Lab Dips How to Nail the Perfect Color

Lab Dips: How to Nail the Perfect Color

Published On: June 20, 2023

While you may not have heard the term “lab dip” yet, stay in the fashion industry long enough and you will!  Lab dips are created when a dye house or color lab dyes a few small swatches of your actual fabric or textile trim to learn which dye formula creates the best color match for that particular fabric.

Okay, that was the official definition of a lab dip. Allow us to explain it in layman’s terms. Let’s say you have picked a grayish-lavender for three different garments in your collection. And you want them all to be the same shade, tone and tint of that particular grayish-lavender. However, all three garments are made from a different fabric type. (As an aside, you can learn more about the difference between shade, tone and tint in this interesting article here.)

It’s not enough to simply choose your gray-ish lavender color and match it to a Pantone color card (more on Pantone to follow). It’s vital that you also know how the fabric will “dye up” in the three different fabric types.

This is where the all-important lab dips come in.

No Two Fabrics are Alike

Each fabric type takes dye differently. It’s important to know the fiber content and some basic knowledge of how the fabric will react to the dye.

As a general rule of thumb, natural fibers absorb color better than synthetics (which require expert knowledge and a more elaborate dye process). To explain in more detail, here’s a little primer from Our Everyday Life on natural fibers:

  • Cotton is a versatile fabric used around the world due to its softness, comfort and wash-and-wear properties. The cotton fiber, which retains 24 to 27 times its weight in water, breathes by absorbing and releasing moisture quickly. This absorbent quality makes cotton an easy fabric to dye. Ideal dyes to use on cotton are cold water fiber reactive dyes, all-purpose dyes and direct dyes.
  • Wool, an animal fiber made from sheep’s hair, will absorb up to 30 percent of its weight in water and is the most absorbent of all fabrics. Much like cotton, wool also possesses a breathable quality, and it is ideal for keeping the body warm in cold weather. Wool is one of the best fabrics to dye as the color will penetrate the core of the fabric and permanently bond with the fibers. Wool is versatile and takes many different colors and dyes.
  • Linen, a smooth, durable and luxurious fabric, is composed of the strongest vegetable fibers and is two to three times stronger than cotton. The natural luster of this fabric comes from the wax content of the flax plant fibers used to create linen. Not only a good conductor of heat, linen is an absorbent fabric that will easily take dyes. Linen is also ideal for dyeing because the colors tend to stay vibrant after washing.
  • Silk, a sensuous, elegant and luxurious fabric, is attractive, versatile, and in ancient times, sold for its weight in gold. Silk fibers come from insects, such as caterpillars, and are one of the strongest natural fibers with a high absorbency for moisture. This absorbent quality makes silk one of the best fabrics for dyeing, especially in deep colors, and will often seem even more luxurious afterwards.
  • You can also add Viscose, Denim, Flax, Jute, Ramie, and Cotton Canvas to the list of fabrics that will happily and easily accept dye.

As we mentioned earlier, synthetic fabrics are a bit trickier when it comes to the dye process. For that reason, a synthetic blend will be more accommodating to dye.

From Dylon, “Mixes of natural and synthetic fabrics make up a significant part of 21st century textiles. The most common blends found on clothing and home textile labels include:

  • Polyester/cotton
  • Polyester/viscose
  • Silk/linen

While a great many can be successfully machine dyed, not all blends are created equal. The challenge is how to tell which ones can be dyed and what the results might be. Luckily, this is easier than it sounds – it comes down to ratios.

In any blend, it is up to the natural fibers to pick up the color. The larger the synthetic component, the less dye gets picked up, which results in a lighter (or more diluted) shade. For example, if you want to dye a white fabric navy blue and it is 69% cotton, 19% polyester and 12% viscose, it will work beautifully. The end color will just be slightly less concentrated than it would be if the fabric was 100% cotton.

When there is too much synthetic fiber in a blend, however, this particular dye process becomes ineffective.

But all is not lost. Polyester fabrics CAN be dyed, but the process is a bit more complicated and requires an experienced dye house. You must use disperse dyes, which are designed specifically for polyester and other insoluble fabrics. The fabric also needs to be heated for the fibers to absorb the dye.

So How Does The Process Work?

As the designer, it is your responsibility to provide the dye house with all the information they need to do their job effectively. Besides providing them with your color standard (this can be a Pantone color number OR a swatch), you must also let them know the fiber content of the fabric to be dyed. Remember, we said that all fibers take to dye differently? Your dye house will need to make allowances for the fiber type in order to properly match your color standard.

This process usually takes anywhere from a few days to two weeks depending on how difficult the color is to match, the availability of the dyestuffs, and how busy the lab is. So be sure to include that time in your schedule. At the lab level, it can take up to six hours to process a cotton dip and twelve hours for poly or poly blends.

Lab Dip Requisition from designer

Entry in the computer

First recipe is given by swatch/pantone number

First correction

Second correction

Grading of sample (A, B, C, D)

Sample sent to designer

Approved by designer

Order for bulk production

Check and compare your swatches in a lightbox to see how colors look under various light settings, like daylight vs. fluorescent lights. A lightbox is all gray inside so that your eyes do not get distracted by any other colors. Your dye house or production partner will have a lightbox for you to use, if you don’t have one of your own.

Meet Your New Best Friend, Pantone

Since you’ve never seen through the eyes of anyone but yourself (discussions on reincarnation aside), it’s hard to imagine the idea that everyone sees color differently. But it’s quite true.

Tests have demonstrated vast variation across perceivers exposed to the same color stimulus. Researchers have found that what some people pick as their best example of red is what others pick as their best example of orange. You can read more about this fascinating research here.

Because there is no “right” or “wrong” way to judge color, this is where Pantone comes in to save the day. In 1963, Pantone revolutionized the printing industry with the colorful PANTONE MATCHING SYSTEM®, an innovative tool allowing for the faithful selection, articulation and reproduction of consistent, accurate color anywhere in the world.

The tool organizes color standards through a proprietary numbering system and chip format, which have since become iconic to the Pantone brand. A Pantone color reference number, or sometimes a Pantone swatch, is given to the dye lab to color match.

Pantone numbers are recognized worldwide by any dye house or fabric house and are utilized by all. This universal adoption has pretty much eliminated any ambiguity when judging a color. What’s more, the smart people at Pantone also considered the fact that colors look different when dyed versus when they are printed. So now they offer Pantone samples on fabric swatches, not just on paper.

So back to our earlier example of the grayish-lavender garments in your collection. Out of the three garments, one is cotton, one is silk and the other is a poly blend. You would then choose your grayish-lavender Pantone color (possibly 15-3817, for example) and provide that number and fabric swatch to the dye house. The dye house will make sure each of the fabrics – the cotton, the silk and the poly blend – are ALL dyed to match Pantone 15-3817 in tone, hue and intensity. Then they will provide you with a lap dip in EACH fabrication for your approval.

So now you know what a lab dip means and how important they are to the success of your brand. Granted, it does sound like a complicated process. But once you’ve been through it once or twice, it will become second nature to you.

This process is also something that can be handled by a professional Fabric Sourcing Manager. If you’d like to know more about that process, feel free to give us a call at 800-916-0910 or reach out to us at



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