overdyeing fabric swatches

How to rescue boring projects by overdyeing fabric

We’ve all made things that are kind of a snore. Maybe that dress is “serviceable” but it’s also not something you’re super excited to wear.

Do you know what can fix that? Overdyeing fabric.

Unless your fabric is very dark to begin with, you can always add dye to it to shift the colors a little bit. And sometimes that little bit of added color can Fairy Godmother that boring project into something really special.

The overdyeing process is so easy you’ll want to go fishing in your closet for some good candidates. Here we’ll talk about how overdyeing fabric works, the special materials you need for it, and when it’s a good time to give it a try.

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Pinterest image: "how to overdye fabric" with overdyeing fabric swatches

What is overdyeing?

Overdyeing is simply the process of putting fabric that already is colored through the dye process.

You could ice dye, shibori dye, use natural dyes like tea or complicated dye projects like batik for overdyeing.

In the end what sets apart overdye is that your dye is not going on a blank canvas.

colored pencil swatch squares on construction papers

Think about if you use a colored pencil to shade on a piece of white paper vs. colored papers. The colored paper is akin to the overdyed fabric here. Whatever your base color, you can get completely different looks with the same color over the top.

When you plan to overdye fabric, you’ll always have to keep in mind what your base color is and then choose dye based on that.

DG Patterns Tessa dress in poly chenille knit

This base baby pink is a good candidate for deeper corals, reds, or violet reds.

The best dye for overdyeing fabric

There are lots of good fabric dyes out there.

The best dye to use for overdyeing will depend on what kind of fabric you’re starting with. Some fabrics will literally laugh at dyes unless you’re using the right dye with the right additions to the dye pot which we’ll hit on later.

Here are my favorite dyes for various types of fabric:

Dye brandBest for:
Rit All-Purposenatural fibers: cotton, linen, rayon, ramie, wool & silk, even nylon
Rit DyeMoresynthetic fabrics. This dye is a miracle for polyesters! Rit recommends using this if the fiber content is more than 35% synthetic
Procion MXAwesome for ice dyeing and with vivid colors that hold their brightness well. Best for cotton, linen, rayon, hemp, plant fibers

Should I overdye pieces, yardage, or finished projects?

You can overdye any amount of fabric. Dyeing finished projects might feel a little risky. The cool thing about dyeing finished projects is that you can put the dye exactly where you want it. It would be tough to get an ombre effect with yardage that came out even across legs of pants for instance.

Dyeing yardage is always a safe bet. If there’s a place that didn’t turn out as well as the rest, you can easily cut around that spot.

You can even dye individual cut pieces from a garment. If you do this like I did on this overdyed dress, be sure to treat the pieces gently so that you don’t accidentally fray the edges.

Can I overdye in the washing machine?

Yes, you can. A lot of people get intimidating by dyeing in general because they think it’s going to be a total mess.

At first glance, dyeing in the washing machine seems like the best of all possible worlds. It’s a set it and forget it process and you can dye bigger amounts of fabric.

That being said, you’ll have to use more dye to get deep colors when you dye in a machine. It’s also harder to control the exact color you’re getting. If dyes don’t dissolve well, you might be disappointed with uneven results.

This can work if you’re using only natural fabrics. Washing machines will never get hot enough water to dye synthetics.

I have a total bias here having dyed fabric every which way from buckets to sinks to the washing machine. A dye pot is going to give you the best results and give you the most options.

You can use it for cold water dyeing like ice dyeing, or to dye fabrics that need HOT HOT water like polyester.

To cut it short, find an old beat up pot as big as you can find that you are only going to use for dye and get on to overdyeing!

Overdyeing fabric

Make your dye bath

First add enough water for your fabric to float freely. I tend to use as little water as possible. A good starting point is to use a gallon of water. Rit recommends 3 gallons for every pound of fabric.

Add your water to the dye pot and start warming it up.

Natural fibers will dye in any temperature water, wool needs to be just warm, and polyester needs to be close to boiling.

Now, check to see if there’s anything you might need to add to the dye bath for a particular fabric to help the dye get it’s best color.

