How to dye any type of fabric

How to dye any type of fabric

While cotton is the most common fabric to tie-dye, you might want to dye something that isn’t made out of cotton. There are in fact many different kinds of fabric that can be dyed. When talking about fabric we really are talking about the fibers that compose them. Using dyes will change the color of the fibers, letting you create designs on the fabric. You can actually color just about any type of fibers, it only requires the right tools and techniques.

In tie-dye we are used to dyeing cotton shirts, but what about dyeing clothes made out of other types of fibers? Cellulose fibers (like cotton) can be dyed using common fiber-reactive dyes. These dyes will also work on silk but not on wool, which prefers acid dyes. Synthetic fibers, on the other hand, require the use of disperse dyes. 

Cellulose – Fiber-reactive dyes
Silk – Fiber-reactive dyes and acid dyes
Wool – Fiber-reactive dyes and acid dyes
Nylon – Acid dyes and disperse dyes
Polyester – Disperse dyes
Acrylic – Disperse dyes and basic dyes

Cellulose and silk are the only fibers that can be dyed reliably at room temperature. This enables you to pour the dyes directly on the fabric and let’s you use the full breadth of tie-dye techniques. In contrast, wool and synthetic fibers require heating in order to dye well, and thus are often dyed in dye baths. Even though it limits your possibilities to only immersion dyeing, you can still use the many tie-dye folding techniques prior to immersion.

Never use a container you plan on making food with.

Cellulose fibers (cotton, rayon, linen, hemp)

This category includes fibers that come from plants. Some of these fibers are used in their natural form while others are made by processing and refining plant matter into cellulose fibers. Wether natural of manufactured, these fibers are mainly composed of cellulose, which makes them dye similarly.

Natural cellulose fibers include cotton, linen, hemp, jute, ramie, and abaca.

Semi-synthetic rayon is often manufactured by using wood pulp or bamboo.

What dyes to use on cellulose

By far, the best kind of dyes to use for cellulose fibers is your typical fiber-reactive dyes. This dye can be used on any fabric composed of cellulose fibers with exceptional results. The advantages of this dye is it’s safety, ease of use, and the fact you can dye at room temperature. You will need soda ash as an additive to increase the solution’s pH and prime the dye for reaction. Mix and match different colors to create interesting combinations.

How to dye cellulose fibers

The standard tie-dye process works beautifully on any fabric made from cellulose fibers. Simply follow the procedure as you would with a cotton shirt.

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

Protein fibers (wool, silk)

Protein fibers come from animals. Most of these are in the form of animal hair, except silk which comes from insects. Despite their different origin, all types of wool and silk can be dyed in a similar way. All animal fibers are composed of the same class of chemicals : proteins. 

Wool

Wool fibers are commonly made from the hair of sheep. Other popular animal hair fibers include alpaca, angora, cashmere mohair, and vicuna. Just about any animal hair fibers can be dyed using this method. Unlike cellulose fibers such as cotton, wool is very sensitive to high pH solutions. Soda ash, which is typically use for tie-dye, would actually harm the wool.

Acid dyes work very well with wool. Regular fiber-reactive dyes can also be used, but will not dye as strongly. Use a mild acid to lower the pH of the solution. Citric acid and vinegar are often used for this purpose, with citric acid being more practical.

What dyes to use on wool

Acid dyes are the preferred method of dyeing wool. They work at higher temperatures, in slightly acidic solutions. You will need a heated dye bath which is acidified with citric acid. Fiber-reactive dyes can also be used as acid dyes, they will work on wool.

How to dye wool fibers

The easiest way to dye wool is to use a stainless steel or enamel pot on the stove top. Prepare your dye bath before adding the wool to it. Slowly bring the dye bath to temperature. Gently stir the wool and don’t expose it to sudden temperatures changes to reduce the risk of felting. Use either citric acid or vinegar to lower the pH. Citric acid has the advantage of being more economical and not having a smell. It takes a few minutes for the dye to properly react and form bonds with the wool.

  1. Measure 2 to 4% of the dry weight of the wool in dye powder. Put the dye powder in a stainless steel pot.
  2. Fill the pot with enough water for the wool to swim freely. Stir well to mix the dye.
  3. Add the wool to the pot and stir gently.
  4. Bring the pot to a simmer.
  5. Add 1 Tablespoon of citric acid (or 1/4 cup vinegar) per pound of dry wool. Don’t pour directly onto the wool.
  6. Maintain the temperature to just below boiling. Stir occasionally for 30 minutes. Stir gently and carefully to prevent felting.
  7. Turn off the heat and let the dye bath cool off slowly.
  8. Wash the wool in warm water to remove excess dye.

Silk

Silk fibers can be dyed using a variety of dyes, they are much more versatile than wool. Silk is less sensitive to high pH compared to wool. This property of silk means that you can actually dye it using the traditional tie-dye method at room temperature. Alternatively, you can dye them like wool by using a heated dye bath.

What dyes to use on silk

A whole variety of dyes can be used to color silk. The preferred method is to use fiber-reactive dyes. They let you dye the silk directly just like you would with cotton fabric. The next best option are acid dyes, which can be applied following the same process as wool.

