how to dye a black t-shirt to give it a more vintage distressed look

Name: Melissa
Message: Hi
I did try doing a search before I emailed you so I hope the question isn't already answered ...
I was wanting to dye a black t-shirt to give it a more vintage distressed look, I'd heard about rock salt, or an antiquing method using RIT dyes but can't find any info about either of these two methods.


Jacquard Dye-Na-Flow Fabric Colors

Jacquard Dye-Na-Flow Fabric Colors

Dye-Na-Flow is a free-flowing textile paint made to simulate dye. Perfect for silk painting, airbrushing, tie-dying or simplified batik techniques, or apply with brush or sponge. Great on any untreated natural or synthetic fiber. Requires heat setting with iron or clothes dryer.

Procion MX Fiber Reactive Cold Water Dye

Procion MX Fiber Reactive Cold Water Dye

When mixed with soda ash, Procion dyes are permanent, colorfast, and very washable. You can easily create a palette of brilliant colors ranging from light pastels to deep, vibrant hues.

50,000 discount craft supplies

Rit Dye Powder 1 1/8 oz Black

Rit Dye Powder Black

Rit all-purpose dye
will fade much faster
than Procion dye

all-purpose dye

will fade much faster than Procion dye

One very popular way to give a newly dyed shirt an aged look is to avoid the use of true dye altogether, and use something called pigment dye, instead. In spite of its name, pigment dye does not contain any dyes. What it is is a fabric paint that can be used like a dye. 

The pigments in fabric paint do not penetrate the fiber like the molecules of dissolved dye do. Instead, they coat the outside of the fiber. It's been described as the difference between a beet and a radish: a beet is red all the way through, whereas a radish is red on the outside, but white on the inside. This means that the colors in pigment dye are highly susceptible to wear, so they look aged very quickly. It's also difficult to get a perfectly even smooth solid color when coloring whole garments with pigment dyes, which adds to this effect.

There are different sources for pigment dyes. You can use any good high-quality fabric paint that flows like dye, such as Jacquard's Dye-Na-Flow, diluting with the maximum amount of water recommended by the manufacturer. You can use Dharma Pigment Dyes, purchased from Dharma Trading Company in the US. Or, you can use PRO Chemical & Dye's PROfab Pigment Color Concentrates; see their instructions. In Australia, you can mail-order pigment dye concentrates similar to ProChem's from Batik Oetoro. The pigment concentrates would be better for pigment dyeing a number of shirts at once; the Dye-Na-Flow fabric paint or Dharma Pigment Dyes would be better for immersion-coloring a single shirt, or for tie-"dyeing" with pigment dyes (a great solution for the problem of how to tie-dye polyester, by the way). You can mail-order Dye-Na-Flow fabric paint in Australia from The Thread Studio.

In addition to pigment "dyes", there are other possibilities as well. A pretty cool-looking result can be obtained by using a Procion MX black dye LWI with Procion black MX-CWNA in the dyeing technique known as "low water immersion". This is the easiest form of dyeing possible. It is much less trouble than tie-dyeing or than dyeing a perfectly smooth solid color. Since all black Procion MX dyes are mixtures of several dye colors, the different colors separate out on the fabric. Look at the top picture on this forum posting, "Black Dyes: mixtures and single-color blacks", to see what it looks like when you use a black Procion MX dye mixture to do low water immersion dyeing on a white shirt. I highly recommend this process, if you like the look in the picture. You can probably obtain a similar result by using Tintex Cool Water Dyes, which are available in Australia, but avoid Tintex Hot Water Dyes and their North American equivalent, Tintex Easy Fabric Dye, which are all-purpose dyes.

I hate to recommend the use of Rit or Tintex all-purpose dye on cotton because of the way it bleeds every single time you wash it. You're supposed to hand-wash any garment you have dyed with Rit dye, separately, using cool water. That is too much trouble for me: I like to throw everything in the washer together, and it works fine for me, simply because I use better dyes. Any clothing dyes with all-purpose dye will ruin other clothing you wash it with, if you are not careful about sorting clothes before washing them, a chore that is entirely unnecessary if you use more washfast dyes, such as Procion MX dyes. Also, I have seen many complaints about getting colors that are not dark enough when dyeing with all-purpose dye. Many people find it disappointing to buy all-purpose dye in black, and then have their clothing turn out not to be black at all after dyeing, but instead an off-gray. As a general rule, it's a good idea to use two to four times as much dye, per shirt, if you are using black dye, as you would for any other color. The fact that all-purpose dye fades quickly might work to your advantage if what you want is an old-looking shirt. However, to my mind, it's not worth the laundry trouble. You can fix Rit dye by after-treating the dyed garments with a mail-order commercial dye fixative, known as Retayne; see "Commercial Dye Fixatives".

A very interesting approach is to begin with a new black t-shirt and discharge-dye it, using diluted bleach. The use of bleach on dark-colored dyes tends to produce oddly antique, ghostly, faded results. Not all black clothing will lose color when treated with bleach; some will stay black no matter what you treat it with. You can dye your own shirts, or (in the US) you can buy black t-shirts from Dharma Trading Company which are guaranteed to react to bleach. I have had good luck in bleaching Hanes and Fruit-of-the-Loom brand black shirts. Be careful when working with chlorine bleach, because it is far more hazardous than any of the dyes we use:  be sure to have excellent ventilation so that you do not breathe the fumes (at least have a strong fan in a nearby window, blowing air OUT the window, or,  preferably, wear a good respirator with acid-gas cartridges), and wear good strong gloves, not the very thin disposable gloves that oven spring a leak.

I have read about washing denim with rock salt to distress the fabric, by adding three cups of rock salt to a small load of wash. I do not recommend this, because if the rock salt stays undissolved long enough to abrade your fabric like little pebbles, it is also going to be damaging the lining of your washing machine; if the rock salt dissolves too quickly to damage the washer, then it is not going to be effective in distressing your fabric. If you want to physically damage your fabric slightly, to give it a truly aged look, then I recommend you do so by using sandpaper to rub the garment directly by hand, without risking major damage to your washing machine. I dye clothing in my washing machine all the time without damaging the machine, but physical abrasives are sure to be much more damaging than dye.

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Posted: Monday - May 12, 2008 at 10:49 AM          

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