Everything you need to know to confidently dye your own stunning, colorful clothes and fabrics with fiber reactive or cold water dyes.
Have you ever tried to dye your own clothes? Did your favorite t-shirt fade from washing and you really want to get the color back? Then, chances are you went to the grocery store and bought some Rit dye, right?
Those are inexpensive and the most readily available but are they the best? Probably not. But, do they have a place? Absolutely!
Let me show you how you can have more success dyeing fabric with fiber reactive dyes.
What are fiber reactive dyes?
They are chemical dyes specifically formulated to work on natural fibers, specifically cellulose or plant fibers such as cotton, linen, bamboo and hemp but also silk (a protein fiber).
Sometimes called Cold Water Dyes, they work beautifully at a low temperature as opposed to hot water dyes such as Rit brand.
Also, used properly, fiber reactive dyes give you a completely colorfast and washfast fabric, meaning the dye does not fade after several washings.
My personal favorite brand is Jacquard Procion MX Dye but there are many good ones including Dharma Fiber Reactive Dye.
What techniques work for cold water dye?
You can use these awesome dyes with many different techniques. They work great for tie dyeing or shibori, hand painting, vat dyeing, screen printing and more.
They can be used dry or liquid and thick as well as thin for painting and watercolor effects.
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Please keep in mind that although these dyes are safe to use, they are chemicals and should be used with a few precautions:
Work in a well ventilated area
If you can do your dyeing outside, that would be ideal. If you have to work indoors, make sure your room is properly ventilated with open windows and fans.
Use only dedicated pots and pans
ANY AND ALL equipment that you use for dyeing is no longer safe to use in the kitchen! (The only exception to this rule is if you use food coloring as dye.)
This includes: Pots and pans, microwave, crock pot, strainers, bowls, measuring cups, mixing cups and spoons, lids, scales.
Wear safety equipment
Waterproof Rubber gloves keep your skin from absorbing the chemicals and should be worn whenever you handle the dyes.
Other safety considerations
- Make sure you cover all of your work surfaces with plastic table cloths. This not only prevents staining, but makes the final cleanup much easier.
- Keep dyes away from children!
TIP: Cover your work surface with newspaper and spritz them with water. This will attract dry dye particles that may escape. . . . from Hand Dyeing Yarn and Fleece
- Fiber Reactive Dye
- Plant Fiber Fabric (s.a. Cotton, Linen, Hemp, Bamboo)
- Soda Ash
- Rubber Gloves
- Dust Mask
- Plastic Storage Bin
- All-in-one Dye Kit
Basic steps for cold water dyeing
1. Choose your fabric
As I said previously, for this type of dye you need natural fiber fabrics such as Cotton, Linen, Hemp, Bamboo and even Silk.
This can be in the form of yards of cloth, drapes, bed lines or clothing such as t-shirts, pants and so on.
Your cloth does not have to be white or off white but it should be a light color. You can dye something darker, but your can’t dye it lighter, although it is possible to reverse dye using bleach.
2. Prepare your fabric
For best results, you will want to scour or deep clean your cloth. This involves boiling it in a washing soda and water mixture to remove any soap residue, grease stains or sizing.
While scouring is not entirely necessary, it will give you a much better final result.
Note: If you are working with silk fabric, scouring may damage the sheen and is not recommended. You also do not want to use very hot water. It is best to wash any silk with warm water and a PH neutral soap such as Synthrapol.
3. Pretreat the fabric
Fiber reactive dyes require soda ash to attach the color to the cloth. Simply measure out your soda ash (per package instructions) and dissolve it in warm water.
Then fill your bucket with hot water, add the soda ash and finally the fabric. Let this soak. (Again, check the package instructions for amounts and soaking time)
Note: For tub or submersion dyeing, the soda ash can also be added to the dye bath instead.
4. Prepare the dye
Now, you have to decide how you want to dye your fabric. Meaning, which technique are you going to use. This will determine whether or not you need to pre-dissolve the dye powder.
For Vat, Tub or Submersion Dyeing, Hand Painting, Tie Dye, Shibori and Dip Dyeing, you will pre-dissolve the powder before adding it to a tub of water. These colors are applied in liquid form.
