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Lab Dip Guide: The Key to Perfect Color Matching in Fashion

If you didn’t already know, color is THE most important factor in fashion industry. Every good apparel merchandising team knows that the first thing that pulls a customer into a store is the color. Basically, when we shop, we are like tropical birds; pretty colors draw us in. Then we start to care more about things like cut and fit after that initial attraction. So, today I am going to teach you all about how custom colors are made and matched through the product development lab dip process, or l/d for short. If you didn’t know lab dips are tiny fabric samples, so small they almost looks like scraps, but they are crucial to the fabric color matching process.



Have you heard about the super secret document that everyone in the fashion industry uses, but no one is talking about? Probably not. That is because you can't find it on Google or Instagram (believe me, I've tried).

It's a form I have used for over 13 years at every job I have ever had. Literally everyone from brands to fabric suppliers, use it, but you can't find it anywhere publicly.    

The best part? It can cut your sourcing time in half, and save you tons of money in product development! This is the kind of info consultants charge the big bucks for. And, I'm giving it away for free until the end of the month. 

So, get ready to make fashion startup life a whole lot easier, and GRAB YOUR FREE DOWNLOAD OF THE NOT SO SECRET SOURCING DOC HERE.




      lab dip

      A lab dip, or l/d for short, is a teeny swatch of color - we are talking just a few inches -  that holds the secret to matching colors. Despite its size, it has a very in-depth process, and the best way to explain what is going on and why it’s important is to walk you through the entire procedure - which I will do in just a minute. 

      Think of the lab dip process as the mini-dye process that occurs before production. If the bulk dye machines are like the massive Ben and Jerry’s factory (yes, I went on the tour in Vermont), then a lab dip is like something made in an Easy Bake Oven (I begged for this for Christmas, anyone else?). Essentially, the lab dip process is proof that the mill has the capabilities to match the color that the brand needs (and believe me, this is often easier said than done).



      No. But, they are similar.

      Both lab dips and strike offs are part of the development process as a way to test if the fabric is going to come out correctly in bulk. But, lab dips are strictly for solid dye fabrics, while strike offs are for print fabrics.



      Not in the mood to read? Check out this quick 7-minute video of me at a dye house in Italy, breaking down the whole process in person.



      pantone color standard

      The first step in the lab dip process is choosing a color standard. A color standard allows the designer or brand, the mill, and dye house to all be on the same page. It is a physical reference of what the color should be.

      Now, let’s talk about how the Pantone color standard works. Pantone is the most popular color-matching system, and you might have heard of it thanks to its infamous, “Color of the Year.” When Pantone announces a color, fashion brands race out to dye everything in that shade. It’s so well known, even my sister and her non-fashion college friends would have a Pantone Color of the Year party, where the theme revolved around the selected color – food, drinks, costumes, you name it. Pantone simplifies color communication in the global supply chain. 

      Pantone has a multitude of colors (2161 to be exact), with each color having a numerical code. There are even different number systems for different materials. For example, if you are dyeing polyester, you’ll use a different color system than for dyeing natural fibers like cotton and rayon. This is because natural fibers, especially when it comes to bright and neon colors, are a lot harder to dye. 

      Back when I worked in fast fashion, one of my first problems to solve on the job was to figure out why some dyed fabrics turned out hot pink, while others looked muted and faded. What was taking my boss months to figure out, I knew the solution immediately: the bright fabrics were polyester, and the dingy ones were cotton. 

      How did I know? 



      Simply, the Pantone color system does not include neons for cotton fabrics, as they are almost impossible to create using the type of dye that cotton needs. Pretty cool, right?

      A brand typically buys Pantone’s big book of colors, known as their “Color Passport,” to pick out colors they like for their designs. Every color, whether for print, fabric, or hang tags, or even packaging, is assigned a Pantone color code and put into the tech pack. The tech pack can then be sent digitally, allowing the factory to open up their Pantone book and pick out their desired colors to match to. 

      Now, you might wonder: Why can’t we use digital colors? Why can’t I just use my computer or phone to choose colors? Why do I need to buy this passport when the colors are available online? 

      Well, matching colors on screens is very difficult, if not impossible. Different screens show colors differently depending on the dvices settings. And, color looks different on screen than it does on a physical fabric. So, color matching becomes very difficult.

