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Pigment Dyed and Garment Dyed T-Shirts: What Is the Difference?

Pigment and garment dyes create the vintage look of a washed and faded t-shirt. With two dye types to choose from, how do you know which one is best? When it comes to pigment dyed and garment dyed t-shirts, what is the difference?

The main difference between pigment and garment dyes is how they change the color of the t-shirt. Pigment dyes only coat the surface. They are inexpensive, insoluble, and can fade or rub off. Garment dyes soak into the t-shirt, coloring the whole garment. This creates more depth. Garment dyes are water-soluble and bleed out when washed.

This article will help you discover the differences between the two dyes. Knowing the properties of both will help you choose the right one for you and your t-shirt.

What Is Pigment Dyeing?

Pigment Dyed T Shirts

Before we get into pigment dyeing, we need to understand the word “pigment”. The pigment is not a dye. It is a substance that gives items a shade or tone of color. This substance can either be natural or synthetic.

Natural pigments can be organic or inorganic. Organic pigments can be found in living organisms. Plants get their green color from the pigment in chlorophyll. Hair color is created by melanin, a pigment found in hair follicles.

Inorganic pigments include charcoal and ochre. Both have been used as drawing tools by generations of artists. What all this means is, the word pigment is the name given to the particles that make up a shade or color.

These particles are used in the production of paints and inks that coat the surface of an object. A powdered pigment is added to a liquid, either water or oil, to form paints that can change the outward appearance of wood, plastics, metal, paper, and fabric.

Pigments are insoluble, so mixing them with a liquid makes them easier to spread with an even texture. The resulting paints adhere to the top layer of an item by using a bonding substance known as a binder.

When it comes to fabric, the phrase ‘pigment dye’ is a little misleading. A pigment dye doesn’t change the color of the material, it only paints the surface. The key thing to remember with pigment dye is it isn’t used to dye fabric. It’s used to paint a t-shirt or hoodie after they have been made.

Clothing made from fabric painted with pigment dyes will fade with use. The paint sits on the surface of the material and is easy to rub off. Although this sounds bad, it’s an advantage. It’s the reason this dye is ideal for creating the popular distressed appearance or a vintage, well-worn look.

The process of adding pigment dye to a garment is straightforward. Firstly, the pigment is secured to the t-shirt by a process known as ionic attachment. High temperatures help the garment surface absorb the pigment. Then the binder is added and the garment is tumble dried to lock in the color.

Pigment dyes come into their own when it comes to fabric blends. One of the main benefits of pigment dyes is they can be used on natural and synthetic fibers. This makes them a great choice for materials like polycottons. Their ability to change the color of any fabric ensures there can be complete and uniform coverage across the surface of the t-shirt.

What Is Garment Dyeing?

A dye is a substance that is used to change the color of something. Dyes come in many forms and can be used on some fiber-based products. Dyes work by saturating the object and bonding with it via a chemical reaction between the substance and the item being dyed.

Wood can be stained using a wood-specific dye. Hair can be colored with hair dye and the yarn content of the material can be dyed using fabric dye.

As long as you use the correct type of dye, it will work on anything that can absorb liquid. A dye seeps into an item, penetrating the fibers from the surface to the base, changing the color throughout.

Fabric dyes can be added at several different points in the production process. The first option is dyeing the yarn. For instance, a ball or skein of wool is dyed after it has been spun. A batch of the same color skeins is then knitted into a piece of clothing.

Garment Dyed fabric

Option number two involves dyeing the material. Known as piece-dyeing, this is when yarns or threads of fiber have been woven or knitted together to produce a fabric first. Then the whole piece of fabric is dyed.

Dyeing an entire bolt of fabric can be both labor and resource-intensive. It can also make the final product expensive. If there is a change in fashionable colors before the bolt is used for garments, this can be a disaster for profit margins.

A better option, one that gives flexibility on color and is quick to adapt to new on-trend colors, is garment dyeing. This takes place after the fabric has been cut and sewn into a t-shirt or hoodie.

