Vintage 101: dyeing vintage textiles

I received an email today from Tessie who asks:

I was wondering if I could ask for your expert advice regarding professionally dying a Guipure lace vintage dress? As a bridesmaid I have to match my dress for an upcoming wedding and wasn’t sure who to trust for the task. I would appreciate any information you might have as I know restoration is a specialty at Circa.

Tessie, how well the fabric will dye depends on it’s composition. If the lace is a natural fibre (eg cotton, silk, wool) you will get a good result. If it’s rayon, you will get a close result and if it’s a synthetic (polyester), it won’t dye well at all.

You don’t say how old your dress is, but if it’s a ’50s or ’60s dress, it’s probably rayon lace which should dye fairly well – but if it’s been sewn with polyester or a cotton/poly blend, the stitching will come up a different colour. Also, the existing colour will limit the range of colours you can dye it – the stronger or darker the colour, the less colours that will cover it.

You don’t say where you are, but I recommend that you talk to a professional dyer for advice. Also (very important) clean the dress before you get it dyed. If you don’t have anyone in mind, try the yellow pages.

There’s another issue that you might like to consider: if your dress is lined, and the lining is a different textile, either the lace or the lining might shrink and you end up with different hem lengths. A professional dyer should take into account the needs of the fabric and use the right dye and water temperature: some old fabrics shrink.

I don’t generally recommend dyeing old garments unless they are a lost cause – the risks of damaging the garment are high. If you’re not sure if it will work for you, you might like to consider incorporating the chosen colour through an overlay or accessories or detailing or something like that. If you like, you could bring it to me to see in the shop and I can give you my opinion.

Now, here is a dress that has been dyed and is currently available from Circa’s webshop.

This dress is nylon with an acetate lining – I didn’t realise that it had been dyed when I bought it, or when I hand washed it (because it didn’t run in the cold water) but it became apparent when we ironed it because the colour on the lining fabric is slightly uneven. The acetate has also lost it’s crispness, indicating it’s been washed rather than always dry cleaned.

I suspect it was pink originally.

Here are some giveaways that a vintage garment might have been dyed:
– Uneven colour.
– Different coloured thread or detailing (appliques, lace, buttons etc).
– Label will be similar colour to the garment (if you do dye a garment, I recommend that you remove the label and sew it in again afterwards).
– Loss of crispness from being washed in hot water.

It’s a common misconception that dyeing a garment will remove marks and stains, but usually unless you go for a very dark colour, the marks will still be there, just a different colour. With a dark colour, it will still be there too, but not as noticeable as with a lighter colour.

Dyeing used to be big business but it’s a dying (so to speak) industry – if you’re of the crafty persuasion, you might like to do your own dyeing. You can buy Rit and Dylon dyes from supermarkets and fabric shops, but for the best range and also advice, try Kraft Kolour in Thomastown. They also have some great workshops.


  1. Yes, I know what you mean! I once had a lovely pale olive green lace ’40s dress – it had tiers of lace in the skirt, and I wanted it to be black. Unfortunately I didn’t have any black dye so I dyed it chocolate brown: it worked but the dress kind of got “saggy” in the process and I didn’t love it as much. I wore it a few times but always wished that I’d left it as it was.

    Nowadays, I consider dyeing to be more of a “last resort” if there is no alternative.

  2. I have some 1940 dresses that are black . THeir some discolor on the shoulders, do i dye them black . Thank you Elida From Portland ore…

  3. Elida, do you know what fabric your dresses are? If they’re ’40s black dresses, they’re probably rayon crepe, which you can not dye without shrinkage – dry cleaning is best for this fabric. The discolouration is probably sun fading.

    You can try painting on dye, trying to avoid dampening the fabric as much as possible but I recommend another solution: embellish the shoulders with beading or a trim, and cover the unevenness.

  4. I have a collection of 55000 dresses from the 1930s t0 the 1990 from some top designers. I am looking for a buyer for the whole collection. I was just put in the Guinnes Book of world records having the most disigner label in a private collection. If you know of somebody that would be interested of buying the collection there will be 5% commission rewarded.

  5. Paul Brockmann: Wow, what an amazing feat you have accompliced! I wish I had the means to be the next caretaker if your collection, but that is just a vain dream…
    However, I wonder if your collection, or parts of it, is available for viewing somewhere online?

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