Get Your Dye On: An Introduction to Dyeing Clothing and Fabric

Introduction to dyeing clothing and fabric // Closet Core Patterns

We are about to embark on an epic journey into the fascinating world of dyeing clothing and fabric, so strap on your DIY (hand-dyed) hats! For the next 5-6 weeks, Amy I will be taking a deep dive into dyeing and will be sharing everything we’ve learned about how to transform old clothes and boring fabric into something totally special and one of a kind.

I’ve really fallen in love with dyeing in the last few months; it taps into your creative energy without requiring a sewing machine, AND you get the added benefit of a dramatic before/after, making every afternoon spent in your kitchen with a dye vat feel as exciting as one of those house reveals on HGTV I can never get enough of. Depending on the type of garment and dye you use, it’s also a project that doesn’t require a lot of money or time, things many of us have in short supply.

What to Dye (Spoiler Alert: EVERYTHING)

  • That linen shirt you wore so much it has now accumulated a veritable time capsule collection of stains (linen lasts forEVER so dyeing it is basically like getting a post-breakup makeover whenever you feel like it).
  • That kinda blah fabric that has been sitting in your stash forever. It’s made from a lovely natural fiber but you’re not feeling inspired by it’s white/cream/beigey-ness.
  • Those lovingly broken in white sheets that are SO SOFT but have slowly started to display body shaped sleep sweat stains despite your frequent applications of oxygen bleach.
  • Vintage and secondhand clothes that have great lines or fit but don’t quite suit you, colourwise.
  • Fabric scraps and remnants leftover from other projects. Put them to use in quilts or as fun coloured accents for your me-mades.
  • You have a very specific vision for a fabric hue you cannot find no matter how hard you look (ie. me and my perennial hunt for blush pink, jade green, candy apple red and dusty ochre). Get some undyed fabric in your fiber of choice and custom make that dream a reality!
  • Vintage table cloths, napkins and linens in need of a pick me up. Whether you’re making a gift or just rejuvenating family heirlooms, custom dyeing makes everything feel more special.

In this post, I’ll cover the basics types of dye, including resources, books and tips you’ll find helpful on your own journey. In the coming weeks, we’ll be getting more specific about various subjects, and we even have a few fun DIY projects planned. Let’s get started!

TYPES OF DYES

The urge to personalize the things we wear is primal, and there is evidence of dyes being used as far back as we can trace our history. These days, we have many options, whether it’s using natural materials from our own compost bins, or synthetic dyes designed specifically for silk, wool, cotton or artificial fibers. Here are the types of dyes we will be covering in our dyeing series.

NATURAL DYES

As the name suggests, these are dyes with natural origins, and range from readily available kitchen scraps (think onion skins, beets, turmeric and avocado pits) to commercially prepared extracts of roots, minerals, flowers, and leaves, in powder or concentrated liquid form. They can be a bit fussier to use than other types of commercial dyes since fabrics often require pre and post-treatment in order to remain colourfast, but they provide a  gorgeous spectrum of hues, and I find they have an earthy, organic “alive” quality that is difficult to recreate with other dyes. The best analogy I can think of is vinyl vs. mp3 – you can listen to and enjoy both, but vinyl (and natural dye) has an intangible depth and richness that can’t be recreated..

Natural dye works best on natural fibers like silk, wool, cotton and linen. Since these dyes come from natural, renewable resources, it can be argued they are better for the environment. That said, you still need to use chemical mordants to set colour (such as alum), so it’s not like you’re rubbing an onion skin on your shirt and calling it a day. This post has a few interesting points on the toxicity of natural vs. synthetic dyes if you’d like to learn more. We’ll be digging more into natural dyeing in our next post.

FIBER REACTIVE DYES

Fiber reactive dyes are the ones you are likely already familiar with (think brands like Rit). They create deeply saturated, vibrant colours, can be applied with cold water (although deep tones like black may require hot water), and work best on cellulose fibers like cotton, rayon, tencel, and linen. These dyes work on a molecular level; they essentially become one with the fiber, making them permanent and very colorfast. They are also the best choice if you’d like to experiment with ice dyeing or tie-dyeing.

If you’re looking to dye polyester or other synthetic fabrics, fiber reactive dye won’t work – look for a dye that’s specifically designed for these fibers.

ACID DYE

Looking to dye wool, silk or nylon? Acid dyes are the way to go! These dyes have an acidic base (hence the name) and require heat to activate. They also come in a wide variety of brilliant colours and are permanent and colour fast. Fun fact: if you want to custom dye lingerie notions, elastic and findings, acid dye works very well (you can see some custom lingerie notions I dyed here).

Sources for Dyeing Supplies

Fiber reactive dyes are readily available in fabric & craft stores, not to mention a well-stocked grocery or drug store. If you have a casual interest in dyeing, choosing a brand like RIT, iDye or Dylon is an affordable way to experiment. However, if you’d like access to a wider variety of colours and supplies, you’ll want to choose a supplier that specializes in dyeing.

