Fabric dyes have been used for hundreds of thousands of years to help us express our creativity. Archaeologists have found that the first mention of dyeing fabric dates to 2600 BC. Until the 1850s all dyes were created from natural sources like bark, leaves, flowers, fruit, and even insects.
Extracting color and creating dyes from natural sources produces beautiful results. Unfortunately, it can be a tedious process that makes it difficult to maintain quality control. By 1900, the development of powdered synthetic dyes dominated the market, and most industrial dyes were synthetic.
Getting Ready to Dye
The very first step in successfully dyeing something at home is to identify the fiber content of the fabric. Natural fabrics like wool, cotton, linen, and silk absorb and capture dyes well as does nylon. Other synthetic fibers like polyester, spandex, olefin, acetate, and acrylics will not dye evenly unless you use a dye specially formulated for synthetic fibers. Blended fabrics like a polyester/cotton will result in a muted, heather-like dyed finish unless you use a dye formulated for synthetics.
The fabric you wish to dye should be washed to remove any soil, fabric finishes, or sizing that may be in the fabric. If the item is stained, do your best to remove the specific stains. If they remain, especially oily stains, they will affect how the dye is absorbed in that area.
For printed fabrics and bleach-spotted items, use a color remover or stripping product before you apply the new dye. This will give you a more even dye especially if you are using a light colored dye.
Estimate the weight of the fabric or items you plan to dye. Many product instructions are based on the weight of the fabric and you want to be sure to use enough dye for good results.
It is important to have all of the supplies you need ready and on hand before you begin a project. No one wants drips of dye scattered about the house as you search for something. Here's what you need:
- Plastic drop cloth or old vinyl tablecloth to cover the work area
- Plastic bucket, stainless steel sink, or standard top load washing machine. Do not dye in a fiberglass or porcelain sink because they may absorb the dye
- Rubber gloves
- Hot water
- Liquid or powdered dye(s)
- Table salt or white distilled vinegar
- Large metal spoon
- Test fabric or paper towel
- Chlorine bleach for clean up
Standard Top Load Washer Dyeing Step-By-Step
Fill washer with hot water.
Add dye, stir with a metal spoon to mix well. Add one cup salt for cotton fabric or one cup distilled white vinegar for silk, wool, or nylon and stir to mix.
Dip the test fabric or a paper towel in the solution to test color. If it is too light, add more dye. If mixing colors, adjust accordingly to achieve the look you want.
Wet pre-washed fabric with warm water and add to dye mixture.
Set wash cycle time to 30 minutes, wash and rinse.
When the cycle is complete, run another cycle using a warm water wash and cold water rinse.
Remove fabric and machine or air dry.
Immediately clean washer by filling with hot water and adding one cup of chlorine bleach and running a full cycle.
NOTE: Do not dye fabric in a front load or top load high-efficiency washer. These machines do not use enough water to make the dyeing process successful.
Bucket or Sink Dyeing Step-By-Step
Fill a bucket or sink with three gallons of hot water per pound of fabric to be dyed.
Slip on rubber gloves and add dye to water and stir well to mix. If using a powdered dye, dissolve it in two cups of very hot water before adding to the water.
Test dye color with a paper towel or the test fabric to assess color. Add more dye to darken or more water to lighten the color.
Wet prewashed fabric with warm water and add to the dye mixture.
Using a metal spoon, stir constantly for ten to 30 minutes depending upon the level of color desired. Try to prevent twisting the fabric which can cause uneven dyeing. You may want to dip the fabric up and down to keep it untangled.
Remove the fabric from the dye bath and rinse thoroughly in warm water until the water runs clear.
Hand wash the fabric using a mild detergent and warm water or wash in a washer with an old towel.
Air or machine dry the fabric.
NOTE: Immediately clean bucket and tools with a hot water and chlorine bleach solution.
Tips for Dyeing Success
- Never pour or sprinkle dye directly on fabric. This will cause the color to be uneven.
- To achieve the richest color, be sure the hot water is at least 140 degrees F. or 60 degrees C.
- For dark colors like black, deep brown, and dark greens, using extra dye will give better results.
- For the richest colors on synthetic fabrics like polyester, use a dye formulated just for synthetics.
- A dye fixative will help cotton fabrics maintain the new color longer.
- Colors will look darker while the fabric is wet and before rinsing.
- If dyeing a garment multiple colors, start with the lightest shade and move to the darkest.
- After dyeing, always wash garments separately or with similar colors in cold or warm water. Add an old towel to capture any loose dye.
- If you cannot find matching buttons for your project, dye them yourself.