And don’t you know I’ve got a chart for this too:

Fabricwhat to add to the water (for 1 gallon of water)
cotton, rayon, linen, hemp1/4 cup salt, 1 tsp of dish soap
wool, silk or nylon1/4 cup vinegar, 1 tsp dish soap
synthetic fibersnothing, just the right dye!

Stir your additives around until dissolved, then add in the dye.

How much dye do I need to overdye?

How much dye depends on how deep a color you’re shooting for and how much fabric you’re using.

1 bottle of dye or 2 oz of powder dye will in general dye 2 pounds of dry fabric. Use less dye if you want a less saturated color. Dharma Trading has a cool dye calculator to help you figure out how much dye to use.

fully saturated coral washes out this print, with less dye, you get more of a watercolor look on the overdye

Now add your liquid dye straight into the water and stir. If you use powdered dye, dissolve it first in a cup of hot water. This will help you get a more even color.

How to test out color for overdyeing

Making swatches might be most important part any dye process.

The easiest way to dye a test swatch is to use a paper towel. Dip one end in an check the color.

Ah, but this is overdye! You’re not starting with white, so paper towels aren’t going to help.

overdye swatches

If you have an extra piece of fabric for the fabric you’re overdyeing, cut a small swatch and use that to test out your color. If you don’t, use another piece of fabric or paper that’s as close as you can get.

Next partially dip the paper or fabric into your dye bath and pull it out. Give it a rinse in cold water and look at it in good light.

If you don’t like it, you can always add more dye to the bath to shift the color.

shifting the color slightly between the top swatch and bottom by adding a little brown to the dye bath

I tend to do test swatches in a little loaf pan. The loaf pan uses almost no water and the water in it comes to boiling almost immediately. With it I can quick test out a color and adjust it before I make a full dye bath.

Now to overdye that blah fabric

Once you’re happy with your color, it’s time to overdye your fabric for real.

Wet your fabric first for the most even results. You can experiment here though too. I actually like a little unevenness in my dye projects. It gives them character!

Check your water heat. If you’re using polyester, make sure that the dye is heated to boiling, then reduce it down to a simmer.

Now pop the fabric into the dye. Stir stir stir with your tongs. If you want to get a little creative, throw in some extra dye in random places. The dye will hit the fabric unexpectedly for a different sort of effect.

Peacock green and denim blue added while the swatch was in the bath for a deeper color

Keep stirring until you like the depth of the color. That can take any amount of time from 3 minutes to an hour. I don’t tend to leave my fabric in for very long because I like more subtle colors.

If you’re aiming for a deep rich color, stir frequently for 10 minutes, and leave the fabric in the dye for about an hour.

Rinsing and finishing up your overdye

When you’re happy with the final color, pull out the fabric carefully and place it in your plastic bucket. Transfer the bucket to a sink and rinse out the fabric in cool water.

When the water runs mostly clear, run the fabric through machine wash in cold water. Dry your fabric as you would normally.

Now you can enjoy your new freshly overdyed project!

So those are the basics of overdyeing fabric. I hope that gives you some ideas on how you can transform some ugly duckling fabric into something that’s exciting. Be sure to sign up for the newsletter. You’ll get access to my Resource Library will all sorts of helpful sewing guides and helps plus you can email me directly there. And if there’s one thing I love to help people troubleshoot and answer questions about, it’s dye!

7 thoughts on “How to rescue boring projects by overdyeing fabric”

  1. Elizabeth, you always have content that right on time and extremely informative! When I saw this article in my inbox, I couldn’t help but read it! Now that I’ve had one successful dye under my belt, I’m all for trying one of these again! Thanks for always being a great teacher!

  2. Thanks! Just needed a little reassurance to overdye some too-bright turquoise linen and picked up a few unexpected tips, which will help with some other projects that were on hold for need of elusive colored lace. The crate of old tablecloths and curtains just got a lot more useful now that I know there’s a non-commercial dye for that. Haven’t tried anything synthetic since my teens in the 80s, when my “orange” leotard came out so close to fleshtone I looked naked at practice. Yup. Lived that teenaged nightmare. 🙂 Never dyed anything again.

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