Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A Guide to Dyeing Your Own Gi

Are you tired of white or cobalt gis? Are the bright yellow or scarlet options too shocking for your taste? Pepto-Pink makes you puke? You can dye your gi yourself-- how about hunter green, chocolate brown, dark red? I've dyed several of my own and others, with varying results, so here's what I have learned. Of course double check the process and times with the Dharma website instructions and go with what they tell you! This is just from my memory!

First-- if you want a tie-dyed gi, DO NOT ATTEMPT AT HOME. Go straight to a professional like Chris at Happy Kimonos, who did one for me that you can see here.


Procion MX is a fiber-reactive dye far superior to grocery-store Rit dye (because you don't have to do it in 140 degree hot water-- warm works just fine-- and because they have a million more colors.) I bought it from Dharma Trading Company online. Generally speaking, it will not dye other items in your wash, or bleed, because there is a chemical reaction during the dye process which locks the dye to the cotton fiber in the fabric. When the reaction finishes, the dye is no longer "fiber reactive" so it won't color other stuff. NOTE: I still think it's a good idea to wash your newly-dyed gi by itself a couple times to be on the safe side. I have never tested the fiber-reactivity by washing something white in there on the first go. If you do, let us know what you discover! :)

Dyeing a gi is a somewhat involved process but if you can read and tell time, you will be fine. Allow about 3-4 hours from start (with a clean gi) to finish (either hanging it up to dry or putting it in the dryer.) Depending on how heavy your gi is (therefore the quantity of chemicals you will order) it will cost you about $25-30 to dye a gi and you will have enough of some chemicals left over to do another several gis. Or, if you prefer someone else dealing with all this, you can also get Happy Kimonos to dye yours a solid color.

The Dharma Trading website is great, it walks you through all this, but consider this a preview so you know what to expect. The dye comes in a little plastic jar and is a white powder till it hits water.

It doesn't always dissolve smoothly into water, so you will "paste" it with a smaller amount (like 2-3 cups) of warm water first, then stir that into the big tub of water before you put in the gi. To make the dye paste up better, you'll dissolve some urea (nitrogen) into the 2-3 cups of water first. Also, you'll add a couple teaspoons of calsolene oil to lower the surface tension of the water- this reduces streaking. Another chemical you'll buy is soda ash which works as a fixative to stop the dye process. And, you should have at least 12 cups of table salt on hand per gi-- cheapest thing to do if you will maybe dye more than one is buy a sack of salt at Sam's (they have it for water softeners and saltwater swimming pools, maybe $5/20 lb bag.)

Dharma also sells textile detergent that you'll use to pre-wash the gi and wash after the dyeing process. If you're going to dye a brand new gi, the pre-wash is really important because the gi may have a fabric treatment or starch in the cloth from the factory. For us paranoid types, the detergent also theoretically keeps the dye from resettling on other colored areas -which is really only relevant in tie-dyes; you don't have to worry about patches, stitching etc because the dye only colors cotton, not nylon. Dharma Trading has one version, Synthrapol, which smells like crap!!! and their house brand which is cheaper, smells infinitely better, and works just as well. They also sell an industrial-strength fabric softener since the dyeing process stiffens the fabric a bit. I highly recommend this fabric softener, it turned my Gameness gi into silk :) If you're really paranoid about fixing the dye, you can also get some additional fixative, which I used once. Didn't notice much of a difference.


The dyeing process is fairly easy as long as you are methodical about it. Here's my process as I have tweaked it over time. Read all the instructions on the Dharma website at least twice all the way through before you begin.

You actually dye the gi in saltwater. First, I mixed 12 cups of non-iodized salt in a big rectangular rubbermaid storage tub about 2/3 full of tap water as hot as I could stand it with my hand (it cools but you still want the water warm at least so start with it hot.) I stirred with a long-handled wooden spoon to dissolve the salt, then added the calsolene oil. I also kept yellow rubber gloves (like for household chores) handy, and wore an apron.

