Polyester requires the use of disperse dyes. Other types of
dyes leave the color of polyester almost entirely unchanged. While novices happily charge
into dyeing with acid dyes (for wool or nylon) and fiber
reactive dyes (for cotton and rayon), often with excellent
results, the immersion dyeing of polyester is a
However, disperse dye can be used by even
young children to make designs on paper, which can then be
transferred to polyester fabric, or other synthetics, with a
hot iron. The possibilities
are endless, using fabric crayons, rubber stamps, painting,
and even screen printing.
How can I dye a polyester dress?
Commonly, people who have never dyed anything before will e-mail me
asking how they can dye dresses for their weddings, or their
daughters' weddings. Attempting to do this would almost
always be a grave
error. Immersion dyeing with polyester is not a job for
beginners; it is both more difficult and more dangerous than
immersion dyeing cotton or wool. Furthermore, most such
pre-made dresses are marked "dry clean only", and you simply
cannot dye a garment that is not washable.
Is there someone who will dye my
polyester formal for me?
No. It is exceedingly rare to find a service that will custom
dye a single garment for you, and nobody anywhere will take
the risk of ruining a dry-clean-only garment by dyeing
it. If you want a dress in a certain color, buy fabric in
that color, or dye yardage of an easily dyeable material
such as cotton or silk, and hire a local seamstress to
sew it for you.
If you have a washable garment, you may be able to
find someone who does custom dyeing on my Listing of Custom Dyers page. Do not post your need there; instead, check for someone advertising services there. Most dyers are willing to dye natural fibers only and refuse to consider dyeing polyester garments.
Immersion dyeing polyester
The difficulty with polyester dyeing is that it requires a
lot of heat to get the dye into the fiber. Boiling
water is not hot enough to do the job by itself, so a
noxious-smelling carrier chemical must be added, for immersion
dyeing, unless newer low-energy disperse dyes are used. Polyester dye actually transfers to the fibers best
at very high temperatures, the temperature of a hot iron, or
higher. Before you decide to try immersion dyeing polyester,
study the directions at ProChem (see below, under "Specific
Instructions") to get an idea of how difficult it may be.
Novel forms of disperse dyes
However, even if you should not attempt to dye your own
formal dress, there are many fun projects that are highly
suitable to even the least experienced fabric artist.
Crayola, the maker of wax crayons for paper, also makes
fabric crayons for use on polyester and other synthetics.
These crayons consist of disperse dye, and can be found in
most fabric or crafts stores, even in discount department
stores such as Target or WalMart. You do not draw
directly on the fabric; instead, you draw on paper - or have
your children draw on paper! - and then iron the resulting
pictures onto the fabric. (Be sure that any writing is
backwards on the paper, since it will come out reversed on
the fabric.) The crayons are not particularly bright on
paper, but become vivid when heat-transferred to the fabric. For an example, see my page Iron-on Fabric Crayons for Synthetic Fibers.
Note that, like most dye, disperse dye is transparent. This
means that you should transfer it only onto white or pale
colors of fabric, so that you can see the results.
Stamp Pad Ink
Disperse dye can be applied to paper with rubber stamps, and
then ironed on to polyester, just like the crayons.
You can use special, large-scale fabric stamps to apply
other dyes to fabric, but only disperse dyes allow such fine
lines that almost any rubber stamp designed for use on paper
will work, if your fabric is smooth enough. Look for a
product called "Heat Set
Ink" at companies that sell rubber stamping supplies. Caroline Dahl's
wonderful book Transforming Fabric gives source
information for this material, in addition to many project
ideas and beautiful inspiring photographs of works made with
disperse dye on polyester.
Iron-on paintings - watercolor painting, hand painting, screen printing
The powdered disperse dye can be mixed into paint to apply
directly in any of several techniques.
Just as with the Crayola fabric crayons, you can use
disperse dye to paint on paper, then iron it on to your
fabric. Mix the dye with enough boiling water to dissolve
it, then dilute with cool water to the desired strength -
trial and error must be your guide here, keeping in mind
that you cannot know how intense the final color will be
until you actually iron it on, as it is much more beautiful
on the cloth than on the paper. See the Batik Oetoro
web site and Prochem's
instructions for transfer printing (via the links below)
for detailed directions.
If, like most irons, yours has holes in its face plate, you
must be sure to move the iron around constantly during the
transfer process, to prevent holes from appearing in your
design, and yet you must not allow the paper transfer to move on the fabric,
or the image will be blurred. A heat transfer press, such as are used in t-shirt
shops, would be more desirable, as it not only lacks holes,
but, more importantly, reaches a higher temperature. However,
at around a thousand dollars, this is far more of an investment than most individuals
are prepared to make. For a more modest sum, consider the Dry Iron, without steam holes, at the Vermont Country Store's website.
