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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

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!


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