Years ago, a friend of mine texted me a picture of a pale pink polyester ’90s prom dress and a bottle of black all-purpose dye.
“I’m making a costume for Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Will this work?”
I had the sad task of telling him he was never going to be able to get that dress to a black hue. :/
I’ve been dyeing clothes for over a decade now, so I have a pretty good idea of how well different fabrics/fibers will absorb said dye.
Take this dress:
I rarely wear white, as I’m incredibly clumsy and fairly pale, but I love dyeing white clothes other colors!
When I scored this sweet Girls’ XL dress (yes, I sometimes wear kids’ clothes) I thought it would be a great example of how dye absorbs differently for different fabrics.
But which of these fabrics will dye best? And why do some fabrics dye better than others?
I chose a mixture of these two dyes for today’s refashion.
I prepped my dye bath by first adding salt to hot water…
The above image shows me pulling the dress out of the dye immediately after first submerging it. You can see that it’s already absorbing it really well!
I left it in the dye bath for 30 minutes, stirring periodically, then rinsed it in my washing machine and dried it.
And here’s how the different fabrics absorbed the dye!
Why don’t all fabrics don’t absorb dye the same way?
If you look closely at a bottle of all-purpose dye, you’ll see it recommends use on Cotton, Linen, Rayon, Silk, Wool, and Nylon (all natural fibers, except for Nylon)
The dye I used for this refashion is fiber-reactive. That means a chemical reaction takes place between the dye molecules and the fabric molecules. The acidity of the dye requires the fabric to be basic in order to form this bond.
The dye actually bonds with the fibers and becomes a part of the fabric. That’s why the dye is permanent and vibrant even after a garment is washed several times.
As a general rule, if a fabric absorbs water well, it will absorb dye well too.
Natural fibers are great absorbers.
Nylon (the first synthetic fabric), has a unique chemistry from other synthetics, that lets it absorb dye as well!
But why doesn’t polyester dye well with all-purpose dye?
Polyester is a synthetic fabric made from petroleum, and due to the manufacturing process, it’s essentially plastic.
That means polyester is hydrophobic and lacks the ionic properties of other fabrics that take dye well (because they can actually bond with the dye).
I’m really happy with how all of these different fabrics absorbed the dye differently, as it brings out the details in my new dress!
All that dyeing made me quite thirsty!
The next time you see a white dress at the thrift store with different fabrics, why perform a dye experiment of your own?