Choosing the best fabric dye isn’t as simple as you may think. With a variety of dye types and the number of fabric types available it can become a difficult process. With a little learning, you will know exactly what to look for to get you started.
Learning to dye your own fabrics can be a very fun activity that can both provide you with new and unique clothing or textiles but also give new life to dull and faded fabrics. Being able to change or modify the colors of your fabric bin ensures you will never be stuck with dull and outdated colors.
Whether you are creating original clothing pieces, crafting your next quilt or sewing project, using quality dyes will make all the difference in the lightfasteness and durability you can achieve. Updating the color palette of your home curtains is another reason to pick the very best fabric dyes considering the investment cost of home textiles.
Whatever the project you have in mind, the type of fabric or more specifically, the fiber the fabric is made of is what ultimately determines what dye you should use. In short, you likely won’t be able to dye cotton fabric with the same dye you used for balls of yarn. Our handy guide will dive deeper into dyes, fiber types, and more.
Complete Guide To Fabric Dyes: How To Choose Your Dye
The first question usually asked by people looking to dye fabric for the first time is “what color should they use?”, but the first question you should be asking is “what type of fabric dye do I need?”. To answer this question you need to know what type of fibers were used in the fabric.
For those who are totally new to fabric dyeing, you certainly read the entire guide but if time is an issue you can always skip down to fabrics types to get right to the answer you need. Below is a list of sections you will find in the guide.
Once you understand how the different types of dyes act on the variety of fibers textiles are made with you will be able to select the right fabric dye for any project and fabric you have in mind.
Types of Fabric Dyes
Below is a list of each of the different types of fabric dyes you may find yourself working with in the craft of dyeing. Each will provider better for specific fiber types and some may not even work at all on some fiber types.
It is certainly important to choose a dye that is best suited for the fiber you may be working with but keeps in mind some dyes can be more toxic or harmful to the environment so keep this in mind when making your choice.
Fiber Reactive Dyes
Fiber reactive dye is one of the most permanent dye types out there and usually achieves the best results. The only type of dye to form a covalent bond with cellulose or protein, which in essence is a molecular bond between the fiber molecules and the dye molecules. After the dyeing process, you end what-what essentially is a single molecule after the bond. Reactive dyes are the best fabric dye choice for cotton and other cellulose fibers at home.
The product of fiber reactive dyed fabric is ultimately one of the most wash-safe outcomes you can get. This means you can wash white garments and other fabrics with bright colored fabrics dyed with reactive dyes without fear of color bleeding onto white or any other colors.
Fiber reactive dyes are available in many forms which I could dedicate an entire page of information about them. To keep this short, when looking for a fiber reactive dye, make sure it will work with the intended fiber you are working with. The methods range from using cold to hot water, and some are made specifically for wool or other protein fiber or cellulose fiber.
Fibers for fiber reactive dyes?
- Cellulose Fibers
- Protein Fibers
Direct dyes are a type of dye used to color cellulose fibers like cotton. Direct dye is a hot water dye and one of the two types of dyes that are found in all-purpose dyes, the other being acid dye. While performance is lacking compared to other types there are some use cases.
Typically direct dyes are more dull in color and not as washfast as fiber reactive dyes but using a dye fixative like Retayne can mitigate this somewhat. You can almost guarantee one should expect colors to bleed in the wash. Lightfastness is typically only slightly less than fiber reactive dyes.
Finally, the inexpensive nature of direct dyes is one reason you may choose to use this type over other types. When looking for direct dyes, try to find it in its pure form without additives like acid dyes. It is named for the mild acids, such as vinegar, used in the process.
Fibers for direct dyes?
- Cellulose Fibers
- Protein Fibers
Acid dye is used in the dying of protein fibers like wool, silk, and cashmere. The term acid may be somewhat alarming at first but in most cases, the dyes are not caustic and in some cases even non-toxic, that said some can be carcinogenic. Acid dyes actually include several classes within the larger category. In general acid dyes are usually the best fabric dyes for protein fibers.
Much like fiber reactive dyes, there is a lot more information than I will go into but in short acid dyes, the classes include leveling acid or strong acid dye, milling or weak acid dyes, and super milling or fast acid/neutral acid dyes.