      The nice thing about Panton is that they provide dye formulas. A dye formula is like a recipe, that when followed should allow a dye house to dye a color exactly. By Pantone sharing the dye formula (most people keep this top secret) it gives dye houses a head start in creating lab dips (read: you can work quicker). While Pantone is the biggest color system and probably the most famous, there are a few other color systems that you might not have heard of before.



      Neelam is a popular color system used in India, especially by smaller artisan dye houses. There are a lot fewer colors i the Neelam system. But, the advantage to these small dyers is that they are A LOT less expensive. 

      The other thing about Neelam is that they are actually thread shade cards. Meaning for all the colors you can easily buy matching threads. This makes the development and garment manufacturing process very easy, because sewing thread that matches is easily available. When you choose a Pantone color, you will usually need to cusome dye your thread. And this not only ads on an additonal expense, but more logistical work. 



      If you know me, you know I love a good DIY money-saving startup fashion hack. Pantone Passports can cost thousands, and buying a single color can be $15 or more. That adds up quickly, especially for a small brand. But here’s a savvy tip - and, even big businesses use it, so you won’t look unprofessional if you do it too. What’s the trick? Free Home Depot paint chips. 

      Yup, your local hardware store is a great way to communicate your colors. After the startup brands I work with create their print and color designs, I advise them to go to the hardware store and pick up some free paint chips in the colors they like. Then, we match these paint chips back to the designs. Once we’ve selected the perfect paint chips, we staple them right on to the hard copy of the tech pack. Then, the entire tech pack, complete with paint chips, is then shipped to the factory, where they will use the chips to match the colors on the first set of samples.

      Now, it's true that this method may involve a bit of extra time and money spent on shipping compared to investing in Pantone. However, it still usually comes out significantly cheaper than using Pantone, making it an excellent cost-saving alternative. Plus, it's a tried-and-true technique utilized even by prominent brands, proving its effectiveness and reliability.



      lab dip formula

      Once the lab dip reaches the mill, the first step (if we arne’t given a Pantone dye formula) is popping it into a machine called a photo spectrometer to read the color. Have you ever seen those viral color-matching videos where a painter chooses a random object and, using just red, blue, yellow, and white, and magically matches the exact shade of orange on a pumpkin at the grocery store? Well, a photo spectrometer is basically the machine version of these people. 

      It reads the color, breaks down the exact combination of primary colors that make it up, and even suggests the initial dye formula (which dyes to use to match the color). Now, like I said, the nice thing about using Pantone is that they give you all of this info – the color breakdown and the dye formula. And that’s part of the reason Panton is so expensive; it provides a serious head start to the lab dip process. 



      pfd fabric

      Now that we have the dye formula, you would think it’s time to start dyeing the lab dips. But, there is still one more step we need to do in order to ensure everything comes out perfectly: the PFD, or Prepare for Dye process. The PFD is a fabric preparation process that involves washing it with a mild detergent and a very mild bleach. This step is super important and, please never, ever skip it! 



      When fabrics are knit or woven on industrial machines (and even in the hand woven khadi process), the yarns that form the fabric are covered in a substance called sizing. Sizing is used as protection to strengthen the yarns and maintain the overall quality of the fabric during the weaving or knitting process. It can be eco-friendly, made from materials like cornstarch, or less environmentally friendly, made from petroleum. Regardless of its composition, we need to remove sizing before dyeing. That is because, dye molecules find it challenging to penetrate the sizing and reach the fibers. If the sizing is not properly removed, the color will wash right off the fabric the first time the customer launders it.



      The PFD process creates a blank canvas for the application of color. In its raw, unprocessed state, fabrics typically have a slight yellowish tint. This is especially important to take note of when you are dying lighter colors. For instance, if you want to dye the fabric a light blue, but it has a yellowish base, the resulting color might end up looking a little green (blue and yellow make green) due to the influence of the underlying yellowish hue. To ensure that the colors express themselves as intended based on the dye formula, the semi-bleach process is crucial for achieving a nice white base to work with.

