How to Dye Fabric & Clothes Black – 5 Methods

As a frequent fabric dyer and lover of all things vibrant and dark, I’m no stranger to black dye. After a failed high-school experiment of bleaching a favorite pair of jeans and then dyeing them with “black” dye resulted in a mousey gray pair of jeans, I ended up on a bit of a quest to find the best method to turn fabrics black. I’m sharing some of the things I’ve learned today so that you can skip past the trial and error to get a successful result!

Content list:

black silky fabric in a swirl
Black silky fabric. Photo credit: Pexels.

What’s the best way to dye fabric or clothes black?

The best way to dye something black is with a fabric dye that’s designed for the fibers your item is made from. This article covers the best dye techniques to ensure a deep, dark, and vibrant black using fiber-reactive dyes, acid dyes, and box dyes like Rit and Dylon. For best results, I recommend sticking with a dye that’s designed for your fabric rather than trying home solutions like acrylic paint and sharpies – although these may work in your situation so I’ve included them so you can make an informed choice.

It’s been said that black is one of the hardest colors to dye. Although there’s a bit more of a learning curve than there might be with other colors, I’m not sure if that title is well deserved. If you’re familiar with dyeing fabric but new to black pigments, there are a few things you’ll need to adjust to ensure success (using hot water is one of the key modifications!), but if you follow these adjustments it’ll be no more difficult to achieve a successful outcome than any other dye color.


Can you dye fabrics black with acrylic paint?

Of all the dye methods recommended in this post, acrylic is the least likely to give you a deep, permanent dye result that you’ll be happy with. As tempting as it might be to dip an item in acrylic paint to give it a new lease on life, coating fabrics in straight acrylic paint will lead to a concrete-like stiff coating that chips off whenever the fabric is flexed.

You can do this a little more successfully by mixing the acrylic pigment with a fabric medium. This is an additive that’s designed to provide flexibility and elasticity so that the concrete-like finish is eliminated. However, the fabric’s “hand” – that is, the way the fabric feels to touch – will be permanently altered by the acrylic, and depending on the fabric the level of permanence varies.

If you’re looking for a fun kids’ birthday party activity, painting on t-shirts with acrylic paint mixed with fabric medium could be a fun way to get some art juices flowing. But if you’re looking for an even, permanent, and reliable method to dye a garment or fabric black, I would not recommend acrylic paint.


Can you dye fabrics black with Sharpies?

Depending on your project, Sharpies can yield a fun and interesting result when used to dye fabric. In most cases the ink is wash-fast, so it won’t come out in the washing machine (although some colors fade over time) and you can achieve some truly vibrant shades. Sharpies combined with rubbing alcohol can yield wild bursts of color and are often used to introduce kids to tie dye (since the permanent ink is well contained within the pen, the risk of spilling it everywhere is reduced!). However, Sharpies are probably not your best bet for dyeing a large piece of fabric or a garment solid black.

Sharpies are a great quick-and-easy method to color small spots black – bleach stains on a black shirt, for example. But the number of black sharpies required to color an entire garment would be pretty cost-prohibitive, not to mention that it can be quite a mission to break into each sharpie and squeeze out the ink. While this method is technically possible, it’s really a lot more trouble than it’s worth. If you still want to do it, I recommend gloves, a full plastic face mask to protect your face and eyes from rogue splatter, and a saw or large pair of pliers to cut the plastic housing off the sharpies – and be sure to protect your surroundings from splatter as well!

Sharpie ink, even if used in small quantities, should be tested on your fabric first. Black Sharpie ink is actually made up of a combination of other pigments, so before using it on a garment, test it to be sure that the colors won’t separate and run at different rates. Although this is a fun project to introduce kids to color theory, if you’re aiming for a solid black this can be a nasty surprise!


My fabric or clothes are different fibers. Does this have an impact?

