The Perils of Dyeing

Dyeing fabric or garments is a magical blend of art and science. The science end is painfully precise, which is why it becomes more or less a craps shoot for most amateur dyers.

This post was written with a fair amount of input from the lovely LeAnn Ross of Forbidden Woolery fine hand dyed yarns and LaDonna April of Fairy Tale Knits. They didn’t ask for the plug, I felt it only fair to share their gorgeous products for allowing me to pick their brains.

So you’ve got a character or costume you want to make that needs to be a specific color or color blend, and dyeing the fabric seems to be the only way to get it. Lets break down the phases to achieve success. If you were to write out the dye process like an algebraic equation it would look something like this:

fiber to be dyed + weight of fiber + volume of fiber + dye – volume of liquid + temperature + time = dyed fiber

That’s a LOT of variables. The more you can fix while tinkering with as few at a time as possible, the better.

Before we even get into the dyeing itself I need to say this:

VERY IMPORTANT!! Most dyes are NOT food safe! do not evereverever use your favorite spaghetti pot to dye up some fabric!! Aluminum in particular can hold on to the nastier elements in dye and impart them to your food no matter how hard you scrub. Many dyes are made from heavy metals and other pure elements that chemically bond with other things, like your digestive tissues, which over time can cause serious health problems. Go to a thrift store or buy something cheap and declare it your dye pot, label it, and do not store it in your kitchen for someone else to mistakenly use for food. No cancer, m’kay? [Yes, I know there are lots of natural dyes out there. Those are generally are not available in tidy packages for home use. Those are “start with four pounds of purple cabbage…” type recipes. This post is focused on a person who needs to get a pair of pants a specific shade of orange and will be using boxed or bottled commercial dyes to get it.]


Step 1. matching fiber and dye.

Not completing the homework on this step leads to 60% of dye failures. What fiber is your fabric or garment? Cotton, linen & ramie (plant based fibers) take reactive dye;  wools, polyesters & silk (animal based fibers) take acidic dye.  Remember middle school science with the baking soda and vinegar volcano? This is where that lesson comes into focus. The natural chemical composition of different wearable fibers makes a difference in what kind of dyes are effective with it. Most natural fibers require an initial soak in a soda ash bath before dyeing (depending on your specific dye). If you find a garment you like and want to dye it, be sure it has a label with precise fiber content. Lately manufacturers outside the US have gotten away with going around the US law that states all garments must have a fiber content label by labeling it “uniform cloth”. This is not a fiber, it’s a purpose, and essentially means they have no idea. Steer clear of anything labeled this way. Single fiber fabrics will always be easiest to dye. Combination fibers (like 50/50 cotton polyester blends) will be the most challenging.

What dye are you using? RIT gets a bad rap, it’s cheap, it’s available everywhere, it didn’t work on that one project that one time… but frankly, most dye failures are a mismatch of the wrong dye for the fiber, volume, and liquid quantity. RIT is a reactive dye, it only works well on plant based fibers. It actually works really well when the instructions are followed carefully. Read the label. Read. The. Label. Use the right dye for your fiber. Dylon, Tulip, Deco, Jacquard are all out there commonly available too, some are better than others, all have use instructions. Follow them precisely.

Step 2. weight and fiber volume.

More science. In that big number of variables listed above, weight and density of the fiber being dyed is usually the first ‘fixed’ number in the equation. You need to do enough yardage for a whole dress, or maybe it’s a pair of pants. This is a non-negotiable number, be as precise as you can and measure in grams if possible. Food scales and postage scales are often the best bet for commonly available scales if you are going to do a lot of dyeing and want to invest in one for yourself. Otherwise a trip to your local pack & ship type place can usually get you a one time use of their metered scale. Don’t try the USPS, post offices are too busy for the explanation that goes with that request.

The dye package label will usually list how much water and how much weight of fiber it will be effective on, it’s up to you to do the math and multiply if your fiber exceeds that listed quantity. You can’t fit ten yards of broadcloth into a one gallon pot and it’s going to weigh more than one pound. You can ‘dry fit’ your fabric into various containers before the dyeing process begins to get an idea of what the project is going to take. It will need room to move around easily when wet with enough ‘splash’ zone to not dye your kitchen or laundry room too. I’ve dyed fabric in my washing machine numerous times. I’ve dyed in plastic garbage cans in the back yard. I’ve dyed in pots on my stove. Room to stir around that fabric is very important to avoiding dark & light spots in your fabric. LeAnn has a garage full of church supper sized slow cookers. Which brings us to…

Step 3. liquid volume.

Ninety percent of the time, this is water. I’ve come across techniques and recipes that use some, half, or even mostly vinegar or other acidic liquids (citric acid is common), but water is still the biggest liquid component in most dye jobs. Depending on where you live purified or filtered water might be worth buying instead of tap water. I have very hard but otherwise pretty pure tap water, I adjust to accommodate that and save money by not buying filtered water. The exact same technique, fabric, dye and temperature can yield different results based solely on the water used. Dyeing can be that finicky.

Step 4. temperature.

Most dyeing involves heat. Depending on the fiber, not particularly dangerous heat, sort of ‘nice hot shower’ (110-120) kind of temperatures are enough if the fiber has more time to soak it up. It’s a bit of a sliding scale. Typically tie dyed tee shirts like kids do at summer camp are done ‘cold’ which is actually just room temperature. Outside on a summer day in the sun of south Texas, the dyes might actually be 110 degrees in their plastic bottles. Warm, but not hot enough to harm bare hands. Some fibers, the hotter the dye bath, the better. Cotton takes dye far better at just under a boil. So the same tee shirt, when dipped in a pot on the stove, will absorb the color faster than the ‘cold’ process in the sun of the back yard, which needs a couple hours to set.