Leveling acid dyes produce a very even, single-color solid effect but items dyed with leveling acid dyes should be dry-cleaned or hand-washed in cold water only avoiding warm water and machine washing. Wash fast acid Dyes are a reasonably priced collection of many different acid dyes, but ironically, some of the dyes in the group are not very wash-fast at all. Food coloring dyes are least toxic of all dyes.
Finally, Lanaset dyes (a type of acid dye) can be used to dye all polyamide fibers like silk, wool, angora, mohair, and nylon. Lanaset dyes include three entirely different classes of dye which work well together, especially when used with the recommended auxiliary, Albegal SET. Lanaset dyes are considerably more wash-fast than most dyes available for use on wool and much more permanent.
Fibers for acid dyes?
- Protein Fibers
- Spandex (non-Polyester blend)
All-purpose dye is a mixture of different dye types where direct dye is combined with acid dye to make a product that is suitable for a range of fiber types. This is a warm to hot warm dyeing method. Being capable of dyeing a range of fiber types makes it especially suitable for fabrics which contain blends of fibers. That is about where the benefits end.
Performance wise it doesn’t perform better than dye types specifically targeted to the fiber being dyed and is actually wasteful if you are dying a single fiber type. An all-purpose dye cannot be used to dye polyester or acrylic, and it cannot be used in cold water.
Fibers for all-purpose dyes?
- Cellulose Fibers
- Protein Fibers
Natural dyes usually imply safe and environmentally friendly but that isn’t always the case with natural dyes and in some cases are less so than synthetic dyes. That said, some mordants used to fix the dye are not very toxic and when combined with an eco-friendly natural dye can produce nicely died fabrics.
Natural dyes will usually produce the best outcomes in most cases. If you must use natural dying methods just make sure the compounds aren’t toxic and are ecological. However, other dye types can produce much more vibrant color while maintaining better light/wash-fastness.
Fibers for natural dyes?
- Cellulose Fibers
- Protein Fibers
Vat dye is a chemical dye that is insoluble in water. The process to required to use Vat dyes to dye fabric are typically too difficult to undertake as a home craft or amateur use but not impossible. Interesting to note Indigo is an original VAT dye which is used in the dying on denim. Vat dyeing got the name from the large vats in which fabric are submerged into.
Fibers for vat dyes?
- Cellulose Fibers
- Protein Fibers
Disperse dyes were first developed for dyeing cellulose acetate, and are water-insoluble. The dyes are finely ground with a dispersing agent to make a paste, or spray-dried to make a powder. Dyeing polyester is its main use, but they can also be used to dye nylon and acrylic fibers.
The fine particle size gives a large surface area that aids dissolution to allow uptake by the fiber. The dyeing rate can be significantly influenced by the choice of dispersing agent used during the grinding. In some cases, a dyeing temperature of 130 °C (266 °F) is required, and a pressurized dye-bath is used. Higher temperatures are certainly a requirement for polyester.
Fibers for disperse dyes?
The last few types of fabric dyes I have grouped under other simply because their use is less common for amateurs and hobbyists undertaking fabric dyeing at home. These methods, however, aren’t any less important in the textile industry in general. In some cases, the dyes below require more caution and care when using them as well.
- Basic Dyes: This type of dye is named for it being a base as opposed to acid as other dyes are. It also catatonic and has a positive charge whereas others are negatively charged or neutral. Fibers that can be dyed with basic dyes are natural fibers like cotton, wool, and silk (though it isn’t very light fast on these fibers) but it most used in the dying of acrylic fiber. Care should be taken with basic dyes as they can be a health hazard.
- Naphthol Dyes: Naphthol dyes are true cold water dyes but include more hazardous chemicals than fiber reactive dyes, which makes them less appropriate for home use. For this reason you wont find these in typical craft stores and it is not recommend to use these as they carry the risk of serious disease if proper procedure isn’t followed.
- Fabric Paints: While not exactly an actual dye, fabric paints can be a great alternative to adding color to fabrics when success with dyes is minimal or not really achievable.
Common Fabric Fibers Used in Dyeing
As I previously stated, the fiber you intend on dyeing will always determine which dye type you will you use. It is always best to your the dye that will provide the best results for the particular fiber. doing so will provide for better colorfastness and resist fading from light and washing.
