Trouble Shooting Fabric Dying

So the other day I really screwed up a dye job. And not like a bad job, but a total fail, wa wa waaa.  I dyed some fabric a deep blue green-blue color that was just a tad too blue for me.  It was really lovely, but I felt like I might not wear it as much as I wanted to.  I should have just dealt with it, but I decided I was gonna try to bleach it a bit. After TWO bleach baths, it was semi-messed up, but in a cool, I-can-still-make-lemonade out this kind of way. It looked tie-dyed, and it was actually really pretty. I should have just stopped there (would that I HAD), but like an idiot I had to try and bleach it one more time, and BUMMER, I ended up with completely shreddred fabric. My FAVORITE silk-viscose too! Agghgh!!!  Why didn’t it occur to me that 3 strong bleach baths wasn’t a good plan? I dye fabric ALL the time, so I was mad at myself for going crazy with the bleach, I know better!

I learned a powerful lesson that I’ve learned too many times before. TEST your dye. Just do it.  If you care about the project, it’s worth preparing a little cup of dye to test a square of fabric.  Every fiber and blend takes the dye a little differently, and sometimes that little bit can make the difference.  I usually just dissolve about 1/8 teaspoon  and a teaspoon of salt in a little mug, and let my little test-square sit for a half hour or so.   It will be a little different (probably more vibrant) in the actual dye bath, but this will give you a good idea of how the fabric will take the dye.  If I find I don’t quite like the color, it’s easy to mix the dyes at this stage to try and play around with the color.

mad mim_dying fabric_discharging2

Another thing  I’m relearning is how important it is to keep the fabric moving.  I use the tub/bucket dying method, and have been a little lazy with this lately–just stirring every so often when I pass by or remember, and consequently my dye jobs were getting a little splotchy and uneven. I corrected this by planting myself by the bucket/bath (grab a book or something), and stir frequently. This prevents the setting of the dye in the creases and folds of the fabric.

My all-time favorite dye is dharma trading‘s fiber reactive procian dye, which I’ve talked about lots round here. It involves a chemical reaction (with the soda ash fixative) that permanently fixes the dye, so you don’t get fading with every wash (I’m looking at you, Rit).  It’s also about the same price as Rit, but you get wwaaaaaaay more than one dye bath with a little tub. I’d say each little tub is good for around 5-8 projects (guesstimate) depending on the size. And there’s so many lovely rich and vibrant colors to choose from!

Other tips:

-Make sure you have enough water! You want enough for the fabric to move around freely–if you don’t then your fabric will likely end up with variation in saturation and a mottled, creased effect. I use a big five gallon bucket and set it in (an empty) bathtub in case of spills. Just to clarify, I don’t fill UP the bucket, I use enough water for the fabric to move around freely, (this chart is very helpful).

-Don”t skimp on the salt (non-iodized or “does not contain iodine”), it really matters.  It’s what makes the dye “stick” to your fabric, so be generous.

-I just started using this calsolene oil which you add to the bath in the beginning and helps to produce more even results, and I gotta say I’ve noticed a difference and am pleased with the results.

So now I’m working on another project, and I prepared like ten little dye baths and really learned a lot about the fabric and dye results.  It was a half hour (I did it while doing my dishes) well invested!


mad mim_dying fabric_discharging


I really love dying fabric; I enjoy the process, love the results, and am still learning! What are your dying secrets?

Congratulations Emily K you won Victory’s Lola Tunic Pattern!

Congratulations Amy U you won Figgy’s Banyan Tee Pattern!

And Congratulations Sarah (“Wonderful! Such a cute twist on the regular shirt.”), you won Megan Nielsen’s Briar Tee Pattern! I’ll be in touch with all of you soon! 



I’d suggest using colour remover/ dye remover rather than bleach. Bleach has strange and inconsistent effects on colour and significantly weakens the integrity of natural fibres.


Yes, you’re totally right, I just didn’t have any, and I was too impatient to wait. Most tragedies happen because you just can’t wait, right?! But I actually really liked the inconsistent effects, it was just the whole THREE bleach baths and shredded fabric thing. Sad story, but I learned my lesson!

Johanna Fritz

Are you dyeing with Procion MX or Procion acid dyes? I wasn’t sure. Some suggestions: If you want a deep saturated color that you don’t have to babysit…and without all the stirring, try this:
Try dyeing based on the weight of the fiber and the weight of the dye powder. Weigh your fabric in grams. A yard of quilters cotton weighs about 125 grams, so this formula is based off that weight. 4% depth of shade (DOS) is a medium dark for most colors.

