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Let’s deal with this issue since it comes up fairly often in our forums.

This is something we do a lot in theater and costuming, where the needs of the production come first. But it isn’t something I recommend for vintage clothing. It is permanent change. And the vast majority of the time, it just doesn’t work. Think of dye as a watercolor. It isn’t opaque. It’s just a wash of color over whatever is dye is already there. So if there are stains or light areas, they will end up darker or lighter than the rest of the field.

Over dyeing also dyes all the interfacings and threads and labels that originally were another color, leaving a telltale sign you have been there. Most garments are made of commercially dyed fabric already and the fabric won’t usually take much more color. And purchasable dye remover won’t touch most commercial dyes. Other pitfalls are shrinkage, the fabric taking the dye unevenly and dye spots.

About the only scenario where over-dyeing might help is rinsing a dark garment with it’s existing color to freshen it up. And I still can’t really recommend it.

And here‘s the kicker – over dyed garments lose a lot of value. Many a collector, including myself, will pass over a re-dyed garment, no matter how fab, without a second thought.

Trying to dye only small spots of dye loss is a very tricky undertaking, not to be attempted by the amateur dyer.

How to dye fabric

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Having said all that, here are directions if you feel you just must take a project in hand.

First, the garment must be washable. Cotton takes dye well. Linen takes light colors well, silk usually soaks up the dye, and wool will dye somewhat. Nylon and poly don’t dye well if at all.

The garment must be clean and stain free.

There are sources for dye on the internet from Rit to Deka silk dyes. Whatever your choice, be sure to follow any directions for adding either vinegar or salt to the dye bath and water temperature.

The hotter the water, the quicker and deeper the dye will take.

Boil water on the stove in a pot you will never again use for food preparation. Wear a dust mask and rubber gloves . Turn off any fans. You don’t want to inhale or absorb dye into your system or have it become airborne in your home. Add the dye and stir until it is all thoroughly dissolved. Set aside.

Fill your washer or a very large pot on your stove with the appropriate temperature of water. Usually as hot as the garment will tolerate, but there are cold water dyes, so check your directions. You want enough water that the garment has plenty of room to circulate.

Slide the garment into the water and get it completely wet. Remove it and set it aside. Pour the dissolved dye into the water, making sure it is thoroughly dispersed. Running the agitator will do this.

Now slide the wet garment into the dye bath. Let it agitate at least briefly to make sure it all gets in the dye. Depending on the depth of color desired, either let the machine run through it’s cycle and rinse, or let the garment soak.

Make sure it is all down in the dye bath without air bubbles. You may have to weight the garment to keep it down. Plastic bottles filled with water will work. Let the garment rinse well when it is a shade darker than you want. It will lighten a bit when dry.

Lay flat on dark towels to dry and then press or steam. Be sure to run a load of rags or old towels with bleach in the washer next to clean out any residual dye.

If you are going to try to remove dye, use dye or color remover rather than bleach. Bleach will weaken the fibers and turns many fibers such as silk and nylon permanently yellow.

Major Restorations

Both Rules we mentioned way back at the beginning come into play here.

Do No Harm—When in Doubt, Don’t

Most major restorations should be left to the expert. More damage has been done by inexperienced seamstresses than you can imagine. Paying someone to do major jobs such as relining a coat or replacing damaged areas is expensive in both supplies and labor. And if it isn’t done well, it lowers rather then raises the value of the garment.

In my experience, it is best to leave this sort of work to the buyer’s discretion. Most serious collectors would much rather have their own conservator do the work.

Fabric must be dyed to match, not something for the casual dyer to attempt, and the fabric types must be right. Relining a silk velvet 1920s opera coat with polyester satin doesn’t help the garment, it hurts it.

If you do anything along these lines, try to keep the work you do such that it can be removed and the garment is will still be intact. Don’t cut the garment, as this can’t be restored. If you remove trims, buttons or lining, please retain them with the garment as a record. If you just must try a hand at relining, leave the original lining in place under the new fabric.

Don’t try to redesign or ‘improve’ the dress. It is what it is. Accept it. If you think it’s dowdy or unattractive, perhaps best to leave it at the store.

If you have a textile that has fabric losses, but is still a worthwhile piece, you can stabilize those areas. Simple techniques to address this are whip stitching the raw edges of holes or tears to prevent raveling. Use a matching color cotton threadNylon net or silk crêpeline may be placed over and under vulnerable areas or holes and stitched loosely into place with running stitch. This can also help stabilized small areas of shattering. This will stabilize an area until you can work with a conservator to determine a long term solution.

by Hollis Jenkins-Evans