How to Dye Fabric - The Basics

Posted on November 29, 2021 by Camille Begley

When we think of dyeing, many of us recall messy hands playing in buckets at a summer camp, transforming a plain white T-shirt into a spiral-dyed masterpiece. However, dyeing has been in a textile artist’s toolkit for thousands of years, with designers such as Collina Strada and Ulla Johnson reviving the art for the eco-conscious, free-spirited consumer. If you’re looking to experiment with dyes to create a one-of-a-kind pattern, read on to take your first steps into the dyeing world!

Purchase Materials Used Below:

Recommended: Mood's Intro to Dyeing Bundle, which includes everything below & more!

Additional Materials Needed:

  • Scale
  • Rubber Gloves
  • Hot Plate or Stove
  • Stainless Steel Cooking Pot (Cannot be used for food after!)
  • Stainless Steel Tongs
  • Wash Bin or Bucket
  • Laundry Detergent
  • Apron

Types of Dyes and Dye Additives:

With the long history of dyeing, it’s no wonder that choosing the right dye can feel overwhelming. Dyes are often grouped by ingredients into either synthetic or natural dyes, each providing their advantages and disadvantages. 

  • Natural dyes, as the name suggests, are dyes found naturally in plants and animals. Prized for thousands of years, wars have been fought to claim the most beautiful, rich sources for dyes. Famous examples of natural dyes include cochineal, saffron, and indigo. In addition, some dyes can be found right in your kitchen, from the skins of avocados and onions to spinach and beets! Natural dyes have experienced a resurgence in popularity, due to their widespread availability and eco-friendly footprint. However, some may object to the use of animal dyes, and natural dyes often require some previous dyeing experience in order to extract the best color.
  • Synthetic dyes are any dyes made from man-made materials. Unlike natural dyes, synthetic dyes can be used to provide a wide range of shades on a wide range of fibers. Also, synthetic dyes often require less work than natural dyes to produce a vibrant hue. However, synthetic dyes may contain certain chemicals that interfere with the environment and body, and should be used in a safe, ventilated environment. Don’t worry though, a safety guide to dyes is provided later in this post!

In addition to these groups, some dyes come pre-dissolved in liquid form, while others come in a box. Which to choose?

  • Liquid dye is best for beginners and provides a pre-dissolved dye with a high concentration of color. If you’re short on time or you are new to dyeing, this is your best option!
  • Powder dyes are best for experimenting with saturation in the dye bath. As you control the ratio between dissolved dye to water, it can be used to provide a wide range of shades. These dyes are best for the intermediate to advanced dyer looking for more precision.

After you’re done choosing your dye, you may want to add on a dye additive to ensure your dyed piece remains gorgeous for years to come! Common dye additives include fixatives or mordant, which stops color bleeding, and color remover for previously dyed fabrics. If using natural dyes, research what additives are required for your specific dye and fiber combination.

Choosing Your Fabric:

When dyeing, fiber content is key. Certain fibers may interfere with the dyeing process and produce a less vibrant color. In general, natural fiber content will always dye better than synthetic fibers. For the beginner dyer, we suggest using 100% cotton fabric, as it is easy to source and is guaranteed to produce a saturated shade. Other easy-to-dye fibers include silk and linen. RIT dyes will also work well on rayon fabrics. If you want to dye polyester or another synthetic fiber, we recommend the RIT DyeMore Liquid Dye.

We also suggest using white or uncolored fabric when possible. Previously dyed fabrics will significantly interfere with the color and possibly provide an unwanted shade. With white or undyed fabrics, the shades are more likely to match your desired outcome.

If you are sewing a garment before dyeing, make sure it is either sewn in your desired color, or in a white thread in your natural fabric’s fiber content (our white cotton and silk threads work great for this purpose!)

Dyeing Safety:

Alright, now we’re almost ready to dye-but safety is always first! While generally safe, it’s always important to take the proper precautions to ensure dye does not stain or harm the body.

