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All Purpose Dyes
All-purpose dye is a hot water dye. It contains a mixture of dyes which will work on many different kinds of fabric and yarn, but not particularly well on any of them. It is often used in situations when another kind of dye would perform better, largely because many people are unaware that there are higher quality dyes that they could use.
What is All Purpose Dye?
"All purpose" dye is a mixture of Acid dye, of the leveling acid type, for dyeing wool
and other animal (protein) fibers, as well as nylon, and
Direct dye, for dyeing cellulose fibers such as cotton,
rayon, linen, etc. In some cases it may contain an acid dye that also happens to work pretty well as a direct dye. All-purpose dye cannot be used to dye polyester or acrylic, and it cannot be used in cold water.
Note that company that produces Rit dye changed the formulas for their all-purpose dyes in 2010. This page has not yet been updated to reflect those changes. The new formulas will not work on acetate, although the old formulas did.
Great for Dyeing Fiber Blends
All purpose dye is most useful when coloring a blend of
protein fiber (or nylon) with a cellulose fiber such as
cotton or rayon. Both fibers can be dyed approximately the
same color, at the same time. Some examples of such blends
include linsey-woolsey, Nycott (unless treated with Teflon,
which makes it undyeable),
and any cotton or rayon garment with nylon lace trim. Both of the kinds of dye in all-purpose dye tend to bleed and fade in the laundry, but a commercial dye fixative can be used to improve performance.
Wasteful for Single Fibers
However, when dyeing a pure
fiber of any sort, or a mixture of a pure fiber with
undyeable synthetics such as polyester or acrylic (which require
entirely different dyes), this mixture of dyes represents a
waste of dye and money. If you are dyeing pure cotton, the
acid dye brightens the dyed item up only until it is washed for
the first time, whereupon all of the acid dye disappears
into the sewage system. Conversely, if you are dyeing wool
or nylon alone, the direct dye is wasted, and ends up down
the drain. Why waste money on dye that won't even attach to your fiber?
It makes more sense to buy pure direct dye (or, even better, fiber reactive
dye), if you're dyeing cotton, and to buy pure acid dye if
you are dyeing wool or nylon.
In addition, the formulas for all-purpose dye generally contain a lot of salt. Salt is cheap, but it makes the package appear to contain more dye than it really does. Salt is useful in dyeing solid colors, but causes problems for specialized dyeing techniques in which the dye is painted on the material.
If you buy a pure acid dye by mail-order, or pure direct dye, or a fiber reactive dye, you will usually end up spending a lot less money in the long run. Only in the case of dyeing only one garment, or when you are in a great hurry and quality doesn't count, or when you are dyeing a mixed-fiber garment, does it make sense to buy all-purpose dye.
All-purpose dye is sold under a number of brand names, including
Rit® brand dye, Dylon® Multi-purpose dye (Dylon® also sells
fiber reactive dyes, in their Cold Water and Washing Machine
lines of dye), DEKA L® Hot Water Dyes, and Tintex® Fabric Dyes. The old Cushing®
Union dye was also an all-purpose dye, but they have since
switched to selling their acid dye and direct dye
separately, a move which I heartily applaud.
The single most popular dye sold for home use in the US is
Rit® brand all-purpose dye. The reason for its
popularity is its ubiquity: nearly every grocery store and
pharmacy in the US sells an assortment of Rit® brand dye on
a rack. Many people do not even know that another type of
dye exists. Other dyes may be found, with difficulty,
in some crafts
stores, or ordered by mail. (See Sources for Dyeing
Supplies.) The situation is different in
Canada and the UK, where Dylon® Cold Water Dye is nearly as
easy to find.
Use the Correct Recipe!
