What is overdyed fabric?
“Overdye” is the word dyers use to describe layering dye baths on top of each other. This could mean that you use multiple dye baths one after another to build a depth of color, but it could also mean dying an existing non-white garment to a new color. Aside from adding depth, texture, and new tones, it’s also an incredibly useful way to breathe new life into old garments, disguise stains, and update garments to a color you’ll actually wear.
In natural dyeing, Overdyeing is used to create colors with dyes that might interact badly with each other if they were mixed directly, and it’s also used to update colors that fade over time.
Is it easy to overdye fabric and clothes?
It is no more complicated to overdye fabrics than it is to dye white items. You still have the same choices of dye depending on the fiber content of your garment or fabric, and you still need the same supplies as you would with any other dye bath. The added layer of complexity comes only in the planning stage. If you’re starting with a garment or fabric that has a color already, and you’re trying to arrive at a particular color, you’ll need to do a bit of planning (and potentially testing!) to figure out what color you need to use for your overdye bath.
We’ll break down some of the key things to look for when planning an overdye project, but ultimately the biggest trick you can use is to test your color mixing before dyeing your entire garment. Dyes can occasionally behave in surprising ways – some colors are mixes of different pigments and these pigments can absorb at different speeds or react with the base color differently, impacting the outcome of your dyed project. If possible, you should always try to test your project with a swatch before you commit the whole thing to a dye bath.
Another thing to keep in mind – one that doesn’t add any complexity but may add one extra step – is that if you’re working with a previously worn garment, you’ll want to pay special attention to pre-washing and stain treatment. Stains that are visible or barely visible can show up in a freshly overdyed garment. You’ll want to pre-wash and stain treat thoroughly, but also keep in mind that these areas can absorb dye differently. If you have, for example, spattered oil or tomato sauce all over the front of a shirt, you may wish to consider a scrunch-dye, tie-dye, or low-immersion dye bath that will add some texture to disguise these stains, as overdyeing them in a solid color is unlikely to completely hide them, even if the stains are very light and you’re planning a very dark color.
How to choose the right dye color when overdyeing:
You probably learned something about color mixing in school – red and blue make purple, yellow and blue make green, and the difference between primary and secondary colors. Dyes, like paints, are composed of pigments, and overdyeing is essentially just mixing pigments, the same way you’d mix paint.
It’s easy enough to understand that a red shirt in a blue dye bath will result in a purple shirt, but what happens if you’re not starting with a primary color, or when there’s not a clear mix available? Unfortunately, there’s no magical overdye color that will help you turn a pair of dark brown pants neon yellow. In general, overdyeing only allows you to go darker, not lighter, and you’re always going to be limited by the color of the garment or fabric you’re starting with. If you’re set on a lighter color, you can always pre-treat your fabric or garment with bleach to lighten it, but do keep in mind that bleach can damage fabric in large quantities so always test a swatch first!
You may have a lighter-colored item that you want to be darker – a light pair of jeans to dye black, or a green shirt to dye brown. This category of overdyeing is all about adjusting your dye bath for tone. For example, if you’re overdyeing a cooler blue with red to make purple, you may need to add a bit of pink if you’re aiming for a warmer purple, or tone it down with a pinch of green if you want a darker, muddier color. This concept applies to different shades within the same color range as well – dyeing a neon yellow skirt down to mustard yellow is a careful exercise in small additions of brown and a more neutral yellow, and a lime green jacket can become olive green with some browns and darker mossy greens.
Often if you’re adjusting shades in this way, your overdye pot will contain a mix of different dyes to achieve the right color. If this is the case, it’s always best to go with a “less is more” approach! Don’t add quite as much dye as you think you need. It’s always easier to go back and add more than it is to take color away.
As an item gets darker or more saturated, it becomes more difficult to augment its color with an overdye. For example, a very dark blue t-shirt overdyed in red is very likely to end up looking like a slightly warmer very dark blue. Some extremely saturated reds are also difficult to “shift” – no matter what dye you use, it will always have that red tint. Conversely, very light or pale colors can sometimes be “overpowered” with a particularly saturated overdye – for example, generally yellow and blue make green, but if you’re starting with a very pale yellow base, you can in some cases achieve a navy blue that doesn’t have much, if any, green undertone. This, again, is extremely dependent on the item you’re dyeing.
Overdye color chart:
You can use this chart and list to plan out what color your overdye bath should be. Do keep in mind that results can’t be guaranteed and that different fiber contents and fabric types can impact the outcome of a dye project. The list below anticipates that one of your ingredients is the fabric and one is the dye bath – it doesn’t matter which is which.
- Red + blue creates a purple end result (for example, a red shirt with blue dye, or blue pants with red dye)
- Yellow plus red creates an orange end result
- Red plus green creates a brown end result
- Red plus orange creates a deep orange end result
- Purple plus red creates a warm purple end result
- Purple plus blue creates a cool purple end result
- Yellow plus orange creates a deep yellow end result
- Blue plus green creates a teal or blue-green result
- Yellow plus green creates a spring-green or yellowish green result
- Green plus orange creates a muddy green, or olive end result
What colors can you dye X fabric?
