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.
OVERVIEW OF MATERIALS NEEDED:
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??