I mixed the urea (which looks like styrofoam pellets and smells like pee, 'cause that's what it comes from) into about 3 cups of hot water in a glass bowl and dissolved it; then added the dye powder to the water and mashed it against the wall of the bowl with a fork 'till it was as dissolved and smooth as I could make it. Then I poured this solution through a sieve, lined with cheesecloth or a cheap throwaway thin piece of cloth (like a handkerchief or old linen dishtowel), into the saltwater dye bath. This is important to avoid speckles of undissolved dye which can add a confetti appearance of red, blue and yellow to your whatever-color gi. Not good :)

Once the dye solution is in the tub of water, I added the gi and stirred well, continuing to stir the fabric every minute or so for about 20 minutes dyeing time. I made sure I turned the fabric over from top to bottom, switching relative position of the pants and gi top, for even color. I even tugged on the drawstring a little bit to make sure the dye was well into all the crevices. I would imagine you can't stir too much. When the dyeing time is up, you next need to fix the dye.

You do this with the soda ash, but you can't just chuck it into the tub. You have to dissolve it in hot water too. And, if you pour the fixative onto the gi itself, you will have major permanent dark patches, so you have to keep the gi at one end and pour the fixer into the water at the other end. It helps to have another pair of hands for this, just to keep the gi pinned at the far end of the tub for a few minutes.

It's also a good idea to start making the fixative solution while the gi is still dyeing. If you just dump the ash into the hot water, it will become a lump of concrete, no kidding, plus the chemical reaction the soda ash has with the water produces a fair amount of heat, as I discovered the first time (my spoon wouldn't penetrate the lump in the bowl, so I put my gloved hand in to scrabble at it with my fingers... dadgum thing was RED HOT.) So you have to have the glass bowl half full of hot water and then gradually sift the soda ash into the water while stirring constantly. When you get as much of the ash dissolved as you can, you or a friend slowly pour that solution into the dye bath while they/you hold the gi bunched up at the far end of the tub, using your long spoon, tongs or whatever. Stir the ash solution into the dye bath and begin again if you need to dissolve more ash-- I think I had about 2 cups of ash and maybe only 1 cup fit into the bowl of water.

Once the fixative is in, stir the gi around well, top to bottom, and stir every couple minutes for about another 30 minutes of fixing.

Then a trip through the washer, and you're done. The hardest part of the whole process is getting the wet gi out of the tub without splashing anywhere, then dumping the dye solution into the sink, then getting the gi over to your washing machine. The Dharma website actually has instructions for doing this inside your washer, which would have been great for me except I have a front loader and I don't think that would've worked so well. I never had any accidents, spills, or major splashing, so it is totally a do-able job.

My first two dye jobs ("baby blue" and "citrus yellow") came out stronger and brighter than I hoped/expected, at first, but they have mellowed out very acceptably and then stayed at that nice color for over a year now. Actually, I followed the instructions on the blue to the letter, except put 4 ounces of dye powder in instead of 3.2 oz... when I did the yellow gi, I saw in the first couple minutes that it was waaaaay brighter/darker than I wanted, so I immediately mixed up some fixative to stop the process. Instead of dyeing the yellow for 20 minutes it was only 4... but the fixative made it appear even darker for a minute (think high school chemistry titration reaction) so I only put in about 1/5 the amount of fixative and basically stopped fixing it after about 5 minutes. I was hoping it would "relax" the intensity of the color, but it didn't much. Surprisingly, the yellow gi has not had bleeding or fading problems.

However, with time, the blue and yellow have both lightened up a little, the blue more than the yellow. The blue is a perfect baby blue color now, and is only a little uneven, which I attribute to my insufficient stirring and agitation.

None of the patches were cotton, so they didn't take the color. The yellow gi had cotton thread for the embroidery so the white embroidery became yellow. The red trim still looks good though.

One Gameness gi that I dyed ended up looking pretty uneven-- my friend's charcoal grey. (That's how I learned to strain the dye paste, because his got confetti'd... and for unknown reasons, it became blotchy a week later to the point of calling it "postApocalyptic camouflage".) I am not sure why-- I suspect he bleached it just to torture me. The good side effect though is that next time I dye a gi I will be anal retentive about stirring, timing, and chemistry. Mrs. Kolz (my sophomore year chem teacher) would be somewhat proud.

I still have sage green and emerald to try out. I also want to try dip-dyeing a gi... dangle the ends of the legs in a dark blue and let the color creep up... then fix it, wash it. Then, dip the shoulders only in a green, and let the color creep... with white in the middle... maybe I'm carrying this too far??


Lynn said...

"maybe I'm carrying this too far??"

bwuaahaahaaa. wow. ;-}

HomeImprovementNinja said...