When dyeing fabric, the single most important thing you need to know is the fiber content of the fabric you’re dyeing. Different fibers (wools, cottons, synthetics, etc.) require different dyes to bond successfully. For more detail on this and the reasons why, you can check out my post on The Best Fabric Dyes for 23 Fabrics, but at a high level, here’s what you need to know:

Plant fibers like cotton, linen, hemp, rayon, and bamboo require fiber-reactive dyes to form a strong chemical bond, and you’ll need to put together a dye bath that also contains soda ash and salt as catalysts. Protein fibers like wool, alpaca, cashmere, and the outlier nylon require acid dyes to form a strong bond – these dyes aren’t actually acidic, but they’re named as such because they require a dye bath that is made acidic by the addition of citric acid or vinegar. If you’re dyeing synthetics like polyester, the best dye is dispersion dye, which can be purchased as-is or in a blended box mix like iDye Poly.

Blended mixes of fibers that cross over these categories (for example, a t-shirt that’s 50/50 cotton and polyester) may need to be dyed in two separate dye baths to penetrate all fibers, but you can always start with the first dye bath to see what kind of result you get. In general, box dyes like Rit or Dylon don’t yield results as consistent as the specialized dyes that are designed for individual fibers. If you’re looking for a quick one-off dye project and you’re not too worried about the exact shade that results, they can be a great option. But if you’re dedicated to achieving the darkest, most intense black possible on your dye project, they may not be the best option.


How to dye fabric black using Fiber Reactive or Acid Dyes on the stovetop

Fiber reactive dyes are your go-to for dyeing plant fibers like cotton, linen, bamboo, rayon, and hemp. Acid dyes are best for protein fibers like wool, alpaca, cashmere, and nylon (although that last one is an outlier!). When dyeing blacks, both are best used on the stovetop method as covered below. Generally fiber reactive dyes don’t require heat in order to function, but black is an exception to this rule.

Supplies:

  • Acid dye, OR fiber-reactive dye, depending on your fabric’s composition.
  • Dye activator: Citric Acid or White Vinegar (from your local supermarket, both work equally well) for protein fibers, or Salt and Soda Ash for cellulose fibers.
  • A dye pot made from a non-reactive metal like aluminum.
  • Rubber gloves.
  • A set of teaspoons you’re not going to use for any food in the future.
  • Dust mask.
  • A small plastic cup and stirring stick (I like a plastic knife) to mix dye solution.
  • Tongs, a stirring spoon, or something similar to stir your dye bath.
  • Optional: Kitchen scale (gram increments) and mini scale (hundreths of gram increments) and a thermometer.

Step 1: Pre-wash and dry your fabric or garment

Pre-wash and dry your item using detergent. If you’re dyeing an existing garment, be sure to treat any stains as these could take the dye differently.

Step 2: Record the weight of your dry item

Weigh the item you’re dyeing and write down its total dry weight.

Step 3: Calculate how much dye you need

Your dye will come with a suggested recipe based on this total weight, like “2% of Weight of Goods”. This means in order to get the swatch color, you need to calculate 2% of the total dry weight of your item. In most cases, black dyes will require more to get a deep, dark result – something like 6% – be sure to check the dye you choose to use.

This calculation is ([suggested percentage] / [total dry weight]) x 100

For example, if our item’s dry weight is 150g, and we need 2% dye, the formula is (2/150)x100, for 1.33g of dye.

Note: If you don’t have scales, you can estimate with tablespoons but the colors may not be exact.

Step 4: Mix your dye

Put a dust mask on before you open the jar of dye. Most powder dyes are lung irritants, so be safe.

Place your dye into the plastic cup, and add hot (but not boiling) water gradually. Mix the dye until it becomes a paste and then a liquid. You can strain this liquid through muslin if any granules of dye are left undissolved. Once the dye is dissolved and the lid is back on your jar, it’s safe to remove the dust mask.

Step 5: Add your item and water to the dye pot, and turn up the heat

Add your item to the dye pot, along with enough water for your item to swim freely. Heat the water to 54-60 degrees celsius (130-150 Fahrenheit) for fiber-reactive dyes and 185-195 Fahrenheit (85-90 degrees celsius) for acid dyes.

Depending on your home’s hot water heater, you may be able to reach the temperature required for fiber-reactive dyes with hot tap water, but you’ll likely need the stovetop for acid dye.

