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Dyeing Millinery Materials

Colour is one of the most important parts of millinery, but for many, dyeing is one of the most frightening tasks. This guide will help take some of the mystery away from dye and how to use it effectively at home.

Why you should never dye anything

Let’s face it; time is money, and dyeing takes a lot of it. From learning how to dye to mixing colours and waiting for things to dry, not to mention the cost of dyes and equipment, it can get expensive. That’s why if you can get away with it, steer clear of dyeing and let the professionals do it. Many of you have had customers who insist that their hat has to match their outfit or a fabric swatch they give you. I still don’t think this is a great reason to run to the dye pot.

I’ve had many instances where that same customer can’t differentiate colour subtleties sufficiently to know if it’s an exact match. So if you can, show the customer samples or photos. You may find they say, ‘oh, yes. That’s it.’ and you don’t have to worry. Don’t assume because they say they want a match, they mean an exact match. More often, they’re looking for or should be encouraged to go with a harmonious, similar colour instead.

Even if you end up needing something dyed, you may not have to do it yourself. Millinery Hub offers a dyeing service on a range of products.

I love to dye things and get enjoyment out of getting colours right. I also find that as time goes on, colours produced out of factories are saturated and limited. You rarely get rich tertiary colours, and for me, they are the ones that scream bespoke and luxury. So if that’s your thing too, let’s have a look at how to do it.

Dye types, and what materials they will dye?

When it comes to dye, there are a lot of different types, brands, and instructions; it can be very confusing. In millinery, I think it is best to divide it up like this.

CategoryMade for dyeingAdditive/catalystSetting/rinseNotes
AcidProtein fibres (derived from animals) - feathers, wool, furWeak acid – Vinegar, citric acidCold waterEasy to use, vibrant colourfast colours, solar fast
DirectMost natural fibres – good on sinamay, sisalSaltCold waterThe least colourfast of all dye but easy to get deep colours
Procion and Fibre-reactiveCellulose (plant) fibres – straw, sinamay, buntal, Manilla hemp (abaca)Salt then Soda AshSoda ash, cold waterSignificantly more colourfast than direct dyes. More difficult to use
SyntheticNylon, Polyester, and other fabricsUnnecessaryCold waterNot all brands are as good

Dyeing equipment

Equipment for most dyeing is reasonably basic. You will need a heatproof vessel (dyebath) like a stockpot, spoons etc. (to measure/mix the dye), something to stir with, a container (or sink) to rinse in, and probably rubber gloves.

The vessel you use to dye will most often go on a stove/hotplate, so cooking posts are an excellent choice. Aluminium pots are ok but will develop holes over time as they react with the concentrated salt solutions. Stainless steel pots are much better. Many millinery fabrics are sensitive to being folded and creased. For instance, to successfully dye jinsin to an even colour and not break the fibres, you would need an exceptionally long dyebath. Once wet, many materials are ok to fold, but having your materials cramped in a pot that is too small will result in an uneven dye job. So a large enough pot is better in many cases (you don’t have to fill the whole thing).

The vessel you use to dye will most often go on a stove/hotplate, so cooking posts are an excellent choice. Aluminium pots are ok but will develop holes over time as they react with the concentrated salt solutions. Stainless steel pots are much better. Generally speaking, the larger, the better as many millinery materials are large and require a lot of space to dye and you don’t have to fill the whole thing. Having your materials cramped in a pot that is too small will result in an uneven dye job. Many millinery fabrics are sensitive to being folded and creased, which is one of the reasons dying them is hard. For instance, to successfully dye jinsin to an even colour and not break the fibres, you would need an exceptionally long dyebath. Such a bath in stainless steel would cost a pretty penny; most likely more than the hat you’re making will fetch. We don’t fold our sinamay when we post it because it can damage the fibres, but in the dyebath, it’s a lot more forgiving. Once wet, it will flex and fold with no problem.

Safety mixing and using dyes

Many dyestuffs come as a powder that you mix with water. Once in solution, most of them are relatively safe. However, most powdered dyes are carcinogenic and easily inhaled. For this reason, you must take great care when measuring them out. Ideally, you would wear a dust mask, and if you are working inside, an exhaust fan is a good idea. Added to this, a spec of powdered dye floating around and landing a hood or a hat you’re partway through can be enough to ruin it. They can even spoil materials you are about to dye by making dark spots on an otherwise even dye job.

