Linen is a popular summer fabric due to its lightness, breathability, and the way it softens over time into buttery soft garments. Since it’s not always possible to find the perfect color, dyeing linen is sometimes the only way to achieve the vibrant colors you’re after!
Dyeing linen doesn’t come with any major obstacles besides the usual initial dye setup. It’s easy to handle and durable so you don’t have to worry about damaging the fibers during the dyeing process. You can use fiber-reactive dyes (the best option) or box dyes like Rit and Dylon – complete instructions for both are included in this article. Regardless of the method you choose, you’ll end up with a beautiful dyed item that will last for years to come!
- Can you dye linen? And linen-cotton blends?
- Is it easy to dye linen?
- What’s the best dye and dyeing method for linen?
- Can you dye linen any color, like black and white?
- Can you dye linen sheets? And how?
- How to dye linen using fiber-reactive dye (best method)
- How to dye linen using box dyes like Rit and Dylon
- How to dye linen naturally
- Will the dye be permanent?
Can you dye linen? And linen-cotton blends?
You can absolutely dye linen! Linen is made from the fibrous leaves of the flax plant, and as a plant fiber (sometimes called a cellulose fiber), linen can be dyed with fiber-reactive dyes. Cotton is also a cellulose fiber, which means that any dye you use on linen will also work on cotton. Animal fibers like wool and silk, as well as synthetics like polyester, will require a different kind of dye so results with blends of these fibers may come out differently than expected. If you’re aiming for a particular color, the safest method is to dye a test swatch before you dye your entire item.
Is it easy to dye linen?
Linen is one of the easiest fibers to dye because it can handle high temperatures well, it’s strong and resistant to ripping even when wet, and linen fabrics are frequently made in a plain, loose weave (compared to, say, an oxford cotton) which means the dye can easily penetrate the fibers for an even result. If you can get your hands on linen to dye with, it’s a perfect beginner fabric, though in some cases it can be a pretty expensive test subject!
What’s the best dye and dyeing method for linen?
Fiber-reactive dyes are by far the best dye to use with linen fibers. They are specifically formulated for use with plant fibers (also called cellulose fibers) and will bond on a molecular level with the linen fibers to create a lasting, vibrant, and permanent bond.
Box dyes (such as iDye, Rit, and Dylon) contain fiber-reactive dyes, but they also contain many other dyes designed for different types of fabrics. As such, they can be less powerful (since there’s less of the specific dye you need present) and they can also wash out more rapidly over time. That said, these dyes are useful if you’re less specific about the end color and are just looking for a quick fix.
Can you dye linen any color, like black and white?
Linen can be dyed any color, and it’s a fairly straightforward process if you’re starting with a plain white fabric or garment. If you’re dyeing a colored garment, be sure to account for the color shift that will happen – for example, dyeing a red linen shirt with blue dye will create purple, not blue. Other than that, there are no limitations on the color you can dye!
If you’re dyeing a deep, black shade, you’ll want to follow the instructions for the black dye you choose. Often black dyes require twice or even four times as much dye to achieve a very dark black, and heat is often required as well.
If you have a colored linen garment or fabric and are looking to dye it white, the process you’re looking for is bleaching rather than dyeing. Linen is a strong fabric that isn’t easily damaged by bleach, but it can still be damaged. Start with a “low and slow” method – a low concentration of bleach and a slow wait while it does the work. Bleach can in some cases turn fibers faintly yellow instead of a “true” white, so it’s best to test it on a swatch or inconspicuous area before you submerge your entire item.
Can you dye linen sheets? And how?
Dyeing linen sheets is relatively straightforward. The only special precautions you’ll need to take are related to the size of your sheet set, rather than its fiber content.
Before you begin, make sure that your linen sheets are at least 80% linen or another plant fiber. Some brands blend their linen with polyester which can impact the results. Blends with cotton, viscose, or hemp won’t impact the results as these fabrics use the same type of dye.