5. Apply the dye
As I stated above, there are many different ways of applying the color to your fabric. Here are just a few techniques:
Vat, Tub or Submersion
This is the method you use to dye your cloth one solid color as opposed to multiple different colors and patterns.
Basic Vat Dyeing instructions: Fill a bucket or other large tub with enough warm water to cover fabric. Add dissolved dye and stir. Add pre-treated, wet fabric to the dye bath and stir well.
Now add pre-dissolved salt (optional) and then add the pre-dissolved soda ash, if you have not already treated your fabric with it.
Stir for the required amount of time, rinse and wash.
Note: All fiber reactive dyes have their own specific instructions. Make sure and follow the directions on your particular container.
Chances are, you have tie dyed some t-shirts or maybe socks in the past. Most of us have, right? Basically, you pre-treat your shirts as above. Then you tie or fold your fabric in an accordion fold or other tie dye pattern and secure that with rubber bands.
Next, you apply the liquid dyes, cover your fabric and let it set overnight. The following day, you thoroughly rinse out any excess color, wash the shirts and dry.
Snow and Ice Dyeing
This is a super fun dyeing method to make some multi colored and patterned shirts and other fabric. What makes this process especially interesting is that you can’t control the dyes. They will move with the melting ice or snow.
With this method, you first place a screen or grate inside a plastic tub so that it is raised off the bottom. Then you crumple, fold or tie the pre-treated fabric and place it on top of the screen.
This dyeing method is exactly what it sounds like: you literally paint on the fabric with the liquid dyes which can be done with paint brushes, sponge brushes or squirt bottles.
6. Set the dye
The beauty of dyeing with fiber reactive dyes is that you do not need to do anything else to “set” the final piece. The soda ash treatment along with leaving the colors on the fabric overnight are all that is needed.
Unlike other dyes, these colors are very wash fast and do not bleed much after the first washing.
7. Caring for your dyed fabric
After your piece has sat with the dyes for 12 to 24 hours, you will want to rinse it thoroughly. Be patient! It can take a while to remove all of the excess color.
Once the water runs clear, go ahead and pop your fabric in the washing machine (separately) and then hang or tumble dry.
After the first washing, there should not be any more bleeding but personally, I will wash my newly dyed shirts by themselves for a few more washes.
There you have it! Now you should have a good grasp of the basic steps of dyeing fabric with fiber reactive dyes so you can confidently take on your own dye projects.
Why not plan a tie dye party for this Spring or Summer? Those are super fun not just for teens but adults as well.
Is fiber reactive dye permanent?
Yes, for the most part. These dyes (Procion Mx Dye, etc.) are very color and wash fast and do not tend to bleed once they have been rinsed and thoroughly washed.
They also do not fade as much as other chemical fabric dyes will over time. Keep in mind, however, that if you dry your laundry outside on a line in the bright sunshine, any dye will eventually fade.
Can you mix dyes to make other colors?
Absolutely, these dyes mix beautifully! You will want to make sure that you pre-dissolve the powder thoroughly to reduce the chance of the dye ‘breaking’. (This refers to the different dye colors splitting)
This helpful chart from McCormick shows you some common color mixing options.
Is Rit a fiber reactive dye?
Yes and No. Rit is what I call a ‘Composite Dye’ (my term). That means it is made up of all different kinds of compounds so that you can dye all different kinds of materials.
For instance, Plant Fibers (cotton, hemp, bamboo, etc.) require Fiber Reactive Dyes. Protein Fibers (animal such as sheep, alpaca, goat, etc.) require Acid Dyes and Synthetic Fiber need a completely different chemical. Rit Dyes combine all of these in one.
This is especially helpful if you don’t know the fiber content of your cloth or if you have a textile that is a blend of different fibers such as Cotton and Polyester.
Is it better to dye fabric in hot or cold water?
There is not really one method that is superior to another. It all depends on what outcome you are looking for as well as the availability.
Are you looking for bright, colorfast dyes that will last a long time? I would go for Fiber Reactives. Do you want to overdye some faded black jeans? Rit dyes will work just fine.
Also, Rit dyes are much easier to find than professional fabric dyes which may need to be special ordered.
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