A Dying Art

If you have never dyed before, please start with the Health & Safety pages and the Dye Vat pages for an overview.  As all costume designers know,  what to wear can be the most important decision you make!   Wear an apron, gloves and tie your hair back for the entire dying process.  Use a respirator for the Paste Up phase, described below and on the Dye Vat page.

You need several items to prepare the RIT dye in our shop.  If this is your first attempt, dye a scrap of material first.  It never hurts to test any process.  You will need the following things:

  • Pre-washed fabric.  Preferably wash the fabric or garment to be dyed in Synthrapol.
  • Known fiber content of your fabric.  Marked on purchase bolt OR determine with a Burn Test, below.
  • A cup and stirring stick or spoon for pasting up your dye
  • RIT dye, kept in plastic jars on the dye shelf.  Wear a respirator certified for dust.  Be aware taking the jars off the shelf may scrape some loose powder from the shelf.  Climb a step ladder to lift the jar off the shelf.
  • A color recipe– this is the Art Part.  See Recipe discussion below
  • A sieve or strainer. Ours is covered with used stocking knit to create a finer sift
  • A hotplate located on the back counter
  • A pot with hot water
  • A dye vat.  See Dye Vat page for specific instructions.

Paste Up

RIT is toxic in its powder form.  If you don’t handle the powder carefully, it will scatter invisibly thoughout the room, clinging to your hair and eyebrows.  It will permeate your nasal tissue and skin.   Always use the process called “pasting up” to control powder dust.

Pasting Up means adding just enough hot water to create a thick paste.  This method will bond the dye to water to prevent powder escape.  Always add Liquid to Powder, Not Powder to Liquid.  If you dump powder into liquid, the surface tension of the water will create a powder cloud that will puff right back in your face.

Stir the paste smoothly to dampen the dye.  You may add more hot water as needed to create the paste.  Mix the paste as smoothly as possible.  Add enough water to suspend the dye,  stirring to fully dissolve the dye powder.  Hot water speeds this process.

Once you’ve dissolved the dye, strain it to sieve out undissolved residue and impurities– these will cause spotting on your fabric.  For as complete suspension as possible, pour the thinned paste into a pan and continue to heat the pan on the hot plate as you stir.  Some colors dissolve more easily than others.  Do not strain to soon- you may strain out too much, altering the final outcome.

Dye RecipesTestFabrics swatch

If you are unsure how to make a color, begin with our Dye Recipe Bible in the dye room.  The bible contains pre-dyed swatches of TestFabrics multi-fiber swatches (see picture.)   Each stripe is a different fiber– silk, wool, rayon, etc.  By dipping the full test swatch into one mixed color, you can see how the dye will react with each fiber.

These swatches show straight colors (right out of the RIT Jar) and mixed colors (we began with the RIT manufacturers guide to colors.  The TestFabric swatches show what that recipe looks like on different fibers.  Once you begin testing, you may decide to add more blue, more red to alter the original recipe.  When testing new colors, always make a new test swatch so you can track the differences and choose the one you like best.

Dye Test Page

Step-by-Step

  1. Choose a color recipe close to your desired effect
  2. Mix that color in a small batch using the Paste Up method
  3. Strain the dye into a pot of hot water on the hot plate- this will be your test
  4. Dye a swatch of your actual fabric in this test dye bath, stirring the swatch in very hot to simmering water
  5. Lift the swatch out of the bath now and then with tongs to test the color.  Dye is much darker wet than the finished color when dry.
  6. When the color is darker but close to your effect, rinse and iron dry the swatch.  Use a scrap press cloth from the scrap bin. Dye will bleed onto ironing board!
  7. Repeat dye bath until are satisfied with the color
  8. Store your swatches on a Dye Swatch page in your show bible
  9. When you choose a final color, consult the Dye Bible you will create a large dye bath in the vat. Consult the Dye Bible for recipe proportions large and small.


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