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Dyeing 101: Which fabrics can I dye?

Close-up of woman wearing an electric blue suit with a blue blouse.
  • Learn the difference between natural and synthetic fibres
  • Find out why some synthetic blends may not dye, while others will do so happily
  • Solve the greatest fabric mystery: what is viscose?

From Acrilan to Zibeline, the world of fabrics is as varied as it is confusing. It’s a place where natural fibres hang out – and occasionally blend – with synthetic ones. Where wool, cotton and spandex rub shoulders and where people are constantly asking, “What on Earth is viscose…and can I dye it?”

Navigating through the chaos, with its wild array of options, can be daunting – particularly if you’re new to dyeing. Not to worry, you don’t have to memorise every fabric known to man to know how to dye it. There’s a much simpler way:

The three principles of dyeing

Almost all of your fabric dyeing questions can be answered by three principles:

  1. Synthetic fabrics cannot be dyed (at least not domestically)
  2. Most natural fabrics fall into two categories:
    a. Able to be dyed in every way
    b. Only able to be dyed by hand
  3. Blended fabrics follow both rules

    In other words, you have to establish whether a fabric is natural or synthetic or – in the case of blended fabrics – how much of it is natural, to understand whether it can be dyed successfully.

Need a little more clarity? Your wish is our command:

Woman wearing blue skirt and white shirt leaning on a yellow wall.

Which natural fabrics can I dye?

As a group, natural fabrics are very accommodating to permanent colour. The vast majority can be dyed with great results. The most common of these are:

  • Cotton
  • Linen
  • Viscose
  • Denim
  • Flax
  • Jute
  • Ramie
  • Canvas

A few natural fabrics prefer to be washed by hand and do better when coloured with hand dye. These include the likes of silk, wool, cashmere and mohair. ­­

For the most part, however, natural fabrics are the ideal dye candidate so you can dye your cotton shirts, canvas shoes and linen anything with unbridled abandon.

Which synthetic blends can I dye?

Mixes of natural and synthetic fabrics make up a significant part of 21st century textiles. The most common blends found on clothing and home textile labels include:

  • Polyester/cotton
  • Polyester/viscose
  • Silk/linen

While a great many can be successfully machine dyed, not all blends were created equal. The challenge is how to tell which ones can be dyed and what the results might be. Luckily, this is easy – it comes down to ratios.

Synthetic fibres reject domestic dyes so in any blend, it is up to the natural fibres to pick up the colour. The larger the synthetic component, the less dye gets picked up, which results in a lighter (or more diluted) shade. For example, if you want to machine dye a white cardigan navy blue and it is 69% cotton, 19% polyester and 12% viscose, it will work beautifully. The end colour will just be slightly less concentrated than the colour on the pack.

When there is too much synthetic fibre in a blend, however, the dye becomes ineffective. For this reason, DYLON recommends not dyeing any fabric in which the synthetic element is greater than 20%. Everything else – from trousers to curtains to throws – is up for grabs and can produce wonderful results.

Which synthetic fabrics can I dye?

This is a trick question. The answer is: none. Synthetic fabrics cannot be dyed with either DYLON Dye – they just won’t hold the colour. In case you want to identify synthetic fibres (so you know what to avoid), some of the most common ones are:

  • Goretex
  • Lycra
  • Nylon
  • Polyester
  • Spandex
What on Earth is viscose?

Interesting story – viscose is a bit of an enigma. Technically it is classified as a “semi-synthetic fibre”. Okay. Wait, what? That’s just a fancy way of saying that the fabric is synthetically made from natural substances. Regardless of the semantics, however, it lives comfortably alongside natural fabrics. Its natural core loves pigment, so it can be dyed to full intensity with DYLON dye.

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