To avoid these problems, limit the time the lid is off the container by working out what you are mixing before you start and only measuring out one colour at a time. Don’t sprinkle the powder from on high. Put the whole lot in with a spoon (or knife tip, etc.) straight into the water. If you mix a few dyes to get a custom colour, it can help if you mix each colour in a mug of warm water before mixing the liquids in your main dyebath. Once wet, the powder no longer poses an inhalation risk.

Discarding used dye

Dyestuffs contain all sorts of chemicals. Many colours are only achieved using heavy metals and are thus detrimental to the environment, primarily aquatic life (if you tip it in the drain, that’s where it goes). The best way to deal with this is not overloading your dyebath. More dyestuff doesn’t generally give you a deeper colour. It will dye faster, but you will end up with wasted dye in the water. Better is adding just enough tint to colour whatever you are dyeing. The perfect dyebath should be almost clear when you are finished.

When I am dyeing, I plan for a few colours to dye that day and start with lighter colours, building up to deep colours. For instance, yellow then orange, red,  purple, and then possibly even navy. In this way, I only discard one lot of water (note: this does not work with fibre reactive dyes where you add soda ash). Often, I ‘soak up’ the excess dye with some paper hoods or some odd sinamay leaving it to soak overnight. The next morning the water is usually a weak tea colour, and I’m much happier tipping it out. Don’t tip it on your garden or lawn though, remember there is likely salt in there. If you are worried, tipping dye down the toilet is better, then at least it goes to a sewerage treatment facility and not in our river systems.

Colour mixing

Luckily, the colour you see in the water is what your fabric will turn out to be. So mixing dye until your water is the right colour is usually sufficient. Exceptions to this rule are a lot more complicated and out of the scope of basic dyeing techniques. If you do a lot of dyeing, you may come across some. One classic example is using fibre reactive dyes. When you add soda ash to the bath, the pH change will often cause the colour to change dramatically. You may think you have just ruined your work, but after rinsing them in a weak acid like vinegar, the colour should come back to normal. This is one reason fibre reactive dyes are harder to use.

Your most essential tools for mixing dyes are white mugs or a white ceramic tile. A little of the dyebath solution in a mug or a smear on a white tile will show the colour quite nicely. Looking in the pot can be very deceiving. Some will be able to look at a colour and see what you need to mix to get it. While this does get easier with practice, you may not be at that stage. If you are stuck on what to mix, there are a few things to consider.

Should I mix my own?

There are three primary colours (you can’t mix from any other colour). At school and for most of your life, you will are taught that these are red, blue and yellow. While they will get you so far, there are still two colours you can’t mix from them—namely, cyan and magenta. So, in reality, cyan, magenta and yellow are better primary colours. I’m still getting used to this. You may be picking yourself up off the floor from shock, so if you don’t believe me, read more about it. Most of us base whatever colour theory we have on red, blue and yellow. Therefore, in practice, you would be wise to have these six colours in your set to dye any colour: red, blue, yellow, cyan, magenta, and black. I include black because, in practice, mixing it from other colours does not work.

Also, just because one can mix a colour doesn’t mean it’s the best option. For instance, you can buy a lovely purple off the shelf, so it’s easier to use that if you’re not confident mixing it. There are no hard and fast rules. You can make your mind up depending on your ability, time and money. Stick to what you know and gradually build on that if you want to improve. If you want to learn more about how to mix colours, there are many resources on the web. Another handy tool is the colour wheel. They are useful in many ways, but for us, it’s about mixing colours.  Below you can see the 12 colours around the outside. The inside wheel spins to let you line it up with any of them and shows the result of adding red, yellow, blue, black, or white to them. However, white dye does not exist. If it’s white, it’s paint.

Dyeing

There are probably more dyeing methods than there are dyes. The label will usually have the suggested directions for dyeing your materials. But there are some common steps we would use to dye millinery materials.

Wet your items

Wetting your material before you dye gives you a better chance of having an even colour. It allows the dye to reach every part of the project as soon as it’s in the bath. As a guide, an hour in a bucket of lukewarm water with an occasional stir would be plenty.

Dissolve the dye in water. A liquid dye is ready as soon as you mix it in, but powders can take some time to dissolve. It is essential to dissolve it before you add your materials. If not, you run the risk of getting supersaturated spots of colour caused by lumps of powder. No matter how much rinsing or time spent in the dye bath, they won’t go away. If you add powder direct to a pot full of water, you need to stir it a lot until you are sure it’s dissolved. Otherwise, some suggest making a slurry out of the powder and a little water. Remembering back to our safe handling, I’d recommend the former—the point is to make an effort and check. If you need to add more dye, never add the powder to a pot with the fabric already in it. Instead, thoroughly mix the new powder with water first and add the liquid.

