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Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Answering questions about dyeing clothing and some beginner tips

These are my best tips from 40 years of dyeing my own clothing and household linens.

For a beginner, choose an item that you have less attachment to, such as a shirt that you'd been thinking you might just donate, or something bought at a yard sale, thrift store, or other discount store, or a garment that won't be on display in public, such as undergarments (slips and underwear). My very first try at dyeing clothing was a pair of cheap, white cotton sneakers bought at the drug store. This was back in the early 1980s. I think I paid $1.99 for those sneakers. They were white, but what I wanted was a pair of pale pink sneakers. The finished dye color was pale enough that any imperfections were barely visible. 

Liquid dye is great for beginners. It costs a bit more than powder, but liquid dye is pigment that is already dissolved, eliminating the chance that dye particles will speckle your fabric. You can also be thorough in dissolving powder dye. The last couple of times I've used powder dye, I've dissolved the dye in a saucepan of simmering water while stirring constantly. I've been pleased with the results of the finished dyed item by dissolving the powder in this way.

There are specific dyes for synthetics like 100% polyester. Regular Rit Dye won't work on polyester. But they (and other brands) do make a product that will. Regular dyes, the ones found in craft and sewing stores all work on cotton, linen, nylon, wool, silk, and blends.

Don't try to home-dye a textile that can't be subjected to a hot water wash. Home-dyes require hot water to help the dye attach to the fibers.

If the textile is brand new or has been worn, used, or starched since the most recent washing, launder it to remove fabric finishes (if a new item), laundry starch, or stains, body oils and/or sweat embedded in the fibers. Even light coatings of any of the above will prevent dyes from attaching to fibers or cause uneven dying.

instructions on

You can improve your satisfaction with a dye job by following a few rules for dye color selection.  1) Aiming for a pastel shade instead of a deep color lessens the chance of noticeable dye blemishes. With that pair of sneakers, I wanted a pale pink. As I said above, any dye blemishes were hard to spot with that pastel shade. I dyed my sneakers in the bathroom sink. But you can also dye-paint sneakers, using a sponge brush. Check out the link on the photo above.  2) Opt for darkening an existing colored textile just one or two shades of the same color, an example being the refreshing of my newest black jeans. I wasn't trying to change the color, just boost the intensity and renew the look of my already black jeans. Although Rit Dye does make a "denim" color, if you want to refresh blue jeans, many people recommend using one box of Navy and one box of Black dye. Instructables has a good tutorial here.  3) Dye textiles that already have some variation in the thread colors. Denim is a good example of this. If you look closely at denim fabric, you'll see it isn't made of all blue or all black threads. You can sometimes see this best on the inside of a pair of all-cotton jeans like Levis. This variation in color will help hide any perfections in the home-dyed outcome. I haven't done this yet, but I've long wanted to over-dye a pair of worn denim jeans with a color dye, such as green or purple. I like this look for a fun pair of jeans. Over-dyeing a color over denim works best with faded jeans.

color dyed over blue jeans

Wet the fabric with hot water before dyeing. I do this in the kitchen sink and ensure I get the garments thoroughly wet on the inside as well as outside. I then roll the items up to transfer them to the dye bath with minimal dripping.

Use the hottest water available for the dye bath and use the salt recommended (1 cup of ordinary salt per box of dye). Salt is a mild color fixative for home-dyeing and works well with cotton fabrics. Some folks use vinegar as a color fixative in home-dyeing. Vinegar works well to set color in wool, silk, and nylon. Home-dyed color fades more quickly than commercially set color. However, Rit Dye (and other companies) has a product that works better than salt as a fixative, ColorStay Dye Fixative. If someone was wanting to dye a more vibrant color, a fixative would be a great addition to the dye process. If your tap water isn't very hot, bring some water to a boil on the stove and pour that into the washing machine, bucket, or sink where you'll be dyeing the textiles. Rit Dye recommends water that is at least 140 degrees F. This is hotter than the setting on many households' water heaters.

For my personal uses of choosing pastel colors or refreshing the color in clothing items, I'm okay with fading. I did a batch of bath towels for one daughter about 6 years ago. They're now looking like they could use a refresh on their color. I'm happy to re-dye her towels for her. Ditto on refreshing my jeans multiple times. I hope to keep my darkest black denims looking new or near-new for many more years with a refresh of black dye every year or two.

Push all of the fabric beneath the dye bath surface at the very beginning of the dye process. This sounds like a no-brainer, but especially in heavier weight fabrics, such as denim, large air bubbles can form in the legs or sleeves, which will cause some of the fabric to float at and above the surface of the dye. I sometimes have to work at moving those bubbles to an opening, so I can fully submerge the fabric.

Keeping the fabric moving in the dye bath is essential for a good outcome. While the agitate cycle on a washing machine is good, you can enhance the movement of dye through the fabric by putting on a pair of gloves and "regroup" the fabric folds periodically. Every 6 to 10 minutes during the agitation in your machine or during stirring in a pot on the stove, pull the clothing up out of the dye and re-lay it in the dye slightly differently than it had been. For example, with sleeves or legs of pants, pull the sleeve or leg to change where it is creasing and flatten out any ridges in the wet fabric. This sounds like a hassle, but doing so will prevent concentrated dye from pooling and dying more strongly in spots or leaving streaks.

