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Can You Tie Dye Polyester? Yes, But You Probably Don’t Want To

Tie-Dying Polyester
Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / KarolOlson

Tie-dying is a fun summer project that can give old garments a new lease of life. However, there are several reasons why you might not want to tie-dye polyester clothing.

Tie-Dying Polyester

Polyester is a man-made fabric made from a byproduct of petroleum. Because polyester is not a natural fiber, it cannot absorb regular water-soluble dyes. Polyester dyed for commercial use is submerged in vats of heated chemicals (such as sulpho ricinoleic acid) or sprayed with jet-dying machines to fuse colorant to the fibers. This process often takes place before the fibers are woven into a fabric, which is why polyester never bleeds its color or fades — even after years of use.

To replicate this process, you need to purchase a special dye designed for synthetic fabrics, called disperse dye. This dye is non-ionic, meaning its atoms are held together through chemical bonding. Polyester must be completely submerged in this dye to take hold of the color, so it isn’t possible to just spray colorant onto the fabric. This makes the fun patterns associated with tie-dying difficult or impossible to achieve. #

Furthermore, unlike other dyes, disperse dye doesn’t work in room-temperature water. It needs extremely high heat, at least 200 °F, to bond to polyester fibers. The requirement for high heat means you’ll need to boil your tie-dye creation on the stove before seeing any color absorption, making it a less-than-ideal project in the summer heat. You also run the risk of ruining your garment. If what you want to dye has any elastic or spandex in it, the prolonged exposure to high heat can cause the elasticity to degrade. 

A dye carrier or color intensifier also needs to be added to help the color soak into the polyester, which can release a noxious odor and make the finished fabric stiff to the touch. 

Using Dye on Poly-Blends

Polyester needs special dye to change color.
Polyester needs special dye to change color.
(Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / MAKY_OREL)

If you want to use regular tie-dyes, you need to use them on a polyester blend to have any chance of seeing the colors you’re using. As a rule of thumb, the higher the percentage of polyester in your fabric, the more pastel-colored and uneven your dye will appear. Either way, you won’t achieve as vibrant or as consistent a color as you would with 100% cotton or linen.

Alternatives to Tie-Dying Polyester Clothing

If you really want to upcycle your old polyester clothes, there is no shortage of creative ideas available online. In addition to our guide on what to do with old clothes, here are some quick and easy options:

  • Make worn-out t-shirts into shopping bags
  • Rip up old and threadbare items and give them a second life as cleaning rags
  • Use old fleeces to sew a quilt or a pet bed
  • Cut used fabric into strips to make headbands and hair elastics
  • Braid strips together to make dog toys

You can always donate your old clothes, too, if you just want them out of your sight. However, you should never throw out polyester clothes. Since they are 100% non-biodegradable, they will continue to release microplastics into the environment for years to come. 

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