If you have a garment in one of the following colors, check out this list to see what colors you might be able to create using overdye:
- Red – create purple using blue dye, orange with yellow dye, or a range of deeper, subdued colors with darker dye colors in high quantities.
- Pink – treat pink the same way you would treat red, but keep in mind that lighter shades will require less dye to mix with them so you’ll likely need less dye than you would if you started with a darker red.
- Purple – darker purples are pretty limited outside of black and brown, but a lighter purple can be dyed with blue to create a deep, warm blue or a red to create a maroon or cabernet color.
- Orange – add yellow to brighten orange, or add red to darken the tone.
- Beige – almost any “antiqued” version of a color can be created from a beige base. Neons are unlikely, but you can use a dusty pink using a bit of red dye, a mossy green using some spring green dye, etc. Beige is similar to mixing a very light brown, it will tone down any dye color slightly and make it appear slightly muddy and less intense.
- Yellow – a great base for green (when combined with blue) or orange (when combined with red). Lighter yellows can also occasionally be ‘overpowered’ with enough blue dye to create a slightly greenish-tinted dark navy blue, for example, although this isn’t always possible.
- Green – like purple, green is a secondary color so options are more limited. Try for other shades of green or a deeper brown or black.
- Blue – mix with red to make purple, or yellow to make green.
- Grey – similar to beige, grey will neutrally offset any overdye color. Depending on the shade of grey you start with and the end result you’re after, this can look great with nearly any dye color.
- Black – there aren’t a lot of options for overdyeing black. You may wish to look at bleaching black items to a lighter shade before overdyeing from there, but be careful as high concentrations of bleach can damage fabrics.
- White – the opportunities are endless! Dye white fabric any color you want and it’ll come out the same color as the dye says it will, which is quite handy!
Can you dye over patterned fabric?
It is possible to dye over patterned fabric, but the print itself may turn into unexpected colors, or stay the same color, depending on how it was printed.
Pay attention to the type of pattern your fabric has before you decide whether it’s a good candidate for overdyeing. Printed fabrics – things like floral sheets or polka-dot dresses, are usually printed (or yarn-dyed) using a pigment dye that absorbs into the fabric. When you overdye this fabric, each existing, original color will mix with the overdye. For example, if your original fabric is pink with yellow flowers that have green leaves and you add it to a red dye bath – the fabric will become red (or reddish pink) with orange flowers and muddy brownish leaves. This may or may not be the result you’re going for, so think about how the dye will mix with each individual color before you commit to overdyeing.
In other cases – like an old high school t-shirt or hoodie – the printing is done using screen printing ink which (in most cases) has a polymer base and sits on the surface of the shirt. This ink can sometimes absorb polyester dyes, but it won’t absorb dyes meant for cotton, silk, or wool. This means that if you overdye a yellow shirt with a red print on it in blue dye, the result will be a green shirt with the same red print. As with any overdye project, if you’re aiming for a particular color on a garment like this, it’s always best to test first! Although a dye may not absorb into a polymer-based ink, it may lightly stain the ink enough to be noticeable.
Tips for overdyeing t-shirts, hoodies, and jeans:
First, you’ll want to pay attention to fiber content. A cotton shirt that is made using a polyester thread will result in dye being absorbed differently. It’s likely that the polyester thread will retain the original color while the fabric itself absorbs the dye. Hoodies and t-shirts often have prints on them (we discussed this in the patterned fabric section above) so it’s best to test in an inconspicuous area to determine how the fabric, print, and dye is likely to interact.
Jeans are an interesting case. Traditionally, denim is made with two different colored threads combined in a twill weave. One is indigo blue, and the other is white. If you overdye jeans in, say, hot pink (I’ve included a photo) – the white will absorb the pink as-is, and the blue will absorb just a tiny tint of warmth from the pink, resulting in an overall purple effect. A friend of mine has done this in lime green as well. The dye isn’t powerful enough to change the color of the blue, but the overall tint of the fabric changes ever so slightly since the white threads are no longer white.
How to overdye fabric:
Once you’ve selected your overdye bath color using the above sections as a reference, the dyeing process will depend on the type of dye you want to use, and the type of fabric your garment is made from. We’ve created some resources that encompass how to dye with box dyes like Rit, Dylon, and iDye as well as specialist dyes like fiber reactive dyes and acid dyes. You can find more information on how to have a successful dye day in these posts:
- How to dye Silk or Wool (we recommend acid dyes, but instructions for box dyes are also included)
- How to dye Cotton or Linen (we recommend fiber-reactive dyes, but instructions for box dyes are also included)
- How to dye fabric with natural dyes (the same mixing principles we’ve discussed here apply to natural dyes as well!)
We’ve also created a resource for dyeing fabrics and existing garments black. It discusses some of the tonal adjustment considerations specific to achieving a balanced black dye.
What to read next:
- How to Dye Linen
- How to Dye Silk
- How to Dye Wool
- Dyeing Fabric & Clothes with Turmeric
- How to Dye Fabric with Tea
- 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
- 18 Realistic Things to Tie-Dye at Home
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…