Dyeing a poplin suit
April 18, 2012 7:40 AM   Subscribe

I have a handful of poplin, wash and wear summer suits made in the 80s by Brooks Brothers. They are all in various shades of khaki. I'd like to dye (or have dyed) one of them navy. I have no idea how to go about this, nor what I could expect. The dye job would need to be good enough that I could still wear the suit at times requiring some formality. The suits are unlined. Any advice?
posted by OmieWise to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (10 answers total)
Are they machine washable? You can't dye anything that is not washable. You have to prewash in hot water to remove sizings that can prevent dye from reaching the fabric; you have to apply the dye in lots of water; and then you have to wash multiple times to remove all of the unattached excess dye. None of this is a good idea if your suits are marked "dry clean only".

What are the suits' fiber contents? Dyeing cotton is entirely different from dyeing polyester. The dyes are different and the technique is different. Natural fibers are much easier to dye than synthetic fibers.

If they are washable cotton, you can dye them at room temperature with fiber reactive dye (avoid all-purpose dye, such as Rit), but if they are polyester, you'll need an enormous cooking pot to boil a suit in with the dye.
posted by Ery at 7:48 AM on April 18, 2012

Sorry I missed the key word phrase "wash and wear" on first reading. Even washable clothing can be hard to dye if it's wrinkle-resistant, though, because the formaldehyde resins used to coat the fabric to make it wrinkle-resistant can get in the way of the dye, and stain-resistant clothing is completely undyeable. If they're free of finishes that will block dye, you can dye them with Procion MX dye in the washing machine, along with washing soda and salt.
posted by Ery at 7:53 AM on April 18, 2012

It's important to know that synthetic cloth does not dye after manufacturing.

Because poplin is a blended fiber you need to make sure there are no rayon or polyester (or other synthetic fibers).

If there isn't a label breaking down the specific contents of the suit you will want to bring it to a Brooks Brothers store, specialty dry cleaner, or tailor to be inspected. Synthetic fiber has a unique sheen that the trained eye ought to be able to discern. You can try it yourself with the burn test.

Do not attempt to dye the suit before verifying the contents of the fabric. You will end up with a very tragic-looking suit.

Once verified, there are plenty of commercial dyes one can purchase and companies that specialize in dyeing services.
posted by iheijoushin at 7:54 AM on April 18, 2012

Let me clarify my comment above: Polyester is the synthetic to look out for as it is very difficult (some say impossible to dye). Rayon will dye much better but differently from cotton.

The big issue with potential mixed-fiber cloth is that some cloth takes to dye differently. So if you're going for an even color it's important to know the content so you can buy a dye that will work equally well with the different components of your poplin blend.
posted by iheijoushin at 8:10 AM on April 18, 2012

Also, look at the stitching on the suit. The thread probably won't take the dye, which means that wherever you can see the thread now there will be a "topstitching" effect. This can be ugly. However, depending on the style of the suit the thread may be tucked inside the seams so well that there will be minimal visibility. (I recently did a pair of pants and there's a little visible thread at the waistband but overall it's fine.

If these are going to be "fashion" suits - if you work, for example, somewhere where it's kicky and fun to wear a suit rather than mandatory - this will probably be fine.

Another option if the thread is going to be a problem is to dye the suit a variant on its initial color - I dyed some olive pants a medium green and some grey ones a muted blue, for example. So if you had a suit that was sort of a blah beige, you could dye it a richer caramel-tan kind of color.

Look closely at the lining of the suits, too - if they're unlined, fine. IME, a synthetic will actually take just enough dye to look either pearlized in that color (okay) or dingy (blah).

Another suggestion - if you have never fabric-dyed anything before and you are doing it yourself, get some shirts from the thrift store and PRACTICE. I'm pretty good at washing-machine dying and still get the occasional dud, and I've been doing it literally for twenty years.

Here is my method on an old washing machine:

Set the machine to hot and the wash you want.

Put the clothes in the washer.

Run the water in the sink on hot; this helps the washer run hot right away so that you get the most hot water possible.

Keep the washing machine lid up so that it doesn't start agitating when full.

As the machine fills, swish the clothes around so that they are saturated and any air bubbles are out - air bubbles can keep part of the clothes over the surface of the dye and hinder even absorption.

Once the machine is full, briefly close the lid and let it agitate, then open again and stop it.

Add your dye by pouring it into open water, not onto the clothes, or by pouring it down the inside of the washing. This helps prevents spots.

Let agitate through the dye cycle, then rewash. I don't usually use a fixative and my results tend to last well - but then, I am usually aiming for muted blues, violets, etc rather than brights.
posted by Frowner at 8:18 AM on April 18, 2012

I'd try having this professionally done, actually, now that I think about it. A new BB suit is expensive enough that it would be worth it to pay someone even $100 or so to do a good job. Ask at your tailor or drycleaner, or if there's a high-end sewing store in town, you could drop in and ask if they know anyone. Probably someone who does theater work or vintage repair could do it. If you're in NYC there's probably a choice of people, for that matter.
posted by Frowner at 8:21 AM on April 18, 2012

As an alternative, you could ask a tailor to make a copy of these suits for you. It's a more expensive alternative to dyeing, but has little risk.
posted by annsunny at 10:45 AM on April 18, 2012

it would be worth it to pay someone even $100 or so to do a good job

It would be likely that having a man's tailored suit dyed professionally would cost ca. $200, at least here in the Boston area.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:49 AM on April 18, 2012

You could farm it out to True Color. I've never used them, but they have been recommended to me by others.
posted by vespabelle at 11:16 AM on April 18, 2012

A good dry cleaner can do this for you professionally, and they can review the pros/cons.
posted by chocolatetiara at 1:22 PM on April 18, 2012

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