Sometimes, life does bad things to your clothes.
I was wearing my new Dockers to work, hanging around outside, taking care of my sidewalk plants. I was in the middle of clipping off dead leaves and spent flowers when I looked down and discovered something had smeared all over the front of my pants. This is an occupational hazard when you’re a florist, it seems all my lovely plant friends are always trying to leave their mark on me, with pollen, dirt or unidentified sludge. Plants have their life cycles, and it can be messy whatever stage they’re in.
Many plants are used to make dyes for our clothes, like mustard, indigo, woad, and saffron, for example. Unfortunately, this particular plant made a very large, very unwanted dye mark on the front of my new pants.
I washed them twice, trying different stain removal products with no success. I then attempted some Rit Dye Remover, having read that it can lift stains. No dice. It was still there: a big, ugly stain all over the front of my pants. I couldn’t wear them like that.
I wasn’t giving up without a fight. These were NEW PANTS, darn it.
I decided to dye them. Since I couldn’t remove the stain, maybe I could cover it up instead.
Before I started this project, I thought I would investigate about dye and see what I needed to know to save my pants. The first thing I did was look at the fiber content of my pants. I had 60% cotton, 37% polyester, and 3% elastane.
I knew that different types of fabric react differently to dye. I knew that dye temperatures vary – some require hot water and some require cold water. Beyond that, I really didn’t know anything. So I investigated the Rit website so see what dyes they had, and found they had dyes for cotton, and dye stabilizer. I didn’t find any polyester dyes. I did stumble upon some interesting projects other people had done, and I found out buttons made of plastic can also be dyed. I had some gold buttons I wasn’t crazy about, so I thought I’d do an experiment with those, too. I threw in a zipper for a bag project that was lighter than the fabric I was using it with, since if I could dye that, I’d be happier with it. Those things went in a sandwich bag because I didn’t want to lose them down the drain when I dyed them.
I did some more research and discovered that while there are dyes for cotton and dyes for polyester, there are no dyes for both at once. Drat. But if I combined them, I could dye both at once if they were both dyes for the same temperature water. I could work with that.
After viewing my color options, I settled on brown, because the stains were a reddish-brown and therefore, likely to vanish under dye close to their color. I had found a type of polyester dye called iDye by Jacquard. It fit in nicely with the cotton dye, since they were both a cool brown.
Now, it was time to get to work. I donned my rubber gloves and a ghastly t-shirt I had from work and went to the basement. I ran the hot tap until steamy water came out, and I plugged the sink up. Next I dumped a huge pot of boiling salt water into the sink. Salt helps the dye adhere to the fibers in your clothes, it seems. Every dye I looked at during my search requires salt, so if you’re going to dye something, make sure you have lots of salt first. I used about a cup of salt for this experiment. It seems to be a very important component to create the chemical bonds needed, and without it, I get the impression your dye won’t work as well, or perhaps, won’t be very permanent.
I was suspicious the dye might also stain whatever container I used for applying it to my pants. The directions wanted me to dye my pants in the washing machine or in a pan on the stove. I was pretty sure I didn’t want to do either, fearing everything in my washer after the dye was applied might also turn brown, and I wasn’t about to sacrifice a fairly new cooking pot. I can confirm that dye will color the pants, but it will also stain the heck out of your pan, laundry sink, or whatever you use as a container. I decided a bit of dye could not possibly hurt my fifty-nine year old concrete laundry sink. It was already pink, blue, and several other colors from three generations of people painting the house. In fact, it could be an improvement. So I departed a little from the directions and dyed the pants in the sink instead, using the hottest water I could, and for good measure I added another batch of boiling water during the dye process to try to keep the temperature up. I filled my sandwich bag with dye water and set that in the other side of the sink.
The directions indicate that for a darker color, extra dye is encouraged. I was already using two packages of dye for the two types of fiber in the pants, so I was already there. The longer you cook your garment in the dye bath, the better your results, so I stirred my pants in a hot dye bath for roughly an hour. Then, I washed them in my washing machine and hung them up to dry.
The rest of the day, I went down to check their progress, because I wanted to see what happened.
As they dried, my pants did become lighter. While I was a little bummed they didn’t stay this super rich, fudgy brown, they were quite a bit darker than before. The thread on the hems dyed, but the thread used on the pockets, belt loop and waistband didn’t change color, which was interesting. I liked the way it looked, so no problem there. More importantly, the pants themselves were dark enough that the stained areas weren’t obvious! In most places, it appeared to be gone altogether and the places it wasn’t gone, it was so subtle you wouldn’t notice it unless you were closely inspecting the fabric.
I checked out the contents of my sandwich bag next. This experiment wasn’t as successful; the buttons didn’t dye at all and the zipper only got slightly darker. While the buttons were plastic, it turns out that they only dye when they’re white or clear. The zipper is possibly a different fiber than polyester, as it didn’t really change color much even though it was in the dye for over an hour. I don’t know what the zipper is made from; I don’t have any packaging for it. Oh well. At least I learned something.
The true measure of success will be revealed in future washings. I want to plunge my pants into a dye stabilizer bath next to make sure the dye stays on there. I may just wash them separately in the next few launderings to make sure that they don’t dye anything else. I am very pleased with my initial results. For just a few dollars, I saved myself from needing to buy yet another pair of pants to wear to work. Awesome!
*Author’s note: My friend Virginia has had success dying a 100% polyester bridesmaid gown from aqua to a lilac purple. She plans to wear the dress to another wedding. Changing the color of your garment is going to have better results as long as you are going to a darker color, and the old and new colors are in the same color family. The blue went easily to purple because blue and red make purple, and might not have gone very easily from blue to red, for example. That original color is still there and could affect the outcome, so your final color may not match the color on the dye box, but could be a version of it instead.