Adventures in costume dyeing

blue purple

Adventures in costume dyeing

Sometimes costumes just aren’t the right colour. Or they have faded from use, washing or sunlight. If the embellishments are still good, here’s a way to bring them a new lease of life….


In the past I’ve had some success dyeing lycra-based costumes. Nylon lycra is easy to dye: it take the colour readily and richly, at temperatures low enough not to damage the decorations (though it needs careful treatment). This one (right) had been left in the sun by its previous owner and become faded and streaky. I not only restored it, but used dip-dyeing to create this graduated colour change from blue to purple. Very happy with the result! You can see it here being worn by a friend who later purchased it.

That’s not the only one. I’ve dyed another Lycra beaded, sequinned costume from bright tomato red to maroon; and a balady dress that started out as fluoro orange, making it a graduated burnt orange at the top, down to the original colour at the bottom. Both worked well.

So when I spied this pretty number in Egypt, I bought it, even though the colour is dreadful on my skin tone.

Can you dye mesh?

Original fabric with dyed swatches

The trouble was, I didn’t know what it was made of. My online reading suggested that the mesh could be made of polyester, which is very difficult to dye (it require very hot temperatures etc). So I snipped off a bit of hem to test; and lo, it changed colour! Must be nylon, at least partly.

The second test was how the lace and beads were affected. This one has no sequins, which makes it easier, as the coating layer on sequins seems to come off them at around 65° so you have to be super-careful with monitoring the temperature. A snippet of this lace survived 70° undamaged, but barely took on any colour. That’s fine, I’m happy for the lace to stay pale and stand out against the mesh.

Dissolving the dye

Adding acid, checking temperature

Next morning, we prepared the kitchen. Paint drop sheet on the floor, old clothes, gloves, buckets at the ready. I was using Sandolan Violet acid dye from Batik Oetoro, the goal being to take the costume from pale lavender to a deeper purple. It needs to be dissolved in the right quantity in cold water, then added to hot water along with acetic acid.

Then you need to keep it hot for as long as it takes. The fabric is supposed to be almost boiled on the stove for 45 minutes, but I’ve found in the past that about 65° was hot enough for the dye to take; a temperature which didn’t damage the decorations. (I use a milk thermometer, available from fancy kitchenware stores.) And I’ve never had to keep it in that long, it always seemed to take much more rapidly. This is all good news for keeping your costume intact.

Now, the moment we’ve been waiting for: in she goes!

IMG_1622It’s a scary moment, one that you can never take back. I hold my breath and plunge it in.

glue spots

Dyeing a bra is actually not as tricky as you might expect, as long as it’s flexible enough to fit in the pot. I do that first. The skirt is trickier, because there’s simply more of it. The fuller it is, the more awkward it is to get it in there. It then needs plenty of stirring, while keeping the gas on underneath to maintain the temperature.

Small hitch: some of the lace and lots of the diamantes fell off. Where they came off, the glue residue prevented the fabric from changing colour, so there are pale spots. There are some similar spots on the skirt. But it’s not that big a problem, as I’ll glue the stones and lace back on, which will hide the pale patches. They are hotfixes and evidently hadn’t been attached firmly enough.

You also never know whether the sewing thread will take the colour. This one didn’t, but the white thread blends in with the lace so I’m not too fussed. I’ve held off on sewing the bra clips and hemming the skirt, just in case.

colour mismatch

Oh, and if you’re trying it, remember to also dye any accessories like arm or headbands. This didn’t come with any, but there was an extra triangular piece in the slit of the skirt. I actually detached it and have chosen not to dye it, to keep it pale. I’ll sew it back in when we’re done and it should pick up the colour of the lace.

Now we pull it out and rinse, rinse, rinse.

Uh-oh. We have a problem.

The bra and skirt have come out different colours! The skirt is simply 2 layers of the same mesh, whereas it looks like the bra has a lighter underneath layer which is not taking the dye.

Fortunately I also have another dye that’s a more reddish purple. “Let’s stick the skirt in that”, say I. The problem reverses: the skirt is now redder than the bra. And back and forth, until I say “stuff it, that’s near enough”. Finally it all gets rinsed about a million times, during which about a thousand diamantes fall off, but that’s OK:


I now have a costume that’s the right colour for me.

Or do I?

What’s that? Is looks like the colour is streaky! NOOOOOO!!!!

Or is it just wet?

Have I ruined a beautiful costume?


Episode 2

IMG_1637The damage is bad. I mean really bad. Terribly streaky and blotchy. My boyfriend tries to persuade me that you don’t notice it when I’m moving, but for some reason I have more faith in the eye for colour of my (female) photographer flatmate, who declares it a disaster.

I realise it looks kinda nice in the picture, as though this variation could be interesting and attractive; but trust me, it’s not.

Online reading reveals that insufficient rinsing can leave some pigment sitting on the surface of the fabric, which will cause streaking as it dries because it sits in the folds; and not having enough water or not stirring enough can cause patchy dyeing. I also come across some more tips for making it more even:

  • rinse fabric well before dyeing to remove any surface colour
  • add a few drops of detergent to aid in dispersal
  • put the fabric in the dye bath lukewarm, and heat it up to dyeing temperature with the fabric in there (while stirring)
  • don’t put the acid or vinegar in straight away. Have the fabric in the dye bath for 5 minutes or so first
  • rinse in warm water first, and cool down gradually. Keep rinsing until the water runs clear.

At this point I have nothing to lose. The costume is virtually unwearable, so I might as well try again. This time I follow all the suggestions above, and I stir, turn, rotate, turn inside out and back again, lift out and reinsert dozens of times. And it feel like it just might work.


There’s this crazy thing that happens with acid dyeing. One minute, your fabric is swimming in a murky sea of dye. It all looks coloured, but it’s not: the pigment is still just suspended in the water and between the fibres, but it’ll wash out the moment you rinse it. Then a minute later, the water goes almost clear. This is how you know that the chemical reaction has occurred, which binds the colour into the very molecules of the fibre. This is why it’s permanent and won’t wash out. It’s also interesting because until that moment, the whole thing looks as though it’s taking the colour. In this instance, it looked like the lace was going to colour as well. But as soon as the mesh took the colour, the lace appeared pale again. The dye rinsed itself out of the lace as the dye bath was “exhausted” (i.e. all the colour was absorbed).

This time I rinse super carefully. Just as well Warragamba Dam is overflowing, otherwise I’d have emptied half of it. Even more diamantes fall off.

She is definitely much darker than before. But is she even? We can only find out once she’s dry.



Verdict: Success! A rich, deep dark purple.

lavender skirt


It’s not 100% even, but it’s near enough that nobody would notice. The overall effect is sooooo much better than the original, don’t you agree?

But my work is far from done. What with all the stirring and rinsing, the lace is a little razzed and raggedly in places and is starting to come off: it will need to be sewn down again. Plus I have hundreds of glue-on diamantes to re-attach. (It also still needs to be hemmed and have the clips done, but that’s nothing to do with the dyeing.)

Of course, if I could have just bought it in this colour originally, it would have saved me a lot of stress and time and trouble. But that wasn’t an option: Egyptian costume-makers seen to forget that the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily share their lovely olive skin. Overall it’s come out a little darker than I’d have liked, but massively better on my skin than the original tone.

Would I do it again? Yep. But more carefully!

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