Resisting dye transfer
Here's a very simple project that can be done with disperse dye - simple in concept, that is, but very complex
and beautiful in its details. As pictured in Kate Wells' Fabric Dyeing & Printing, artist Sarah Batho applied disperse dye paint
to paper (you could equally well color it heavily with Crayola fabric
crayons), scattered real bird
feathers across her polyester fabric, then ironed the dye
right over the feathers. The feathers prevented the dye from
reaching the fabric, leaving a lovely delicate design of
white feathers on an intense blue background.
A consistently inspiring fabric artist and author, Carolyn Dahl, wrote a book called
Impressions: Taking an Artistic Path Through Nature
with many inspirations as to the use of natural materials in
applying designs to cloth; while it does not mention
disperse dyes on polyester in this book, as far as I recall,
some of the leaf projects, in particular, might be perfect
for a similar technique. (I love Dahl's books, and
recommend them highly.)
Traditional single-color tie-dye can be done by tying the
dry garment, then dropping it into a hot immersion bath. See
the links for directions for immersion dyeing, below. You
can get interesting results by tying and dyeing once,
washing out, and retying in a different pattern before
dropping in another boiling dye bath of a different color. For example,
a first dyeing of turquoise followed by another dyeing with
fuschia will produce a purple garment with patterns of
turquoise and fuschia where the ties prevented full
penetration of one of the dyes. Interesting shiborit-like textures result from boiling tied polyester.
Direct Application Tie-Dyeing
ProChem's instructions for direct application on
polyester (see link under "Specific Instructions", below) can be used for a more
challenging approach that will give results similar to the
currently popular cotton tie-dye techniques. After applying
a paint that contains special thickener paste, citric acid,
dye carrier, and disperse dye, steam or pressure steam for
30 to 60 minutes to set the dye in the fabric.
Sources for Disperse Dye
As dyeing polyester is far less popular among artists and
than the dyeing of cotton or wool, there are fewer providers
of disperse dyes for home or studio use. Among them are, in
the US, PRO
Chemical and Dye (PROchem), and Aljo Dyes, Batik Oetoro and
KraftKolour in Australia, and Kemtex and Rainbow Silks in
the UK. Dye suppliers that sell Jacquard Products may carry their brand of disperse dye, iDye Poly. Some suppliers label their disperse dyes as "transfer dyes". For contact information, see Sources for
Specific Instructions Online
excellent technical support for their products, including
directions for dyeing synthetic fibers with their PROsperse
line of disperse dyes:
Jacquard Products gives one page of instructions for using both their iDye and iDye Poly dyes; the dyes are described as "easy to use washing machine dyes", but the detailed instructions clarify that stovetop heating is required for iDye Poly. (Just plain "iDye" dyes, as distinct from "iDye Poly", are direct dyes, which do not work on polyester, only on cellulose fibers and silk.)
(If any of these links ever break, just go directly to the
company's web site and look around.)
Common and Generic Names for Disperse Dyes
Colour Index Names for PROSperse Disperse Dyes
Colour Index Name
Disperse Yellow 218
Disperse Orange 25
Disperse Violet 33
Disperse Red 325
Disperse Red 60
Disperse Blue 26
Disperse Blue C-4RA (manufacturer's mix?)
Disperse Blue 56
Disperse Navy 35
Disperse Black C-MDA (manufacturer's mix?)
In House Mix
In House Mix
In House Mix
In House Mix
In House Mix
Other names for synthetic fibers
Polyester fibers are sold under various names, including the following:
Crimplene, Dacron, Enkalen, Lavsan, Mylar, Tergal, Terlenka,
Terylene, Trevira, Polarfleece, and Polartec. Polyester is,
chemically, a fiber made of poly(ethylene terephthalate),
and can be made from recycled plastic bottles. Plastics marked with the
recycle logo containing a number 2 are HDPE (high density polyethylene), plastics marked with the
recycle logo containing a number 4 are LDPE (low density
polyethylene), and plastics marked with the
recycle logo containing a number 1 are PETE (polyethylene
terephthalate - e.g., Dacron, Fortrel, Mylar).
A new polyester, called Corterra®, was developed in the 1990s
by Shell and licensed by KoSa; it is composed of polytrimethylene terephthalate, and is dyed with disperse dyes like other polyesters.
