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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Tips & Tricks

for Dyeing Costume Items

 

Table of Contents

 

 

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Using Dye Safely

By Lisa

Lisa contributed these tips when she was a college student majoring in costuming. The information came from a professor.

  • Beware of Dyes! Be careful about using direct dyes such as certain brands sold in craft stores for costuming pieces that may come in contact with your skin. Direct dyes may contain chemicals that may cause liver cancer if skin is exposed to it frequently. The dye can rub off, and the moisture of perspiration causes some of the dye to be absorbed into the skin. However, if wearing something else between the dyed piece and the skin, or if only wearing the dyed piece on rare occasions, there should be no problem.
  • Take Care With Dyes! When dyeing an item, take appropriate safety precautions such as rubber gloves and a dust mask to protect the skin against the chemicals in the dye. Powdered dye is more risky to work with than liquid.
  • Avoid Contaminating Food and Drink. Avoid having open beverages or food in the room when dyeing, to avoid particles of dye contaminating the food or drink.
  • Type of Dye Matters. Dyes for cotton are more risky than dyes for silk. But precautions should be taken when working with both.

 

By Lara

Lara is based in Fairbanks, Alaska.

  • Research Safety. Request a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) from either the retailer who sells the dye or the manufacturer.
  • Follow Instructions Carefully. Always take care to understand proper use of the dye before using it and follow the instructions exactly. Dyes should come with information such as whether you need a breathing mask to mix it and how to safely dispose of excess dye liquid, how to set it properly, how to rinse it afterwards, etc.
  • Protect Children and Pets. Never, ever, ever leave any kind of dye material where pets or children have access to them!

 

By Helen M

Helen M is based in Cleveland, Ohio.

  • Where to Dye. Powdered chemicals, like dye powders, are actually a lot more dangerous than they may seem. I dye outside — who wants to inhale dye powder?
  • Protect Your Skin. Rubber or latex gloves are an absolute necessity. I've accidentally stuck my entire hand in a pan of pigment (dye powder & urea water, without soda ash or other fixer), and turned it green. Looked very scary but washed off the flesh in less than a minute, and the stains on my fingernails faded in a couple of days.

 

By Vashti of Madison

Vashti is based in Madison, Wisconsin.

  • Using Powder Dyes. Avoid inhaling any dyes that come in powdered form, not because they are toxic, but because you could develop a sensitivity to them. Most people recommend a NIOSH grade dust mask when using them. I am careful to never leave containers sitting open and my utensils with powder residue go straight into a container of water in my sink.
  • Check the Ingredients. Write to dye manufacturers to request safety information about their dyes, including ingredient lists. Beware of dyeing clothing you would wear next to your skin with a dye containing benzidine, tolidine, and dianisidine, because these substances can be carcinogenic.
  • For Dyeing Dance Trunks. Beware of direct dyes such as RIT and iDye which can rub off onto your skin and be absorbed into your pores due to never fully setting. Instead, choose fiber reactive dye which does not present these risks. Call local craft stores and ask for fiber reactive dye for tie-dyeing. For panties, choose fiber content that contains more than 50% cotton, rayon, or silk.
  • Utensils and Containers. NEVER use any utensil or container that has contained dye as something to hold or measure food. Visit the dollar store and get a separate set of measuring cups, bowls, etc. If you plan to do a lot of dyeing, invest in glassware over plastic as it will hold up better.

 

By Tanya

Tanya is based in New Jersey.

  • Rinsing. When using any dye it is most important to make sure your dye is set, rinse your final project several times over until the bleeding of colors has subsided. There are some dyes that will never rinse clear but I would not wear garments dyed with such materials near my nether regions.

 

By Dar

Darlene is the dye artist behind Shibori Borealis silk veils.

  • Caution Regarding Bleach. Some people like to use bleach to repair a dye error, make a design, or discharge a pattern. However, this should never be done on silk, because it will make the silk rapidly disintegrate!

 

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Using Kool-Aid As a Dye

Kool-Aid can be used as a non-toxic, effective dye.

 

By Tanya

Tanya is based in New Jersey.