Sounds like a lot of work, but the gis look great. I know that they charge around $100 to dye it at some websites, how much does it cost to DIY it?

By the way, I really like how the stiching and epaulets (?) keep their originial color.

Anonymous said...

thanks for posting! How much Dye did you use for each gi?

Daniel said...

Excellent post, Georgette. I have been wondering how to do this for a while and this is the most helpful write-up I've seen so far.

I say go for it on the dual color gi! Contrasting colors would be cool, like blue and orange or blue and yellow. Or how about a black gi that gradiates into red on the lower arms and waist?

A couple of questions - did you start experimenting with dye with cheap no-name gi's or did you just go for broke and try it on an expensive one?

Also, do you typically wear colorful gis when training and reserve the traditional colors for competition?


Georgette said...

@HomeImprovement: The first time, when you have to buy all the chemicals, I'd say $25-30. If you buy more salt & soda ash than you need for the one project, then the next time all you need is the dye. Depending on how heavy your gi is (most range from 4-6 lbs) and which color you pick (pastels require less dye, deep jewel tones require more) it will cost you $4-16 for the dye powder alone.

@Anonymous-- It depends on the weight of the gi and the color you select. The Dharma Trading website has a very easy-to-use calculator where you plug in the weight of the fabric and the number code for the dye color, and it tells you how many ounces of dye to buy.

@Daniel-- I dyed a Gameness Pearl first-- the light blue one. I have dyed 4 gis of my own and 3 for friends. The Pearl wasn't my most expensive gi but it was close.

As for colors-- I train in whatever gi is clean and at the top of the stack (I have 17 gis.) I only wear a "traditional" white gi for IBJJF tournaments like Pan/Mundials. When I compete at NAGA or any other nonIBJJF tournament I wear the most crazy flamboyant thing I've got. Which, right now, is the tiedye, which I think I will bust out at the May NAGA :)

Ryan said...

Those look great! Well done! I like the yellow on the red too.

Abbybjj said...

Thank you so much for posting this. I've been wondering on how to dye my own gi for a while now. Can you post some pics of the other gi's you have dyed?

Georgette said...

@Abby: Thanks! I have posted pictures of the peach, the coral pink, and the chocolate brown in other posts... do a search on my blog for "dyeing" and you'll find them.

The coral pink ended up fading considerably, though I did bleach it twice (after twice, on separate occasions, rolling with two very stinky boys) so that may have influenced it. The peach bugged me so I ended up redyeing it chocolate brown.

I've also dyed others' gis brown, and charcoal grey.

Steve said...


You beat me to it! I've been mulling over an article like this for a month or so. Oh well, you wrote it better than I would have, I'm sure! :)

I disagree regarding the Gameness gis. I have dyed 2 and they both look great. Very even. The green one I dyed for myself is my favorite gi ever.

Overall, it looks like we do things very much the same. It looks like I leave mine in the dye for a bit long... usually 30 to 45 minutes.

Next thing for me is batik. I actually have a gi ready to dye. I'm just anxious about getting the wax out! I'll post pics when I'm done.

Great article.

Georgette said...

@Steve: Well, I take it back on Gameness then. My experience with my first Gameness was great-- perhaps a tad uneven but I chalk that up to not stirring it enough and being my first time. The second Gameness I did looked all right when I gave my friend the gi... and the first two times he wore it. Then, maybe a week or two later, he showed up for class in this splotchy, blotchy, patchy looking thing and I was ashamed to admit I'd dyed it. I mentioned "PostApocalyptic camouflage" right?

Maybe he bleached it or conducted some science experiments on it. But if your Gamenesses (Gameni?) came out good then I'm retracting my previous comments. :)

You gotta let me know how the batik comes out!!! :)

Steve said...

I will definitely let you know on the batik. I'm optimistic... but I still did it on an inexpensive gi. :)

I have been tremendously busy lately, but am starting to get my head above water. Hpoefully, this weekend, I'll get some time to spend with the dye vat.

Georgette said...

My friend Dory in Florida just emailed me these comments after dyeing a gi:

"BTW I did my first gi in Jet Black & wow. RIT and those other brands should be embarrassed for selling that other stuff they call dye. I also did the Chinese red but in my zeal did not use double the amount as per recommended. It came out a somewhat light magenta. I have already submitted an another order for Chinese red and baby blue."

