Dyeing Cotton Fabrics

Dyeing Cotton Fabrics

A few weeks ago I decided to dye some of the cotton fabrics I was using in felting: Cotton Gauze, Cheesecloth, Muslin, a few lightweight cottons and some cotton/synthetic mixes. I started out using some Scarlet RIT dye and I was really pleased with how easy it was to use and how well the colours turned out. I used the ‘Hot Water in a bucket’ method. I weighed the amount of fabric I had and then ran some really hot water into a bucket and measured out how much I needed. I poured this into the dyeing bucket, saving a little in a jug to add to the dye I’d measured out  into an old glass jar. I added salt to the dyeing bucket, then poured the dye solution in, and gave it a stir around. The instructions had said to wet the fabric before adding to the dye bath, so I’d put the fabrics in the other bucket while I prepared the dye bath. The instructions said to stir constantly for about 30 minutes until the desired colour is reached, but I just stirred occasionally. I also added fabric at different stages or tied/scrunched to get different shades/effects. Using the instructions on the RIT packet, I made some calculations for dyeing smaller amounts of fabrics and used this as a guide for dyeing the fabric a medium shade.

The second dye brand I tried was Dylon, I bought the 50g hand dyeing pack. I used to buy the Dylon Multi purpose dyes years ago, they were meant for using in a pan on the stove, but gave excellent results just using hot water in a bucket, so I expected these Hand Dyes to be really good. The instructions were pretty much the same as for RIT except no laundry detergent was used. I bought a dark brown so that I could add fabrics at different stages and get lots of gorgeous natural looking shades. What I actually got was a load of fabrics all very much the same pale shade of beige 🙁  I think I would have got richer colours using tea or coffee. I made some calculations for dyeing smaller amounts of fabric for the Dylon too, though I’m not sure I’ll use it again.

The next time I dyed some cottons, I used a RIT dye again, Navy Blue. I was really pleased with the way those fabrics turned out too. I even dyed some egyptian cotton top, which turned out nice, the photos didn’t though 🙂

Do you have a favourite dye for cottons or maybe a favourite method? Do you have any hints or tips to share with us? We’d love to hear your opinions. Click on the pictures for bigger images.

20 thoughts on “Dyeing Cotton Fabrics

  1. The reds and blues are fab – shame about not getting lots of natural shades with the Dylon brown, athough the shades you do have are pretty.

    I used hand-dye Dylon with my grand-daughter when she wanted to tart up a couple of white cotton t-shirts (1 tie-dye, 1 syringes-with-different-colours dye) and we used the microwave method – highly recommended! It was quick and the colours were wonderful.

    The charts you worked out are extremely useful – I think they will encourage people to have a go because it’s daunting trying to work it all out for the little bit of fabric you may want to work with.

    The stirring thing is a bit tedious isn’t it? When Annie and I used to have a ‘scrim dyeing day’ we felt as if our arms would drop off! (We used to work with 10 different colour pots, spread all around the kitchen tops, and at twenty minute intervals we added more fabric to all the pots to get lighter shades – so we ended up with 20 different lots.) We use fibre reactive dyes, procion mx, that we got from Fibrecrafts.

    1. Thanks, Lyn 🙂
      I bought some blue and yellow Procion dyes a few weeks ago. I thought I’d look at your scrim dyeing tutorial before trying it 🙂
      I can always get a red to make some browns.

  2. I use Rit on polyester laces and even white plastic buttons. However, it is not really the best dye for cottons. The best is a fiber reactive Procion dye powder. I buy it from Dharma Trading Company and you use soda ash soak before you dye the fabric. It gives a color saturation that is fantastic, and will not fade over time, like Rit. This is what most fabric artists use. Check it out.

    1. Thanks, Judy 🙂
      I did see on the RIT packet it said it dyed plastic, I wish I’d thought of putting some white buttons in.

  3. Add me as a fan of Procion MX fiber reactive dyes. I like being able to work with room temperature water and a simple fixative like soda ash, plus these are very lightfast and washfast dyes (unlike Rit). Of course, if you’re using the fabric in a way that it won’t be washed, the latter isn’t a problem.

    1. Thanks, Julie 🙂
      I like the idea of working with cooler water too. I did use some of the fabrics in felting and got some fading, but they were rubbed with soap for 10 minutes so they didn’t do too badly 🙂

  4. I am a little pragmatic when it comes to dyes. I will use whatever suits best the material on hand. I dye paper with my old stock of procion mx, no additives needed. I also use Rit dyes for cotton blend type of fabrics and minimum fussing. It is great stuff for over dyeing yardage. And for anything protein fibres or nylon, acid dyes are preferred. For the odd retouching, I have also used dye pens.

    1. Thanks, Fleur 🙂
      I overdyed a couple of pieces of fabric and they turned out well. That’s good to know about the Procion dyes for paper, thanks.

  5. Great charts Zed! I think Procion MX works best for cottons but I’m all for trying out different methods and different dyes. It is always a bit unexpected what the results will be and that’s the fun of it.

    1. Thanks, Ruth 🙂
      It’d be good to know more about dyes, so they can be adapted or improvised at short notice, from your experiments it seems the Procion ones are.

  6. I’m with the procion mx crowd, just wanted to add a couple of things: one is always wear a mask when handling the dye powders so you don’t become sensitized to them. I love Paula Burch’s site on dyeing she’s got tons of info which saves lots of time and still lets you have the joy of experimenting.
    I am in the midst of some silk dyeing with procion…love your pieces especially the navy, I’m totally inspired!

    1. Thanks, Nancy 🙂
      That’s good advice about the mask, thanks.
      It’d be good to know how your silk dyeing with procion turns out.

  7. I love how the rit came out, I have used that in cotton experiments and like how easy it is to use and easy to find in the stores. I need to play with it more and try to experiment to get new shades and variations.


    1. Thanks, Debbie 🙂
      Yeah, RIT is very convenient and easy to use. I think I’ll get a yellow and maybe a black to try some mixing and experimenting to get some brown shades and greys.

  8. Great job Zed. It is very satisfying to see it all when its done. You can add me to the MX dye crowd, and a fan of Paula Burch. I like to low water immersion dying with silk to get great patterns in different colours. I have done some cotton pajamas and some sleeveless tops. Silk is easier than cotton but cotton works well.

    1. Thanks, Ann 🙂
      I think I’ll order more dye, and get lots of info before I have a Procion and cotton dyeing day, hopefully it’ll make less mess 🙂

  9. What a busy dyeing day! Lots of nice stuff there, though it can be a messy business, I only remember the gloves too late, by which time my fingers are “interesting” !
    I’m not a big fan of Dylon, though I sometimes use the Wash and Dye stuff for my black or navy linen trousers to perk them up when they get a bit faded.
    I really like Cibacron for both animal and vegetable fibres, add Washing soda for the veggie ones or vinegar for the animal ones. I have some Lanaset for wool and silk, but I find their colours less vibrant.

    1. Thanks for that, Judith 🙂
      I hadn’t heard of Cibacron, it sounds like it works in a similar way to how the Procion dyes did when Ruth changed the fixative. It sounds more convenient to have one for animal/plants and just change the fixative than loads of different types. I haven’t tried lanaset, I always use Ashford or World of Wool’s Eurolana dyes for wool and silk.

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