  • Work in a well ventilated or open environment to ensure dye fumes do not linger in the air.
  • Cover your work surface with newspaper or plastic so that dye does not seep onto hard surfaces.
  • Always wear gloves, a face mask, and eye protection when handling dyes.
  • Wear old clothes, or cover up with a plastic poncho or apron to ensure dye does not stain valuable garments.
  • Dye in an area away from small children and pets.
  • If you’re pregnant or planning to become pregnant, dyeing is not recommended.
  • Always wash your hands thoroughly after handling.

Now that you have all of the proper precautions in place, it’s time to dye!

Dyeing:

For this tutorial, we will be using our Rit liquid dye in Purple, as well as three yards of item 309462, a white cotton shirting.

1. Before dyeing, weigh the fabric on a scale. In general, one bottle of Rit liquid dye or two packages of Rit powdered dye will dye two pounds of dry fabric. Experimenting with the ratio of dye to fabric can change the saturation of the color. If you’re unsure about the result depending on fiber content or amount of dye, test a swatch of fabric first. 

  • My fabric measured 12 ounces, which is ¾ of a pound. If each Rit dye bottle contains 8 fluid ounces, this means I will need three fluid ounces for this project.

2. Pre-wash, or “scour” your fabric in warm water with a small amount of mild detergent. (Just a splash is fine.) This will help remove any stains and brighten the color before dyeing. Rinse well and set aside.

3. Fill a dyebath (this can be a pot or sink) with 140*F water. Keep in mind-3 gallons of water are needed for 1 pound of fabric, so make sure your bath is big enough to hold the water needed, and that the fabric can move freely. Stainless steel equipment provides the best results when dyeing. Also-keep in mind that any pot used for dyes can not be used again for food preparation!

  • My fabric measured 12 oz, meaning I will need 2.25 gallons for this project.

4. Add your dye mordant. Mix well.

  • For plant fibers (cotton, linen, rayon, ramie): 1 cup of salt for 2 lbs fabric
    • In order to find the amount of salt I need, I multiplied ½ cup (for one pound of fabric) by ¾ (my actual weight). I will need 0.375 cups of salt.
  • For animal and some synthetic fibers (wool, silk, nylon): 1 cup vinegar for 2 lbs fabric

5. Add 1 teaspoon laundry detergent to even out the dye. Mix well.

6. Add dissolved powder dye or well-shaken liquid dye to the dyebath. Mix well.

  • If using powder dye, dissolve completely in almost-boiling water before adding to the dyebath.

7. Test the color using a paper towel or a small swatch. Adding water will lighten the color, while adding dye will darken it.

  • Top tip: As a general rule, err on the side of caution and add less dye when preparing the dye bath-you’ll be surprised how little dye you sometimes need, and you can always add more when testing!

8. Wet your fabric (if it isn’t already wet from the wash) and add to the dye bath.

9. Stir slowly and continuously for 10 minutes. This is an arm workout, so get ready! Use kitchen tongs or other equipment to help minimize stains and further protect hands.

10. Depending on the amount and fiber content of the dye, the fabric can remain for just 10 minutes or up to an hour. More fabric will take more time to dye. In addition, fibers such as nylon dye very quickly, while other fibers will take a longer time to dye. Keep in mind that the fabric will need to be rinsed and appear darker when wet. As a rule of thumb, pull the fabric from the dye bath when it is a few shades darker than your desired color. If kept in the bath for longer than 10 minutes, stir frequently, but not continuously.

  • I chose to let my fabric dye for an additional 5 minutes to darken the color.

11. When you’ve got the color you want, remove the fabric from the dye bath.

  • If desired, add Rit Fixative to maintain color fastness.

12. Rinse well under cool water, until the water runs clear.

13. Wash in warm water with mild detergent. Rinse and hang dry (don’t put it in the dryer!).

14. After you’re done, press and get to cutting and stitching!

  • Note: The color may change under heat. Test a small swatch with your iron first-it should revert to the original color after it cools. Small variations in color or shade are to be expected-embrace that handmade look!

Congrats! You’ve followed these instructions and now you’ve got a hand-dyed fabric all your own! In the next installment of this series, we will show you some Shibori dyeing techniques to add to your dye repertoire.

How to Dye Fabric - The Basics - Mood Sewciety
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