Step 6: Add the dye activator and dye solution

If using fiber-reactive dye, first add 6-18 tablespoons of salt per 450g of fabric, and 3-9 tablespoons of soda ash (this is twice as much as you’d normally use, since we’re dyeing black). For acid dyes, add vinegar (¼ cup per pound) or citric acid (2 tablespoons per pound).

Shuffle your fabric to the side with your tongs or spoon so you’re not pouring directly on the fabric. Mix thoroughly.

After this has dissolved, add the cup of  pre-mixed dye in the same way – pushing the fabric to the side to avoid pouring it directly. This helps to avoid dark splotches. Mix thoroughly. You can swish a bit of extra hot water in your dye cup and add it to your dye bath to make sure you get it all.

Step 7: Stir frequently until the dye is absorbed. Turn off the heat.

Maintain the temperature and stir frequently until the dye is absorbed. You’ll want to pay extra attention to the dye bath (agitating constantly and monitoring the temperature) for the first 20 minutes, but after that you can taper off, turning down the heat and stirring less frequently for a few hours. You can turn off the heat and allow it to sit overnight if required.

I have some friends who swear this is the key to a vibrant, deep dye bath and others who swear it doesn’t matter. I usually leave my dye baths overnight unless I’m on a deadline. This is less important with acid dyes since the dye will “exhaust” – that is, be absorbed into the fabric leaving clear water in your pot. If this happens (it’s somewhat rare with black dye projects), then you can remove your dye item immediately.

Step 8: Remove your item from the pot and rinse it

Remove your item from the dye bath after it has cooled down. Rinse it under hot water and then cool water. Wash it with a bit of hand soap and make sure the water runs clear. This will take what seems like forever with black, but don’t stop until the water is completely clear! This is the key to making sure the dye doesn’t bleed in the future.

Step 9: Machine wash your item

Depending on your fabric, you may wish to follow the in-sink rinse with a run through the washing machine, or even just pop it in for a spin cycle, but the rest is up to you.


How to dye fabric black using box dyes like Rit and Dylon:

A quick disclaimer before we begin: Do you remember those jeans I told you about at the beginning? The ones I bleached in high school and tried to dye black, only to achieve a mousey gray? Right. That was a Rit dye experiment. Although plenty of folks have great success with Rit (and even I’ve had some more successful results since then, including with black items) – I generally find box dyes to yield a less consistent result, and to have a greater chance of washing out and staining other things in my laundry, so I tend to avoid them. That said, sometimes they really are the best option – especially if you’re not willing to go for a whole dye setup in your house, so here are some tips for working with black Rit and Dylon.

Rit recommends using twice the usual recommended amount of dye for the weight of your fabric, and doubling the recommended time it spends in the dye bath, as well as using the post-dye Color-Stay Dye Fixative.

Supplies: 

  • Black box dye of choice
  • Rit Color-Stay Dye Fixative (if using Rit dye)
  • Vinegar (for Rit or iDye) or Salt (for Dylon)
  • A dye pot that will not be used for food
  • Rubber gloves
  • Tongs, a stirring spoon, or something similar to stir your dye bath.
  • A set of measuring spoons. Since you’re only using these for salt or vinegar, you don’t need a special “dye only” set, your regular kitchen ones are fine.
  • Optional: a kitchen scale to weigh your fabric.

1. Pre-wash & dry the garment or fabric you’re dyeing

Pre-wash and dry your item using detergent. If you’re dyeing a garment that’s been worn, use a stain treatment to lift any stains (especially sweat stains at the underarm!) as these may cause your garment to dye unevenly.

Step 2: Calculate how much dye you need

Once dry, follow the package instructions to estimate the amount of dye needed. Rit recommends one bottle for every 1-2 pounds of fabric normally, so double this for your black dye project.

Step 3: Add your item and water to the dye pot

Add fabric to your dye pot, fill it with enough hot water for the fabric to swim freely, and turn up the heat. If your item is cotton or a blend of mostly cotton, Rit recommends 60 degrees Celsius (140 degrees Fahrenheit), and if it’s synthetic like polyester, 93 degrees Celsius. While Dylon doesn’t specify an exact temperature, both of these temperatures are safe guidelines.

