Changing Your Clothes

Shopping, Sewing, Upcycling, Repairing: Make the most of your clothes!


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If At First You Don’t Succeed… Dye, Dye Again

I’ve written several posts already about dyeing clothes, and more recently, about dyeing yarn. Now I want to focus on a process that has become increasingly intriguing to me: overdyeing!

What, you ask, is this overdyeing of which I speak? It’s simply dyeing something that has already been dyed. Yep, that’s it. So if you’ve dyed your blue jeans (or not so much blue as dirty-wash ones like mine, below), you’ve done an overdye job! Today’s post will focus mainly on overdyeing yarn, but all the basic concepts apply equally to garments.*

he Really Big Dramatic Reveal

Remember this?

Here’s a rundown of my process:

1. Ask yourself: Do I love the color it already is? If no, and if it’s not a dark color already, it’s an overdye candidate. (If yes, put that garment on right now and enjoy it!)

Tip: It may sound incredibly obvious, but the lighter your garment’s original color is, the more options you have, color-wise, for overdyeing. If it’s a dark color, any overdyeing you do will have a more subtle result; this can be really amazing, e.g. overdyeing navy blue with black, but still subtle.

2. Ask yourself: What color do I want it to be?

Tip: So far, in my dyeing experience, I’d say you’ll get the most predictable results by dyeing your garment in a darker shade of its original color. Example: The pale pink jacket I’m getting ready to overdye* is going to become (I hope) an ombré of deep red to medium-deep pink—staying in the same color family as the original hue.

3. Make an educated guess about the dye color you’ll need in order to achieve this new color.

Tip: You’ll have to take the original color into account, because it will blend with your dye color to create a unique new hue (unless your garment starts out white, in which case, technically, you’re dyeing, not overdyeing). For example, if you start with a pale blue shirt, and you want it to be a deep plum color, adding dark red dye to the blue shirt may get better results than purple dye. (For some color theory basics, see this post.)

4. Gather your materials: garment, test garment or fabric swatches, dye.

Tip: Other items needed for dyeing will be listed on your dye package, and will vary according to the fiber content of the fabric you’re dyeing; vinegar, for example, is generally needed when dyeing wool.

Another tip: There are a lot of factors to take into account, such as the fiber content, that can (and most likely will) affect your results. Ideally, you’d experiment with fabric swatches, but this is not always possible; an alternative would be to pick up a thrift-shop garment in the same fiber and color as your overdye-candidate garment, and use the inexpensive version to test your color theory. This part of the process has the added advantage of familiarizing yourself with the dye process itself, which gives you confidence to move on to dyeing your original garment.

5. Dye!

Tip: Again, très obvious: you really do need to follow the dye instructions very carefully, especially regarding safety. The Rit dye company has some useful tutorials here, and they also have a PDF with over 500 color recipes here!

How about some examples of overdyeing yarn? Yes, let’s do that. In my short but colorful history with dyeing yarn, I’ve had some amazing successes, but also some experiences ranging from “meh, I’m just not crazy about the color” to epic failures (one of these is coming soon to a blog post near you). Thankfully, unless you’ve dyed your yarn black, it’s almost always possible to give your ugly yarn a new life! To wit:

My very first overdye experience was with this merino/cashmere blend. The minty-green is not bad, it just looked a bit… flat.

Mint yarn before overdyeing

Mint yarn before overdyeing. On the right is the yarn after it was completely dry, showing how much lighter results can be than when the yarn is in the dye bath. (I had used the yogurt container to rinse measuring spoons, my gloves, etc., so the color of this water was constantly changing. For some reason, I thought I’d see what would happen if I dunked some yarn in it. Et voilà.)

Here, I dipped the mint yarn into a fairly diluted deep purple, hoping for something close to lavender.

After the lavender dip.

After the lavender dip. At left, I’m dipping most of the mint skein in the purple dye, using a clear paintbrush to hold the top of the skein; I deliberately kept this little part of the skein out of the dye, which resulted in the brighter minty spots in the finished skein (right).

