Let’s talk about how to dye polyester fabrics and other synthetics.
Real talk: you can’t always find fabric to work with that’s exactly what you want it to be. The good news is that with rare exception the color of your fabric is editable.
I use this process all the time, and I promise you dyeing synthetic fabrics is not a lick intimidating or messy. You can do this.
This post will focus on showing you how to dye polyester. I’ll walk you through what kinds of synthetic fabrics you can dye, the equipment you need and talk about the best dye for polyester fabric. After that, I’ll walk you through the process of dyeing polyester fabric step by step.
What is a synthetic fabric and why is it important for dyeing?
Synthetic fibers are created through chemical man-made processes creating and spinning polymers into fiber. They have special properties like wicking moisture, possessing extra stretch, etc. but they react to dye slightly differently than their natural fiber counterparts. Synthetic fibers include:
Can you dye polyester and other synthetic fabrics?
Synthetic fabrics can be challenging to dye. They have slick surfaces that are hydrophobic, meaning they don’t absorb water well or dye for that matter. That’s why they dry really quickly, but it also means that you have to follow certain steps to dye synthetic fabrics.
You need 2 things to dye polyester and other synthetic fabrics:
- Heat: the dye must be near boiling for the fibers to open up and soak in the dye. Because of this, you can only dye enough synthetic fabric as can fit in a pot on the stove.
- Dye for synthetic fabrics: you must use a dye specifically formulated for synthetic fibers. The process of dyeing fabric is in part chemistry, and dyes for natural fabrics are formulated differently. Use a standard dye on polyester fabric and watch it roll off the fabric like water off the proverbial duck’s back.
What is the best dye for polyester fabric?
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You have a couple choices when dyeing polyester fabrics and other synthetics.
- Rit DyeMore
- IDye Poly: made by Jacquard, IDye Poly is a no-mess way to dye your synthetic fabrics.
- Industrial Polyester Dyes from Dharma Trading: For large quantities of synthetic fabrics for use in hospitals, laundries, and industrial sites. Require Industrial Polyester Dye Carrier to fix color to polyesters, nylons, and acetate.
The polyester fabric dye I will always keep on hand
My favorite of these 3 options is Rit DyeMore. Why?
- The base colors of Rit DyeMore are beautiful. I’ve often joked with my husband that if Kentucky Sky ever gets discontinued as a color to expect a truck to show up at our house with the last few bottles!
- Mixability: I dye fabric for CUSTOM color, and it’s very easy to mix exactly what you want with Rit DyeMore. Just blend 2 or more colors and you can create just about any color you’d like.
- Quantity: It’s very difficult to dye a small amount of fabric with a packet of dye meant for a washing machine. With Rit DyeMore if you need to dye something small, just add a small amount to water, heat it and dye away.
- No additions needed: You can use Rit DyeMore straight out of the bottle without having to add dye carriers, salt or other things to your dye bath. I can’t stress how simple this is to dye fabric with Rit DyeMore.
Can you dye polyester fabric in a washing machine?
The short answer is yes. The long answer is, I wouldn’t recommend it.
IDye Poly is indeed formulated for use in a washing machine. The pouches are similar to a Tide pod–just pop it in a hot wash, add salt, and you’re good to go.
That being said, you have little control over what’s happening on the inside of your washing machine. The heat of the water and the amount of dye that’s added to your fabric with a dye packet is all up in the air. If you want to forego having a dye pot, this is a really good option, just know that you have less control over the final product. I’ve used IDye Poly in the past, and I ended up with a very pale end product, not a richly dyed hue. You can correct this by adding another dye packet, but this will obviously be more expensive.
On the other hand, if you are dyeing your synthetic fabrics because you truly want a custom color, take the extra steps I’m outlining below and use Rit DyeMore.
What synthetic fibers can you dye with Rit DyeMore?
- Fabric with blended fibers of the above
I have experimented with Rit DyeMore freely, and it will dye natural fibers just fine too. I often reach for it because of the color choices. In all my tests over many years, I’ve never had it do something weird on my natural fibers. The cotton blend corduroy pinafore below started out as a tan, but the DyeMore turned it a nice warm purple.
