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What is Dyeing in Textiles?

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Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Dyeing in textiles is the application of dyes or pigments to fibers, threads, or fabrics to achieve a certain color or design. Explore the process of dyeing textiles and learn about different types of dyes and various methods of dyeing. Updated: 12/28/2021

Dyeing Textiles

Dyeing in textiles is a process in which color is transferred to a finished textile or textile material (like fibers and yarns) to add permanent and long-lasting color. It can be done by hand or by machine. Dyes can come as powders, crystals, pastes, or liquid dispersions, and they dissolve completely in an aqueous solution like water. When the textile and the dye come into contact, the textile is completely saturated by the dye and colored.

But what's the difference between paint and dye? Paint is a complex substance, and when you use it, you're usually coating the surface of something. Unlike paint, dyes actually change the crystal structure of substances. The details involve a long chemistry discussion, but what you really need to understand is that dyes are more saturating and more permanent. This is important because you want the fabric color to last through many wearings and washings. And yes, most dyed textile material is used to make clothing.

Humans have been dyeing textiles for a very, very long time, and in fact, scholars find early mention of dyeing textiles as far back as 2600 BCE! Dyeing can be done at any stage of the manufacturing process. Makers don't have to wait until the whole cloth has been made in order to dye it.

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  • 0:04 Dyeing Textiles
  • 1:25 Types of Dyes
  • 2:45 Methods of Dyeing
  • 4:35 Lesson Summary
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Types of Dyes

Before we discuss some dye types, you should know that there are many different types of dyes and we're only going to discuss a few of them. Now, let's review two primary categories before moving on to dye types. Natural dyes come from sources like plants, minerals, and animals. They have a long history, but aren't used much for commercial textiles anymore. You'll find artists and craftspeople using them for hand-made products and for traditional crafts. Synthetic dyes are made in a laboratory, and the chemicals are often derived from sources like coal tar or petroleum-based substances.

Examples of wool skeins colored with natural dyes
examples of natural dye

Basic dye dissolves in water and requires a mordant. A mordant is a chemical that forms a bond with the dye to make it insoluble, which means the color stays on the textile when it's rinsed following dyeing. This process tends to be used with fabrics like nylon and polyester. Direct dyes, on the other hand, don't require a mordant, and are used to dye natural fibers like wool, cotton, and silk. Then, there are vat dyes, made of materials like indigo. Indigo is a plant that provides a deep blue color and is one of the oldest natural dyes. Substances used in vat dyes must be treated with a liquid alkaline substance (something that reduces acid) to allow them to be used as a dye.

Example of someone hand-drying textiles
man hand-dyeing textiles

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