Tip: This project gave me my first inkling of the transparent nature of dyes; if you look really closely at the finished overdyed skein (above, at right), you can see a little of the original mint green peeking through the lavender, giving the skein an overall watercolor-y character that I love. P.S. If you want all the sexy details about this particular skein (and my other yarns), they’re here in my Etsy shop.

Finally, a very recent example: the Emerald skeins I was dyeing for this month’s Birthstone Collection yarns. This was interesting. I dyed a skein of mohair/wool/nylon at the same time as a skein of 100% nylon ribbon (nylon and animal fibers both use the same kind of dye), and got quite different results, as shown in these swatches:

Emerald swatches.

Emerald swatches. The nylon ribbon (left) took the dye as I had hoped, but the mohair blend (right) looks like solid green, with a few turquoise-y spots. What’s a dyer to do?

Fortunately, the mohair skein was large enough to divide into 3 good-sized skeins. So I took 2 of these incredibly green skeins and overdyed each in a separate bath, hoping to achieve an ombré color sequence between the 3 skeins (I decided to leave 1 skein as it was after the first go-round). Here’s the result:

Ombré Emerald mohair set

Ombré Emerald mohair set of skeins. Skein 1 is the color from the original dye process; Skein 2 was overdyed with turquoise and sapphire blues, and Skein 3 resulted from the addition of a deeper blue and a little black. Success! (You can find this yarn in my Etsy shop here, and the ribbon yarn is here.)

Again, most garments that you dye will actually be overdyed (unless they start out white), so even though my examples focus mainly on overdyeing yarn, the same general process still applies to dyeing clothes. Once you get over your normal, basic fear of permanently ruining whatever you’re dyeing, I think you’ll really enjoy the process of changing your clothes with overdyeing— and the one-of-a-kind results!

* I have a pale pink cotton eyelet trench coat that I’ve had for years, but which needs a facelift (is that face lift?), so that’s next on my overdyeing project/post list. Okay, that might be after I dye some more yarn. Stay tuned!

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Resolution 2014: My New Dye-It Regime

After my unplanned and extended blogging sabbatical, I’m back (!), with a fabulous new project: Dyeing! Yes, you’re right, I’ve written about dyeing my jeans, among other things, but at the risk of using Famous Last Words… this time it’s different.

Aside: Ironically, following my last post (In Re-Covery: The Great Pillow Makeover!), I spent the next several weeks slowly recovering from a serious illness. For a while, I couldn’t even read, let alone write, but when I could, I started studying about the dyeing process, which progressed rapidly into actual experiments, to the extent that I now resemble not so much a color enthusiast as a mad scientist. Think Pantone inadvertently wanders into Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. End of aside.

Hand-painted skeins

Two of my recently-produced skeins, hand-painted at the same time, with exactly the same colors and heat-processing. The one in front is 100% nylon, and the larger one in back is a mohair/wool/nylon blend*. You can immediately see how differently the fibers absorb the dye; the shininess of the smaller skein also affects the way the colors are perceived, versus the softer, slightly matte effect of the mohair blend. Is it any wonder that I’m so fascinated? (Click on the photo to see these skeins, and lots more, in my Etsy shop.)

How, you ask, is it different? Primarily because now, instead of simply dumping a box of dye into the sink and throwing my hapless jeans into it along with a cavalier, come-what-may attitude, I’ve actually taken some time to learn about the dyeing process. (Great concept, right?) And I think it’s about time I pass what I’m learning on to you, particularly because, as long as I’ve worked with fibers, fabrics, yarns, and colors, most of what I will be sharing with you here is, quite surprisingly, new information to me.

Going back to the beginning of my learning process (less than 4 weeks ago!), the first revelation was about the different types of dyes, and what each type is used for, thus:

  1. Acid dyes
  2. Fiber-reactive dyes
  3. Natural dyes
  4. Union dyes

Note: There are other dye types out there, such as a specialized formula that’s used for leather and other skins, but for now, I’m just going to focus on these 4, since they’re the most widely available for the casual user, and also the most commonly used for fibers, fabrics, clothing, and accessories.