Step 4: Add the dye activator (salt or vinegar) and dye packet

Add 200ml vinegar (RIT) or 10 tablespoons of salt (Dylon) – per packet of dye. The dye activator is especially important when dyeing black.

Next, add the dye, being careful not to pour directly on the fabric as this can cause dark spots.

Step 5: Stir frequently until the dye is absorbed

Stir constantly for the first 20 minutes, then frequently for at least 2 hours. After the first 20 minutes, you can turn the heat down. If you like, you can turn off the heat and allow the item to sit in the dye for several hours or overnight. 

Step 6: Soak in color fixative

Dylon does not specify a fixative, but if you’re using Rit, this critical step will lock in more of that vibrant black color. Remove your dyed item from the dye bath, and add it to a fresh bucket of water with the required amount of Rit Color-Stay Dye Fixative (per the bottle’s instructions) and allow it to sit for at least 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Step 7: Remove your item from the fixative soak and rinse it

Rinse in hot water first, then cool water until it runs clear. Wash it with a bit of hand soap to be sure all of the dye and fixative have been removed.

Finally, I’d recommend at least one run through your washing machine alone (without anything you’re worried about staining) to be sure all the dye has washed out.


Will the black dye be permanent?

In a perfect world, all your dye projects would be permanent, wash-fast, and live a long and vibrant life – but of course, sometimes there are snags. Fiber-reactive and acid dyes both chemically bond to the fibers they’re designed to dye, so these dyes will yield a permanent color on your fabric. However, years of regular washing and wearing will fade even the strongest of dyes, so the definition of ‘permanent’ in this case is still relative. Store your dyed items away from direct sunlight and wash them in cooler water in your washing machine to prolong their life.

You may notice some color running the first time you wash a garment dyed with these dyes, but this is most frequently because the post-dye washout wasn’t thorough enough. Be sure that when you wash out the dye, you keep going until the water runs clear! This will limit the risk that a freshly dyed item may accidentally stain something else that it’s washed with. 


How to dye different colored fabrics black:

If the item you’re dyeing has a starting color other than white or a very light pastel, the color may affect the finished shade of black your dye bath achieves. It helps to think about these colors in ‘color temperatures’ – warm and cool colors. Blues and greens are cool colors; yellow, red, and beige are warm. Both cool and warm undertones can show through in a finished dyed item. If you don’t care much whether you achieve a ‘warm black’ or a ‘cool black’, feel free to proceed with your black dye project and enjoy the results! If you have a warm colored item and would prefer a cool black (or vise versa), there’s one extra step you can take to neutralize your black – you can cancel it out!

I’d really only recommend doing this if you’re working with an item that is particularly vibrant to begin with – a bright red dress, for example. In addition to your black dye, you can add some opposite-temperature dye to neutralize the color. In the red dress’s example, some green dye to help cool the color and hide the red undertones. Just be sure to follow the dye packet’s instructions for the total amount of dye you’ve added to your pot or bucket.

To find the color that will neutralize your garment, just pull up a color wheel on your computer and find the exact opposite: red to green, blue and orange, yellow and purple, etc. The thing to keep in mind here is to match intensity. A fairly light yellow won’t need a lot of purple, but our bright red dress might require a fair bit of green. It does pay to do a swatch test here, if you can.

Some dye brands do offer several shades of cool and warm black. Dharma Trading Company, for example, has about six different shades of black fiber-reactive dye available on their website with varying color temperatures. If available, you can select a cool black to neutralize a warm color or a warm black to neutralize a cool, but the great news is that even if your chosen dye doesn’t have options for shades of black, you can make your own by mixing in other colors!

Box dyes, unfortunately, have a higher risk of fading over time. These dyes are more generalist whereas acid and fiber-reactive are more specialist, so a larger percentage of the dyestuff (the “active ingredient” creating color in dye) is likely to just run off in the wash. They also sometimes (though not always) use dyes that act more as a “stain” than as a chemical bond – since the color bond is weaker, they’ll wash out more quickly over time. You can prolong the life of the dye with the same tips as above – cold wash, store out of direct sunlight, and ensure you’re completing the washout during your dye project. 

