Lab Dips: How to Nail the Perfect Color

The fashion industry has its own lexicon, and the phrase “lab dip” is used often. And while you may not have heard the term “lab dip” yet, stay in the fashion industry long enough and you eventually 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 opted for 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. This discussion is divided into three sections: Natural Fibers, Blends and Synthetics.

Natural Fibers

As a general rule of thumb, natural fibers absorb color better than synthetic blends and polyesters (which require expert knowledge and a more elaborate dye process). 

  • Cotton, 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. The best dyes for cotton are typically cold water fiber reactive dyes, all-purpose dyes and direct dyes.
  • Wool, an animal fiber made from sheep’s hair, can absorb up to 30 percent of its weight in water and is the most absorbent of all fabrics. 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 takes well to many different colors and dyes.
  • Linen is created from the strongest vegetable fibers and is two to three times stronger than cotton. Linen is a good conductor of heat and is an absorbent fabric that will easily take dyes. Better still, linen is also ideal for dyeing because the colors tend to stay vibrant after washing.
  • Silk is 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. As an aside, in ancient times, silk sold for its weight in gold!
  • You can also add Viscose, Denim, Flax, Jute, Ramie, and Cotton Canvas to the list of fabrics that will happily and easily accept dye.


You can learn more about natural fibers and how to dye them here, in a comprehensive article from Our Everyday Life.

Synthetic Blends

As we mentioned earlier, synthetic fabrics are a bit trickier when it comes to the dye process. For that reason, a synthetic blend (of natural and synthetic) 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, the dye process explained above becomes ineffective. 

But don’t despair; all is not lost. Polyester fabrics CAN be dyed, but the process is a bit more complicated and requires an experienced dye house. Your dye house 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. Therefore the process is trickier and less predictable. You’ll probably need a few lab dips created before you can confidently judge the color.

So How Does The Lab Dip 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 an actual 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 a few 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. Here’s the step-by-step process:


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 (or request for another sample)

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 Most Discerning Friend, Pantone

Since you’ve never seen through the eyes of anyone but yourself, 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.

Since there is no “right” or “wrong” way to judge color, this is where Pantone saves the day. In 1963, Pantone revolutionized the printing industry with the colorful PANTONE MATCHING SYSTEM®, an innovative tool allowing for the faithful selection 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 acceptance 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 is and how important they are to the success of your brand. Initially it may sound like a complicated process. But once you’ve been through it once or twice, it will become second nature to you.

This process of obtaining lap dips for your collection is also something that can be handled by a professional Fabric Sourcing Manager. At Teg, our Fabric Sourcing and Treatment Managers are well-versed in the intricacies of lap dips and how to effectively communicate with a dye house. We’re happy to walk you through the process. You can give us a call at 800-916-0910 or find us on the web at

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