Cellulose fibers are typically those made from plant matter and include cotton, linen, rayon, hemp, ramie, lyocell (Tencel), bamboo, and pineapple plant fiber.
Best fabric dyes for cellulose fibers:
- Fiber reactive dyes (best results)
- Direct dyes
- Vat dyes
- All purpose dyes
- Naphthol dyes
Protein fibers are those that are made from protein and are usually the hair of animals: wool, angora, mohair, cashmere, as well as silk. Silk(including soy silk) is the only non-hair animal fiber and can be dyed like wool or like cellulose fibers. The higher pH of dyes used for cellulose can be destructive to animal hair fibers.
Best fabric dyes for protein fibers:
- Acid Dyes (usually best choice)
- Lanaset/Sabraset (Acidic reactive dye, great on wool)
- Natural Dyes
- Vat Dyes
Synthetic Fibers and Blends
There is no shortage of synthetics fibers used on fabrics today. This makes dye selection even more difficult for those looking to add a new color to their fabrics. These synthetic fibers can also prove to be a challenge getting the dye to set and result in rich vibrant color.
Below is a list of commonly found synthetic fibers in fabrics you may choose to dye. Finally, you may not even know what type of fiber you are working with, if this is the case you can refer to this burn test chart to assist with determining the fiber type.
Synthetic Dyes and compatible fabric dyes:
- Polyester:Disperse dye
- Nylon: Reacts much like protein fiber; Acid dyes (better), disperse dyes
- Spandex: metal complex acid dyes (note: polyester spandex blends cannot be dyed
- Acetate/Acetate Rayon: Disperse dye
- Acrylic: disperse dye and basic dye
- Fiber Blends: depending on the blend, all-purpose dyes or dyeing in two-step process
Other Considerations to Selecting Fabric Dye
When selecting your fabric dye most will come with instructions. It is important to read these instructions to ensure you have the right equipment and are capable of executing the recommended dyeing methods.
Aside from dyeing methods, choose a dye that fits your needs in relation to the particular color-fastness you need it to hold up against whether that’s repeated washed or light exposure.
There are numerous methods to dying fabric and the method you choose will either be dictated by the dye you are using or you may be free to choose your own method. Methods range from immersion dyeing which you will immerse the fabric in a large tub of dye solution for a given time period, or dip dyeing where you merely dip the fabric for a short period then pull it out to dry. These methods can provide for the full coloring of the fabric.
Other methods like batik and tie-dyeing provide you with more artist designs with multiple colors and patterns. Finally, methods like washing machine dying provide a more set-and-forget approach.
Color Fastness of Dyes
The colorfastness of dyes is used to characterize the colors ability to resist fading or running. The main forms of color fastness are wash fastness, light fastness, and rub fastness as fabrics will tend to fade under repeated washing, exposure to both UV and visible light, as well as rubbing.
The light fastness of textile dye is measured from one to eight and the wash fastness from one to five, with a higher the number indicating better fastness.
Since some dyeing chemicals contain harmful chemicals it is always advised to wear proper safety equipment including goggles and skin protection. These chemicals can be either caustic or acidic which can burn the skin with even mild exposure. Always follow manufacturer directions for each specific product you are using.
The Best Fabric Dyes – 2019 Top 5 Quick Reviews
If you have read through the guide you should now know everything you need to make the right choice in a fabric dye. The list below includes several types of the best fabric dyes on the market.
Some of the names are included below but the best dye manufacturers to look out for are going to be Pro Chemical, Jacquard, Dharma. Unfortunately with the exception of Jacquard most are not readily available. Finally, it is a good idea to use Synthrapol after the dyeing process which removes excess dye reducing bleed when washing with other clothing.
Procion MX dye is the most commonly used reactive dyes on the market and typically the best dye choice for cotton and other cellulose fibers. Jacquard’s product is well known among seasoned fabric and textile dyers to be among the best and easiest to find. When it comes to dyeing cellulose, Procion MX is the go-to choice for durable colorfast dyes that are vibrant in color.
Following Jacquard’s Procion MX instructions you can create fabric colors that are rich and lasting. Procion is a cold water dye that is extremely versatile allowing crafters numerous application techniques including, immersion dyeing, tie-dye, batik, airbrushing, screen printing, spatter painting, gradation dyeing, and more.