After the dye time has been completed, drain the dye water and rinse the fabric under cold water until the water runs clear. Some people will opt to skip this. If you don't want the dye color of your refreshed black jeans to rub off onto your aunt's lovely cream-colored sofa, rinse, rinse, rinse. If you rinse until the water runs clear (or near to clear), you don't need to worry about dye rubbing off on other clothing in the wash. Although, I do recommend washing with like colors only and in cold water for the first few washes after dying. If the wash water is warm or hot, dye can leach out into the wash water.

While it's not necessary to turn clothing inside out before laundering after home-dyeing (if you rinsed until the water ran clear), I always wash my jeans inside out, always. I turn them inside out and zip the zipper, button the button before washing, even when not a home-dyed pair. Doing so prolongs the color saturation for as long as possible. Denim fabric seems to fade and develop wear-patches more than other fabrics. I also always hang my jeans to dry. Taking these extra steps seems to substantially prolong the "newness" of my jeans.

As I said at the top, I've been home-dyeing for 40 years. I've dyed sneakers, clothing, undergarments, towels, pillow cases, and tablecloths. Some of my dyeing efforts have been to breathe new life into something that was looking worn. Others have been to change or coordinate the colors of textiles. For example the tablecloths, I have a bunch of inherited white and ecru tablecloths. I've dyed a few of these so I have more color options when setting a table. I had a set of mismatched towels and a bathmat that I gave to one daughter for her bathroom. I made them "match" with the help of dye. Some were a pale pink, some a pale yellow, and some white. I made them all peach with a couple of different dye baths. Sometimes dye can minimize the look of a stain. I had a favorite white cotton blouse that I bought in 2002. After about 10 or 11 years, it developed underarm stains that I could not remove. I chose to dye the shirt pink. The pink shirt still has some underarm staining, but the stains are less noticeable against the pink fabric than they had been against the white. When my mother was alive, she had a fancy engagement to attend with my father. The dress she wore was just sheer enough to require a slip underneath. Her beige slip showed too much beneath the fabric. I helped her dye the slip to match the color of her dress. She looked lovely that evening. 

All of my home-dyeing exploits began with a cheap pair of sneakers. I took a chance and I'm so glad that I did. I've never had an item than I ruined that could not be remedied. The worst that has ever happened was that colors turned out differently than I intended. In these cases, I "fixed" them by removing the dyed color and starting over. And I have "saved" so many items and kept them in use for many additional years with a packet of dye. 

If you have any other questions about using dye, I'm more than happy to answer them.


  1. That's a very thorough tutorial. It points out that dying is another thing that is simple in concept, but complicated in the details.

    1. Hi Live and Learn,
      That's a good way to put it. Dyeing clothing sounds like it should be easy and straightforward. But there are all of these little things to watch out for or take time to do to ensure success. Have you tie-dyed anything before? That's another great way to venture into dyeing clothing with minimal risk. We try to tie-dye t-shirts or bandanas each summer as a fun family project.

  2. Thank you for your thorough instructions!

  3. I have not tried home dying, though I have packets and even a bottle of dye in my craft box. I don't recall when or how I acquired them. The dye powder may have been included in a bag of thrift goodies. I don't feel comfortable using a washing machine for this, yet stirring by hand seems too much work. It's helpful though to hear about your lengthy experience and tips. I've often wondered whether the dye would be temporary or bleed out on other clothing.

    Now I recall, I did try dying muslim fabric in my late teen, when I was trying to achieve a boho vibe but it was not with the intention of having perfect uniform color.

    I am in a "use it or lose it" stage of my life, and the dyes are now target for me to use up. If not clothing, there may be something around the house or yard that needs a refresh.

    Thank you, and have a beautiful day!!

    1. Hi Laura,
      You can dye textiles in a bucket or on the stove in a large pot. My daughter wanted to dye some converse sneakers a few years ago, so she bought us a large pot just for stovetop dyeing. She also bought a slotted spoon for stirring. Both items came from thrift stores. So keep that in mind if you're wanting to try stovetop dyeing and not wanting to put dye onto something you also put food into, that you can get a large pot and utensil for dirt cheap at a thrift store or yard sale.

      In addition to clothing, you could use your dye for towels or pillowcases or fabric scraps that you ant to coordinate in color with a project. Since you're artistic, I think you may be able to use those dyes in batik to create something beautiful just because.
      If not fabric, you could also use the dyes as stains on wooden items.

    2. Sorry for misspelling "dyeing." I didn't catch it until much later. I am having many senior moments lately.

      Thank you for your suggestions. Interesting that I could use it on wooden items, which reminds me I could use it for dyeing paper for junk journals. I use food and Easter egg dyes for paper, so there is always that. I recently bought white t-shirt rags from the paint department to craft with, so maybe I will play with dyeing fabric. The rag pieces were all cut the same dimensions and on clearance which in my mind seemed a bargain. I could use the rag to wipe up paint and then use it in crafty projects.


    3. Hi Laura,
      I think you could find a lot of artistic uses for the dye, especially with making junk journals. The dip-dyed look might be really nice with either the covers or pages in a journal.

      As for spelling, I had to laugh at my own mistake. I spelled it "dying" all through my 2 posts. When I reread one post a couple of days later, I realized the spelling felt off, and I had to edit the spelling to "dyeing" throughout both posts, post-publish. Online, I found the word spelled both ways, regarding the meaning to change color. So either spelling seems to be accepted in online use.


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