Introduction: Dye Painting Fabric With Fiber Reactive Dyes

This Instructable will help you make a splash in your wardrobe by teaching you how to color your own custom clothing using a fiber reactive dye paint. Dye painting is a technique in which a thickened dye solution is applied directly to the fabric, allowing the artist to use the dye as if it were regular paint. Fiber reactive dye fuses with cellulose (plant) fiber fabric on an atomic level, becoming a part of the material. This means that it doesn't form a stiff crust on the surface of the fabric like regular paint, and it is much more permanent and vibrant than regular union dyes such as RIT. Fiber reactive dyes are undeniably the most effective dyes for use on cellulose-fiber fabric such as cotton, linen, and rayon. Dye painting requires some specialized materials, about 2-3 hours for the main, active portion of the process, and 6-24 hours of waiting time. However, dye painting does not require much existing skill: it's easy and fun! Just follow the instructions to prepare your materials and then let your creative spirit go wild!

Step 1: Materials

Specialized Dye Supplies

There are several types of fiber reactive dyes, Procion MX being the most popular. For the sake of convenience, I ordered all of my dye supplies from Dharma Trading Co., where they are sold at low prices and all the products are guaranteed to work together. However, you may find it easier to look for alternatives. For example, Dylon's Permanent Fabric Dye* series can be found in craft stores such as Hobby Lobby or superstores like Walmart.

To dye one shirt, you will need the following materials.

  • Fiber Reactive Dye (your choice of colors - for this particular project I used B15 Bahama Blue)
  • Soda Ash Fixative
  • Urea (optional)
  • Sodium Alginate Thickener
  • pH Neutral Fabric Detergent** (recommended - a neutral pH will help keep the dye from coloring unwanted areas during the first washes)

Warning: While these materials are non-toxic, it is recommended that you wear gloves and do not inhale or ingest any of these ingredients, as they may be irritants to some people.

* Dylon Permanent Fabric Dye packets contain both fiber reactive dye and soda ash fixative, so if you use this product, you do not need to purchase additional soda ash.

** Since most detergents to not advertise their pH, I used Dharma Professional Textile Detergent to be safe. Synthrapol is an alternative, but it may be more expensive and potentially toxic.

General Supplies

  • Cellulose-fiber Fabric or Clothing (cotton, linen, rayon, etc.)
  • Plastic, Glass, or Metal Containers (one to mix "chemical water," and one for each color)
  • Measuring Cups
  • Gloves
  • Paint Brush
  • Resisting material (plastic bags and/or cardboard work well) (optional)
  • Plastic Covering or Bag


Polymer brushes might work better than natural bristle brushes. Our dye solution is water-based, and natural bristles tend to absorb water, which may not be desirable.

Step 2: Prepare Chemical Water

  1. In a container, mix 3/4 cup of urea with 1 quart of water.
  2. Gradually stir in sodium alginate to your desired thickness. I used 3 teaspoons.
  3. Let the mixture sit for at least two hours as it continues to thicken by itself.

Make sure the sodium alginate is completely dissolved into the solution. Simply mixing the chemical water might leave some visible particles, but they should disappear as the solution sits.

I let my chemical water solution thicken overnight. The solution probably won't get any thicker after about 8 hours.

Note: This mixture can be stored for 1-2 months in the refrigerator.

Step 3: Mix the Dye

Caution: In order to protect your work environment from being dyed on accident, you may wish to lay a plastic covering.
Caution: Wear latex gloves in order to keep the dye from staining your hands. The dye should wear off skin after 1-3 days.
  1. Pour a portion of the chemical water into cups for each color of dye you will be using.
  2. For each cup of chemical water, add 1 tsp of soda ash fixer and completely dissolve it.
  3. Add dye until you reach your desired color. I used 1 tsp for 2 cups of liquid.

Note: Direct application dying does not require a lot of dye. For this project I made 2 cups of dye, which was far more than I needed. Try mixing your dye in 1/2 cup increments. You can always mix more dye as you need it.

Note: Soda ash is the activator for the chemical reaction that bonds the dye to the fabric. As soon as the soda ash is mixed with the dye, it begins to lose its strength. Therefore, it is important not to take too long to apply the dye after mixing it. The soda ash loses half its strength about 4-6 hours after it mixes with the dye.

Note: If the exact color of the dye is important to you, test the dye until you reach your desired color. Keep in mind that the final color of the died fabric will be slightly lighter than it is when still wet.

Step 4: Paint the Fabric

This is the step where you can get as creative as you like! Experiment with colors, the thickness of the dye, shapes, stencils, stamps, brushstrokes, and more.

Place some resisting material on the backside of the fabric so that dye doesn't bleed through to the other side. For this project, I put plastic bags inside the t-shirt so that I could work on one side of the shirt at a time. Cardboard is more rigid than plastic bags and may make it easier to move your project later..

I painted a splash pattern by dripping and slightly tossing the dye over one side of the shirt, flipping the shirt over, and then coloring the backside similarly. If you want to replicate this effect, make sure your dye is not too thick or you will end up with globs of color instead of a lively splatter.

Step 5: Cure the Dye

  1. Let the fabric dry until damp.
  2. Wrap the fabric in plastic to keep it from drying out too soon. Make sure not to smear the dye when you do this.
  3. Let the fabric and dye rest for at least 6 hours for light colors and up to 24 hours for dark colors.

Note: You can use the same plastic cloth to protect your work space and wrap your fabric. Use a paper towel to wip away excess liquid dye, clear away all your equipment, and fold the plastic over the fabric.

This is the part where the dye molecules form covalent chemical bonds with the fiber molecules in the fabric, permanently coloring it. The wait serves both to allow for the dye particles to fuse to the fabric and to allow the soda ash to lose its strength. We want the soda ash to be weak when we wash out the excess dye so that loose dye particles do not accidentally color the wrong parts of the fabric.

Step 6: Wash and Rinse

  1. Rinse the fabric under cold water until the runoff is clear.
  2. Machine wash the fabric using pH neutral fabric detergent. Do this at least twice to ensure that all loose dye particles have been washed out of the fabric.
  3. Dry the fabric or garment.

Note: Dharma Professional Textile Detergent works best when washing with hot water. Washing cotton fabric in hot water may cause it to shrink slightly, even if you're washing pre-shrunk cotton clothing.

Note: Wash the fabric with other items to help knock the excess dye out of the fabric. This is especially important for top-loaded washing machines.

Step 7: Wear!

Now you have your own completely color-customized fabric or clothing that you made yourself from scratch. Show it off to your friends and try it again!