When dyeing large bulky items like sheets, the key phrase to remember is “enough room to swim freely”. You’ll see this instruction a lot in reference to the amount of water to add to your dye pot, bucket, or vessel. The idea is that in order for an item to absorb dye evenly and without light or dark spots, it needs to have even, equal access to the dye. It needs to be able to spread out in the bathtub, rather than be cramped in a tiny bucket (unless you’re going for that scrunched-up, uneven look!). The key to a successful, even dye bath with large sheets is to use a large enough vessel so that your sheets can move around freely while you’re stirring.
Speaking of stirring, this is secret number two. Your sheets need constant agitation throughout the dyeing process, especially during the first half an hour. If you intend to leave your item overnight, you should stir it constantly (with tongs or a wooden spoon, or hands protected by long dish gloves) for the first half an hour, and then as frequently as you can remember after that. My usual method is to place the dye bucket in a place I’m likely to walk past (like the kitchen counter) and give it a stir every time I walk past for the rest of the day.
It does take a bit of extra effort to get an even dye bath on larger items like linen sheets, but if you follow these two steps – allow enough room for the sheets to swim freely, and agitate frequently – you’ll have beautiful results!
How to dye linen using fiber-reactive dye in a bucket or on the stove:
Fiber reactive dyes are your go-to for dyeing plant fibers, and linen is exactly that, so it’s a perfect match! As far as techniques are concerned, the stovetop method can provide better, faster results for vibrant or dark colors, but it’s not necessary for a successful linen dye project so there’s no need to go out and buy special supplies: a plastic bin or bucket is fine if you have one.
- Fiber-reactive dye.
- Dye activators: Salt and Soda Ash.
- A dye pot made from a non-reactive metal like aluminum, OR a plastic bin or bucket.
- Rubber gloves.
- A set of teaspoons that you’re not going to use for food in the future.
- Dust mask.
- A small plastic cup and stirring stick (I like a plastic knife) to mix the dye solution.
- Tongs, a stirring spoon, or something similar to stir your dye bath. Make sure these are heat-proof if you’re using the stovetop method!
- Optional: a kitchen scale (gram increments) and mini scale (hundredths of gram increments) and a thermometer.
Step 1: Pre-wash and dry your linen fabric or garment
Pre-wash and dry your linen item using detergent. If you’re dyeing an existing garment, 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 its 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, dark or vibrant colors will require more dye – something like 6% – be sure to check the dye you choose to use.
This calculation is the (Suggested percentage x Total dry weight) / 100
For example, if our item’s dry weight is 150g, and we need 2% dye, the formula is (2×150)/100 for 3g of dye.
If you want to avoid the maths, Dharma Trading has a calculator that tells you how much dye to use based on the dye color and the weight of the item.
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.
The Stovetop Method:
Step 5: Add your item to the dye pot and enough water for it to swim freely, and turn up the heat. Heat the water to 54-60 degrees Celsius (130-150 Fahrenheit). Heating the water higher than this won’t damage the linen like it would with silk or wool, and it also won’t make any change to the dye reaction, so you have a bit of wiggle room here.
Step 6: Add the dye activator and dye solution. Add 3 to 9 tablespoons of salt per 450g of fabric, and 1.5 to 4.5 tablespoons of soda ash. Your chosen dye will give you a more specific recommendation within this range, but generally the more salt and soda ash you use, the deeper the color you’ll achieve. Shuffle your fabric to the side with your tongs or spoon so you’re not pouring it directly on the fabric. Mix thoroughly.
The Bucket Method:
Step 5: Fill the bucket with enough warm or hot water for the item to swim freely.
Step 6: Add the dye activator and dye solution. Add 3 to 9 tablespoons of salt per 450g of fabric, and 1.5 to 4.5 tablespoons of soda ash. Your chosen dye will give you a more specific recommendation within this range, but generally the more salt and soda ash you use, the deeper the color you’ll achieve. Add your item to be dyed once the bucket is full. Personally, I like to add my dye activators to the empty bucket and allow the sink to mix things. If you do this, remember to leave enough space in your bucket for the fabric!
Both methods continue from here:
Step 7: Add the pre-mixed dye
After the salt and soda ash dissolve, add the cup of pre-mixed dye in the same way – pushing the fabric to the side or lifting it temporarily out of the bucket completely 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 8: Stir frequently
Maintain the temperature if you’re using the stovetop method and stir frequently until the dye is absorbed. 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 by turning the heat down and stirring less frequently for a few hours. If you’re using the bucket method, taper off after the first hour and allow the item to sit in the bucket for at least several hours, or overnight.