Additionally, you can test whether the dye is still leaching from your garment by washing in the washing machine with a white item or a color-catcher sheet to see if it comes out the same color as when it went in! If you have a front-loading washing machine with a clear door, you can also wash the item by itself and check to see what color the rinse water is.


How to dye a coat black?

Coats – or any garment that is made up of a variety of different materials – should be treated very delicately during dyeing. I do not recommend dyeing a coat if you’re unsure whether it can be washed, or if the label recommends “dry clean only”. Some coats have a delicate internal support structure that can be permanently warped if they are submerged in water, especially hot water which is one of the keys to a successful black dye project. In addition to this, some coat fabric isn’t pre-washed, so submerging it in hot water may shrink the fabric or cause it to bobble, especially if the fabric contains a blend of materials.

Assuming your coat passes the above requirements, there are a few things you can do to encourage a successful black dye project. First, remove the lining of your coat (if it has one) along with any basted support structure, such as shoulder pads. You can re-attach the lining after the dye bath. Removing it will allow better access to the coat’s structure so you can assess whether additional steps need to be taken to prepare it.

Use dye that’s designed for the fiber content of your coat – acid dyes for wool and protein fibers, fiber-reactive for cotton, and disperse dyes for polyesters and synthetics.

Don’t hesitate to go for 2 separate dye baths if your coat is a blend of fibers and you haven’t achieved a good result with the first bath.

Be sure to rinse your coat after dyeing thoroughly. To dry, lay your coat out flat on a towel, then roll the towel up into a towel-snake. Roll this towel-snake up again into a little spiral, and squeeze it (or kneel on it!) to extract excess water. I call this the cinnamon roll method. It’s useful for items that are too delicate to wring. Once you’ve cinnamon rolled your coat, you can either lay it on a fresh towel to dry or hang it on a hanger – it shouldn’t be dripping wet at this point. Keep it out of direct sunlight while it dries.


Can denim be dyed black?

If your favorite pair of jeans has faded around the edges and you’re looking to inject some new life, a fresh black dye job might be just the trick! Jeans are most frequently cotton (if your label says something like “97% cotton, 3% spandex” – it counts as cotton for our purposes here). But check that your jeans aren’t something like a 60/40 cotton poly blend, as you may be better off using an all-purpose dye like iDye or Rit if this is the case. If they’re cotton, you can dye them with fiber-reactive dyes.

The gold topstitching thread on jeans is frequently polyester, so do keep in mind that this may not absorb fiber-reactive dye in the same way the fabric does. Additionally, if the jeans you’re dyeing are starting off quite dark blue, they’ll likely still have a tinge of blue once you’ve finished dyeing. This is less likely if you start with jeans that are a lighter color to begin with.

If you look closely at the front and back of a piece of denim, you’ll notice that it’s made up of 2 different colored threads. On the “right side”, the warp runs up and down and is traditionally that indigo blue that we associate with blue jeans. On the “wrong side”, the weft threads are more visible running left and right, and they are often white or a creamy off-white. Denim is “yarn dyed”, which means that the color is applied to the fibers before they are woven into fabric. Since you’re already working with a finished piece of fabric, you can’t replicate this yarn-dyed effect, but it does affect the way the dye will be absorbed into the fabric. When the fibers are dyed prior to weaving, they’re allowed to swim a lot more freely than when they’re compressed into a dense fabric.

You can help the fabric absorb dye more evenly and vibrantly by agitating your dye bath throughout the dye process, to ensure the dye is absorbed deep into the fibers. You’ll want to work with more dye than you think you need, and in a dye tub or pot that’s also larger than you think you’ll need to allow your denim to swim freely.



This article was written by Kat Waters and edited by Sara Maker.

Kat Waters (author)
Kat has been sewing since her feet could reach the pedals, starting with quilts she made with her mom and eventually graduating to garments. She now makes everything she wears, occasionally teaches classes, and shares her projects on social media. Highlights include her wedding dress, shoemaking, and a love for almost any fabric that comes in hot pink! Read more…


Sources

These sources were referenced in April 2022.