If you’re ever not sure, make a swatch of the fabric with the method I’ll show you below and see what happens. Dye is often about experimentation. If you go in with a sense of adventure and exploration, you’re in the right mindset to dye fabric!
Essential equipment for dyeing synthetic fabrics
All of this equipment needs to be reserved for fabric dyeing only for safety.
- Large stockpot: use something cheap! Thrift a pot or use a tamale steamer.
- Small loaf pan: great for making swatches of fabric or dyeing small amounts. I often dye zippers this way.
- Tongs: for fishing out fabric and mixing in dye
How to dye polyester fabric: How to use rit dye for synthetic fabrics (Rit DyeMore)
Make a swatch
Whatever your fabric, make sure that you prewash your fabric.
After that, cut off a small piece of fabric. If you’re dyeing something like a sweater, find a small inconspicuous area to test.
Heat about a cup of water in a baking loaf pan. Add in the color of Rit DyeMore you’d like to test by the capful. Add more color for a deeper color. If you’re mixing colors, add in color in proportion to how you want to dye your final fabric. Take note of the ratio of dye (i.e. 1 capful Kentucky Sky, 2 Tropical Teal) so that you can get close to the same color when you dye all of your fabric.
If you’re starting with white fabric, you can make a swatch with a paper towel. Sometimes I will test with a paper towel just to see what my base color of the dye color I mixed is.
When the water and dye mix is at a boil, lower it to a simmer and pop in the fabric swatch. Stir it with tongs, then pull it out when it’s absorbed the color. Rinse the swatch with cold water and dab it with a paper towel. Allow the swatch to air dry to see the final color.
If you’re not happy with the color of your swatch, repeat this process. Sometimes my best guesses for colors are a little off. Adding a little less or a little more of a dye will make all the difference.
Don’t be afraid to fail here. The slate blue suede knit proved to be too dark to dye from my swatches, making the colors look kind of muddy. I won’t be dyeing the yardage of this one!
Dye your fabric
After you’re happy with the color of your swatch, fill up a dye only stock pot with enough water for your fabric to float freely.
Add in the color(s) of Rit DyeMore as the water is heating. Note that the more fabric you have, the more dye you’ll need to add. I’ve rarely used more than 1/2 bottle at a time, but if you like intense colors, you may need to add up to 2 bottles.
When the water is at a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer and pop in your fabric. Stir the fabric with the tongs until it absorbs the color. This should not take more than a couple minutes.
P.S. This is my favorite thing about Rit DyeMore–that it gets drawn into the fabric almost immediately. This is not always true of dyes for natural fibers which can take some time to absorb the color.
Finishing the dyeing process
Take the pot off the heat and take it to the sink. With cold water running, pour out the dye water.
From there, rinse the fabric with cold water in the pot until the water is mostly clear. Drain off the rest of the water.
To finish everything, take the dye pot to your washing machine and run the fabric through a cold cycle. I always run my hand dyed fabrics on cold to preserve the color as best as possible.
Allow your fabric to dry as you would normally.
How to clean up after dyeing fabric
To clean up, scrub out your sink with a soft scrub cleanser like Barkeeper’s Friend. Rinse well, then wipe out with a paper towel to make sure you’ve caught all the color.
Do the same to your dye pot or loaf pan. Dry the pan/pot immediately to prevent rust.
Place your dye pot/pan and tongs in a spot where they will be safe from those that might be tempted to use them for food. These are not the most toxic dyes around, but it’s best not to chance it.
And that’s how to dye polyester fabrics. Give this process a try the next time you find a sweater or some polyester yardage that’s not quite what you want it to be. You’ll quickly find that with the right dye, dyeing polyester fabrics is fun and easy and a little addictive to boot!
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Elizabeth Farr is the writer behind the Elizabeth Made This blog where she shares helpful sewing tips, step by step sewing tutorials and videos to help you explore your creativity through sewing. She has written sewing Eguides and patterns, been a featured teacher at Rebecca Page’s Sewing Summit and Jennifer Maker’s Holiday Maker Fest and her work has appeared in Seamwork and Altered Couture magazines. She also created a line of refashioned garments for SEWN Denver. When her sewing machine isn’t humming, she’s playing and teaching violin, and hanging around a good strategic board game with her husband and 4 kids.