The Chemistry of Clothing Dye

Dye is everywhere. Take a look around the room and try to find an item that doesn't have dye in it. The carpet on the floor, your pants, backpack, pen, the paint on the walls, your bed, desk, shoes, and even that bag of chips has dye in it. Although the world you live in today uses dye in most foods, clothing, and items, it isn't anything new. Clothing dye was invented thousands of years ago by using fruits, vegetables, minerals, and plants to change fabrics to a desired color. Now with the use of synthetic dye it can be easily, affordably, and safely added to anything and everything and works by way of simple chemical reactions.

Clothing Dyes and How They Work

If you have ever done laundry and washed a new blue shirt with a white pair of socks, then you have witnessed dyeing clothing on a small level. After taking out your clothes, your white socks might have a hint of blue. This is because some of the dye off your blue shirt was released into the water and then stained your socks. If your clothing has a stronger, more powerful synthetic dye, then losing the blue color into the water is less likely to happen. This is because molecules in the dye chemically attach to the molecules of your shirt. Clothing dye simply works by chemically attaching to fabrics.

Natural Dyes
Dyeing clothing naturally has been done for many years and can be done in your own home using plants and even insects. Natural dyes are made from nature to dye clothing without the use of chemicals. Onions, Persian berries, and sunflowers can be used to dye clothing yellow. Willow bark and Juniper berries can be used to dye clothing blue. Depending on the type of material, plants have a chemical reaction that helps them bond with the molecules in the fabric. Wool molecules bond with most plant molecules, making it the easiest fabric to dye. Cotton molecules are more complex and don't bond well with most colors, making it hard for it to hold natural dyes for very long. Although natural dyes are considered safer and healthier, they tend to wash out and lose their bold color quicker than synthetic dyes.

Synthetic Dyes

Synthetic dyes were first invented by accident. A man named William Henry Perkin was working in his lab trying to synthesize quinine when he created mauve in 1856. That one mistake would change how dyes were made forever. Chemists have learned that organic compounds can be used to make reactions to create colors. There are several different types of dyes that are classified according to how they are used to dye clothing; sulfur dyes, disperse dyes, vat dyes, basic dyes, mordant dyes, and acid dyes are the main synthetic dyes.

Chemical Properties of Dye
Understanding clothing dye starts with understanding dye molecules. Dye
molecules are all shaped uniquely from each other and this unique shape is what gives them their color. Red dye molecules and blue dyes molecules get their colors because their unique shapes cause them to absorb light in different ways. An organic compound is then added to both the dye and fabric to create a chemical bond between them. This makes the color on clothing stronger and less likely to rub off. Remember how magnets are attracted to opposites? Molecules in clothing and dyes work the same way. Basic dyes have a positive electric charge, called cationic, and are used on fabrics that have a negative charge. Their opposite charges are what bond them together. Reactive dyes are the strongest dyes because instead of bonding to the fabric molecules, they actually become a part of the fabric molecules.

How to Dye Clothing

Before dyeing clothing, the material must be cleaned and prepared. This is a different process for each type of material, but usually involves basic boiling. After boiling and cleaning, set the clothes aside. Start a new pot of water and add a clothing dye that is made for your selected fabric. Remember certain dyes only bond with certain fabrics. Bring the pot of water to a mild simmer and keep it at that temperature. Add a small piece of test fabric to the water for five minutes to test the dye. Pull it out. It is too dark or too light? If it is too dark, add more water to the pan. If it is too light, add more clothing dye. Once the color is where you want it, add your clothes to the pan. Stir the clothing continually around at a mild simmer for 40-50 minutes or until your clothes reach the desired color. Remove them and rinse them in cold water repeatedly until dye no longer runs off of them. Let them dry and then wash them one more time by hand. You have now dyed clothing by chemically bonding dye molecules with your clothing fabric molecules.

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