Step 5. time.

This is another easily controlled variable, and it’s a lot longer than most realize. If I’m dyeing, I dedicate the whole day to it, with interruptable projects overlapped for the in-between-poking-the-pot time. I use a kitchen timer. It’s more about not forgetting that you’ve got dye going than it is about hovering over the pot. Start with the manufacturers recommendation, checking at the 3/4 elapsed time mark then adjust from there. Dyeing is not like making a delicate Bechamel sauce or candy. You aren’t watching vigilantly for a certain thing to suddenly happen which must then be acted on immediately. Ever put pasta on the stove then forgot you were cooking? yeah, that… I’ve learned that leaving the fabric in the dye pot until the liquid reaches room temperature after it’s heating period is sorta no big deal. And it makes handling the wet fabric tons easier.


This is where all the planning comes together!

Stuff usually needed: item to be dyed, dye, liquids to go with dye (water, vinegar), container to dye in [remember to label them as not for food use!], heat source (usually), stir stick or maybe tongs [remember to label them as not for food use!], grungy towel for spills, gloves [because green hands get you weird looks], kitchen timer. Some dyes benefit from the addition of soda ash or salt. Salt of course it’s okay to use your kitchen utensils for measuring, but soda ash is not, have a separate measuring cup for that.

Step 1. wash your fabric.

Even brand new, fabrics pick up all kinds of stuff and new fabrics have sizing and leftover processing chemicals in them. Wash with the gentlest detergent and don’t use dryer sheets. If it’s an existing garment, this will give you one last shot at inspection for stains which may affect the dye.

Step 2. set up your area.

Chefs call this mies en place, which is an elegant French term for ‘pull out everything going in this dish and have it measured out in little bowls on the counter’. Dyeing absolutely benefits by this system. Get everything measured and sorted before turning the heat on. I put waxed paper down on my counters as an assist to cleaning up afterwords. Don’t forget the timer, I set it to my first check reminder time before I start, then I hit the count down button after I’ve immersed my fabric.

Step 3. set the dye bath.

The fabric is going in for a nice long soak, get your dye and any additives fully mixed before adding the fabric.  Is it a natural fiber? you probably have an added step here of putting it in a soda ash bath. This doesn’t have to be long, 5-10 minutes usually. Pull your fabric out of the dryer / soda ash bath and shake it out or wring it out, don’t put it into the dye bath twisted or folded (unless you are intentionally going for a mottled look). Remember that planning phase about dry fitting the container? there shouldn’t be any “hey this doesn’t fit…”.

Step 4. be patient, but not forgetful.

I have to set my timer for 30 minute increments to remember to go stir. As I often use my washing machine (I can dye six yards of fabric in a single batch in it) it’s pretty much ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Things done on my stove top aren’t as easy to forget.

Step 5. testing.

This is where doubt sets in. It’s hard to tell looking at a soaking wet corner of fabric if the rinsed and dried fabric will be the color saturation you want. It’s why I try to add swatches. A swatch is a scrap or strip of the same fabric in a piece marked with something like a safety pin or a plastic clip that you can find in your dye bath. I try to make most of my swatches a 6″ square. Pull out this piece, wring it out, use a blow dryer on it for a quick drying to see if you have reached the color you want. And in my case, it gives me something to take outside into full sunlight to check color instead of the dim light of my laundry room or fluorescent light of my kitchen. The two to three minutes out of the dye bath and getting dried aren’t going to affect the swatch vs. the fabric staying in the dye bath too terribly much. If your swatch is right, pull it off the heat and let cool enough to handle.

If working with an existing garment, the wringing and drying should be a cuff or hem line area of less notice. Obviously all your looking tests will take place over the pot or washer, snug that grungy towel up under your arms on the front of the washer or on the top edge of the pot. This reduces mess and burns.

Is the dye fully engaged? you can tell if all the dye that could possibly incorporate into the fabric has done so by how clear the water has become. Looking in the pot you’ll see the dye color, but scoop some liquid out in a glass container and hold it to the light and the lack of dye becomes evident. If your water goes almost completely clear, the bath is done, no more can get into the fabric than is already there.

Step 6. evaluating.

You’re done! you dyed it, wrung it out, hung it up to dry and have color! yay! Is it the color you wanted? is it deep enough saturation? things get trickier here as color shifting is a college level course, but if you were going for magenta but only got bubble gum, that fabric can go right back into a new dye bath for a second round. Really rich black, the kind traditionally produced by the Amish, is achieved by the fabric going through several different dye baths with different color bases, a brown, a grey and a blue. The end result is gorgeous, but it’s also a lot of work.

COMMON ISSUES:                                                                                                           REASONS WHY:

significantly lighter color than intended……………………………………………. Math failure (too much fabric to dye ratio) or too short a soak time

mottled fabric ……………………………………………………………………………… New fabric: didn’t stir enough or too small a pot. Existing garment: previously unseen stains or stain remover products used

white thread on dyed garment ……………………………………………………….. The thread is polyester when the rest of the garment is cotton/ natural. Dye only adhered to the natural fiber.

color shifted (intent was red, got purple) …………………………………………. The base fabric was not pure white or  not enough saturation in the dye.

………………………………………………………………………………………………….. Not having a clean dye pot.

significantly darker color than intended ……………………………………………. soaked too long or purchased too dark a color dye.


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