I have received many, many sad e-mails from people who
tie-dyed shirts with Rit® brand all-purpose dye, only to see
the dye rinse out the first time they washed it. The reason
for their failures is that they used the wrong recipe! If
you apply all-purpose dye cold, with squirt bottles, you
will not be dyeing your fabric, merely staining it. This is
not the fault of the dye, but of the use of the wrong technique.
cotton with all-purpose dye, you must use heat, and plenty of
time. Submerging the garment to be dyed in Rit® brand
dye and simmering hot water will produce pastels
after five minutes, or deeper, more intense shades after
half an hour. The ideal temperature is far hotter than tap water can reach, at least 190°F (or 87°C). (See How can I tie-dye with
Note that vinegar is neither necessary nor
helpful for dyeing cotton with all-purpose dye, but should be used
when dyeing nylon or dyeing animal fibers such as wool. The
manufacturers of Tintex® High Temp all-purpose dye recommend the
use of 100 ml (2/5 cup) of white vinegar per 4 liters of water
when dyeing wool, silk, or nylon.
Do NOT bother to add soda ash when dyeing with all-purpose dye. Soda ash is used only when dyeing with fiber reactive dye. It will not act as a dye fixative for all-purpose dye.
Use enough Dye
Each packet of all-purpose dye contains only enough dye for 4 to 8 ounces of material (100 to 200 grams). Black requires two to four times as much dye as other colors. Weigh the garment you are dyeing, and be sure to use enough packets of dye! Smaller amounts of dye will result in paler colors. Trying to dye black with only one packet of dye usually results in gray, not black.
Beware of Bad Advice
Some employees of a Michael's® Craft Store actually advised
one of my correspondants to make this wretched mistake. It
won't matter, they said; just put the Rit® brand dye into
squirt bottles, just like Procion MX type fiber reactive
dye. How could they give such totally wrong advice?!
I have also seen web pages giving the same misinformation,
which is sure to doom any projects made while following it.
Dissolving all-purpose dye in boiling water does nothing to make it stick to the fiber, if you let the dye cool before applying it. As an alternative, you may apply a concentrated mixture of water with Rit dye at room temperature, wrap up your fabric, yarn, or fiber in plastic wrap while it is still very wet with dye, and then steam it for at least half an hour, in much the same way that you would steam vegetables. The heat of an extended period of steaming will help the dye to attach to the fiber. Dry heat will not work; moisture must be present. Experiment to see how well this works on your materials.
Use an After-Treatment to Prevent Bleeding
If you dye cotton with all purpose dyes, the only portion of
the dye that actually does anything is the direct
dye. Direct dye tends to be poor at surviving washing; it
tends to wash out gradually, bleeding on other fabrics. The
solution to this problem, which is widely employed by the
textile industry, is to apply a cationic dye fixative afterwards which
seals the dye into the fiber. You can do this at home by
acquiring a product such as Retayne®, Raycafix® (from G&S Dye), Dyefix® (from Batik Oetoro), Dye Fixative (from Dharma), or
Pro-fix PCD® after-treatment (from Aljo). These products are
sometimes available at your local quilting supply store, but
usually must be purchased by mail; see Sources for Dyeing
Supplies. Retayne is a cationic bulking agent which
essentially glues the dye into the fiber,
making the washfastness of even direct dyes quite
acceptable. The company that makes Rit dye has recently introduced their own brand of dye fixative simialr to Retayne, which they call Rit Dye Fixative. I have not yet seen it in stores, but it is available by mail-order.
Do not use vinegar to try to make all-purpose dye
more permanant. This much-repeated advice simply does not
work, on cotton.
Advantages of the Direct Dye in
initial washing out
All dyeing must be followed by the removal of unattached
dye. Fiber reactive dyes often take repeated washings to
complete this step; the extremely popular Procion MX type
series is the worst, in this regard, requiring a minimum of
one cold wash cycle followed by two hot wash cycles. While all-purpose dye
has a similar problem in that the unused type of dye must be
washed out, the direct dye itself requires less washing out,
from cellulose fiber, than Procion MX type dye. This is
usually a serious issue only for large industrial dyers, but
can become more significant, even for individuals, during
severe water shortages.
An advantage of certain direct dye colors is that they may
be more lightfast than specific dye colors in another dye
class. This is far from universal, however, as most Direct
dye colors are no more lightfast than the other dyes we use.