  • Type of Kool-Aid. Purchase the sugar-free Kool-Aid packets.
  • Suitable Fabric. You can use Kool-Aid to dye silk, wool and other protein based fibers such as soy silk. It can be used for nylon as well, but will most likely rinse to a lighter shade. It is not suitable for cotton and other plant fibers.
  • Setting the Dye. You don't need to add acid such as vinegar or lemon juice because Kool-Aid has citric acid in the mix already.
  • How Much to Use. Use 2 packets of Kool-Aid per half pound of fiber. If you want more concentrated colors you can increase the number of packets or lessen the amount of water.
  • Steam-Fixing Kool-Aid and Other Acid Dyes. If you're doing a solid dye job (not painting or shibori) I would use the microwave to steam the dyed items. I often stick the item I'm dyeing into a rubber container, pour the cold dye bath on top of it, cover the container with a little plastic wrap and let it steam away. It's much easier then stove top dying and you can wait for the final product to cool before you remove from the microwave.
  • How Much to Use. Silk chiffon and habotai silk are more porous then silks that are often used for sewing clothing. The thickness of the fabric is something you need to take into consideration. One of my 4 yard veils probably weighs in at 6 oz or less (probably much less) because I use thin silk. I would honestly just go to the store and buy 10 or so packets (if you can get off-brand drink mix it's half the price) and play around with left over scraps.
  • Pre-Soaking. If you pre-soak your fiber in a little lemon juice mixed with water the dye catches to the fiber much faster and much easier.

 

By Kisaya Rayne

Kisaya Rayne is based in Austin, Texas.

  • Why Use Unsweetened Kool-Aid. The sweetened Koolaid makes a big mess. It should still dye... but you're going to have a garment that you'll never get that sugar out of. It also won't dye as well as something that's dyed with unsweetened.

 

By Vashti of Madison

Vashti is based in Madison, Wisconsin.

  • Dye Bath. Never skip heating the dye bath.

 

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Tea Staining

Many people use tea to make body stockings, elastic, and other items match their skin color.

 

By Bellatrix

  • How to Do It. I generally steep about 6 family-size tea bags in a gallon of water for about 10 minutes, then add wet fabric. How long you leave it in depends on how dark you want it to be. For me, it's usually about 5-10 minutes. Then I wash and dry the fabric to set it. Never had an issue with it fading or running.
  • For Darker Shades. I've also heard that using coffee, instead of tea, will give you a darker, richer brown, if that's what you're looking for. But I haven't had the need to try that yet.

 

By Vashti of Madison

Vashti is based in Madison, Wisconsin.

  • When you tea-dye you are staining the item, not really dyeing it. The tea doesn't bond with the fabric the way dye does. If you washed tea-stained items over and over, they would gradually fade. It's just something to remember.

 

By Lara

Lara is based in Fairbanks, Alaska.

  • If you run white elastic through your hermes sandals or other lace-up dance shoes to make them easier to put on and take off, tea staining the elastic brings it closer to an appropriate color to go with the leather rather than remaining glaring white. Although tan elastic exists, it is hard to find.

 

By Lisa

Lisa majored in costume design for her undergraduate work in college.

  • Ensuring Even Color. Make sure that you keep the fabric moving around in the tea so you don't end up with blobs and lines of dark spots.

 

By Helen M

Helen M is based in Cleveland, Ohio.

  • Dyeing with Coffee. I used several pots of dark, super extra strong coffee to dye a pure white polyester panel into a more natural, off white tone. I bought several of these panels with beaded valances attached at Big Lots. I needed one more but all they had was pure white, which would not look right. I knew polyester didn't dye well, but I knew that wine, coffee and other spills often leave permanent stains! After soaking, washing in the washer and drying in the dryer the panel turned out a very nice light toffee color. But, over the years it has faded to a lighter off white tone.

 

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Other Dyeing-Related Tips

 

By Tanya

Tanya is based in New Jersey.

  • Choosing the Right Dye. If you are looking to dye non protein based fibers, fiber reactive dyes (such as Procyon) are best. I use these for cotton, rayon and bamboo.
  • Use the Right Kind of Container for Dyeing. Be aware of the type of container you are using to dye. For acid dyes, plastic tupperware for microwave steaming and metal pots for dye baths are fine. But if you are using a dye that requires a mordants or metal based dyes (natural dyes too) the type of container you are using may affect the final color and the permanence of the dye.

 

By Lisa

Lisa majored in costume design for her undergraduate work in college.

  • Prepare the Fabric. Fabric usually needs to be washed with something to clear out the sizing and other chemicals before applying dye. Dharma sells a product called Synthrapol for doing this.
  • Dyeing With Henna. Some people dye with henna, which has the same effect on silks or other protein fibers as hair. However, on cellulous fibers (cotton, etc) it turns baby puke green.

 

By Helen M

Helen M is based in Cleveland, Ohio.

  • Ease of Use of Different Dye Types. Rit, Dylon, and other one-step washing machine dyes are the easiest to use. Fiber reactive dyes (such as Procyon) are a bit more difficult. First the dye powder is mixed with urea water, then an activator is added. After rinsing and washing and drying, the dye is set. Acid dyes are harder still to use, many require a steam set. Some can be set with a simple steam ironing, others require hours sitting in a steamer.

