Tea dyeing is often someone’s very first introduction to dyeing – it’s a fun and easy weekend project that requires no special equipment. It’s useful for ‘antiquing’ a bright white garment, aging fabrics for costumes and theater productions, dipping your toe into the world of natural dyeing, and giving new quilt fabrics a vintage look.
Tea produces quite a specific range of colors: an antiqued white through to a deep khaki brown. Be aware that it’s more challenging to control the exact shade produced. If you’re trying to match a particular shade then a traditional dye might be better. Tea-dyed fabrics will also fade faster than traditionally dyed fabrics.
Here’s a brief overview of the tea dyeing process. It’s one of the simplest methods out there.
- Create a concentrated tea mixture (a very strong cup of tea!),
- Add it, along with your fabric, to a pot to simmer until the color is absorbed.
- From there, rinse the excess dye out and your item will be finished!
- Can tea be used to dye fabric? And is it easy?
- What kind of tea can you use?
- Can you use coffee?
- What colors will tea dyeing produce?
- Is it permanent?
- Can you dye polyester and other fabrics?
- Tutorial: How to dye fabric with tea
Can tea be used to dye fabric? And is it easy?
Tea (and coffee) can be used to dye fabric to light or dark brown colors. It’s an easy process because there are only 2 ingredients involved (water and tea), and you don’t need to purchase mordant chemicals or specific dyeing equipment.
When you use traditional fabric dyes, it’s important to use a separate, designated dye pot and dye utensils that will never come into contact with food. Even though it’s possible to get these things relatively inexpensively, storing a large dye pot and utensils isn’t always realistic. Tea itself is safe to consume, and tea dyeing doesn’t require any non-food-safe chemicals, so you can tea dye without buying extra things.
Tea also doesn’t require a mordant (this is a chemical that’s used to bond the color to the fabric). The tannins in the tea act as the mordant, so the only ingredient in your dye bath (besides water) will be tea!
Overall, it’s a straightforward process that’s great for beginners and people who don’t want to buy an entire dyeing setup.
What kind of tea can you use for tea dyeing?
As a general rule, the stronger and darker the tea, the deeper the color. Green tea or herbal tea will produce a lighter, more delicate color so if you’re after a delicate shade, these are great options. If your goal is to achieve a deep tan or very aged-looking fabric, strong black tea is preferable.
Can you use coffee?
Coffee dyeing is extremely similar to tea dyeing. Tea tends to produce warmer shades of brown so is often preferable, but coffee does produce similar colors. Regular ground or instant coffee can be used, and it should be treated as loose tea following the instructions below – that is to say, you’ll want to strain the grounds out before adding the concentrated dye solution to your pot, as coffee grounds resting against your fabric could cause staining.
What colors will tea dyeing produce?
Depending on the tea you choose to use and how much of it you have, tea dyeing can produce delicate shades of antique white all the way to deep bark colors and khakis. The color family is all brown – you won’t achieve a bubblegum pink with a herbal tea, even if the brewed tea itself appears pink- but you can affect the shade slightly with different types of tea. Aside from the type of tea you choose, the concentration is also quite important – a deep khaki color will require 40-50 tea bags per yard, which is quite a lot of tea!
Is tea staining fabric permanent?
Tea staining/dyeing is not permanent. The color will fade over time, but it’s unlikely the fabric will go back to its original bright white color.
Here’s why. First, tea is a natural dye, and natural dyes in general are more prone to fading over time. Colors can be preserved by keeping dyed items out of direct sunlight, and by washing them with pH-neutral soap and cold water. The high tannin content of black tea does mean that it’s a bit more colorfast than other natural dyes (like turmeric, for example) but they can’t avoid the effects of sun, soap, and time.
The next thing to keep in mind is that tea is a “fugitive dye”. This means that the dye sits on the surface of the fibers rather than chemically bonding with them on a molecular level. They’re always going to fade over time. You can slow down the process, and you can also refresh tea-dyed items with a new tea bath once a year if you’d like to restore the color.
Can you tea dye polyester? And other fabrics?
Polyester and other synthetic fibers are not good candidates for tea dyeing if your goal is a deep, rich color. Although it’s not impossible to dye synthetics like polyester, the color will likely be lighter and it will wash out more quickly.
Natural fibers like cotton, linen, wool, and silk are better suited to tea dyeing. Cotton and linen tend to absorb tea the best because you can add heat to the dye bath to darken the color, whereas wool and silk are easier to damage at higher temperatures.
