How to dye fabric in bright, vibrant, and colorfast shades
Hey y’all, today we’re going to talk about how to dye fabric and end up with beautiful, colorfast color.
One of the reasons I sew (and knit) is because I have found it to be the most economical way to get EXACTLY what I want. I’m a picky girl, and when I decide I want something, I want exactly that thing. (See for example the Toddler Blazer pattern – the whole reason I made it was because I couldn’t find a ready-made blazer in the color and size I wanted. Then I couldn’t even find a ready made pattern to make my own blazer. Frustrating at the time, but wonderful in hindsight since it’s still my top-selling pattern)
Me always wanting what I want and then being unable to find it often spills over to fabric. So I do a lot of dyeing, which (hopefully) isn’t at first apparent by looking at my creations (unless I want it to be, like an ombre technique).
Hand Dyed Projects
Some of the things I’ve dyed and posted about:
These Clean Slate Shorts:
This Ruched Ombre Dress (twice!)
And the fabric for this Little Bow Pleat Dress
And both the items from this yet-to-be-revealed outfit
For all of those items, I used RIT dyes.
With many of these projects I’ve been less than 100% pleased with the results. Particularly with the ombre dress, during which I went through at least three dye it, overdye it, bleach it, start again cycles. And I’m still not thrilled with the final results.
Hand Dyeing Problems
In a nutshell, there are two problems I’ve had with these dyes.
- They’re very hard to mix predictably. Even using the ColoRIT guide and test dyeing swatches, I can’t get predictable results. The Aquamarine (shorts and shirt cuff above) seems to be the only one I have had reliable, likeable results from. And only if I don’t mix the liquid dye.
- It is very hard to get deep, vibrant colors with these dyes, even using very hot water and salt and following directions to a T. And it becomes more difficult when you’re mixing dyes – that in particular seems to me to muddy the waters, so to speak, and give you duller colors.
In contrast, I have had great luck dyeing and painting yarn that I spin, including awesome results with Kool-Aid. But I don’t often sew with wool, and protein fibers (like wool) and plant fibers (like cotton) dye differently.
So, with my latest project (which was originally going to be my post for today) I went through the same angst I went through with the ombre dress and still didn’t like the results. So I decided to be a big girl and get some real dye and learn how to dye fabric with it. The kind of dye you have to go to the art supply store to get or order online. Dye that requires mixing chemicals. The kind that I have been scared to use.
And you know what? Like many fears, this one proved totally unfounded! So in case any of you are also disappointed with RIT and want to get better, more predictable color for your garment, read on.
Dyeing Secret – Procion Dyes
I used Procion MX Fiber Reactive Cold Water Dye. I have been avoiding this dye for a few reasons. (UPDATE: since this project I have exclusively used Dharma Trading Co. Procion Dyes, which you can get in more colors and are slightly cheaper and have given me awesome results as well.)
- You can’t get it at Joann or Michaels, or, to my knowledge, Hobby Lobby. I had to drive into town and go to the art store to get it. Or you can order it online. And while I love that there are 3 art supply stores here that carry it, I’m scared to go in those stores. Like I feel like they’re for “real” artists and I’m some kind of poser who will be immediately detected and thrown out. Well, my trip was perfectly easy and pleasant, and I didn’t detect any cynical staff members looking down their noses at me. Fear #1, completely unfounded.
- You have to use soda ash as a dye fixative to set the dye, and I feared this would be caustic and awful to handle and create terrible fumes. Oh, and also expensive. Well, I looked it up, and the greatest risk seemed to be storing it mixed with water, which I didn’t, or letting it touch your hands because it’s a skin irritant. So I wore rubber gloves, which I wear anyways when dyeing. Also it’s cheap and easy to handle and use. Fear #2 unfounded.
- I thought it would be ridiculously expensive. Truth: I spent a total of $28 on the supplies. Yes, that is a little pricey. But I only used about $4 worth of those supplies; the rest I have left over for next time (the priciest thing was the detergent at $19.99 because they didn’t have smaller sizes; I’m not sure you have to have that, but since it was my first time I followed directions to the letter ) (Update – 8 years after I wrote this post I’m still using the same bottle of Synthrapol – a little goes a long way per wash!). A bottle of RIT dye is $3.99. And that’s if I only use one bottle. With the ombre dress I went through 4 bottles by the time I was done. So in reality, this isn’t any more expensive, and I like the results so much better. Fear #3 busted.
- I thought the process would be time consuming and complicated. I had this vision of high school chemistry lab and things blowing up. It isn’t at all like that. Especially when you compare to the ridiculous process I went through to get the ombre dress to a color I don’t even love. You do have to be careful with the powder and make sure not to inhale it, but once you have it dissolved in water you don’t need any special precautions.
Below is a sweatshirt I dyed with a few colors of procion dye.
How to Dye Fabric with Procion Dyes
Want to know the actual dyeing process? You can find the detailed instructions here, but they boil down to this:
- Fill a tub, large pot or bucket with hot tap water (not warm water; you want this hot) and add a whole bunch of salt. The amounts – gallons of water, tablespoons of dye, vary based on how much fabric you’re dyeing and what color you’re using.
- Add the required amount of dye.
- Put in your prewashed and wet item to dye.
- Stir. After 20 min, add soda ash.
- Keep stirring occasionally for 50 more minutes. Rinse and wash.
See? It’s really nothing to be scared of. I have no idea why it took me so long! And I will not be going back to RIT dyes now that I know how to dye fabric with fiber reactive dyes. Note that procion dyes are for plant based fibers – cotton, linen, hemp, etc. Rayon fabric also works as the cellulose fibers are plant based even if it’s a man made fabric. Procion dyes will dye silk and wool, but not as vibrantly. For animal protein based fibers you want to use acid dyes for best results. And they don’t work on polyester or nylon. So if you’re dyeing store bought t-shirts, check the fiber content so you won’t be disappointed.
These are the supplies I bought:
Including that scary soda ash
Where I Dye Fabric
My washing machine is a front loader and I don’t really want dye in it anyway. So here’s how I set up my dyeing area: I use a big plastic storage tub set in my bathtub. I mix the dye and hot water in the plastic tub, then when I’m done I dump it into the bathtub to drain and rinse. I have an acrylic bathtub, and it’s important to rinse quickly or the dye kind of stains my tub, but it’s nothing I haven’t been able to get off with a little bleach later.
Note: the previous paragraph was how I set up dyeing in my old house. My current house has a utility sink in the laundry room, so I generally dye my fabrics in there now.
One thing I had trouble finding online is how much dye 2/3 oz. (the jar size) will dye. With most colors, it will do two and a half 3 gallon dye baths (a 3 gallon bath should dye 1 lb of dry fabric). Some colors need twice the amount of dye, so a jar will only do a little more than 1 dye bath. (Update: the Dharma dyes come with more dye in a jar than this and better instructions for dye amounts to use. Just order one jar and you should be fine for a couple items of clothing in that color).
Want to know what I dyed? Well, here’s a sneak peek:
UPDATE: Dyed project here