DIY, craft, materials, and such / Dyeing

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This article/section is a stub — some half-sorted notes, not necessarily checked, not necessarily correct. Feel free to ignore, or tell me about it.

Practical hints

This article/section is a stub — some half-sorted notes, not necessarily checked, not necessarily correct. Feel free to ignore, or tell me about it.

  • tl;dr for common fabrics:
Most everyday fabrics are protein fibers or cellulose fibers. (See also DIY, craft, materials, and such / Fabrics - materials for more on the actual fabrics)
for animal / protein fibers - such as wool, silk: acid dye, or fiber reactive dye
for cellulose fibers - such as cotton, linen, hemp: direct dye (less washfast), or fiber-reactive dyes (more vivid).
all-purpose dye contains both direct dye and acid dye, meaning it will work on protein and cellulose fiber. This is convenient, but the color take is less predictable, and it's a little wasteful because half the dye does nothing.

  • it generally helps to wash before dyeing.
check the instructions, though
some detergents and fabric softeners can interfere with some dyes
yet in a some cases, detergents can help set a color - when you add them during dyeing
  • avoid bunching - tight fabric will basically do, well, tie-dye-like things
e.g. twined rope will accept dye mostly on its surface, and not between the twined strands where they press together tightly
  • If your fabric went in dry, then you may need to do a bunch more work to make sure it's wet everywhere by the time dye wants to react with it
  • To get even coloring, you often need a bunch of movement
This (and the previous two) is why the dye-in-the-washing-machine trick might work better than occasionally poking things with a spoon.
top loaders can be a little easier to work with, mostly because of their water level
  • If you add powder to immersion vat directly, you might get some spotting because it was highly concentrated before you stirred
consider mixing it before adding the fabric, or mixing it in a smaller bowl before mixing it into your immersion vat
...but consider what activates the dye's reaction. If it does that e.g. heat, then you want to work quickly to not waste dye or have less predictable results, by having it react before reaching fabric

Stuff you add



Helps penetrate, mostly for cotton(verify), by lessening electrostatic repulsion(verify) between the fiber and the dye.

Also useful when the water where you live is unusually hard.

For direct dyes it seems to be part of the process.

For fiber reactive dyes it's not really necessary.

It also reduces the solubility of certain dyes (which ones?), which can be nice for specific effects, or counterproductive.

You may wish to add it some time later, to avoid making the initial high concentration less useful, but also ensure that the dye that is left after a while goes a long way.

Bases, e.g. soda ash

Cellulose fibers dye much better at high pH (on the alkaline/basic end) (around 10 or 11, varies with specific fiber) - it's more or less required for the dye to enter well.

(In contrast, many protein fibers will be damaged by high pH)

As such, fiber reactive dyes often suggest use of e.g. sodium carbonate (a.k.a. soda ash, washing soda, sal soda). There are many other choices, but this is one of the easier-to-work-with ones.

Keep in mind that the crystaline decahydrate (basically: when it looks like crystals rather than powder) has less active soda per weight because the rest is water, so you will need more mass/volume of it for the same amount of active ingredient.

Baking soda is chemically close to soda ash, but less strong pH-wise. You could use it, but soda ash is often easy to find and cheaper (and avoids trying to adjust for the difference in reactive strength per amount of ingredient)

Acids, e.g. vinegar

Protein fibers are often dyed at low pH, on the acidic end

in part for penetration(verify).

(In contrast, acids have little effect on cellulose fiber dyeing)

Some common choices are vinegar (acetic acid), citric acid, sometimes cream of tartar (potassium bitartrate).

Fixers and mordants

This article/section is a stub — some half-sorted notes, not necessarily checked, not necessarily correct. Feel free to ignore, or tell me about it.

Color changers, dye modifiers


Helps dissolve more dye in a given volume.

This can be handy when the vat is fairly small for the amount of fabric, or for deeper colors when reaction time is a factor (as in, anything that might be half done reacting before it even got close to fabric).

Also a humectant, which means it helps keep fabric wet.

Both these properties are useful in non-immersion techniques, e.g. solar dyeing, tie dyeing.

Leveling agent

Notes on health and environment

Technical notes

Protein fiber fabrics

Protein fibers are almost anything animal and/or hair-related: wool (sheep, alpaca, angora, mohair, cashmere, etc.), silk (which unlike most protein fibers is not hair), camel hair, and more.

In general, use either:

All-purpose dyes (like Rit or Dylon) because they contain acid dye.


  • There is variation in how well a dye takes between specific protein fibers
(protein fibers are complex and therefore varied on on the molecular level, more so than than e.g. cellulose).
  • Some protein fibers don't like higher temperatures, and can felt
felting needs a combination of soap, movement, and temperature - so you can avoid it by being careful, or using relatively cold water
fiber reactive dyes canbe easier, often wanting to work at 30 or 40 Celcius
  • protein fibers tend not to like stronger acids or bases
...though silk is more resistant, meaning you can use the cotton recipe as-is, though it will soften the silk and remove some of its lustre
acid dye recipes (e.g. that for cotton) should generally be used with diluted acids
fiber reactive recipes typically use soda ash, a base. There are some conbinations you want to avoid(verify)

Cellulose fiber fabrics

Cotton, linen, hemp and jute, bamboo, sisal, and most any plant-based fiber are cellulose fibers (sugar polymers, roughly speaking).