Add your catalyst

Catalysts are compounds that assist in getting the dye into the fabric but are not consumed in the process. For most dyes, we use salt. Table salt is ok, but if you dye a lot, then a bigger bag is more cost-effective. I buy a 20kg bag of pool salt. Again, make sure you dissolve it all before you add fabrics. Rates can depend on the dye and method you use, but as a rule, I use a cup of salt for ~8L of water (a large stockpot).

Acid dyes need an acidic dye bath to work correctly. Don’t be alarmed; the water only needs to be slightly acidic to work, and we only use weak acids like vinegar or citric acid. The acid works on the protein fibres and assist in bonding the dye to the fibre. If your part way through your dyeing it’s not working, you likely forget to add the vinegar. In this case, you can add it now, and all will be ok. Just stir it in. Don’t use salt with acid dyes.

Temperature

Different dyes work best at different temperatures. Dyeing, like all chemical reactions, works faster at higher temperatures, so if your material can handle it, boiling water is an excellent way to go. However, sometimes the steam bubbles can collect in fabrics and cause light spots. So be aware of this and keep your fabric moving or decrease the temperature. Boiling water can be too hot for feathers. Keep their water below a simmer for best results.

Procion and other fibre-reactive dyes, as the name would suggest, react with the fibre to make strong bonds. While it makes the resulting dye job very colourfast, it means they are considered cold water dye. These dyes are so reactive that in hot water, the reactions happen so fast the dye can react with the water and salt before the material even gets to the bath. In this case, cold water means lukewarm; about 35-40°C. Another reason procion dyes are harder to use.

Adding your materials

Now you have the dye bath ready, you can add your wet material. If you are dyeing more than one piece and need them to be the same colour, add them together. If you dye one and then the other, you will get a different result because the first one will have used some dye. Your bath should be large enough to accommodate all the dye lot in one go and not be cramped. If you aren’t dyeing things to be an exact match, you can dye pieces one at a time.

Stir

Keep your materials moving. If you don’t, your dye job will be uneven. I find that I continuously move the materials around at first, and then I can go for longer intervals between stirs later when I’m waiting for colour depth. Depending on what you are dying to what shade, the time will be different. Some pieces I literally dip in and straight out again (like soft pinks). Others may be in for 2 hours (navy).

Wait

As a rule, you wait until you get a slightly deeper shade than what you want. Most materials dry lighter than they look wet. Once they are the required shade, get them straight out and rinse them.

Setting the dye and rinsing

Setting a dye depends on the type used. However, many require cold water. Some, like acid dye, you can leave in the rinsing water all day with no loss of colour, and others should be out and dry as quick as possible, like direct dyes. So to play it safe, rinse your materials thoroughly as soon as you can.

Direct dyes have no setting process. The dye lightly adheres to the fibre’s surface, so rinse it in cold water until the excess dye has come off. Do not soak them. If you do, the dye will keep coming off, and you will have wasted it. I dunk them in clear, cold water, swish them around, and then run them under water until the runoff is close to clear. Direct dyes offer a quick, vibrant colour but are not very colourfast (i.e. the degree to which the colour stays). Proper rinsing reduces the chance of dye running, but they will always do so if wet enough.

Rinsing in cold water is all it takes to set acid dyes. They can stay in the rinse water for a long time if you are not ready to dry them. In the case of feathers or other materials that require attention to dry, this may be handy.

Fibre-reactive dyes like procion dyes are more complex to set. Ideally, the material is dyed close to the required shade with salt in the bath then soda ash is added a little at a time to set the dye. At this point, the material will likely undergo a colour change. Then it is rinsed thoroughly to remove and neutralise the alkaline soda ash. The rinsing should restore the proper colour. Adding a little vinegar to the rinse water can help.  Soda ash renders any leftover dye useless; one more reason I’m not particularly eager to use procion dyes.

Drying

You can dry most materials without any fuss just by hanging them up. Make sure they are not dripping on any precious surfaces in case dye drips off. I dry all my hoods and sinamay on a clothesline. However, I suggest drying in the shade to minimise and sun bleaching. Feathers are a little more tricky. If you leave them out on a table, they may not dry to be the same shape as they were before. As a bird preens when they dry off, you have to simulate this movement, so your feathers dry to be fluffy again. Flap them around a bit, use a cool hair dier, but don’t forget about them.