Dye Hard: How to Transform Clothing & Fabric using Fiber Reactive Dyes

How to Dye Clothes & Fabric by hand using fiber reactive dyes // tutorial by Closet Core Patterns

Hey y’all, Amy here! So far in our series on dyeing fabric and clothing at home, we’ve covered the basics of dyeingnatural dyes, and a more specific tutorial for dyeing with avocados. In this installment, we are going to show you how to get deep, juicy, saturated colours using fiber reactive dye, also known as Procion dye. I will be showing you how to get a consistent shade when dyeing a finished garment, and also a technique for dip-dyeing something with a pretty gradation. Adding fiber reactive dyes to your creative arsenal will not only allow you to create totally custom fabrics, but it will also let you breathe new life into old clothes or me-mades that need a little pick me up.

We love fiber reactive dye for the easiness factor, affordability, and the limitless range of colours you can achieve. Best suited for cellulose fibers like cotton, rayon, hemp, tencel and hemp, FRD can also be used on silk, although the colours may vary slightly. We love Dharma Trading Co. for this particular type of dye since they have a super wide range of ready-mixed colours, although of course, you can create infinite shades by mixing your own custom hues. Keep in mind that fiber reactive dye will not dye polyester, so unless you used cotton thread, your typical poly thread will stay more or less the same colour. While you can use these dyes in your washing machine, we are too scared of ruining our appliances around here and are sharing a much simpler and cleaner method for dyeing using a simple bucket or plastic bin. For the projects in this post, I used just one shade to dye a dress I made from a vintage linen tablecloth (the Zero Waste Dress from Birgitta Helmersson), in addition to dip-dyeing a tank top Heather made a while back. Let’s get started!

How to Dye Clothes By Hand // Closet Core Patterns

You will need: 

  • Fiber reactive Procion dye in one or more colours (the best range of colours can be found at Dharma Trading, or check this post for a more detailed supplier list)
  • Large 5 gallon bin or bucket (ideally with a lid). Make sure it is clean and has no leaks!
  • Clean water
  • A drop cloth if you’re working inside
  • Plastic gloves
  • Face mask (dye powders are dangerous to breathe in!)
  • A mixing spoon or paint stick (should be used for dyeing only – never mix dyeing tools with cooking tools!)
  • Glass measuring cup or mixing bowl (same note as above!)
  • Measuring spoons or teaspoons (same!)
  • Soda ash – this is a dye “fixer” that anchors the dye to the fabric
  • Non-iodized salt (sea salt is ideal)
  • Plastic bags
  • Mild laundry detergent or a scouring cleanser used specifically for dyeing (we recommend Synthrapol or Dharma Professional Textile Detergent)
  • A scale to measure your goods
How to Dye Clothes By Hand // Closet Core Patterns

PREPPING AND MORDANTING

Once you have your products and supplies assembled, mentally walk through your project to make sure you have everything you need. Dyeing is super simple but if you’re new to the process you want to make sure any steps that are time-sensitive or messy are something you have thought through (nothing like screaming at your roommate while holding a dripping indigo mess to “GRAB ME A BUCKET!”) You also will need to prepare your fabrics or garments for dyeing.  It’s SUPER important that you pre-treat your fabric before dyeing; all sorts of invisible chemicals and skin grease may be on your fabric which will impact the ability of the dye to penetrate evenly. We use textile detergent from Dharma (their in house sub for a detergent called Synthrapol)  but if you’re stuck you can wash with regular detergent. Use the hottest water you can for your fabric type, and use the recommended amount of detergent (about 1/4 cup per load).

Once your fabric is clean (it doesn’t need to be dry) soak the dyeables in your mordant/fixer. A mordant is something that raises the PH level of the fabric so it will accept the dye more easily. There are different options out there for this step, but soda ash is a common and reliable one that is cheap and easy to find. We used the Dharma brand variety but there are lots of options out there. The basic ratio is 1 cup of soda ash to one gallon of clean, warm water. You can use the same bucket you’ll use for dyeing, but if you plan on doing more dyeing down the road, use a different container since you can reuse your soda ash mixture over and over again. I used a big plastic bin with a lid that I’ve been storing in my garage – no need to get fancy.

You need to dissolve the soda ash in the warm water so add it slowly and keep stirring until you no longer see crystals. Soak the pieces you plan on dyeing in this mixture for minimum 20 minutes while you prepare your dye bath. You can also leave this soaking for longer, it’s not a big deal.

MAKING TEST SWATCHES 

One of the funnest things about dyeing is the testing part! We’re crazy about making cute little sample books that include all our test swatches. Not only does this ensure you love the colour before forever changing your fabric or garment, but it helps you determine how saturated you want the colour to be, how your fabric will react to the dye, and give you the opportunity to catalog every dye in your collection for reference purposes.