There are also some reprocessed/semi-synthetic variants, such as rayon (incl. viscose, modal, and lyocell), ramie.

Generally (there are footnotes for specific fabrics), you can use

  • Direct dyes also work, but are less washfast (fixing it may help, how much will vary)
All-purpose dyes (like Rit or Dylon) because they contain direct dye.

Won't work:

  • acid dyes
  • disperse dyes


  • for mixed fabrics, consider that your dye might only take on one. Check what you have.
Cotton fabrics are often not purely cotton, and the other component may well be synthetic and not dye (nylon will take acid dye, though)
Often the fibers are small, so the result just comes out a little lighter.
  • There are footnotes for the semi-synthetics in that list.
Rayon acetate is derived from rayon, but will not dye - you need disperse dyes for that
  • Rayon and variants are less strong when wet, be careful to avoid damage.
bamboo fabric and yarn may actually be rayon


The two common go-tos, acid dye and fiber reactive dye, won't work.


...neither of which are easy to work with. Also, strong colors are hard to get.

If this is about yarn, you may want to opt for natural fibers instead. Yes it's more expensive, but they dye much better (and can look and feel nicer).





Based on cellulose, and can be treated as such, though seems a little harder to get a predictable outcome with(verify).

Soybean fibers

A protein fiber, can be treated as such.


Nylon is a polyamide.

While synthetic, it takes various acid dyes (most other synthetics won't).

You can use

  • acid dyes (most, not all variants(verify))
...and fiber-reactive in an acid-dye way
  • disperse dyes
  • many natural dyes - the ones that are actually acid dyes.


  • There are some treatments of nylon that mean dyes won't take well.
  • the dyes require heat, so check the garment label to see it's okay

Dye types

Fiber reactive dye

Made for cellulose fibers (cotton, rayon, silk, linen, hemp, etc.), where they are probably the brightest dyes

Longer lasting than some other dyes, because it reacts with your material.

Can also work on protein fibers when you use them as acid dyes (in practice weakly acidic) - a few more instructions, but works fine. There are a specific dyes that work well with wool.

Acid dye

Generally only works on protein fibers (such as wool), not on cellulose (such as cotton).

Food dye

Most protein fibers - Wool, silk, also some nylon. Strength of color varies with material.

Not washfast - wash in cold water, preferably hand-wash

Acid leveling dye

a.k.a. leveling acid dye, equalizing dye, strong acid dye

Strong color, but not

Wash Fast, Jacquard (brand)

Two product lines from ProChem (with some product overlap even).

Lanaset, Sabraset (brand)

Basically a specific (US) brand of what mostly seems to be acid dyes, some specifically metal complex acid dyes, and some fiber reactive dyes.

They are generally known for keeping colors quite decently over time, and with better resistance to warmer washing.

One Shot dyes (brand)

Also sold as Country Classic. (Also from ProChem)

Natural dyes

Typically some sort of acid dye

"all purpose" dyes

Contain multiple dyes.

For example, Rit and Dylon's typical multipurpose dyes are direct dye and leveling acid dye (e.g. covering cotton, wool, nylon).

Because half of this won't be used, these are more expensive than necessary, though convenient.

Direct dye

A.k.a. Substantive dye.

Primarily for cellulose fibers, though some protein fibers pick up direct dye as well(verify).

Not washfast - expect these clothes to give off dye for a long time. This can be alleviated, but typically not entirely, by after-treatment.

Uses warm baths, think 80-90°C.

So yes, you can effectively acid-dye in the same bath at the same time, and one reason all-purpose dyes are typically direct dye + acid dye.


  • When you want to dye cellulose fabrics, direct dye is cheaper than all-purpose dye (because you'ld be not be using its acid dye).

Disperse dye

Meant for acrylic, polyester, and such.

Basic dye

Basic as in the opposite of acidic.

They stain almost everything, which you could call a feature - until it's everywhere :)

They are not the healthiest of dyes to work with so take more care.

Basic dyes on natural fibers are not very lightfast, though on acrylic they work well.

Vat dye

Vat dyeing can refer to doing so in a large container, so can refer to use of any dye.

Vat dye usually more specifically refers to a specific cellulose dye method. They require a reducing agent (typically caustic soda, sodium hydroxide) before the dye is soluble and usable, so is less convenient when e.g. reactive dye applies.

Naphthol dye

Works well on celluose fibers, and also on silk.

Somewhat nastier than fiber reactive, so not used in home dyeing very often.

Sulfur dye

Very common on cotton, but a little nastier to work with than most mentioned above, so not available for DIY use.

Azoic dye

Oxidation dye

Mordant dye, chrome dye

Dyes that need a mordant for a decent take.

Most natural dyes (think 'extract of this or that plant') are mordant dyes, because they are not washfast without.

Solvent dyes

Optical / Fluorescent Brightener

Fabric paints

Note that most of the above is about fabric dyes - which combine chemically with the fabric at a molecular level.

You can see fabric paints as pigment held on top by a binder (think glue), similar to how you paint walls and wood and such.

Paints will work on all fabrics, but not look as integrated, almost always be stiffer, and wear faster.

Candle dyes