Books on how to dye
You can't dye it if you can't wash it.Whenever you dye anything made of fabric, you invariably have to wash it a lot. You must prewash it to remove surface finishes and any invisible stains that will repel dye. You must dissolve the dye in water to apply it. Finally, you have to wash it several times afterwards to remove all of the loose extra dye. Otherwise the dry excess dye will rub off on you, the furniture, your purse, and anything else the garment touches.
This means that you absolutely cannot dye anything that is not washable.
However, many garments marked "dry clean only" will survive washing just fine. Sometimes manufacturers put "dry clean only" on all their products, not just the ones that require it. If you have no use for a dress in its current color, then you may as well try washing it, by hand or on the most delicate setting your machine can manage. There is always the risk that washing will destroy the dress, however. Do this only if you are ready to throw the garment away if it does not survive washing. (Do not try this on a new formal wedding dress or bridesmaid dress!)
I recommend test-washing only for unlined clothing. Linings are a particular problem. Since they are usually made of a different fiber, often a synthetic fiber not even mentioned on the label, they tend to shrink less than the natural fiber on the outer layer, ruining the shape of the garment. For very simply-cut garments, you might be able to cut out the lining and wear a slip, instead, but in most cases the only answer at this point is to discard the garment.
There can also be problems with fabric whose texture relies on water-soluble finishes, or that is dyed so poorly that immersion in water causes the original color to run. In the latter case, try to remove as much of the unattached dye as possible by washing in hot water.
If your clothing survives washing, then you can go ahead and dye it. I have successfully machine-washed both linen and rayon dresses that had been labeled as dry clean only. If your dress still looks fine after you've washed it, you can then try dyeing it.
Think this through all the way before you try test-washing a dry-clean-only garment. Even after washing, how dyeable will it be?
Some fibers require boiling water to apply. Even if a dress does well when washed in cool water on a delicate cycle, it may not be able to survive boiling. Polyester should be boiled for at least half an hour with a special polyester dye. Polyester/spandex blends cannot be dyed because spandex will not survive the heat required to dye polyester.
100% cotton, linen, or rayon is likely to be easy to dye. All of the plant fibers are easy to dye, using a fiber reactive dye. A good choice is Procion MX dye in a top-loading washing machine. In Europe, look for Dylon Machine Dye, for use in a front-loading washing machine (this dye is not available in North America). Avoid using all-purpose dyes when dyeing cotton, linen, or rayon, because these dyes perform poorly, and the very hot water they require in the dyeing process is not suitable for delicate fabrics.
Note that the seams that hold the dress together are made of polyester thread, which means that they will remain their original color even after dyeing. If the stitching is very visible, the results might look peculiar. Look at your dress critically and decide whether or not it will be a problem for it to have pastel purple stitching on a hot pink dress.
Meanwhile, lace and other trim may be made of polyester, or it may be made of nylon. Nylon may take dye to an entirely different color than your other fibers. Embroidery is unpredictable: it may be made of polyester, nylon, or rayon, all of which dye very differently.
Since dye is transparent, the original color will always show through. This means that, while it is easy to go from white or a pale color to a darker color, it is impossible to use dye to go from darker to lighter. The only way to lighten the color of fabric is to damage the original dye, either by breaking the dye molecules with chlorine bleach, or by reducing the double binds in the dye molecule with a color remover. However, chlorine bleach badly damages synthetic fibers, wool, and silk, while color removers require hot water. See What chemicals can be used to remove dye?.
If your goal in dyeing is to cover stains or bleach spots, then you have an entirely different problem. See the page, How can I fix the bleach spots on my favorite clothing?.
Last updated: January 6, 2012
Page created: January 6, 2012
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