Sew, What's New?

Curating sewing and quilting talent, techniques, and tutorials, since 1997.

By Trish Doornbosch

Eventually, the serious quilter or fabric artist considers customizing their own fabric. But dyeing fabric isn't just about dunking it into a dye bath. The best results come when you think ahead.

Final Use
Are you going to use the finished fabric to wear or in home decoration? This will influence not only your choice of fabric, but also the types of dyes or paints you use. For example, if you want to use the finished fabric in a blouse, skirt, or jacket, then you'll need a fabric that drapes well, will withstand laundering, and will take dyes and paints well. If you are going to use the fabric in an art quilt that is to hang on the wall, then you can use any type of weight or fabric and you don't need high-quality fabric dyes. Pre-washing in the hottest water the fabric can take is always necessary to remove the commercial sizing or finishing done by the manufacturer to reduce soiling.

Natural versus Synthetic Fabrics
In general, natural fabrics (cotton, linen, silk or wool) will take dyes and paints better than synthetic fabrics (rayon, acetate, nylon, polyester, acrylic). That said, some fabrics have other problems to consider. Wool doesn't tolerate abrupt temperature changes and can shrink. It also contains lanolin, which needs to be scoured out (washed vigorously) before dyeing, or it will severely affect the ability of the dye to penetrate the fibers. If you need to fix the dye with high temperatures, you may have a problem with trying to heat set a nylon fabric with an iron because it may melt.

Fabric Structure
If you put a tightly woven fabric and a loosely woven fabric in the same dye bath for the same amount of time, and heat set the fabric the same way, the tightly woven fabric is going to look darker. Why? There are more fibers per square inch to take the dye and therefore color density is darker. The thicker the fabric, the more dye or paint it will absorb, so it will change the feel of the fabric and make it stiffer. That also influences the wearability of the fabric.

A blend of a natural fiber with a synthetic fiber, such as a cotton-polyester blend, will dye unevenly. The natural fiber will take on more dye faster than the synthetic fiber.

If you are going to overdye (dyeing a pre-printed fabric), the dye will take on different shades of the dye color in different areas of the fabric. A red dye will look different over blue than it will over yellow.

If you use regular acrylic paints they tend to rest on the surface of the fabric and so are only used in artistic projects that aren't going to be laundered or worn.

Bottom Line
Before you spend a lot of money on fabric that you want to paint or dye, find out the fiber content and laundering instructions. This information is printed on the cardboard end of the bolt of fabric and you can take note of it. When you do your test, keep a record of the type of dye or paint used, how the fabric was pre-treated, how long the fabric was kept in the dye bath, and how it was heat set or left to dry. Your "fabric journal" will be an important record of your efforts.

Trish is an artist living in Northern Illinois. She works in fiber art, digital design and graphic design and also gives workshops in fabric Surface Design. Business URL:

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Replies to This Post


I really like your idea of keeping a fabric journal. I wish I had done that from the beginning. Although flying by the seat of my pants is fun too!

I have a question about how to achieve a certain effect. I have some crinkled silk. It is seriosly textured, almost looks boucle. I want to paint swaths of color on it but not cover the entire piece, The blocks of color should stay put. Would I need to thicken the dye so it doesn't spread? Or is there a paint that won't change the hand of the silk?
ok ... so here is a LAME question i'm sure. i've been dabbling in fabric dying (just bucket/vat dying ... i do clothing so i want it to be uniform). i have been using fiber reactive procion dyes on jersey 90 cotton/ 10 spandex fabric.

how do i make the colors softer (lighter? pastel?) i tried using less dye to water ratio ... but it just made it blotchy. like the dye grabbed where it could and when the dye "ran-out" it just left the fabric white. did i do something wrong?

(i bought all the primay colors (both warm and cool and brown and black) and am planning on mixing my own custom colors. i started a journal with my different "recipes")
I think diluting the dye like you mentioned is the right idea. It may be coming out blotchy because the bucket is too small for the amount of fabric you're putting in and the fabric is folding over on itself. Could you try a bigger bucket or a washing machine? Also try stirring it around in the dye so that every thread in the fabric has an equal chance to absorb the dye. Those are just my ideas :-) Good luck!
I am new to dyeing fabric, I have been dyeing yarn for quite some time. My question is this: what fabric do you recommend I use? I have read that Hoffman is best but then read kona cotton or cheaper muslin is just as good. Any help will be appreciated.


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