Step 9: Remove your item from the pot and rinse it until the water runs clear
Remove your linen item from the dye bath after it has cooled down, or once several hours have passed. 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 10: Machine wash your item
To be extra sure that you’ve gotten all the excess dye out, you may want to follow the in-sink rinse with a run through the washing machine, or even just pop it in for a spin cycle, and then you’re done!
How to dye linen using box dyes like Rit and Dylon:
If fiber-reactive dyes are the cellulose fiber specialists of the dye world, box dyes like Rit and Dylon are the generalists – they can dye a lot of fabric types but they tend to do an average job. They usually don’t get as dark as specialist dyes, the colors aren’t as predictable, and they can bleed more in the wash. That said, sometimes they are a good option if you’re not willing to create a whole dye setup in your house, so here are some tips for working with Rit and Dylon.
- Box dye of choice
- Vinegar (for Rit or iDye) or Salt (for Dylon)
- A dye pot that will not be used for food, or a plastic bin or bucket
- 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 linen 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, but for especially dark or vibrant colors you can double this.
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. Rit recommends 60 degrees Celsius (140 degrees Fahrenheit) for linen fabrics. While Dylon doesn’t specify an exact temperature, this is a safe guideline. For lighter dye baths or projects that you’re happy to leave overnight, you can use a bucket and warm or hot water. With linen, a temperature that is too high has no bad effects on the fibers, so the process is a bit more forgiving.
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.
Next, add the dye, being careful not to pour it 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 two hours. After the first twenty minutes, you can turn the heat down so that it’s just bubbling at the edges of the pot. If you like, you can turn off the heat completely and allow the item to sit in the dye for several hours or overnight. If you’re using the bucket method, pay special attention and stir frequently for the first hour, and then allow it to sit for several hours or overnight.
Step 6: Soak in color fixative (optional)
This isn’t required, but RIT recommends a color fixative soak when you’re dyeing dark or vibrant colors. 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 (as 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 has been removed.
Step 8: machine wash your item (optional)
I recommend sending your linen item on 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.
How to dye linen naturally:
Linen is a perfect candidate for natural dyeing – it can withstand long periods of time submerged in water, it handles high temperatures and boiling with ease, and it tends to create a beautiful base for vibrant natural dyes.
Natural dyeing is a huge discipline and the mordants, dyestuffs, and processes you choose will vary greatly, but linen is a great candidate for just about any process. Start by choosing a dyestuff to use (see if there are any dye plants growing in your backyard!) and then choose a mordant that will work with plant fibers. We have a complete guide to dyeing fabrics naturally for beginners.
Will the dye be permanent?
Linen tends to absorb dye readily, and the results are wash and colorfast, so the dyes are relatively permanent. (I’m assuming that you’re not using a fugitive dye – these dye colors become very faded with exposure to sunlight, heat, humidity, etc).
Your treatment of the fabric after it’s been dyed will affect how long the colors last. Sunlight and heat (such as the heat from your dryer) can progress the fading of any garment no matter how it’s been dyed. But I do find that the results of fiber-reactive dyes are more permanent than box dyes. Linen, as a fiber, also tends to be a longer-lasting fabric than others, so you’ll likely notice fading over the life of the garment due to its long age, but this adds to the character! You can prolong the life of your linen garment or item by washing it in cool water, drying it on a clothesline in the shade, and storing it out of direct sunlight.
What to read next:
- How to Dye Silk
- How to Dye Wool
- The Best Fabric Dyes for 23 Fabrics
- The Best Fabrics for Dyeing
- Will Fabric Dye Stain my Pot, Sink or Bathtub?
- Fabric Dyeing Techniques
- How to Dye Fabric & Clothes Black
- How to Dye Jeans Black
- How to Naturally Dye Fabric & Clothes Black Without Dye
- Dyeing Fabric & Clothes with Turmeric
- How to Dye Fabric with Tea
- 18 Realistic Things to Tie-Dye at Home
This article was written by Kat Waters and edited by Sara Maker. It was originally published on 19 October 2022 and has since been updated.
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…