 

By Maura Z

Maura is based in Louisville, Kentucky.

  • Setting Acid Dyes. Acid dyes require steaming if you are painting with them. If you are simply dyeing the fabric, then the simmering dye bath sets the dyes.
  • Condition of Containers. A chip in the porcelein finish has the same effect as throwing a penny in — black blotches, throw pot out. So easy non-abrasive clean up is important.

 

By Velvet Fifi

  • Steam-Setting Acid Dyes. I pre-wash all silk with Synthrapol, then, using modified Shibori techniques - design my silks. Next, using the Acid dyes from Dharma Trading along with vinegar, put the silk in a pyrex baking dish I've set aside for dying only, cover it with foil, and bake for 45 minutes and let cool. This steam sets the fabric. I then let my silk cool for at least a 1/2 hour, wash with a couple more capfuls of Synthrapol (it keeps the colors from bleeding and helps set them better). Iron while damp. I've gotten some of my best results with this method. I also paint silk using a stretcher system my hubby built for me that can handle 9 foot by as-long-as-you-can-make-it-fabric.

 

By Vashti of Madison

Vashti is based in Madison, Wisconsin.

  • Options for Using Soda Ash as a Fixer. I've used fiber reactive dye with the soda ash already mixed in for direct application on silk, and I've also used it mixed into the bucket for tub dyeing, and of course pre-soaked into the garment for tie dye.
  • Preventing Direct Dyes (Such as Rit or iDye) from Bleeding. Rit dye is a mixture of an acid dye and a direct dye. Direct dyes are not very washfast; they bond loosely to the fabric, so they tend to bleed. Treating bleeding items with something like Retayne will stop the bleeding.
  • Cleaning Up Afterward. The best thing for scrubbing dye off a hard surface you didn't mean to get it on is a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser. Literally worth its weight in gold.
  • Use Enough Salt! When dyeing things in a tub or washing machine with fiber reactive dye, you will need a lot of salt. A LOT of salt. Start with a big bag from your grocery's canning aisle. Do not neglect your salt — it forces the dye to react with your fabric instead of bonding to the water.
  • Using Bleach to Make Designs. Some people like to use a bleach pen or bleach on a paint brush to make designs on a dark fabric (this is called discharging). If you do so, keep in mind that rinsing or washing will NOT stop the bleach from continuing to work. It's too concentrated. If you do not neutralize your bleach, one day that garment will have an actual hole in it. You need Sodium Thiosulfate aka "Bleach Stop".
  • Don't Use Ammonia with Bleach!!!! There is a myth floating around out there that you should neutralize your bleach discharge with ammonia — NEVER DO THAT! It's dangerous. It releases highly toxic chlorine gas.
  • Dye All Things That Need to Match Together. Unless you are incredibly meticulous about taking notes, weighing your dry goods, weighing your dye, controlling all your variables, repeating a dye job is very difficult. If you need two or more items to exactly match, you must do them in the same bath with the same process. (And never tell anybody you can dye a veil to "match" their costume unless you are a super-uber-wonder-dyer. It's really hard.)

 

By Lara

Lara is based in Fairbanks, Alaska.

  • Choose Proper Containers for Dyeing. The hardest part of doing natural dyes for me was finding non-aluminum vats that were big enough for the dye bath. Hurray for grannyware enamel pots! you can actually change the finished color of some dyes by something as innocuous as throwing a penny in the vat.

 

By Kisaya Rayne

Kisaya Rayne is based in Austin, Texas.

  • Cleaning Up Spills. Rubbing alcohol can be used for getting dye off a hard surface. It doesn't work on all surfaces, but I've had incredible luck with getting dye off counter tops and tile floors. I haven't tried it on hard wood yet. Rubbing alcohol or hydrogen peroxide (the kind you get in the pharmacy, not the kind used for hair), can remove dye from your skin and can reduce the pigment that keeps in your nails as long as you get to it quickly.
  • Safety of Cleaning Products. One thing I highly suggest with any cleaning product you use is to also get the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for it. Just as there are caustic chemicals in dyes, there are also caustic chemicals in cleaning supplies, some of which have been known to cause cancer after repeated exposure. It never hurts to have the information on the cleaning supplies you're using to clean up after your dye experiences, not just the dyes.
  • Anticipate Need for Information. Always know what chemicals you have in your workspace, that way if something happens (like, heaven forbid, a fire or a child somehow getting into it and ingesting some), you've got all that information available and on hand. For a single time dyer, it's probably no big deal since this won't be a common practice, but if you find yourself dying a lot of garments, veils, or anything else, it never hurts to have that information on hand. In an emergency, it could come in useful.

 

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