Here are brief summaries what I’ve learned about these four dye types:

  1. Acid dyes. Contrary to what this term conjures up (nightmare visions of caustic chemicals burning skin off my hands, but maybe that’s just me), these dyes do not actually contain acid; acid, usually in the form of either vinegar or citric acid, is added during the dyeing process, which causes the pigment (color) to bond with the fiber. (Also contrary to the implied harshness: when I’ve tested my dye mixtures with pH test strips, I’ve found that they are not any more acidic than your average vinaigrette. Which we eat.) Acid dyes are used to dye protein fibers (animal fibers: wool, alpaca, silk, mohair, angora, camel hair, etc.) and somewhat surprisingly, nylon.
  2. Fiber-reactive dyes. Unlike acid dyes, these dyes require alkalinity to bond pigment to fiber; soda ash is commonly added to the dye bath to accomplish this part of the process. Fiber-reactive dyes are used for plant-based fibers (cotton, linen, rayon, bamboo, etc.).
  3. Natural dyes. Despite the rather benign association we have with the word “natural”, what I’ve read about using natural dyes is that, while the material used for the color (flowers, roots, etc.) may not be harmful in itself, the dyeing process requires use of mordants, which are the fixatives that bond the color to the fiber— and many commonly-used mordants have been taken off the market because of unacceptable toxicity levels. Natural dyes can be used with a wide variety of animal-based and plant-based fibers; the mordants required will vary depending on the fiber.
  4. Union dyes. Rit dyes, along with others commonly found in craft stores these days, are usually union dyes; the term refers to the dye formula containing both acid and fiber-reactive pigments, so you can successfully dye either animal-based or plant-based fibers (or both at the same time); however, if you’re dyeing, say, cotton jeans, the fiber-reactive part of a union dye is the only part that will bond with the cotton fiber, leaving a lot of leftover dye.

Please understand that I’m not trying to encourage or discourage using any of the above types of dyes; I’m simply pointing out that, in order to make an informed decision about what type is appropriate, it’s good to know not only the uses for each, but also the advantages and disadvantages of each. I could probably fill a year’s worth of blog posts just exploring these areas in more depth, relative to all of these four dye types, but for now, I’m going to concentrate on acid dyes***, since that’s what I’ve been using up to this point.

Next time, I’ll plunge into the exciting world o’ color, with maybe a little basic color theory, more about the acid-dye process, and a lot of pretty pictures. Oh, speaking of which, here’s a look at the results of my very first day of dyeing, including lots of mini-skeins, and a few full-size ones:

My first color tests!

My first color tests! I’m so glad I decided to start with Superwash wool** mini-skeins (10 yards each) to test the dye colors, including with various levels of dilution. And yes, that is my bathtub. (The full-size skeins, all 100% wool, are now available in my Etsy shop. The red color is called Cardinal; the blue-green ones are Pacific. Click on the photo to see them, along with lots more!)

Coming up on CYC: Because this has become an ongoing research project, you can expect many more posts on the general topic of dyeing here at Changing Your Clothes (and you can also find these posts and much more on my color-centric blog, a Musing). I do think this subject is relevant to CYC, since dyeing is one of the simplest ways to change your clothes. And it certainly can’t hurt to learn more about how your clothes (and the yarns, fabrics, etc., thereof) are produced.

Also, I think I should tell you that the aforementioned future CYC dyeing-related posts will most likely be heavy on the puns. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

*This lovely mohair/wool/nylon yarn is available (undyed) at Dharma Trading Company. (The link will take you to the listings of all their undyed yarns; this mohair is Yarn #6 Toaga. As of 2/13/14, it says it is temporarily sold out.)

**The Superwash wool yarn I’m using for my mini-skeins is also available (undyed) at Dharma Trading Company. (The link will take you to the listings of all their undyed yarns; this wool is Yarn #39 Kona Worsted.)

***The acid dyes I’m using are also from Dharma Trading Company, their own brand of dyes; their extensive selection also includes other brands. (The link will take you to the page for Dharma’s acid dyes.)