How to Paint on Fabric Using Dharma Fiber Reactive Dyes




Introduction: How to Paint on Fabric Using Dharma Fiber Reactive Dyes

About: Specializing in sewing, soldering and snacking. More stuff I do... I teach an interactive fashion and textile class called Wearable and Soft Interactions at California College of the Arts. www.wearablesoft...

You can paint on fabric made of natural fibers using Dharma Fiber Reactive Dyes. These dyes come in many vibrant and rich colors and are permanent. In this Instructable, I will be mixing up a cold batch of Dharma Fiber Reactive Dyes and will be painting, well more like sponging, straight on to fabric. There are many ways to use these dyes, but this way is very easy and straight forward.

I used this method to snazz up a no-sew t-shirt I was making. You can check out how to make one yourself here.

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Step 1: Materials

- Dharma Fiber Reactive Procion Dyes in Choice Color(s)

- Soda Ash Fixer

- Urea

- Dharma Professional Dye Detergent or Synthrapol Detergent **

- Foam Brush

- Cups for Mixing Dyes

- Measuring Cups (1 c, 1 tbsp, 1 tsp)

- Natural Fiber Fabric or Garment

- Cardboard or Material of Your Choice for Backing Fabric

- Gloves

**The Professional detergent is a non-toxic version of Synthrapol. Read more on the Professional detergent page linked to above.

Step 2: Mixing the Dye

This recipe is for making 1 cup of dye, I got the recipe from the Dharma website. I divided this recipe by 4 since I knew I wouldn't be painting that much material. I also omitted the thickener. Depending on how big the project you may want to mix more. 1 cup of one color was enough to paint a t-shirt and could of easily been enough for a few more.

Once you add the Soda Ash, use it immediately. The dye gradually loses it strength over time. For more information, visit the Dharma website.

Looking up the ingredients, they are all non-toxic, but can be an irritant, like a detergent that your skin doesn't agree with.

Either way, it's safest to wear gloves while you mix. The dye will stain your hands as well if you get messy while you are painting.

Recipe For 1 Cup of Dye

3 tbsp. Urea

1 cup or water

1 tsp. Soda Ash

Dye - add amount to taste

Chemical Water

Add the urea to a cup of warm water to help dissolve it. If added to cold, stir until it dissolves, it doesn't take long.

This is called the "chemical water", it can be stored for later use before you add the dye and soda ash for about a month in the refrigerator.

If you want to test some colors before you start, take some of the mixture and transferred it to another cup. For me, it was about seeing the different colors to choose from on my chosen fabric, rather than testing the deepness of the shade of one color. I took about 1 tbsp of the chemical water and added about a 1/4 tsp of Turquoise, Lemon Yellow and Fuchsia Red into three separate cups. I then applied each mixture to a scrap piece of fabric. After inspecting the colors, I chose Lemon Yellow to paint one tee, and the Turquoise to paint the other. You can test quite a bit in this stage if it's the first time using these dyes. I chose to use one color and keep it simple, but you can try blending and mixing with your foam brush if you choose to design a multi-colored creation. As well as how deep you want your color to come out by keeping note of your dye to chem water ratio and putting your fabric swatch through the whole paint and cure process.

Adding the Soda Ash and Dye

After you have tested and chosen your colors, add the soda ash, stir to dissolve.

Add the dye amount based on your taste or any tests you decide to do.

Step 3: Paint on Fabric

For this step, if you don't already know what you are going to paint, take some time to plan out a design.

You can blend, stencil, splatter (bristle brush will probably work better), draw freehand and I'm sure loads of other stuff I can't think of at the moment.

This 'ible was born from the necessity of making another 'ible more snazzy. So, I had a design in mind. I wanted something bold, simple, geometric and that used the shapes of my pockets. The pieces of fabric, which would become pockets, were used as resists for the dye. To my delight the dye did not bleed through the pocket pieces to the fabric underneath.

Prep Area:

If you are doing a shirt or any garment, make sure to put a piece of cardboard in between the fabric you will paint on and the fabric that is behind it so you don't accidentally bleed through and dye the back. Tape down a piece of fabric if you need to keep it in place as you brush the dye on to it.

Dye can splatter and come off your brush, you can cover and tape some plastic garbage bags around exposed areas if you need. I didn't and I managed to not get any on my shirt, but if you are doing a more complicated project and just want to get messy, it's probably a good idea to protect the area and the parts you don't want dye on.

You will probably want to wear gloves, if you don't already have them on, the dye will stain your skin.

Notes on My Painting Experience:

From my experience, the foam brush is best when it's loaded with the dye, but be careful to not drip on the rest of the shirt.

Use the foam brush like you are sponging paint on, going straight down and pressing the dye to the fabric, with small light strokes to spread the dye from here to there. I was careful not to drag the brush that much so the fabric wouldn't stretch and warp.

If you are to use a piece of fabric for a resist too, iron to flatten completely and pin the pieces down to your fabric. Use few, but enough to keep the edges down in place. The water in the dye may cause the fabric edges to curl. Sponge around the edges first to make sure you are transferring the ink as cleanly as possible and that the edges are providing a good enough edge. The ink bled through the pin holes, so if that matters to you, try using double-stick tape instead.

It helped me to create the outline first, then do the edges of the fabric resists and then I filled in everything.

Step 4: Curing the Dye

Before you rinse out the dye, it needs to set, or cure over time.

The Dharma website suggests:

- 6 hours for pastels

- 12 - 24 hours for deep shades

I left the shirts cure overnight for 12 hours to ensure a bright and vibrant shade.

After it's dried to a dampened state, wrap the fabric in plastic or put it in a plastic tub sealed to keep it moist over the time period. I put plastic on top of my dyed areas, stacking the shirts while the cardboard was still in them.

After the dyed has cured, carefully unwrap your fabric by a sink and your washing machine. I unpinned my pockets to free them up in the washing cycle.

Step 5: Washing Out Dye


Before throwing the shirt in the washer, I like to give it a good rinse in the sink using the Professional detergent and warm water to get off the topical dye.

Immediately afterwards, load 1/4 cup of Professional detergent in to your washer, this works best when HOT water is used. However, I put the washer on "active wear" and selected warm water, because I used Stitch Witchery, which is a hot-melt adhesive. This was about a 50 minute cycle.

Once it's done, take out a shirt and press a paper towel to the dyed areas to see if any transfers. The turquoise dyed shirt still had some residue, so I put it in for a second short cycle for about 25 minutes with 1/8 of a cup of the detergent.


Once all the excess dye has been washed out, throw your shirts in the dryer. Again, because my shirts were created by using Stitch Witchery, an hot-melt adhesive. I put the temp setting on LOW.

Check out the finished shirt and how I made it here!

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    5 Discussions


    Question 1 year ago on Step 1

    Hello! How much dye would I probably need to color a sofa? I have a chenile sofa. Thank you so much! Marie


    3 years ago

    Dig it. Nicely laid out and informative. Well done!


    4 years ago

    Hey I'm trying to dye the arms on a varsity jacket, what do you recomend?

    Tater Zoid
    Tater Zoid

    5 years ago

    Great tips. Thank you for posting purchase links.