Georgette said...

Check out JK's experience dyeing his gi "mist grey."


Sara said...

I only plan on dying one gi. How much dye, soda ash, urea, etc. would you suggest I purchase? The color I want doesn't require extra dye. Is 2 oz of dye enough? Is 1 lb soda ash enough? I just really don't want to have extra chemicals around... I have a 4 yr old and a 2 yr old. Thanks so much for posting this!

Sara said...

Great post! I only want to dye 1 gi, and don't want a lot of extra chemicals left over; I have a 4 yr old and a 2 yr old. How much stuff would you suggest? Is 2 oz of dye enough if the dye color doesn't require extra dye? Is 1 lb of soda ash enough? How much of the other stuff besides salt is enough in your opinion? Thanks for the help!

Georgette said...

Hi Sara! It all depends on the weight of the fabric you're dyeing. I suggest you weigh the gi, then go to the website (Dharma Trading) and go through their process, it will tell you how much of everything you need to buy. If you have extra chemicals left over afterwards, lock them up and see if you decide to dye another gi :) It's addictive! But if you don't, you can mail them to me and I will use it. :)

juliajohansen said...

I bought 2 bottles of RIT liquid dye in purple. I *almost* got the teal. We're going to use a washing machine. If it turns out bad, meh. It was a crappy, scratchy judo gi. Even if it looks weird and faded and lavender, it'll still be more fun to wear than it is now. :)

I'll be sure to post pics!

I think when I do start to shrink size I'll attempt to dye my white FENOM gi. Teal. With the fancy dye. :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info..I took a white gi that I did not like and dyed Olive green..Saved me from buying the Koral Olive green gi for $250.00



Georgette said...

Way cool, Anonymous! I like!

Georgette said...

Way cool, Anonymous! I like!

Laura said...

Do you think I would have luck dying the pink embroidery on my atama gi, or would it just run into the rest of the fabric?

Georgette said...

Embroidery is usually noncotton thread and would likely not take the dye. I suspect you couldn't apply it precisely enough to get just the letters either. Let me know how it goes!

Georgette said...

Embroidery is usually noncotton thread and would likely not take the dye. I suspect you couldn't apply it precisely enough to get just the letters either. Let me know how it goes!

Anonymous said...

Why should I not try to tie-dye my own gi? It is super expensive to have one sent to get dyed or buy one from Happy Kimonos.

Georgette said...

Well, have you a lot of tiedyeing experience? It's tough to tie a gi because the fabric is so thick. Gis are expensive too, unless you'll wear it regardless of how it looks. If you decide to try it, please send me pics?

Anonymous said...

Definetely a lot of work but I did this for my son. We used 2 Oz of the Procion MX 95 Royal Blue $6.95 from Dharma Trading Co. who I must say were so kind and patient with me over the phone.We also purchased 1 pint of Synthrapol $4.95 and 1lb. of Soda Ash Fixer $1.69,stopped by the local grocery store for 7 lbs of Morton salt I think that was about $7 for a grand total of about $27... the look on my son's face when he saw his new Royal Blue gi= Priceless! haha it turned out great!Oh and they even sent a brand new T shirt as a gift for my first order. Now as long as I can get the shower cleaned up before my wife see's it (looks like a Smurf got murdered in there), we're golden!

One more thing- I highly recommend using a paint stirring attachment. I hooked one up to my cordless drill and let it rip!

Mark said...

Thanks for the instructions! I used them to great effect today making my 1st dyed gi! A Dark green single weave Fuji. Very nice :)

Bri Jones said...

I know all of your JJ gi's are probably 100% cotton - have you had any experience dyeing medium weight karate gi's that are cotton/poly blends?

Georgette said...

The dye I recommend does not have the appropriate chemical reaction with non natural fibers like polyester, so the dye would only take on the cotton parts of the thread. Try it, report back? I'm curious. Thanks :-)

Marc Gowan said...

This blog posting rocks! I wish I had access to it before creating a purple gi for my daughter. My background in theatre had me turning to old school boiling vats of dye which causes much shrinkage in 100% cotton uniforms.

Janine Geard said...

Hi, i would like to try dying a fuji gi from pink to black do you think it work?

Georgette said...

Yes, you should be fine :-)