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How to Dye Patterned Curtains and Fabric

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Did you know you can dye patterned fabric/curtains? There are many factors that can affect the results, so I'm going to explain how I dyed a set of cotton printed curtains the old owners left in our new house.


I studied a degree in printed textiles and spent a lot of time in the print room at university. It was so much fun experimenting with dyes, fabrics and printing mediums, so this was a fun project.

When we moved into our new house (very much a renovation project), everyone that walked through the door said 'nice curtains' (definitely sarcastically). It's perhaps the decorative frills, tie backs and also the fact they don't quite touch the floor. Now, I actually quite liked the pattern; it has flowers and birds and I think it was everything else making them look dated. They're also made from Sanderson fabric, which is not cheap. We needed some temporary curtains for our bedroom, so I decided to have a little experiment.


I took the panels from this door, along with two more panels from another window which were the same length, sewed them into two wider panels and dyed them.

As I mentioned, there are many factors which can affect the results and it gets a little scientific.

  • Type of fabric

There are two types of fibres: synthetic, such as polyester, nylon and acrylic, and natural, such as cotton and silk. These require a different type of dye. Synthetic fabrics are dyed using disperse dyes and need heat. Natural fabrics are dyed using reactive dyes. Read the care label on your curtains to find out what they are made from. You can google 'dye for cotton' and 'dye for polyester' to find a suitable product. There are many brands available, but Dylon sells products for natural fabrics, and Ritt sells products for both natural and synthetic fabrics. Dyeing synthetic fibres such as polyester is tricky, as it will need to hot and constantly stirred for hours. Read all instructions before purchasing to check the product is suitable, and read all the instructions on the packet before you start the dyeing process.


  • Printing method

This one is a little harder to work out. Fabric is usually printed in one of two ways; screen printing or digital printing. Screen printing is done using silk screens and a pigment (ink) is pulled across the screen and the pattern sinks into or sits on top of the fabric. You can see an example here.

Digital printing is very much like a big paper printer but for fabric. This method is printed using fabrics dyes. You can see an example here.

The factor affecting the results here is the medium used for printing. Dyeing a digitally printed fabric will affect the entire fabric, as the new dye will dye the existing dye in the fabric. Dyeing a screen printed fabric will not affect the colours of the pattern so much, as the pigment may resist the dye. The base of the fabric will absorb the dye.

How do you know the difference? It's a bit tricky but there are a few giveaways. Screen printing requires one screen per colour, and is expensive to do in the UK, so these would generally be from more premium fabric companies. However, it can be done cheaper in other countries so that's not set in stone. It's mainly done on cotton as the fabric can absorb the pigment and still have a nice feel. If it's synthetic and has lots of colours, chances are it will be digitally printed.

There are a few other methods, but these are generally the two used for printed curtain fabrics. You can screen print with dyes but we won't go into that. That's super messy and smelly!


  • Amount of dye/water

There should be instructions on the dye packet to explain the ratios of dye to water you will need to get your desired colour. Again, the best way to do this is to test a small piece. Some dyes may also require a fixative such as salt, but again, refer to the packet.


A couple of other points:

Basic colour rules apply, for example, if you dye a blue fabric yellow, it may go green, or a blue fabric red, it may go purple. Best practice is to test a piece before dyeing  to ensure you are getting the correct colour.

Generally, you will need to dye a darker or a similar colour level. Some brands have a pre-wash which will take out some of the colour, but I've never used one of these personally. If you need to wash it in the future, make sure you wash separately as the colour can transfer.


Science lesson over, how did I do it?

1. Wash and rinse the fabric. Make sure it is fully soaked to ensure the dye is absorbed evenly.


2. Not gonna lie, I had to wing it a little. They were huge panels so I had to dye them separately and hope for the best. I noted down and used the same amount of fabric for both panels and luckily they turned out the same. I put the fabric into a big plastic tub with enough water to cover all the fabric and experimented with putting different amounts of dye into the tub. It will get stronger the longer you leave it in, but I kept adding more dye and testing out a small piece for a minute or so to check how strong the colour would go. I ended up pouring in the whole bottle and had to order another one for the second curtain. I hope my uni tutor doesn't read this. Basically, just TEST TEST TEST so you don't have to order one of those pre-wash dyes to remove it if you don't like it. Keep checking and stirring until it looks the colour you want.

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