Disadvantages of the Direct Dye in
Even with the use of a dye fixative such as Retayne, items
dyed with all-purpose or direct
dye should never be washed carelessly in hot water, as fiber
reactive dyes can be. A t-shirt dyed with Procion MX type
dye can be safely washed in hot water with a load of white
clothing, once it's had the initial few washings to remove
every trace of excess dye. If you make a habit of always
using only fiber reactive dyes, you need never sort your
laundry for color again! With direct dyes, you must sort
carefully according to color, and wash only in cold water.
Another disadvantage to direct dye such as that found in
all-purpose dye is that many of the colors are quite dull. Compare
the colors in the pictures of tie-dyes on the well-designed
and informative Rit® Dyes web site
to those in my gallery, say, and you will notice a marked
difference in the degree of brightness of the colors. Note
that you can always mix opposite colors of a bright type of
dye together to make duller colors, but you cannot mix
bright colors from dull ones. However, there are a few
direct dyes that are reasonably bright; see, for example,
Some people imagine that all purpose dye is safer than fiber
reactive dye, simply because it is so readily
available. There is no basis for this belief,
however. Deborah Dryden, in her book Fabric Painting and
Dyeing for the Theatre, revealed that all-purpose dyes
have, in the past, contained a specific direct dye that was
known to be carcinogenic; since the makers of all-purpose
dye do not disclose their ingredients, however, there is no
way to tell whether or not this is still true.
In fact, into the 1970s, all-purpose dyes for home use are known to have contained some quite dangerous direct dyes. The most hazardous dyes include derivatives of the chemicals benzidine or o-dianisidine, including direct black 1, direct red 28, direct black 38, direct blue 6, direct green 6, direct brown 95, direct brown 2, direct blue 2, and direct black 4. (See the government document "Benzidine and Dyes Metabolized to Benzidine" [PDF].) Some employees of dye manufacturers in the past suffered from bladder cancer that was caused by exposure to benzidine and benzidine-based dyes. (Employees of dye companies are exposed to much higher levels of dyes and their chemical precursors than anyone else.)
Claims that any art material is
non-toxic are poorly regulated, and simply mean that it will
not cause acute poisoning if accidentally consumed; they do
not imply total safety. It is always important to avoid
breathing powdered dye, of any sort. Always wear gloves when using dyes. Wear safety glasses when pouring dye liquids.
Some acid dyes are much safer than others. We do not know
which are contained in all-purpose dyes, as this is a trade
secret. I believe that all-purpose dyes are safer than some
of the most dangerous acid dyes, and much safer than basic
dyes or napthol dyes, but not safer than fiber reactive dyes.
Since no all-purpose dye has been tested for safety when consumed by humans or animals, you should not expect to reuse your dyeing pot for cooking food. Use a non-aluminum pot that you will not be using for cooking. If you want to be able to use an inexpensive plastic bucket, rather than a cooking pot, use a cool water fiber reactive dye, such as Procion MX dye.
Use all-purpose dye if you want to use a single step to dye
a garment that is a mixture of a cellulose fiber, such as
cotton or rayon, with either
wool, another animal fiber, or nylon.
(DyersLIST member Doug Wilson has shown us that it is
actually possible to dye both cotton and nylon
in a mixed-fiber garment with the same fiber reactive dye, but this requires a
two-step process with two different pH levels. Wool can be dyed with fiber reactive dyes at a pH of 8 or 9, but nylon requires an acid pH.)
Otherwise, whenever possible, avoid all purpose dye, in
favor of a specific acid or direct or fiber reactive dye
that specifically matches your fiber and meets your
needs. If you want an acid dye that is washfast, use a different type of acid dye, such as Lanaset dye. If you want a cotton dye that is washfast, choose a fiber reactive dye. For dyeing large quantities of cotton cheaply, mail-order direct dye in bulk.
Carefully follow the manufacturer's instructions for any
type of dye. Do not use cold water dye recipes for hot water
dyes such as those contained in all-purpose dye. Follow the
use of direct dyes, including the use of all-purpose dye on
cotton, with an after-treatment to improve