How to dye silk fibers

You can use the tie-dye process with silk as you would with a regular cotton fabric. Start by preparing your dyes by mixing them in bottles along with soda ash and water. Continue by folding the fabric using any tie-dye folding technique you like. When you’re ready, simply let the dye pour onto the fabric until you are satisfied. After waiting for the dye to react fully, you are then ready to rinse out the excess dye.

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

Synthetic fibers (polyester, nylon, acrylic)

Synthetic fibers are different types of plastics made from petroleum products. They are formed into thin, long filaments that are then woven to create fabrics. Synthetic fibers require a different approach and will not work with common reactive dyes. Their hydrophobic nature require the use of specialized dyes. Disperse dyes, along with dispersing agents, are the answer to this problem.

Polyester

Polyester requires very high temperatures of 100°C to 130°C in order to dye. For this reason, it’s not recommended to attempt dyeing polyester at home. Some results can still be obtained by dyeing in a boiling-hot dye bath, but the color will be paler.

What dyes to use on polyester

Disperse dyes are the only thing that dyes polyester reliably. They require the use of a dye carrier, which is hard to buy in small quantity. 

How to dye polyester fibers

The process of dyeing polyester is tricky due to the high temperatures involved. The heat opens up the fiber’s pores, letting the dye penetrate. It is still possible to do it using the stove top method and a dye carrier.

  1. Fill a stainless steel pot with enough water to let the fabric swim freely.
  2. Weigh out your dye powder. 4g of dye powder for 3L of water.
  3. Dissolve the dye into a cup of lukewarm water.
  4. Add the dye solution to the pot of water and stir well.
  5. Add 3g of dispersing agent to the pot and stir well.
  6. Add the fabric to the dye bath and stir gently.
  7. Bring the pot to a boil, maintain the temperature for 30 minutes.
  8. Allow the bath to cool to 50°C and check the color. If necessary, add more dye and boil for a further 10 minutes.
  9. Repeat the previous step until you reach the desired result.
  10. Let the dye bath cool, then remove the fabric.
  11. Rinse the fabric in warm water to remove excess dye. Finally, wash the fabric.

Nylon and polyamide

Nylon, despite being a synthetic fiber, has a unique chemistry that let’s you dye it with either acid dyes or disperse dyes. In either case, you need a heated dye bath to achieve a sufficient temperature. Interestingly, solid nylon objects can also be dyed using the same process.

What dyes to use on nylon

Acid dyes are the clear choice for dyeing nylon at home since they are easier to use than disperse dyes. You will need citric acid to lower the pH of the solution.

How to dye nylon fibers

Nylon fibers can be dyed just like wool. The easiest way to do so is to use the stove top method. Start by preparing your dye bath in a stainless steel or enamel pot. Add the fabric, then bring to a near-boil. Add citric acid to lower the pH. Maintain the temperature and stir gently for a few minutes. Unlike wool, you don’t have to fear felting.

  1. Measure 2 to 4% of the dry weight of the nylon fabric in dye powder. Put the dye powder in a stainless steel pot.
  2. Fill the pot with enough water for the fabric to swim freely. Stir well to mix the dye.
  3. Add the nylon fabric to the pot and stir gently.
  4. Bring the pot to a simmer.
  5. Add 1 Tablespoon of citric acid (or 1/4 cup vinegar) per pound of dry fabric. Don’t pour directly onto the fabric.
  6. Maintain the temperature to just below boiling. Stir occasionally for 30 minutes.
  7. Turn off the heat and let the dye bath cool off slowly.
  8. Wash the fabric in warm water to remove excess dye.

Acrylic

Acrylic can be dyed with either disperse dyes or basic dyes. Disperse dyes will result in paler color. Basic dyes are reserved for industrial use as they are difficult to handle. Be careful not to cool down the acrylic too quickly as it can damage it.

What dyes to use on acrylic

Disperse dyes are the recommended choice for dyeing acrylic at home. They require the use of a dye carrier, which can be hard to get in small quantities.

How to dye acrylic fibers

Acrylic can be dyed just like polyester.

  1. Fill a stainless steel pot with enough water to let the fabric swim freely.
  2. Weigh out your dye powder. 4g of dye powder for 3L of water.
  3. Dissolve the dye into a cup of lukewarm water.
  4. Add the dye solution to the pot of water and stir well.
  5. Add 3g of dispersing agent to the pot and stir well.
  6. Add the fabric to the dye bath and stir gently.
  7. Bring the pot to a boil, maintain the temperature for 30 minutes.
  8. Allow the bath to cool to 50°C and check the color. If necessary, add more dye and boil for a further 10 minutes.
  9. Repeat the previous step until you reach the desired result.
  10. Let the dye bath cool, then remove the fabric.
  11. Rinse the fabric in warm water to remove excess dye. Finally, wash the fabric.

About us

We are Samuel and Francis. About two years ago we bought our first tools and supplies for tie-dyeing. Ever since then we’ve been learning the skills of folding and dyeing in intricate ways. We’ve learned from our experiences on the field about what techniques works and what doesn’t. This is the site were we share everything we’ve learned.

Samuel and Francis

We are the sole owners of this site, we live in Canada where we work everyday on making tie-dye more accessible to everyone. We are always looking forward to teaching you something new.