In this instance, the fabric is produced in a neutral gray color and used to create a garment blank. A term used to describe a garment, like a t-shirt, that has yet to be given a pattern or color.

The whole garment’s color is altered by the dye, giving a rich depth and a softness to the finished apparel. Depending on the fabric’s texture, the actual color produced can vary from one item to another.

Garment dyeing creates an interesting effect. As the garment is dyed whole, some areas react to the color differently. Threads used to sew the clothing together and areas like ribbed cuffs, soak up the dye, but as they have different textures, there is a variation in the color produced. This can mean no two garments are the same.

Tshirt dyeing

This can be a bit of a problem. Dyes used on synthetic materials won’t work on natural fibers and vice versa. If the content of a fabric isn’t known, it’s tricky to choose the right dye. This can cause a dappled effect as the dye can’t properly cover the material.

Sometimes garment dyeing can take place at home after a garment has been purchased. There are several brands of home-dye available for clothing. Most can be used in a domestic washing machine. Home dyeing can be a factor in poorly selected dyes as a garment’s fiber content isn’t always obvious.

As dyes are water-soluble, the dye will wash out over time and lose most of its color after the first wash. This creates a well-worn vintage look that is currently on-trend and fashionable.

The process of garment dyeing is simple. Clothing, in this case, a t-shirt, is made and sent to be dyed. It is washed in the dye solution and dried in a tumble dryer. The heat from the dryer will set the color.

Pigment Dyeing Vs. Garment Dyeing: Pros and Cons

Although pigment dyeing and garment dyeing create the popular distressed look in clothing, they are very different processes. Each method of dyeing has its own strengths and weaknesses. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons to see how one performs against the other.

Garment Dyeing:


  • As the whole garment is affected by the dye, the color produced is rich, deep, and vibrant
  • The process of garment dyeing creates a soft, lived-in feel from the get-go, removing the need to wash and rewash clothing before it becomes comfortable
  • Gives a fashionable distressed, vintage look to apparel that is both stylish and easy to wear
  • The color is permanent and will not rub off onto other fabrics. The dye is absorbed into the material and becomes a part of it
  • The dyeing process removes the risk of shrinkage in garments
  • Garments are individual because the dye reacts to different textures in fabric and the thread used. Even clothing made in the same batch can have variations in how the dye has worked
  • Available in a range of colors that can be matched to current fashion trends


  • Garment dyes are water-soluble, so the dye will bleed into the water when the garment is washed. Particularly the first time
  • Needs to be washed separately to prevent color from running onto other garments. Although the color cannot rub off when the garment is wet, the color will bleed.
  • Some dyes don’t work on synthetic materials and some don’t affect natural fibers. This can cause an issue when selecting a dye for a blended fabric
  • The process can be labor-intensive
  • There can be a higher production cost, making them more expensive than pigment dyes
  • Uneven dye coverage due to thread or texture can create a blotchy finish, leading to a higher number of sub-quality garments or seconds.

Pigment Dyeing:


  • Cheaper than garment dyes as the process doesn’t use specialized equipment
  • Environmentally friendly as any chemicals used in the production process are less toxic than with other methods of dyeing
  • Can be used on natural and synthetic fabrics with equally good results. This is a distinct advantage as the fiber content of the material will not change the result
  • Creates an on-trend, vintage, lived-in look due to its tendency to fade quickly
  • Comes in a range of colors, making it easy to match fashionable shades as and when new ones are introduced


  • Only coats the outside surface of a garment and can rub off on to other clothes
  • Fades quickly due to everyday wear and frequent washing
  • Acts more like a paint than a dye and needs to be used with a binding substance
  • Pigments are not soluble in water which could make it difficult to remove them from an item
  • Synthetic pigments can be expensive to produce. If a specific color relies on synthetic materials, it could cause the garment price to increase

What’s the Difference Between Pigment Dyeing and Garment Dyeing?

Dyeing Process

Garment dyed shirt
While the two dye techniques have similar outcomes, the processes for each are different. Pigment dyeing is more of a painting process. The color coats the surface of the material but doesn’t get absorbed into it.

