Tea staining fabric and wigs is a really simple skill that can help to add dimension and subtle realism to your costume. It can help your white fabric look aged or worn. If you want, you can also create a nice solid or dappled tan color that you might not be able to find in a fabric shop.
A tea-dyed wig can also make a blonde color that looks more natural than a wig that is store-bought with the color. It’s also a great way to make a very light almost-white wig color that’s difficult to find in store.
Whatever the reason, tea staining fabric and wigs is a pretty simple process. All it takes is some hot water, a bunch of tea bags, and a little bit of time.
What to know before trying to tea-dye your fabric
Tea staining fabric is easy, but there are still some basics you need to know before jumping in. Make sure you know what kind of fabric you’re using, and have plenty of tea bags available (I just got a large box of cheap tea bags from the grocery store).
- It’s easier to dye natural fibers. Natural fibers, such as cotton and wool, are easier to tea-stain than polyester and synthetic materials. You’ll be able to get a darker tea color that lasts longer. You can absolutely still use synthetic fabric when tea-staining, but you’ll need to use more tea bags and let it sit in the tea bath for a longer period of time.
- Tea dye is permanent but will fade as you wash it. Once you tea-dye white fabric, you’ll never be able to wash the tea out to get that pure white color again. However, over time as you wash the garment, the color will begin to fade. If you find that it’s faded too much, you’ll need to re-dye the fabric.
- This only works with light-colored fabrics. You will mostly have to work with white or light off-white fabrics for tea staining to work. You might be able to get away with a light yellow color too, but mainly the tea staining method should be used with very light material.
- Test a sample first. Always test a sample swatch of your fabric or material first. The amount of tea you use and the amount of time you leave it in the tea bath will vary depending on how dark you want the color to be. The type of fabric also has a major effect on the end result, so always test first. You don’t want to end up staining your fabric too dark.
How to control the color of the final garment
The end color of your fabric can vary dramatically, from a light off-white to a dark tan, or even a green color. There are three different factors you need to consider to reach the color that you want for your fabric.
- What kind of tea you use. Most teas will give you a tan tinge to your fabric, but some will be more on the brown side and some will lean toward the gray side. You can also use green tea to give your material an earthy green tone instead. Coffee can also be used to create a warmer (and usually more saturated) brown tone. (To use coffee, brew it as you normally would, then combine it with water to create a less concentrated mixture)
- The length of time the fabric is in the tea bath. The longer you leave your fabric or wig in the tea bath, the darker the final color will be.
- How much tea you use. The more tea you use, the darker the color will be, and the more quickly you’ll get a darker color to your fabric. The number of tea bags you use can also create a limit to how dark your fabric will get. For example, if you only use 5 tea bags in your tea bath, you’ll create a lighter dye. Eventually, the material will even out its tone with the water and the fabric won’t get any darker no matter how much longer you leave it in the bath.
How to tea-dye fabric for a smooth color
If you want to stain your material to give it a smooth tan color, you will basically treat the tea bath like any other fabric dye.
- Steep your tea bags. Boil a pot of water and add 10 to 20 tea bags (depending on how dark you want to make the fabric). Make sure you use enough water to fully submerge your material. The bigger the garment/fabric, the more water, and the more tea bags you will need to use.
- Fully submerge your fabric. Remove the tea bags and add your fabric to the pot. Use a spoon or stirring stick to submerge the fabric entirely. Come back to the pot to swish the fabric around frequently. This will keep the tea dye from collecting in the folds of the fabric.
- Keep your material in the tea bath for 30-60 minutes. Usually, a half-hour is enough to get a good tan color, but depending on the fabric you may want to leave it in longer. Polyester fabrics will need to be left in the tea bath for multiple hours to get a consistent tan color.
- Remove your fabric and rinse it off. Once your material has reached the desired color, remove it from the tea bath and rinse it off. You’ll want to wait until the fabric is slightly darker than you intend. As you rinse and dry the garment, the color will get slightly lighter.
How to tea-dye fabric for a weathered look
As material becomes weathered, it’s not going to be one smooth color. Instead, there will be a dappled effect with some areas being subtly lighter and some darker. You can easily create this kind of look by making some very slight changes to the tea staining process.
- Steep your tea bags. Just like in the previous section, boil some water and steep 10-20 tea bags.
- Tie your fabric into a bundle. Prepare your fabric by tying it into a crumpled-up bundle. I used rubber bands, but you can also use twine or any kind of string.
- Submerge your fabric bundle. Add your material to the tea bath. It’s okay if the bundle bobs around a bit, but make sure all areas are submerged for part of the time so that no parts are left completely white. Periodically, flip the bundle over to get better coverage. You don’t need to worry about swishing it around so much though.
- Allow the material to sit for 30-60 minutes. You might want to let the fabric sit longer if you want a more dramatic weathered look.
- Remove the bundle and untie the fabric. Once the color is right for you, remove the bundle and untie it. Then rinse the material and let it dry.
How to tea-dye a synthetic wig
Because cosplay wigs are made of plastic fibers, they don’t tea-stain as easily as natural fabrics. You will need to leave them in the tea bath overnight if you want a truly blonde color. However, a tea-stained blonde wig will typically be a little more natural-looking than a store-bought blonde wig because there will be a natural variance in the color of the individual wig strands.
You can also tea-dye wigs to have a very slight off-white, cream color that looks better with most skin tones than pure white. It will make the wig look more natural overall while still giving you the white hair of the character you’re cosplaying.
The other caveat with tea staining synthetic wigs is that you must use a white wig. I tried to dye a light gray wig with this method, and it didn’t come out great, so I recommend making sure your wig is pure white to start with.
- Steep your tea bags. You want to use more tea bags for wigs than you need to for fabric. I recommend 25-50 tea bags depending on how long the wig is and how dark you want it to be.
- Add your wig and fully submerge it. Make sure to swish it around occasionally to make sure all the fibers of the wig are being touched by the tea dye.
- Allow your wig to soak for 30 minutes to 12 hours. If you want just a slightly off-white color, 30-60 minutes will be enough. If you want a natural blonde color, I recommend leaving the wig to soak overnight.
- Remove the wig, rinse it off and let it dry. Once you’re happy with the color, rinse off the wig until the water running off of it is clear, then let it dry. Don’t forget, it will dry a slightly lighter color than it is when you first remove it from the tea bath.