Vintage Dress Rehab: A DIY Tutorial to Dye For


I’m a huge vintage clothes hound, and have been collecting pieces from the 1920s through the early 1960s for almost ten years now. But lately, it seems that the price of vintage clothing has gone up significantly, and it’s not as easy to find a quality vintage dress for a few bucks at thrift stores around here.  However, I still remain a big believer in wearing thrift store and vintage clothes as a form of recycling.  It’s a way to combat the trend of buying and wearing poorly made clothes for a season and throwing them away; otherwise known as fast fashion.

On the 4th of July weekend, I randomly visited one of my favorite thrift shops in all of New York City, the Cure Thrift Shop.  I wasn’t really looking for anything that day, but felt drawn to go inside.  In the past, I’ve found many great things there, including a purple Kate Spade shift dress that I’ve worn multiple times, and size 11 Fendi shoes with cherries on them.  I was about to walk out again, reminding myself (again) that I didn’t need any more clothes, when the salesclerk cheerily said “Everything’s 50% off today!” I’m sure you can guess how that went!

1. Yellow dress
Yellow eyelet house dress

About an hour later, I emerged with a few great finds, one of which was a yellow eyelet house dress.  The dress didn’t have any tags in it, but given the metal zipper and the quality of the fabric and construction, I am guessing that it’s a day dress from the 1950s. And, it was on sale for half price: about $30.

2. The Stain
Arrows show where the stain is

I debated whether or not to buy it even at the reduced price, because the dress looked a bit forlorn and dirty.  Yellow is not a forgiving color, and the dress had clearly been sitting on the rack for awhile.  I also noticed a faded rusty stain on the front.  However, when I tried it on, it fit perfectly and was in otherwise good condition.

I’ve long wanted to practice rehabilitating a vintage dress through dyeing it another color, and this seemed like the perfect project. Here’s what I did to salvage the dress:

1.  Picking the right color:  I decided to pick peach for the new dress color.  It’s not radically different from the original yellow, but it’s dark enough to hide the stain on the front. Also, on that same shopping trip, I found a peach colored bag shaped like a seashell with bronze trim, which would match the rehabilitated dress perfectly if I pulled off changing the color as planned.

4. Clean Sink

2.  Decide on a method:  There are several ways to dye an article of clothing. The most convenient way to dye an item this big is to do it in a washing machine, but given that I live in a co-op apartment building, I didn’t think my neighbors would be too happy if I used our shared machines to dye my clothes, especially if there was any leftover residue. So, I decided to use my stainless steel sink instead because it was big enough to hold the dress and the dye bath without getting stained, like a bathtub might.

3. The ingredients

3.  Put the ingredients together:  In order to dye cotton, RIT recommends using a cup of salt in the dye solution.  You will also need rubber gloves to protect your hands, chlorine bleach to clean the sink after finishing the dye job, and possibly a magnifying glass to read the TINY print instructions inside the dye box!

5. Dye Mix

4.  Figure out the right formula to get your desired color:  I consulted this color chart from RIT Studio to figure out what formula I should use to make the 2 cups of peach dye solution.  I had to settle for a brighter shade of orange than I would have liked – the ominously named Sunshine Orange, combined with a healthy dose of Petal Pink. Consulting the RIT color chart is something I highly recommend doing if you choose to undertake a dye project.  If I had just guessed at the proportions of powder to use, I would have been way off the mark. It turned out that really small amounts of powdered dye were needed to make the dress turn peach. I used the color Yellow-Orange Peach #128 from the RIT color chart as my guide to the proportions, and this color formula called for 1/2 tsp of Petal Pink and 1/8 tsp Sunshine Orange per cup of water. I slightly increased the proportion of Petal Pink and slightly decreased the proportion of Sunshine Orange, due to the fact that the dress was yellow already.  Note that I decided not to remove the color from the dress beforehand;  RIT recommends using RIT Color Remover in order to remove all color from the item, but I wanted to see how the yellow dress would change with a layer of dye on top. Adjusting this formula turned out to be a wise decision.  Sunshine Orange is every bit as bright as it sounds; and I wanted to avoid a psychedelic looking orange in order to preserve a more mid-century vintage feeling to the piece.

6. Hot water bath

5.  Make a hot water bath and dunk the dress in it:  We needed three gallons of 140 degree water to soak the dress in. Once the dress was wet, we then added the 2 cups of the peach dye solution.  We didn’t boil the water, but used the hottest tap water setting we had which worked fine.

7. Agitating

6.  Dump the dye bath into the water and stir/agitate for at least 10 minutes: This is where things almost went wrong, because I accidentally dumped the dye right onto the fabric instead of into the water first. It took a LOT of swishing with my gloved hands and a wooden spoon to distribute the dye evenly as there were some dark spots that appeared on the place where I dumped the dye. It’s important to add that cup of salt and a little detergent while you are agitating, as it has an impact on ensuring that the dye color spreads evenly throughout the dress.  I agitated it with my hands for about ten minutes non-stop, but for a stronger color, agitate for up to 30 minutes. I’d also recommend using the thick yellow rubber gloves rather than the clear ones I used as it will be gentler on your hands.

8. Drip dry orange

9. Pretty pockets

7.  Rinse until the water runs clear and hang up to dry  

The dress was still wet when these were taken.  I plan to put a few stitches in the pockets so that they lay flat.  Once this dries and the pockets are fixed, it’s time to accessorize!  In my next post, I’ll show you how it turned out and how I accessorized my find.

Have any of you gotten any great thrift store finds lately?  What do you think of the fast fashion trend?  Post in the comments below – I’d love to hear from you!



About The Paper Pinup

Hello, I'm Laurel! I live in upstate Manhattan with my boyfriend Charles. I'm passionate about papercrafts, art journaling and sewing as "craft therapy" and bring a fresh and irreverent approach to my projects. I'm also a swing dancer and love vintage style from the 1920s through the 1950s.