Color seeps into the entire fabric of the t-shirt when it is garment dyed. Water is used to dissolve the dye, the t-shirt is then added and submerged into the color. Color is sucked up by the fabric of the t-shirt then permeates the fibers.

Color Depth

Garment dyeing gives clothing a deep, rich color and texture. The dye is absorbed into the fabric of a t-shirt, providing all-over coverage. Although the dyes may react differently with blended materials, the overall effect is still eye-catching. It simply adds to the fashionable faded effect.

Pigment dyes are known to give a variable lived-in look, similar to garment dyes. Although, the color of this type of dye is only surface-deep. There’s no depth or richness to the shade as the inside of the clothing is untouched.

Quality of Fabric Used

Pigment dyes can be used on synthetic fibers as well as natural ones. Because it can cover anything, the fabric used with pigment dyes can be of lower quality. T-shirts made with cheap fabric can feel substandard.

Garment dyes, on the other hand, tend to be used on good quality, natural fiber materials. This can give the clothing a softer, more long-lasting, durable feel.

Difference in Price

The process of making pigment dyed garments is less expensive than garment dyeing. This means that the clothing produced is also cheaper.

Being cheap is not always a benefit. Sometimes to lower costs even further, a lower quality fabric may be used, leading to a less robust garment.

The extra expense of a garment-dyed t-shirt may be worth the investment. They tend to be softer and more durable. The fabric used has to be resilient enough to withstand the dyeing process. A more expensive t-shirt could last longer.

Can You Tell if a T-Shirt Is Garment Dyed or Pigment Dyed?

Garment dyes seep into the fabric of a t-shirt, covering both the surface, middle, and underside of the material. Pigment dyes only work on the surface.

To tell the two types of dyeing techniques apart, turn your t-shirt inside out. If the inside is not the same color as the surface, your garment was pigment dyed. An inside that matches the outside is garment dyed.

How Do You Care for a Pigment Dyed T-Shirt?

Pigment dyed clothing should be washed separately in cold water to prevent any paint from rubbing off on other garments.

Some pigment dyes contain plastisol ink which is a popular PVC-based paint used in fabric or screen-printing. Unfortunately, heat may cause this type of ink to chip or melt. Because of this, it’s best to avoid ironing your t-shirt.

Stain removers can cause irreparable damage to a pigment-dyed t-shirt. Most stain removers cannot tell a stain from a garment’s color and have been known to erase both.

This can be particularly problematic for pigment dye. The dye sits on the surface and is bonded to the fabric rather than absorbed into it. The stain remover may cause the bond between the dye and fabric to break. It is causing the color to come off.

The best way to care for a pigment dyed t-shirt is to check the instructions on the care label. Suggested cleaning routines may differ from one manufacturer to another depending on the type of dye used.

How Do You Care for a Garment Dyed T-Shirt?

Many garment-dyed t-shirts are made from cotton, which can shrink. One of the benefits of garment dyeing is fabrics are pre-washed and checked for shrinkage before the dyeing process. So there’s no need to worry about your t-shirt shrinking after the first wash.

This is good news because some manufacturers recommend washing the t-shirt before wearing it for the first time. Doing this helps remove any residual dye not absorbed into the fabric. The last thing you need is your t-shirt shrinking before you can put it on.

You do have to think about color bleeding out into the washing machine, though. Garment dyes are water-soluble, so always wash them separately to prevent the color accidentally dyeing something else.

For long-term care, always wash the t-shirt in cold water and allow it to dry naturally to ensure your garment dyed clothing retains its color for longer.

When it comes to caring for garment dyed clothing, you should always read the instructions on the label.


Both pigment dyes and garment dyes create the vintage lived-in look that’s on-trend right now. The one you go for depends on your budget, the garment’s style and quality, and the color effects produced.

Let me know in the comments if you liked the article. Has it encouraged you to give garment dyed or pigment dyed clothing a go? Has the article helped you understand the processes behind their production?