When I first started dyeing, I knew I wanted to achieve perfect, brilliant colors. I knew what I needed : a cotton shirt, dyes, and some dye fixer. I knew I needed to let the dye set on the shirt for a few hours.
Imagine my surprise when I rinsed out my new tie-dye shirt and discovered pale, faded-looking colors. It seemed obvious that I must have skipped a step somewhere. I wondered what I did wrong and tested out a few things.
Why are my colors faded?
Most cases of faded colors are the result of forgetting the dye fixer, using old dyes, or using polyester fabric. Skipping a step of the tie-dye process or using improper supplies will leave you with subpar results.
Try mixing a fresh batch of dyes and add a teaspoon of fixer to the bottle. Use a shirt made of cotton. After dyeing, let it set for at least 8 hours at room temperature (70°F or 21°C).
Table of Contents
Almost no color, completely washed out
You rinsed your shirt only to find out that most of the color just slides right off. This might seem like the worst scenario. But luckily it’s also the easiest to solve. The main reasons for a complete lack of color are forgetting the dye fixer and using the wrong fabric material.
1. You forgot the dye fixer
The number one reason for poor color is that you forgot to use any dye fixer. I had this happen to me a number of times. In the excitement of dyeing a shirt you mix your dyes too quickly. You end up forgetting the crucial step of adding in soda ash dye fixer.
Add one teaspoon (8 grams) of dye activator per dye bottle. Dyes need fixer in order to react with the fabric. Fixer is essential and cannot be avoided.
Trying to dye a shirt without using fixer will result in very poor color fastness. You can expect most of the color to disappear when rinsing the shirt. There are other ways to introduce the fixer. Soaking the fabric prior to folding in a solution of soda ash and water is an acceptable alternative.
2. You used the wrong kind of fabric
One of the first thing you can check is the type of fabric you used. Check your garment’s tags to figure out its fiber’s composition. Use the wrong material and the dye will slide right off the fibers.
Only use cotton garments. Tie-dye only works on natural fibers such as cotton. Plastic fibers like polyester and nylon cannot be dyed at room temperature.
Trying to dye a polyester garment will result in very poor color retention. It will wash out as soon as you rinse it. Make sure to use 100% cotton or other natural material. Fiber blends can be used too, but it will weaken the overall color saturation.
Some color, but appears discolored/faded
After rinsing the shirt, you find out that there is some color, but the result is underwhelming. Using spent dyes and not setting the shirt long enough are common causes. Cold temperatures when setting the dye will also produce weakened colors.
1. You used old/spent dyes
You dyed a first time with great success. The garment came out great. The next day you go and tie-dye another time using the same dyes. You end up with colors that are less vibrant and look muted.
Prepare a fresh batch of dye. Dye bottles only last for a few hours after the fixer is added. Using day-old dye can result in faded and muted colors.
Dispose of your leftover dye after dyeing. You can also place them in the refrigerator to extend their lifespan. Always start with a fresh batch of dyes for best results.
2. Ambient temperature too cold
You followed all the step, you didn’t forget a thing. But you still end up with color that looks weak and don’t know why. Reaction temperature plays a crucial role that is often overlooked.
After dyeing, place the shirt in a room that is at least 70°F (21°C) or more. The lower the temperature, the slower the dye will react. While it normally takes 8 hours to set, a cold room will disrupt the process.
The reaction between dye and fabric requires a certain warmth. The warmer it is, the faster the reaction. This can be the cause of your problem especially in winter or in cold climates. Place the shirt near a heater or in a warm room.
3. You didn’t let the dye set
You were too eager to rinse out your shirt and discover the result. Being patient is hard, but it’s well worth the wait.
Let the shirt set for 8 to 24 hours at room temperature after dyeing. It takes a few hours for the dye to react fully. As you wait, color molecules become attached to the fabric.
Rinsing the shirt immediately after dyeing will result in poor coloration of the fabric. Most of the dye will not have had time to react. Waiting longer than 24 hours yields diminishing returns.
Colors appears fine, but soften when dried
You rinsed the shirt and everything looked fine. Colors looked strong and bold. You pull out the shirt from the dryer and suddenly it looks different. With the shirt now dry, the colors appear soft.
This is totally normal. Colors appear darker when the shirt is wet. This is an optical illusion caused by the water trapped in the fabric. Because of the water, less light bounces off the fabric, making it appear darker.
There is no solution to this natural phenomenon, only to keep your expectations realistic. Practice often and you will learn to get the most out of your dyes.
How your colors should look like
Good examples are essential for you to get a sense of what is possible. Nothing beats self experimentation, but pictures are the next best thing.
Colors should look full and totally saturated. They should have no apparent defects. To get perfect colors, you should use concentrated dye solutions. Make sure to include dye fixer and set the shirt at an appropriate temperature for a few hours.
The final result also depends on the fabric. Its fiber material and thickness have an impact on how the color is perceived. Aim for thick fabric composed of 100% dyeable fibers. Apply a generous amount of dye to get full saturation.
There are many ways to dye fabric, and many ways it can go wrong. Most people will encounter at least one event where the colors don’t come out too good.
We have seen that the final outcome is determined by the way you perform each step of the process. Choosing the right supplies is also important. Always be sure to use the recommended dyes for tie-dye.
With a bit of practice you will learn how to get perfect colors each time.