Nylon, chemically a form of polyamide,
is sold as Antron. The form described as Nylon 6,6 is
stretch nylon, sold as Ban-Lon and BriNylon. Nylon 6
(polycaprolactam) is sold under the names Akulon, Amilen,
Carpolan, Enkalon, Grillon, and Perlon. Nylon 11 is sold
under the name of Rislan. (See How to Dye Nylon.)
Polypropylene should not be dyed at
home or in the studio. It is popular for hiking socks and
long undergarments. Names under which it is sold include
Meraklon, Monolene, Polyfilene, Prolene, and Ulstron. Products marked with the
recycle logo containing a number 5 are polypropylene.
Polyvinyl chloride. Products marked with the
recycle logo containing a number 3 are PVC.
Acrylic is sold under names such as
Orlon, Courtelle, Dralon, Leacryl, and Nitron. It is
composed of poly(propenonitrile)(polyacrylonitrile) with
small amounts of a comonomer. Acrylic can be dyed to pale or
medium shades with disperse dye.
Modacrylic is sold under names such
as BHS, Creslon, PAN, and Teklan, and also, according to
Ingamells, as Lycra (which must have been a
misprint). Modacrylic fibers are between 35% and
85% acrylonitrile, and are made from resins that are
copolymers (combinations) of acrylonitrile and other
materials such as vinyl chloride, vinylidene chloride or
vinyl bromide. Modacrylic can probably be dyed just like
Lycra, a spandex fiber produced by Dupont, is elastic spun polyurethane, a plastic which
is also used to construct upholstery foams. It must not be
subjected to high heat, and is thus not appropriate for use
with disperse dye. Most lycra garments contain a high
percentage of cotton, which can be dyed with cool water
fiber-reactive dye; often, the undyed lycra does not even
show on the outside of the garment.
Ingeo® is a "natural" polylactate fiber derived from corn. It can be dyed only with disperse dyes, like polyester, but it shows lower washfastness with these dyes than does polyester.
While the immersion dyeing with disperse dyes is difficult
and somewhat dangerous, due to the temperatures required and
the carrier chemicals, the disperse dye itself is considered
non-toxic. Even children can engage in these crafts, if an
adult is available to do the ironing step for them.
All powdered dyes are dangerous to breathe, like most
powdered substances. Even many foods can be quite damaging
when inhaled in powdered form. Avoid breathing dye
powder. Wear a dust mask while measuring any dye powder, and
wipe up spilled dye, of any dye class, as it may turn back into powder when it
Another safety issue is allergenicity. It seems that
disperse dyes on fabric are more likely to cause allergies than other
textiles dyes. Fiber reactive dyes are known for their
ability to cause serious allergies to those who carelessly
breathe the dye powder while measuring it out, but, once
they are chemically bonded to the fiber and excess dye has been fully washed
out, they are suitable for even the chemically
sensitive. Disperse dye, in contrast, may cause allergic
reactions in susceptible people, just by their wearing clothing
dyed with it. This may be due to some dye molecules rubbing
off of the fiber. This problem, though not at all common,
may be seen with commercially dyed fabric as well as
home-dyed fabric, and may be partially responsible for the
preference for natural fiber clothing among the chemically
J Am Acad Dermatol. 1995 Apr;32(4):631-9.)
Since no disperse dyes (and few other textile dyes) have been shown by safety testing to be harmless when consumed by humans or animals, the cooking pot used to boil the dye with the fiber should not be reused for food preparation.
Kate Wells' Fabric Dyeing and Printing, from Interweave Press, 1997, shows photographs of the process of transfer printing on polyester with disperse dyes. Illustrations and instructions include simple transfer printing, printing with leaves that have been coated with disperse dye, simple resists of disperse dye transfer, and pressure steaming after direct application.
Ann Milner's Ashford Book of Dyeing, from Shoal Bay Press, 1998, includes a three-page chapter with detailed clear recipes for using disperse dyes in a dye bath, by direct application, and by heat transfer.
Holly Brackmann's The Surface Designer's Handbook: Dyeing, Printing, Painting, and Creating Resists on Fabric, from Interweave Press, 2006, is the best book I've seen on disperse dyes for hand dyers, with an eight-page chapter on them. She includes separate recipes for disperse immersion dyeing of nylon, acetate and acrylic; disperse immersion dyeing of polyester; direct application of disperse dyes on nylon, rayon acetate, and polyester; and transfer printing, plus a number of variations for transfer printing, including combining transfer printing and permanently pleating polyester in a single step.
A.K.R. Choudhury's far more technical Textile Preparation And Dyeing includes far more information on different properties of disperse dyes on different textiles, and of the many problems involved in their preparation and use, from the perspective of the textile industry.