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Why Do Some Fabrics Dye Better than Others?

Vintage Nightgown Refashion
Anthropologie-Inspired DIY Nikola Utility Mini Dress (Cost: $4!)

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:

Why Do Some Fabrics Dye Better than Others before image
It’s quite comfy!

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.

fabric content tag
So. Many. 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.

bottles of rit dye in front of painting
Bad Painting by Me 15 years ago (Inspired by Guillermo del Toro’s The Devils’ Backbone)

I prepped my dye bath by first adding salt to hot water…

adding salt to hot water
In ya go!

…then I added 1/2 of the Indigo dye, about 1/4 of the Eggplant dye, and my dress!

dress being pulled out of dye
Oooooh!

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!

72% Cotton/25% Rayon/3% other(?) fiber
The 72% Cotton/25% Rayon/3% other(?) fiber flowers absorbed the dye really well!
65% Rayon/35% Polyester
The 65% Rayon/35% Polyester ruffle (and middle piece) took a little less of the dye.
100% Polyester
The 100% Polyester lining didn’t take much of the dye at all!

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).

While polyester may not be the easiest fabric to dye, there are types of dyes that work fairly well with polyester, (like iDye Poly), and here’s a Refashion I did with Rit DyeMore.

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!

Why Do Some Fabrics Dye Better than Others after
It’s science!

All that dyeing made me quite thirsty!

Refashionista sitting at table
Not bad for $1!

The next time you see a white dress at the thrift store with different fabrics, why perform a dye experiment of your own?

Why Do Some Fabrics Dye Better than Others after close up
It’s fun!

Cheers!

Refashionista Why Do Some Fabrics Dye Better than Others before and after
Vintage Nightgown Refashion
Anthropologie-Inspired DIY Nikola Utility Mini Dress (Cost: $4!)

40 thoughts on “Why Do Some Fabrics Dye Better than Others?”

  1. Any advice on overdying colors! I have An aqua dress in polyester ( you know that rich 80’s aqua lol) I just think I’d wear the dress more if it were grey, black, or tan or brown. How do I pick the right dye to over dye it? Pick black and hope it takes and if it doesn’t at least it mutes the aqua?

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  2. I love purple. I love how the variation of the fabrics made the dress pop. I do a lot of natural dye demos for historical re enactors and use plants, bugs and bark to bring out color. Purple and green colors are always a fun challenge as multiple kinds of conditions can make these colors varied. A few years ago another dyer experimented with qualities of water with cochinele. She got bright red (Using Hospital grade purified water) to almost burgundy (using rain water captured in a plastic barrel) with just water quality. I want to repeat the experiment with indigo.
    Thank you for sharing!

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  3. Love the different shades together. Thanks so much for the helpful information and inspiration. Fabulous finished dress!

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  4. I’ve tried to dye some very faded jeans back to their original medium wash denim color without success. I tried Rit denim dye color and it wasn’t right. So I tried Rit indigo color and it didn’t look like the original medium wash color either. Any suggestions on what to try next?

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  5. I think I’ve seen all of your refashions, but this is my favorite. The dye gives the dress so much more interest and complexity. Love it!

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  6. I love that different fabrics take dyes differently… Your dress, for instance… I don’t think it would have been quite as beautiful in the end, if the fabrics had all taken the dye in the same way…. It looks much more beautiful with the darker purple on top and lighter colour underneath! Still, it is good to know how and why this happens just in case, two different colours is not what you want at any given time. Love the dress…. the colour is just perfect!

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  7. Sue Silver–That is actually an example of what she demonstrated here. The fabric of the dress was a natural fiber that absorbed the dye well, whereas the thread was polyester or some other synthetic blend.

    You’ll notice that Jillian always takes a “let’s see what happens” approach to her dye jobs. Without knowing the exact content of each piece, including the thread, it’s hard to predict exactly how it will turn out. Sometimes it be that way!

    Reply
  8. Great post, very informative, thank you! The details of the dress that were already there but barely visible now stand out in a beautiful and colorful pattern. So nice!

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  9. What a great find!! I was thinking of risking a trip to goodwill to find whites to dye and refashion this weekend. Gorgeous purples!

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  10. That is gorgeous! The dyes you used work perfectly and made the dress amazing on you. But you are lovely and the things you make suit you. You are a smart dresser. Love it!

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  11. Goodwill is open and one of our local Thrift stores. Both stores there is someone at the door. If you are not wearing a mask you can’t go in. In GW you walk in one way, get a clean cart, then leave on the other side where they take you cart and make sure it is sanitized before it goes back in the store. There is no trying anything on. I think you should give it a go.

    Reply
  12. We seem to have dying questions! Love the dress – it’s such a great color! MY Q: I just bought a grey/ marl knit dress that has some linen in it, so it’s supposed to be washed on cool and hung to dry. Have you ever done a “cool” dye job in your magic pot? Did it work? Love the dress, just want it to be a brighter color.

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  13. I purchased some dye during our quarantine after being inspired by you, our thrift stores are just beginning to open, but I haven’t braved one yet. Soon!

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  14. I always wash my garment before dying. An undetected stain can suddenly ‘appear’ when dyed and may ruin what could have been a great refashion.

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  15. I’m experimenting myself with dyes, I love he way that came out! (P.S. no relation to Guillermo Del Toro..) lol

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  16. Great explanation, and very encouraging!

    My first and last experiment with dyeing was a long time ago. My pea-green dress turned a sort of maroon OK, but all the stitching stayed a very noticeable green! Do you ever have that happen? Do you have any ideas on how to correct that, please?

    Love the mix of shades on your dress.

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  17. So pleased to have the info on how to dye things. Really liked how you showed the three different absorptions. The dress is adorable

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  18. Jillian, that dress turned out great! I am ready to try dying again (the last time was when tie dying was in the first time!). Do you have any good online sources for dye? I see a limited selection on Amazon and Walmart.com but that is all. I didn’t know about the poly dye at all.

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  19. I love how this dress turned out. The different purple hues look amazing and really bring out the details. Looks fab on you too. Well done.

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  20. Love the science behind this! I’m going to attempt my first dye job EVER on a pale pink t-shirt with a lace yoke. It, too, has a mix of fabrics and I’m hoping to get a really cool contrast to make it interesting. Wish me luck!

    Reply

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