Good candidates for tea dyeing are things like t-shirts, baby shirts or onesies, cotton muslin, linen, bedsheets, or quilt fabric. Tea dyeing is especially common in quilting – it’s useful to give fabrics an ‘antiqued’ look without the use of harsh chemicals.
As an aside, if you have kids who are interested in the process, you can also tea dye paper! Add a bit of your steeped tea dye bath to a shallow tray with some regular paper, and you’ll be well on your way to creating a treasure map fit for a pirate captain!
How to dye fabric with tea (step-by-step tutorial):
- Tea: Black tea, 20-50 bags per yard of fabric depending on the depth of color desired. This is going to be hugely dependent on what you’re dyeing and the color you want, but expect it to take more than you think!
- If you’re using loose tea, you’ll need a small pot and a muslin cloth or strainer.
- Large pot (a soup pot or similar will work).
- Tongs or spoon to stir.
- Optional: White vinegar.
Step 1: Clean your fabric or garment
To prepare your fabric for dyeing, run it through a quick wash cycle in your machine, or hand wash it. If you’re dyeing a pre-loved item, pay special attention to stains as these areas can absorb dye unevenly. It’s important to wash new fabrics and clothes as well to remove sizing that may have been applied as part of the manufacturing process.
Step 2: Mordant the fabric in white vinegar (optional)
Mordants are chemicals that act as a catalyst to help strengthen and deepen a dye reaction. They’re either added to dye baths or the fabric is pre-soaked in them. Tea dyeing does not require a mordant, but if you want a deeper color, you can mordant with white vinegar.
This simply means that after you wash your fabric clean, soak the fabric in a vinegar solution that is one part vinegar to four parts water. After at least an hour of soaking (overnight is best if you have the time), gently wring out the fabric without rinsing it, and add it directly to the dye bath.
Step 3: Prepare the tea bags
Prepare the tea bags for dyeing by removing strings and tags, if any are present. You don’t have to remove the tea from the tea bags but you can if you like.
Step 4: Add the tea bags to a pot of water
Add the tea bags (or loose tea) to a pot of water with just enough water to submerge the tea bags. If you’re using loose tea, do this in a smaller pot. If you’re using tea bags, using your main dye pot is fine because it’ll be easier to fish the tea bags out of the pot when you’re ready to add your fabric.
Step 5: Heat the pot. Simmer for 5-10 minutes.
Heat the pot to a low simmer. Simmer for 5 to 10 minutes, until the liquid doesn’t appear to be darkening anymore. At this stage, you can leave the pot with the concentrated tea solution to cool overnight (this will extract maximum color) but this is optional.
Step 6: Remove the tea bags or loose tea leaves
If you used loose tea, strain the liquid through muslin or a strainer to remove the tea leaves. If you used tea bags, squeeze them and fish them out with a pair of tongs. We don’t want to leave the tea or tea bags in the pot with our fabric because they’ll create dark spots where they touch the fabric. If you do want a more uneven dye bath, you can skip this step!
Step 7: Add the tea dye to the main pot. Add more water if needed. Then add the fabric.
Add the concentrated dye solution to your main pot (if you used tea bags it may already be in this pot). Follow this with a water top-up if you think your fabric will need more to swim freely, and then add the fabric.
Don’t add your fabric directly to the concentrated tea solution (unless there’s enough water for the item to swim freely in) as this increases the likelihood of dark spots and an uneven dye bath. If you do end up needing to add a bit of extra water after your item goes into the pot, that’s fine.
Step 8: Heat the pot. Simmer and stir for at least 1 hour.
Heat the pot to a low simmer, and stir occasionally for at least one hour. Toward the end, the color should start to stabilize.
If it’s not getting dark enough for your liking, you can make another batch of concentrated tea solution with more tea bags to darken it more. As with the concentrated tea, leaving the fabric to soak in the tea solution overnight can add a bit of extra color depth, but the main tools in your arsenal for achieving a darker result are going to be more tea bags and heat.
Step 9: Let the pot cool. Remove the fabric and rinse it.
When you’re happy with the color, remove the pot from the heat and allow it to cool. If your item is wool, silk, or another delicate fiber, give it plenty of time to cool all the way to room temperature before removing it from the dye pot.
Rinse it in the sink, followed by a wash with pH-neutral soap, and then hang it to dry out of direct sunlight. Your tea-dyed item is now all done!
What to read next:
- How to Naturally Dye Fabric & Clothes Black Without Dye
- Dyeing Fabric & Clothes with Turmeric
- How to Dye Linen
- 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
- 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…