Finally, with the wide array of colors available combined with their Procion color mixing chart, you ill be able to create an endless amount of custom colors. For cellulose fiber fabrics Procion fabric dye is the perfect dye.
- Dye cellulose and some protein fibers
- Large color selection
- Cold water dyeing
- Most vivid dye for cellulose
- Most are non-toxic
Jacquard’s acid dye is a very vibrant dye used in the process dyeing protein fibers like silk, wool, cashmere, alpaca, feathers and nylon. The best fabric dye choice for protein fibers due to the great color results, ease of home use, and better color fastness.
While this is an acid dye, it utilizes vinegar or citric acid as the acid which is non-toxic, readily available, and easy to work with. Using their acid dye instruction guide you will achieve the best results from their acid dye line. Colors shouldn’t bleed or fade when using this acid dye on protein fibers.
This is a great option for anyone looking for an easily accessible acid dye to color their fabrics made of protein fibers. Also of note, some of Jacquards colors are similar to Pro Chemicals line but easier to obtain.
- Dye protein fibers and some nylons
- Hot/warm water dyeing
- Most are non-toxic
- Wide color pallete
Jacquard’s basic dye is a basic dye that is a quality product that can be used to dye hard to dye fabrics where other types like reactive and acid dye did not achieve great results. This is usually the best fabric dye for acrylic fibers but can certainly be used with others as well.
As stated above in the guide, basic dyes have great adhesion to the fibers being dye but are usually inferior when it comes to light and wash fastness. Keep that in mind when selecting the right dye for the project in mind.
Another good reason to use Jacquard’s basic dye line is when you need a very vibrant and intense color results. Basic dyes excel in this attribute and typically provide the best results.
- Great for Acrylic, wood, reeds, straw, hemp, paper and leather
- Easy process
- Most vibrant and max color intensity
Lanaset dyes are usually considerably more wash-fast and light-fast than most dyes available for use on wool. No other group of dyes that is suitable for hand dyeing is more permanent on wool. Unlike other acid dyes, Lanaset dyes are tested in hot water, at 140°F, conditions under which many acid dyes will wash out or bleed.
Dyers appreciate the rich, deep coloring provided by Lanaset dyes and are typically regarded as the best dye for silk and wool that can be used at home. That said Lanaset dyes usually aren’t as popular as the typical acid fabric dyes due to the higher cost, availability, and general awareness about them.
Aside from the cost and availability being obstacles, Lanaset dyes typically require additional auxiliary chemicals to be used in conjunction with the Lanaset and vinegar or citric acid. This makes the dye process slightly more involved compared to the more common acid dyes. None of this should deter anyone from looking for the best outcomes for dyeing wool.
- Acid dye for protein fiber
- Best for wool and silk fiber
- Excellent colorfastness on wool
For dyeing polyester, one of the best choices is Jacquard’s iDYE Poly line of dyes. They have developed a formula that is much more accessible to the amateur crafter and those looking to dye a one-off project at home. No need to prepare such an elaborate dye setup do dye you polyester project with this dye. It is also available in numerous color options.
Even while the results of dyeing polyester at home certainly aren’t as good as what you receive from the factory, having the option to change colors at home accepting the achievable results is always welcome. Check out the iDye Poly line for your next polyester dyeing project.
Another bonus of the iDye Poly line is its ability to color almost anything synthetic, including plastics and acrylics, buttons, frisbee discs, 3D printed objects, toys, dolls, wigs, urethane coatings and more!
- Dye for polyester, nylon, acrylic, and more
- Great color palette
- Relatively simple process
Probably one of the most well-known brands of fabric dye, no doubt most have encountered the RIT All-Purpose dye line. Its popularity is rooted in the ease of use, widespread availability, and just how long RIT has been available to consumers. This combined with the wide color palette available makes their All-purpose line one of the best fabric dyes out there.
Performance wise RIT all-purpose dye is what you would expect from any all-purpose fabric dye. The colorfastness of their dye is average to good as long as you follow the directions properly with regard to the fabric type. If you do not have the time and extra to dye blends in a two-part process then this all-purpose dye is a great choice.
- Dye Cotton, linen, silk, wool, ramie, rayon, nylon and more
- Over 500 additional color recipes available
- Simple dye process