Dyeing for a change


My little “black” dress












I see a red door and I want it painted black…

I have been dyeing clothing since I was a teenager. This is an especially handy way to renew your fading clothing, or to alter an article with great seams but it’s an unappealing colour, or to remind you “don’t fix it if it isn’t broken” after you are staring at your new creation wishing you could turn back time!

The piece I am dyeing today is made of 60% cotton and 40% polyester. 100% cotton is ideal because natural fabrics like cotton dye really well. The more synthetics you add to the mix, the trickier it gets and the less your dye wants to stain the fibers. I liked the shape of this dress I found at a thrift store, but not the pattern on it. My fingers are crossed (as usual) for pleasing results! I’m using Dylon dye in “Velvet Black”. I am a bit worried that it is not 100% cotton.

Well, despite my crossed fingers, the dye did not take this time. I am left with a brown colour instead, the pattern I didn’t like is still visible, and to top it off the threads didn’t take either. I blame the polyester content. If this were cotton it would be as black as night. I figured I should still post the pictures to show any of you who have doubts about your mixed fibers. This is a good example of what can happen despite all of your best intentions and adherence to instructions.

*Please don’t let this failed attempt scare you out of dyeing! Dyeing is fun and can yield great results. I have been dyeing my clothes for over 10 years now and every once in a while I push the envelope and try to dye a fabric whose label tells me “Don’t even think about it” and I do it anyway. Hopefully the before and after picture will be a reminder for next time.*

There are different kinds of dyes. I have only used powdered dyes  (which you dissolve into water) but there are concentrated liquid dyes as well.

How to

Most of the dyes I’ve used work the same way.

1.  Wet fabric prior to dyeing.

2.  Add dye to a hot water bath that has enough water to completely cover the article of clothing you are dyeing (check instructions on the label to account for how many packages of dye to use for how much fabric). Make sure dye powder has had time to dissolve before adding your clothing otherwise powder that hasn’t dissolved will settle and create dark spots on the fabric.

3. Some companies suggest adding detergent or salt to encourage the dye to penetrate fibers. Read the label.

4. Keep the dye bath hot (which I accomplish by dyeing in a large pot on the stove with the heat set near the lowest setting).

5. Stir/agitate the fabric to create even results for up to 45 min (depends on how saturated you want your colour to be).  I use a pair of tongs or a couple of big spoons/forks to move the fabric around (so as not to burn my hands) and tongs are also good for lifting the garment out of the bath and checking to see if the colour is evenly dispersed and if desired saturation is being achieved.

6. Rinse with cool water until water running from the fabric appears clear. Assume the wet ,dyed, version of your fabric will appear much lighter once rinsed and dried.

Some dyes are special cold-water dyes. I have used those too with some success. I say “some success” because despite dyeing according to the instructions, I realized that the fabric was synthetic and refused to take the colour. Perhaps if the shirt was cotton, I could report a happier cold-water-dye tale.


Dyes dye things (not just fabric). Be prepared to scrub down light coloured counter tops or kitchen appliances that get splashed with dye. Be careful not to spill dye on surfaces while stirring, or transferring the dyed garment to the sink for rinsing. Use a stainless steel pot/bowl or bucket to avoid staining everything around you. Oh, and dye will also colour your skin, so wear gloves if you have them or slip your hands inside plastic grocery bags or something to reduce your exposure to dyes. Wear something old that you don’t mind getting splashed while dyeing or you might have to sacrifice that garment to the dye gods and add it to the dye bath after!

Most dyes offer washing machine instructions. I have never used a washing machine to dye my fabric, nor would I, although there are plenty of  happy consumer reviews posted on forums that support using washing machines. I dye stuff in pots and stainless steel sinks because I don’t own a washing machine and so I wouldn’t risk running dyes through someone else’s machine, even though I have read that it doesn’t stain rubber seals or plastic components.

Dyes give off fumes, potentially harmful ones. Open windows and have a fan going while dyeing. Create a well ventilated area while you are dyeing fabrics.

Do not try to dye clothing to hide armpit stains, it may not work.  I have heard that Rit Colour Remover will help removes stains in white fabrics and using it to lighten a garment prior to dyeing might even out the tones.

I have had some success with Rit Colour Remover in an attempt to make a striped shirt lose its stripes. I ended up with a shirt so pale that you had to look closely to find the stripes, but the stripes were still there.  The fabric felt less soft and smelled funny for a few washes afterwards.

Articles of clothing that have synthetic threads holding them together (i.e. a cotton shirt might have been sewn together using polyester thread) might yield surprising results if you are not expecting it. Some threads will take the colour of the dye while other threads will remain their original colour and not take dye. I once dyed a shirt purple because I wasn’t a fan of the pink, and I ended up with a purple shirt with pink seams. I’m not a fan of contrasting stitching on my clothes, but if you are, then dye on and worry not.

Buttons and other accessories on clothing may also not dye, so if you plan to dye a button-up shirt, for instance, you may also need to be prepared to replace the buttons if you want them to match.

If you dye something a bright or saturated colour, assume that some of the dye may still come out in the first few times in the washing machine. Especially true for reds (which have a history leaving other laundry pink) wash your newly dyed article by hand, in cold water, until you are confident that it won’t run or bleed into other fabrics.

When in doubt, follow the label

Feeling adventurous?

Try dyeing naturally using naturally occurring pigments found in flowers, nuts or berries!

Beets are notorious for staining clothes, so go the extra mile and try an all-over treatment.

Teas can be used as well. I tried to use coffee once on a lace tank top but it ended up looking dirty instead. I’ve heard of people using teas to dye paper to give it an antique look.



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