Keeping a dye journal // Introduction to dyeing clothing and fabric // Closet Core Patterns

Heather went hog wild this summer swatching all her fiber reactive dyes, and the dye journal she keeps it all in is seriously adorable. If you’re going to swatch your colours, we suggest keeping lots of different scraps of different fibers hanging around. That way you can test your colour on cotton, linen, rayon etc. and see how the colour differs for each. In the image above, each stapled set of swatches was dyed using the same colour, and you can see the variations based on fiber. Obviously when you’re testing small scraps, you don’t need to use very much dye. We figured out a good ratio for testing super small quantities; see our chart below!

DETERMINING DYE QUANTITIES

Once you’ve chosen your colour and what you are going to dye, you’ll need to calculate how much dye is needed to achieve the shade you are looking for. It may vary by brand, but in general, for every pound of fabric, you’ll need 1-4 tablespoons of dye. This is why we love fiber reactive dyes – a little goes a long way! Most medium tone dyes will need 1 tbsp of dye but you’ll need 2 tbsp for reds and 4 tbsp for deep blacks. Of course, for scraps you’ll use much less dye. To help you calculate quantities, we’ve created this handy chart:

SUPPLIES 1 POUND FABRIC SCRAP/SWATCH
Warm water 3 gallons 2 cups
Dye 1-4 tbsp 1/8 tsp (1/4 tsp=red, 1/2 tsp=black)
Non-iodized salt 3 cups 2 tbsp

MAKING A DYE BATH

Once you’ve calculated the amount of dye you need, it’s time to make your dye bath! Make sure you’ve properly prepped your workstation. If you are working in your kitchen, get some ventilation going and cover your surfaces with a sheet or plastic tarp. Make sure you are wearing a mask and gloves when handling the dye powders – it’s not good to get this stuff in your lungs, and while it’s not super toxic, you’d probably prefer not to stain your hands along with your fabric.

Measure your dry dye into a (dyes only!) glass cup or bowl and then slowly add a bit of water to make a slurry. Using a spoon or stick, mix the dye until there is no more powder visible. Now add your salt, mixing well to combine. If you struggle to get the salt to dissolve, it may help to invest in a cheap immersion blender for this step. Now, add your slurry to the rest of the warm water and mix well.

Once your bath is ready, prepare your garments by gently wringing out the soda ash mixture and keep them damp until they’re ready to be dyed. You might want to make a test strip first if you haven’t made a test yet with your dye at this stage.

How to Dye Clothes By Hand // Closet Core Patterns

DIP-DYEING

To dip dye a garment, slowly lower the garment into the bath and pull it out once you’ve reached the spot you want the dye to end. I wanted the dark part to be quite dark, so I let the shirt hem hang out in the dye bucket for a few more minutes.
How to Dye Clothes By Hand // Closet Core Patterns

Once you’ve drip-dried your piece for a bit, put it in a plastic bag to cure. I cured this tank for almost two days and the end result was awesome. The dye crept up the damp parts and made a super cool design. After it’s cured,  rinse in a cold water bath until the water runs clear and then through the washing machine with a bit of that detergent to make sure it doesn’t bleed.

WHOLE GARMENT DYEING

To tub dye an entire garment or length of fabric, add it to your dye tub when damp. Give it a good stir to thoroughly wet it, and then stir and agitate it every 3-4 minutes for about 20 minutes. For lighter colours, let soak for a total of 30 minutes. For deeper colours, let soak for 60 minutes, stirring frequently to avoid uneven saturation.

The time in the dye bath is part of what determines the colour, but for dark or rich colours you’ll definitely want to cure your pieces. Once the time is up, squeeze excess dye from the piece and pop it into a plastic bag. The time of the cure is up to you; 24 hours should be plenty of time for most colours and projects. Once it’s had a rest in the bag you need to remove the dye. For this, I filled up a bin in my backyard with clean, cold water. Rinse everything until the water runs clear.

Once everything is rinsed, give it a run through the machine with the super detergent and your clothes are ready to wear! 

So, what do you think? Ready to get your dye on?? Any hot tips to share about dyeing?

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How to Dye Clothes & Fabric by hand using fiber reactive dyes // tutorial by Closet Core Patterns

Dye Hard: How to Transform Clothing & Fabric using Fiber Reactive Dyes

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Hi! I'm Heather Lou, a pattern designer and sewing educator for the modern maker. At Closet Core Patterns, we transform your imagination into step-by-step implementation that helps you create a wardrobe you love - not one you're limited to buying off the rack.

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