Dyeing fabric may seem straightforward, but it is often more than just adding color to a blank fabric canvas. Many are not aware of the different facets of the dyeing process, so here are some overarching concepts that will help you understand the process.
Different types of fibers require different types of fabric. Plant fibers like cotton, linen, and hemp can be dyed with simple processes. These are classified as “cellulose fibers”. These can be dyed with fiber-reactive dyes, vat dyes, azoic/naphthol dyes and direct dyes. Animal fibers like wool and silk are protein fibers. These should only be dyed with acid dyes.
If the fabric in question becomes more man-made than natural in its makeup, the ease of dyeing decreases, with polyester being the most difficult to dye (polyester and acetate can only be dyed in a small number of ways due to their chemical makeup). Home dyers should not attempt to dye man-made fabrics, perhaps opting for fabric paint instead.
Home dyeing is suitable for only certain types of fabrics. Fiber-reactive dyes and direct dyes work well for home projects. The most common brands of household fabric dye are actually made of a combination of acid dyes. Vat and naphthol dyeing are not good choice for home projects and are best left to professionals.
Animal fibers, or protein fibers, require heat to be successfully dyed. Typically, this heat source is steam or boiling dye baths. There are two considerations to take from this fact: first, the need for such heated methods doesn’t lend themselves to non-professional settings. Second, wool garments should not be dyed due to the certainty of shrinkage.
Garments labeled “dry clean only” may be dyeable. For dyeing a garment, the issue is not whether it should be dry cleaned but if it is washable, and some garments marked “dry clean only” are washable. Once such an item has no longer useful to you as-is, test wash it in cold water to see how it holds up to the washing process. If it survives, it may be a candidate for dyeing. Your garment may have to be washed several times after it is dyed in order to remove excess dye. Remember, only attempt this on garments that you would otherwise dispose of.
Dye is transparent. The transparency of dye is important to understand when we contemplate how to use it. For example, when articles of clothing have color ruined with accidental exposure to bleach, often people assume that dyeing the item with a shade close to the original color will fix the problem. Unfortunately, that is rarely true. While the color of your due may match the garment’s original color, the fiber damaged by the bleach have been altered to a point that they will not hold the dye’s color to the degree that they did before exposure. Your garment will more than likely have areas that, while no longer as light, are still much lighter than the non-damaged areas.