Dye It Black FAQ

The following information is provided by Lady Bathory, a dyeshop technician @ the University of Tennessee Knoxville theatre costume shop. The information not gleaned from my own 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:




Shrinks from flame




Cellulosic Cotton Burns only No Burning paper fine grey ash  
Flax Same as cotton
Hemp Same as cotton
Jute Same as cotton
Ramie Same as cotton
Rayon Same as cotton
Protein Wool Burns only yes Burning hair black bead which crushes to black powder self-extinguishes
Silk same as wool, except odor may smell more like charred meat
Manmade All May burn & melt, may just melt.        

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.

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.

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.

Though you'll probably alread 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 makes Deka L also sells a fixative agent which you should use if you'll be chucking your dyed garment in the washer often.

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), but you would have to add white vinegar if you're dyeing silk or wool.

You can try a brand called Cushing: All-Purpose Fiber Type if you've got a synthetic-fiber garment, but it'll probably wind up more grey than black.

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 complex & involved, & 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)

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. It's not the temperature itself that shrinks wool, it's the shock of the temperature change. Obviously you can't to 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.

If you have more specific questions or think of something I've left out, feel free to email me. If you can't find Deka L in a store near you, write or call them at

                              Dekart Company

                                Morrisville, VY  05661

                                (802) 888-4217 

If you're a paranoid hypochondriac & want a really high-tech respirator to do these things, write or call

                                Foremost Safety Supply

                                62 W. 47th St. #205

                                NYC, NY 10036

                                (212) 719-2348 

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 

Some other books you may want to consult for general info

So good luck, darlings. Let me know if you have any problems.

"Eat, drink, & be scary, for tomorrow we may dye..."

L a d y   B a t h o r y   o f   P o m p e i i    @    M e r c u r y

C o s t u m e H i s t o r y / D e s i g n / C o n s t r u c t i o n

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