Weight of fabric (WOF) x DOS (4%) = grams of dye powder.
so if it weighed 125grams:

25 x .04 (4% expressed as a decimal) = 5g of dye powder needed.

Try weighing the dye, not using tsp and tb etc. Then, you don’t have to worry about 2x as much for turquoise. 4x more for black etc.

When you know how many grams you need, just weigh it. In other words, all dye molecules are not the same. A tsp of one dye can weigh 2.5g and another, weigh 4.5 grams.If your fabric weighed 55 grams: 55 x .04 (for 4 % DOS) = 2.2 grams of dye powder.

Next questions: how much water to use. Unless you want completely solid, flat fabric, you don’t need all that water. The more water you have, the more the chance that the dye molecules will bond with the water, and not your fabric…giving you very pastel colors.

Mix your dye powder in a salt water solution of 5 TB per gallon. Use this to make your dye concentrate. Next question: how much water to use to mix with the dye powder. If you want an easy formula: whatever your fabric weighs in grams, use twice that amount of water in ML.

So if dyeing a scarf that weighed 63g (about the weight of 1/2 yard of quilting cotton) use 126ml of water. How much dye powder you use, again, would depend on the DOS you want. If you want pastel: try 1% DOS…so 63g (weight of scarf) x .01 (1% expressed as a decimal) = .63 grams of dye. Less than 1 gram is hard to measure, so you can make more than you need and use it for something else. OR you could make up 5g per 240ml (4% DOS) and take out 60 ml (1/4 of total amt) and add 180ml water to it. Then you would have 240ml in another container that is 1% DOS, made of 60 ml of the original dye concentrate and water. You would have 180 ML of the “full strength” 4% DOS dye concentrate to use for something else.

Add the fabric to the container with the measured dye concentrate in it. Work it though the fabric. 15 min later you need to add soda ash. Mix soda ash at 1/2 cup per gallon. You need a pH of 10.5. Some sites say to use 1C per gallon, but you can get the 10.5pH with 1/2 cup. Anything above that is waste. To return to our example, the 63 gram scarf needs 1/2 that amount in ml of the soda solution. Lift out your fabric (never dump in on it or you will have halos) and put in 31.5 – just use 32 ML of the soda ash (made at 1/2c soda ash per gallon).

NOW – this is when you decide if you want mottled fabric or solid. If you really massage it around, it will be mostly solid. 4 to 5 squishes will get rid of any white and be more tone on tone. You will see light and dark versions of the same color. That is what I do. You can see samples of the color here:
Let it batch for 2 hrs…anything with turquoise – overnight. Procion likes the heat. So if you are in a basement, float your containers in a large, shallow bin with some really hot water in the bottom and a towel over the top.
With so little water, and the presence of soda ash and salt, your items will dye deep, saturated colors. For black, you can go as high as 8% DOS. Pastels are nice at 1% or even .25% (1/4% DOS or .0025)
Good luck and I hope this helps. Sorry so long. I think all the water is your problem, unless that is what you want. By the way, once the soda ash is on, you can walk away from this for several days (if covered) and it will be fine.


Thank you Johanna! You sound like THE expert on dying, and I am so glad to have you comment on this post for future readers! I don’t have a scale, but it sounds like it might be worth getting one. I have never had a problem with the colors being too pastel or not vibrant enough, but I definitely am interested in getting even, flat results every time. To answer your questions, I am using Procion MX, and I never fill UP my five gallon bucket, just enough water for the fabric to move around freely. Thank you so much for comment, I’ll definitely be coming back to it next time I dye something!


Wow. The girl who is wondering why she will need math needs to read that post. Impressive. A lot of the time dye is like watercolor–something you like because of the uncertainty. But if you ever wanted a more certain result, how amazing to know there’s a way. I had a sage jumper (that I really liked) that I splashed bleach on doing laundry. It was either pitch the thing or bleach it. With nothing to lose, I soaked it in a bleach bath. To my amazement it turned an apricot color, with no splotches where the original death knell spots had been. This inspired me to try bleaching a green dress that had been sitting all sad and lonely in my closet for years, with little bleach spots on it. This turned into a creamy off-white, which I also love. So a little bleach gave me two new dresses–let’s hear it for surprise happy endings! (But condolences for your sadder but wiser tale).


This is very informative. I have only ever used RIT dye. I will definitely give Dharma’s tradining next time. Pinning this for sure. Thanks!


Leave a Reply