Dye It Black FAQ v 3.0

The following information is provided by Rachel E. Pollock (aka Lady Bathory/Ladybee), dyeshop manager at the American Repertory Theatre, Inc.'s costume shop in Cambridge, MA. The information herein not gleaned from personal experience can be found in the book Manual of Painting & Dyeing Techniques by Marie Hilgeman.

Determining Fiber Content

First of all, before you even buy the dye you've got to know what kind of fabric you're dealing with. If it says on the tag of the garment (or if you're dyeing a length of fabric you bought in a store), well, lucky you. Otherwise, you've got to do a burn test. Get a few strings of the fabric (not the thread used to sew the garment together) & set 'em on fire. Observe carefully & use the following chart to figure out what you've got:

FiberBurn/MeltShrinks from flame OdorResidueOther
CellulosicCottonBurns onlyNo Burning paperfine grey ash
FlaxSame as cotton
HempSame as cotton
JuteSame as cotton
RamieSame as cotton
RayonSame as cotton
Protein WoolBurns onlyyesBurning hairblack bead which crushes to black powder self-extinguishes
Silksame as wool, except odor may smell more like charred meat
ManmadeAllMay burn & melt, may just melt.
Burn test for fiber content

If the fabric is manmade, you may either wish to give up or see about having it professionally dyed. Spandex & Nylon do dye w/household dyes, but are often mixed w/polyester or acetate. As black is difficult to achieve anyhow, you probably won't be happy w/your result.

It is physically possible to dye polyester, but it requires an extremely hazardous chemical solution called a Polydeveloper, and you need to be able to measure the pH of the dye solution and to maintain it at a precise temperature for a sustained period of time. If you are an experienced chemist you may wish to look into trying this in your lab; the rest of you folks should seek professional help (for dyeing I mean... I have no idea the state of your mental health).

Equipment You Need

Rubber gloves are a must--you can use either dishwashing gloves or latex medical gloves... I don't suggest any rubber fetishwear gloves because you probably will want to use them for something else later & that would be, er, unsanitary. I use big huge scary thick rubber gloves that look like something you use to see if a cow's pregnant.

You may also wish to get a particle mask (or at the least tie a cloth around your face). Inhaling dye powder is unpleasant & causes gross results in Kleenex usage for days afterwards. If you intend to be doing a lot of home dyeing you will probably want to invest in a respirator of some sort and replace the filters regularly -- ones I use in my dyeshop filter both particles and fumes, and this is what I'd recommend. I order mine from Labsafety.com. If you're rivetty or cybery, this can double as a club accessory; just tell all your friends that respirators are the new goggles.

Though you'll probably already be clad in black, you may, if fastidious, wish to wear a smock. Dyeing is a messy job.

Be sure work in a ventilated area. Though most household dyes aren't hazardous, they do tend to smell bad, & you can never be too careful...

What Dye Do I Buy?

A brand called Deka L is what I find to produce the deepest black. You have to add salt if you're dyeing cotton or linen, & white vinegar if you're dyeing silk or wool. The Dekart Company that made Deka L has gone out of business, but you may be able to find backstock in stores that carry a wide range of dyes. I understand that a large portion of their product line was handed over to a company called Versatex (particularly their ranges of textile paints); I do not know if Versatex will be putting out their fabric dyes. Dharma Trading seems to be staying on top of developments in this situation, so you may wish to consult with them.

Rit is extremely common & popular, but I don't personally suggest it, because their black usually turns out more of a bluey-grey. If you do buy Rit, you don't have to add salt (there's some in there... I usually do anyway though), but you would have to add white vinegar if you're dyeing silk or wool.

If you have a garment which is Acetate or Nylon, I have had the best results using a brand of dye called Aljo Synthetic Dye. You can use it in a stovetop situation, and it has produced very good results for me on several types of acetate and nylon fabrics (crinoline mesh, taffeta, and powernet are some examples). This dye is extremely hazardous and easily airborne, so if you choose to try this at home, I strongly recommend the use of a respirator, gloves, and a smock/apron.

Aljo also makes both a Cotton/Rayon dye and Silk/Wool dye, both of which I have used to achieve a fairly deep black. If you are unable to locate any Deka L, you might try ordering these. They provide detailed instruction sheets with each order. I believe they are primarily selling to industrial dyers, because they charge a $2 service charge on orders that do not meet their $50 minimum. Their contact info is:

Aljo Manufacturing Company
81-83 Franklin St.
New York, NY 10013

I do not recommend Tintex brand dye, simply because most of the product is plain old table salt. (Read, won't get a dark black out of this one.)

I also don't recommend Procion dyes for home use because the process is often complex & involved, requiring you to apply speific & is easiest in a professional dyeshop situation.


The actual process is easy if you're dyeing any of the fibers mentioned above (except wool, to be dealt w/later on). Just follow the directions on the box. I usually prewash the garment in order to remove any sizing (stuff to make the fabric "crisp")--you'll end up w/a blotchy job if you don't prewash. (For wool, read pre-dry-clean)

You can dye wool without shrinking it. What shrinks wool is temperature shock, so you want to try to control the temperature of the dyebath, raising and lowering it gradually. For wool, soak your garment in room temp H2O. Put it in a pot of water & slowly heat it up. I can't stress enough how important the gradual addition of heat is. Then, follow the directions on the package up to where you're supposed to rinse it out. Slowly let down the heat to room temp, then rinse in lukewarm H2O. Obviously you can't do the Rit washing-machine method on this one. In general, I wouldn't do the washing machine deal. It wastes lots of water, & you have less control.


Velvet comes in many different fiber combinations. If your particular garment passes the burn test & is home-dyeable, follow regular dyeing directions. After it's dry, iron it on a needleboard (available at most fabric stores) & fluff up the pile with a toothbrush or clothes brush.

Machine Dyeing

You can dye fabric in a washing machine with good results, if your hot water cycle does in fact heat up pretty hot. If you go this route, here's what I do for the most uniform dyejob:

Prewash the fabric but leave it damp, the damper the better. Hell, if your washer drains before the spin cycle, stop the washer then and leave the fabric/garment unspun to retain more of the dampness. Take it out of the washer and put it aside on some clean towels. Start the hot water cycle and let the wash fill with water. Add the dye and any fixative (salt or vinegar) at this point. Once you hear the agitation cycle begin, let it run for a minute or two before putting the fabric in. This allows the dyebath time to mix and any powder/crystals time to dissolve. Then put your fabric in and let the cycle run its course.

If you have more specific questions or think of something I've left out, feel free to email me.

If you want to talk 1-on-1 w/some people who really know their shit about dyeing (& don't want to wait around on me to email you back), get in touch w/this company:

Cerulean Blue, Ltd.
1314 NE 43rd St.
Seattle, WA 98105
(206) 634-2636

Some other books you may want to consult which I have found helpful:

And with that, good luck. Hopefully you have found the updated Dye-It-Black FAQ useful. The following disclaimers apply:

  1. No, I cannot recommend dyeshops in your area to dye your garment. If you've read this FAQ and still don't want to try it yourself, check for listings in your local Yellow Pages for Fabric Dyeing Services. If there are none, try calling local professional and/or university theatre departments and asking if the dyeshop technicians accept outside contract work.
  2. No, I can't dye your garment for you. I wrote this FAQ so people would be able to DIY, not so I could get a lot of commissions for outside projects.
"Eat, drink, & be scary, for tomorrow we may dye..."

Written by Rachel E. Pollock (Ladybee)
Edited by Bob