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Can I dye a completed garment?

Beaded shawl pattern by Debbie Tomkies of DT Craft and Design - image of shawl worn open

Debbie discusses the pros and cons of dyeing completed garments

Debbie says:

‘This is a question I am regularly asked and the answer isn’t a simple yes or no so I thought I’d take the opportunity to share my thoughts’…

Dyeing finished items is possible, however, there are a number of factors to consider before you take the plunge.

Dyeing an all-over, even colour

Firstly, if you are looking for an all-over, even colour, this is quite challenging to achieve with a completed garment, particularly if there is a lot of fabric. This is because the dye needs to attach evenly and consistently over the garment so you would need a (very) large container, big enough to fit the item in with plenty of water, such that it can move around very freely in the dyebath.

However, I don’t want to put anyone off the idea of re-dyeing a garment – it’s really important that we re-use/reduce and recycle wherever possible and re-dyeing is a useful part of that process. The main thing is to understand how to get it right and what to look out for.

Hopefully my short guide below will help!

What is your garment made from?

Cotton and other plant (cellulose) fibres

Plant fibres like cotton and linen can be dyed using a cold water method so you don’t need to worry about heating if you use a procion mx or similar fibre reactive dye. 

This means that you can use just about any container as it doesn’t need to be heatproof. I have customers who use children’s paddling pools and (clean) dustbins for dyeing!

It’s also possible to use procion mx dyes in the washing machine.

Many natural dyes can also be used cold although the process can take longer.

Wool and similar animal (protein) fibres

Animal fibres like wool need to be heated to fix the dye. For this reason you will need a container that is large enough to allow your garment to float around freely but is also heatproof. Large catering pans are usually the pot of choice in this case, heated on a stove or hotplate.

Animal fibres can be dyed using acid dyes, procion mx dyes and natural dyes, including indigo and woad.

So, I have my pot, what else do I need to know?
Lines & creases

Any folds and creases in the item will create noticeable lines in the dyed piece (rather like tie-dyeing but unintentional!).

To avoid lines and creases regular stirring is required. For hot water dyeing, the process doesn’t take too long so this is generally not an issue. With cold water dyeing the process can take several hours so still doable but maybe not one to start late in the evening!

An alternative for machine washable fabrics like cotton is to dye them in the washing machine as the tumbling action helps reduce creases and folds.

My garment is stained – will the dye cover it?

In terms of the colour, dyes are transparent so the original colour will affect any dye put on top of it. For this reason it is not possible to achieve a lighter shade than the existing shade in the garment. Additionally, any stains or patterned areas will still be visible as the colour will not create an opaque surface that obscures any marks or patterns.

Threads and closures

With a finished garment you may also need to think about the threads used for stitching and any embellishments. Zippers, sewing threads etc. may all be of a different material and are often synthetic.

If they are cotton or a predominantly cotton fibre (or silk of course), then they should dye fine with the coldwater method, but any synthetics, particularly polyester sewing thread, can stick out like a sore thumb if it doesn’t take the dye. With animal fibres, sewing threads are likely to be less visible but there are likely to be colour differences with non-wool threads and embellishments.

Coloured or coated plastic zippers/fasteners are also a potential elephant trap.  

It’s also worth making sure any embellishments can be washed/heated.

Are there any other options?

If you’re not sure whether this process is for you I have a couple of other suggestions.

If your fabric is suitable, consider using the washing machine for the process. In this case you could use procion mx dye with sodium carbonate as the fixer. For even colours I would also add cheap cooking salt to the mix. The salt doesn’t fix the dye but slows the dye uptake and gives a more even result.

You could also use a simple Dylon/Rit type multi-purpose dye which has everything in the pot and you just throw the item in the machine.

Another, more fun option is to go for an intentional multi-coloured look. Create a tie-dye, batik or tonal look, embracing the creases and folds (or putting them in deliberately) to give new life to your garment.

And it’s also worth considering other ways to upcycle and refresh. Patching, darning, make a garment short-sleeved to allow you to cut off frayed cuffs – there are so many options!

You’ll find your dyes, fixers/mordants and more in the shop. We also have free downloadable instructions to get you started.

And if you’d like to learn more, we have a great range of workshops and classes, including one-to-one bespoke sessions – in person and online.

Need to know more?

I’ve covered some of the points to consider and hopefully answered some of your questions but if you need specific advice, I’m happy to help. You can email me at info@dtcrafts.co.uk

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Debbie Tomkies
Debbie Tomkies

Debbie is a textile designer, hand-dyer, author and tutor with over 25 years' experience in her field. Debbie has 4 books and over 100 articles published in major magazines and welcomes requests for articles, how-to features, technical and research articles, video tutorials and books.

Making Futures

In addiiton to being a partner in DT Craft & Design, Debbie runs social enterprise Making Futures CIC, delivering a wide range of workshops, classes, Arts Award, Artsmark and City & Guilds accredited programmes. Debbie also offers business mentoring and start-up advice to new creative enterprises.

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