and close to the same color (it’ll be a bit of an Easter egg hunt, sorry!) and cut that up for testing.

— Remember to pre-shrink your fabric before dyeing it. Muggins here skipped that step with some bodice fabric and ended up with a bodice 3/8″ shorter than intended, because she’d cut her yardage so close. And that was a purely synthetic upholstery fabric. Heaven only knows what would have happened if it had been cotton!

— Always use the correct vessels for your dye. Some metals will react badly with your dye and create very unpredictable results. A safe default is to buy an enameled stockpot at the local thrift store, as those won’t react with anything. Keep your dye pots ONLY for dye. Don’t use them for food. A plastic bucket can be used for certain projects but the challenge with that is keeping the water hot enough long enough for the dye to do its thing. I have a three-gallon enameled pot and I love it. I also have a set of plastic tools suitable for stirring and fishing fabric out of the pot with NOT FOR FOOD written on them in magic marker and kept apart from the regular kitchen utensils.

— If you use your washing machine to dye something, remember to run an empty load with a portion of bleach after you’re done, lest your next batch of laundry come out with an unexpected tint! How to dye in your washing machine – YouTube.

— Added 1/29/17 Dharma Trading has posted an interesting comparison of the black dyes they have for sale. It’s a nice illustration of how even dyes of the same color can vary.

3 thoughts on “About Dye and Dyeing

  1. johnbrace

    Although this is slightly off-topic (as this is mainly about another form of dying), I’ve found that printer ink can be very useful and a long lasting dye for dyeing wood. I used to print thousands of leaflets so I have large bottles of the stuff in black, cyan, magenta and yellow.

    I found this out by accident when I accidentally spilt some on an old sea chest, years later the dye is still showing (it’s a very multi-coloured sea chest by now). Although I’ve noticed some dyes seem to fade over time if left in direct sunlight.

    The other thing to mention when using dye (or ink) is that it’s advisable to wear disposable gloves (and copious amounts of newspaper) unless you want it all over your hands for the next few days as dye is very hard to get out! It can get very messy however careful you are! If you’re using syringes to measure how much dye you use it’s also best to wear thick disposable gloves to reduce the risk of injury. My wife is very adept at using syringes as she used to work as a paramedic.

    Mixing dyes to get the colour you want can be an art in itself too as by mixing the right combination of colours you can get any colour you want. On the smells point I don’t notice any smell with printer ink. If you’re the sort to get overcome by fumes easily that is probably a bonus.

    On the washing front, the alternative is to hand wash at a low temperature. That way if it does leak and dye the water you’ll notice before it ruins everything else in the same wash.

    However most people prefer washing machines these days as it takes longer to wash by hand.

    1. T. Nielsen Hayden

      JohnBrace: Printer’s ink will dye wood because paper is made of wood. It’s a safe bet that any dye that works on vegetable matter will stain wood, in most cases unintentionally.

      Printer’s ink may contain oils, plastics, or other additives, so (standard advice alert) it’s best to test it first on a scrap, or on an area that doesn’t show. After using it, apply a sealant to prevent set-off.

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