Why Use Fiber-Reactive Dyes For Tie-dye (Explained)

Colors are the heart and soul of tie-dye. They come in the form of powdered dyes. We mix and apply these dyes on folded fabric to tie-dye. But with many different kinds of dyes, how to choose?

In tie-dye we always use a class of dyes called “fiber-reactive”. These dyes are revolutionary in that they allow people to dye at room temperature. You will find these dyes in every tie-dye kit sold today.

Fiber-reactive dyes are professional grade. They produce vibrant and powerful colors. They are the number one choice for beginners and experts alike.

Table of Contents

What are fiber-reactive dyes?

Earlier dyes were often dangerous and would require high temperatures in order to work. The invention of fiber-reactive dyes was a revolution in the world of textiles.

Fiber-reactive dyes are a recent invention, first being commercialized in the early 1950s. Modern fabric dyes for cotton are safe and inexpensive. Even inexperienced enthusiasts can now dye at home.

Why use cold reactive dyes?

There are many classes of dyes in existence. Out of them, cold reactive dyes are the clear choice for tie-dye artists. They react to form a permanent bond with cotton and other cellulose fibers.

Reactive dyes for tie-dye are cheap and easy to use. They are also safe and permanent. These dyes work beautifully on natural fabric (cotton, rayon, linen, hemp). Most of all, They can be used at room temperature and don’t require special equipment.

They are brighter, longer-lasting, and easier to use than any other type of dyes. Additionally, you can freely mix and combine them to create new colors. They really are the perfect match for tie-dye.

How cold reactive dyes work

Fiber-reactive dyes actually form a covalent bond with cellulose or protein fibers. The only requirement is to increase the pH of the solution. Soda ash dye fixer is the most common way to do so. The high pH (10.5 to 11) enables the reaction between the dye and the fibers at low temperatures.

Color molecules detach from the dye and bond with the fibers. This reaction happens at temperatures as low as 70°F (20°C). This trait is unique among all dyes. Once bonded to the recipient molecule, the dye is considered part of it. It becomes permanently attached.

Once it’s a part of the fiber molecule, the dye cannot be separated by mechanical means. No amount of rubbing or washing can remove it. Only chemical processes can sever the bond between dye and fiber.

How to use cold reactive dyes

The standard tie-dye process is by far the best way to use cold reactive dyes. This unique approach let’s you place the colors freehand on your fabric. It’s like painting, but better. Other dyeing methods include immersion and ice-dyeing.

Start by preparing your dye solution. Mix a teaspoon (8 g) of dye powder in a cup (250 ml) of water. Add in a teaspoon (8 g) of dye fixer and shake well for 30 seconds. Fold, tie, then dye your garment. Apply the solution directly on a damp cotton item.

1) Mix your dyes – 1 tsp dye, 1 tsp soda ash, 250ml water in a bottle.
2) Prepare a shirt – Wet, then wring out the shirt to get it damp.
3) Fold and bind the shirt – Use one of many techniques.
4) Dye the shirt – Use a pattern to get accurate result.
5) Let the dye react – 4 to 8 hours for strong colors.
6) Rinse out the shirt – Remove excess dye from the shirt.
7) Wash the shirt – Wash it in cold water, the shirt is now ready.

There’s whole variety of techniques you can use to create interesting designs. Let loose your imagination and experiment freely. If you ever are in need of inspiration you can check our compilation of tie-dye patterns, which you can follow to recreate many popular styles.

What dye colors to buy first?

Everyone has their own preferences when it comes to colors. There are many different colors available for sell. But in reality they all come from a basic set of dyes. Most colors you will find are simply combinations of primary colors.

The best dyes to start with are the three primary colors (blue, red, yellow). The primaries are pure, unmixed dyes and combine well together. You should also add a nice black to the list. With just these four basic dyes you can recreate any color you want.

ColorColor nameColor index no.
Citrine YellowYellow 86
Ruby RedRed 11
Turquoise BlueBlue 140

If you want to expand your possibilities you can buy the rest of the pure unmixed dyes. This let’s you create an even larger range of colors. This is especially true for the beautiful dark blues.

ColorColor nameTrade nameColor index no.
Citrine YellowMX-8GYellow 86
Deep OrangeMX-2ROrange 4
Ruby RedMX-5BRed 2
Fuschsia RedMX-8BRed 11
Turquoise BlueMX-GBlue 140
CeruleanMX-GBlue 163
Medium BlueMX-RBlue 4
Cobalt BlueMX-2GBlue 109
VioletMX-GViolet 14

You can also buy premixed colors if you want. They are easy to use right out of the box and don’t require mixing. The only problem with premixed dyes is that they don’t combine so well. Mixing premixed dyes together may result in dull colors. You can avoid this by mixing the colors yourself.

What are Procion MX dyes?

Procion MX is a disused brand name for reactive dyes. It was the original brand of cold fiber-reactive dyes on the market.

The patent for the production of these dyes has since expired. This enabled other manufacturers to make these dyes. The Procion brand name has changed hands a number of time. It is used today as a generic term for these dyes.

Dye manufacturers today use the same formula to make a generic version. All brands of cold fiber-reactive dyes are chemically identical and interchangeable.

Can you use other types of dyes?

Other types of dyes all have characteristics that make them unsuitable for tie-dye. They all require heating in a dye bath in order to work, so cannot be used for direct application methods.

All-purpose dyes

All-purpose dyes are a combination of two types of dyes : direct and acid dyes. This combination means you can use them on most fabrics.

All-purpose dyes aren’t suitable for tie-dye. They can dye most fabrics, but require heating in order to work. They will not work for direct application with squeeze bottles.

They are often used at home and in prop-making industries because they work on most fabrics. The downside is that the results are not as good. The colors are not as bright on cotton as reactive dyes.

Natural dyes

The first class of dyes discovered. They have been used since the dawn of humanity. Contrary to what you may think, they are much harder to use and are actually more hazardous than synthetic dyes.

Natural dyes are not suitable for tie-dye. They require high heat and cannot be used for direct application. The colors they produce are weaker than with reactive dyes.

Not only do they require high temperatures, most require the use of a mordants to achieve any significant results.

Natural dyes come from many different sources and purists swear by them. Most all these dyes use mordants, with the exception of indigo and tyrian purple.

Acid dyes

Acid dyes are unsuitable for dyeing on cotton or other cellulose fibers. They are best used on protein fibers such as wool and silk. They produce great coloration, but require high temperatures and low pH.

They are relatively safe and easy to use. The stove top method let’s you dye wool in your home. They can only be used on protein fibers.

Basic dyes

Basic dyes are dangerous and shouldn’t be used at home. They can dye most fabrics, but pose a safety hazard. Not only are they a carcinogen and mutagen, they also stain everything they touch.