  • Dharma Trading Co. is a great resource for commercial dyeing supplies. They carry a huge range of dye types, tools, supplies, books, and undyed fabrics and pre-made clothing items. Most of the dyes we use in our tutorials come from DTC.
  • Maiwa is a super inspiring brand based in Canada. They specialize in natural dyes, but carry a huge variety of supplies, from synthetic dyes and dyeing chemicals to clothing, decor, yarn and fabric. I highly recommend checking them out!
  • Pro Chemical & Dye also have a wide variety of dyestuffs, including undyed clothing, fabric and kits.
  • A Verb For Keeping Warm is a wonderful business that specializes in natural dyeing. They supply a variety of natural dyes, supplies, kits and workshops.
  • Botanical Colours specialize in natural dyes (they supply most of the natural dyes available at Dharma). Get dyes in powder or liquid form, or purchase one of their kits.
  • Wild Colours is based in the UK and offers a variety of natural dyeing supplies.
  • George Weil is another UK based shop. They have a broad range of craft supplies, including a lot of dyeing supplies.
  • Couleur Grance is a French supplier of natural dyes, kits and supplies.

Have any international sources? Please let me know! Here is a supplier list I found for a dye company I found online; if you’re based internationally you may want to check out some of the stores on this list.

KEEPING A DYE JOURNAL

One thing you’ll quickly learn if you get into dyeing (or truly any craft that requires you to remember specific details you’ll be mad at yourself for not writing down later) is the importance of keeping a dye journal. Now, I’ll admit I may have gotten as passionate as I did about dyeing this summer because I really, really loved dyeing small scraps of fabric and then cataloging all of them in a cute notebook. I am a natural archivist, and nothing makes my little Type A, list-making, pantry organizing self happier than a pretty book stuffed with hand-dyed scraps of linen and cotton in every colour of the rainbow. I promise, your dye journal will bring you just as much joy.

As we get into the nitty-gritty of dyeing I’ll give you advice about how and when to make samples, but my general advice is to keep scraps of white or light coloured fabric from your sewing projects (specifically natural fibers like silk, cotton and linen). Whenever I’m working with a new colour or recipe, I’ll throw a few scraps in with my project, and that way I can keep track of how that dye recipe affects different fibers. In the image above, each collection of swatches came from the same dye pot, but you can see the variation depending on fabric content.

I also like to use my dye journal to keep notes for every project. How much dye did I use? How long did I heat or soak it for? What kind of mordant or scouring did I use? All of this is critical to keep track of, not only so you can replicate your results down the road, but also to gain a deeper understanding of the many complex factors that may effect the tone or colorfastness of a dye batch. So, before you start your first project, make sure you have a cute notebook to keep all your notes and samples in. If you’re anything like me, you’ll rifle through it whenever you need inspiration!

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

While we’re hoping to give you a fairly comprehensive overview of a few different types of dyeing, nothing beats a big meaty book or a nerdily specific blog you can lose yourself in. Here are some resources you may find helpful.

BOOKS & RESOURCES ABOUT DYEING

  • The Modern Natural Dyer by Kristine Vejar. A gorgeous primer on the basics of natural dyeing with some lovely projects to inspire you. I adore Kristine (she also owns A Verb for Keeping Warm) and highly suggest adding this to your library.
  • Journeys in Natural Dyeing is the latest book from Kristine and Adrienne of AVFKW and it focuses on natural dyeing traditions and techniques from Mexico, Iceland, Japan and Indonesia. I ordered this the week it came out and have been losing myself in it for days; some truly amazing stories of dyeing traditions (I cannot stop thinking about man who travels miles to a protected beach so he can tickle the belly of a sea snail to dye his wool – amazing!) and has helpful tips for getting a huge variety of colour using numerous techniques.
  • Wild Colour by Jenny Dean is highly recommended as a bible of natural dyeing.
  • Hand Dyed by Anna Joyce is a great introduction to fiber reactive dyes, with some fun projects to inspire you.
  • Tie Dye: Dye It, Wear It, Share It is a fun book filled with modern tie-dye techniques. 
  • Maiwa has a gorgeously comprehensive online guide to natural dyes; you can also download it as a PDF book
  • Dharma Trading has tutorials for most dyes and dyeing techniques; very helpful if you need help with a super-specific technique!

DYEING BLOGS

  • Rebecca Desnos has a lovely blog filled with tons of natural dyeing resources, including making craft supplies like paper and ink.
  • The Dogwood Dyer has some lovely resources and workshops about natural dyeing.
  • Kathryn Davey is an Irish natural dyer with a shop and helpful blog.
  • Botanical Colours host live videos with a diverse range of natural dyers. 
  • Folk Fibers makes gorgeous naturally dyed quilts in addition to writing a blog.
  • Catherine Ellis writes the kind of deeply specific dyeing content that makes me fall in love with the internet again.
  • Natalie Stopka is a textile artist with a  great blog. Totally obsessed with her marbled scarves and I am very keen to try fermentation dyeing.

In our next post, we’ll be diving into natural dyeing in a bit more detail. In the meantime, if you have any questions let us know in the comments!

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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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