      Now, some people go overboard with the semi-bleaching process, believing the whiter the fabric, the better. As a result, they end up using something called optical brighteners. Optical brighteners are what make your whites super bright. While they are great for white clothing, they are terrible for the dyeing process. Fabrics treated with optical brighteners and then dyed result in a final fabric that appears splochy and lacks uniform color. So, always avoid optical brighteners to ensure a successful dyeing process.



      dye formula

      A dye lab will have different beakers of primary colors ready to use. Then, depending on the dye recipe, specific quantities of each primary color will be combined. So, the dye recipe might call for 5 drops of blue 1, 2 drops of blue 2, 3 drops of red, and 3 drops of yellow. All of these color components will be meticulously combined and mixed in a separate beaker.



      melanie disalvo dyeing lab dips

      It's time for the dyeing process to begin. Now that the fabric is ready, and we have a custom color mix - it's showtime, baby! 

      The first step that many people don’t know about but is one of the secrets to getting a good uniform dye, is wetting out the fabric. Basically, we dampen the fabric with plain old water. And, just like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, you don’t want the fabric to be too wet or too dry. Once the fabric swatch (about 6”x6”) is ready, we put it  into a small metal beaker. Next, we carefully pour in the dye recipe and securely screw on the top. Lastly, we place the metal beaker into a machine that will shake and heat it up. 

      Both heat and movement are critical components in the dyeing process. 

      The movement is important because it will create a uniform dye. Have you ever dyed an Easter egg, and the bottom of the egg is darker than the top? That is because the dye is heavier than water and tends to sink becoming more concentrated at the bottom. So if you just let fabrics sit in a dye bath, the dyes will sink, and the fabric will not come out the same color throughout. So, to avoid uneven coloring, we ensure the fabric is continuously moving during the dyeing process. 

      Heat is also important because it opens up the fibers, allowing the dye to penetrate them more effectively. You can think of heat during the dye process like steam in a facail. The heat will help to open up the fibers pores allowing the dye molecules to penetrate deeper (meaning the color will get stuck in there, and won’t fade). 



      melanie disalvo

      The first color check occurs after about 20-30 minutes of dyeing. At this point, we stop the machine, and carefully remove the lab dips to dr. Looking at a wet fabric can be very deceiving because they tend to look a lot darker than the actual color. So, always make sure to do your color assessments on totally dry textiles. 

      In the video above you can see the special little devise we use to quickly dry the fabric. 

      Once the fabric is dry, the mill will compare the lab dip to the original color standard. They will then make a few tweaks to the dye recipe, and try again. The mill will sometimes do a few trials before showing the customer, because when they present the lab dips to the brand, they want to make sure they are matching almost perfectly. 



      Have you heard of a lightbox? Here is something interesting about colors: They can look different in different light. Sometimes a color that matches perfectly in the lab will not match at all in natural dye light. The technical term for this phenomenon is a metameric match (which we want to avoid). To prevent this confusion from happening and to ensure color consistency, lap dip swatches are analyzed in a lightbox. As the name suggests, a lightbox is a box equipped with different types of light sources, such as UV, outdoor, incandescent, and fluorescent. The lab dip is checked under each setting to ensure it matches all lighting conditions.



      fabric dye

      Not everyone can do this job. Working with colors requires a keen eye and a sharp perception. Sadly, color is a young (wo)mans game. As we grow older, our ability to perceive colors may alter, and we tend to see them with a slight yellowish tint. This change in color perception emphasizes the importance of having well-trained professionals who can accurately analyze colors.

      Color specialists are must pass a series of color tests annually. These tests consist of ombre blocks that need to be lined up from one color to another. It’s not as simple as transitioning from primary colors like red to purple to blue. Instead, imagine aligning different shades, like going from lime green to highlighter yellow. These tests are quite challenging, and the average person would find them difficult to pass. At FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology), we were subjected to all of these tests, and even at 21, with youth on my side, I couldn't achieve a perfect score every time.

      So, make sure you have someone well qualified on your team that is commenting on lab dips, and color approvals.  



      After creating about 3-4 lab dips, each using slightly different dye recipes, we ship the swatches to the customer for assessment. Some customers may think all the colors look the same and wonder why they received four duplicates. But, remember, to a highly trained eye, these lab dips are all actually quite different. The customer will pick out the lab dip they like the most, and this will become the official formula for their bulk production order. 

      But, what if the customer doesn’t like any of the lab dips? Well, then the process will need to happen again. But generally, remember this, if the factory isn’t able to hit the color in the first round, they might not be the factory for you. 



      TIP 1

      Here's a helpful tip on being a good customer (your factories and mills will truly appreciate this). Give your factories a big piece of color standard to work with. Often a brand or buyer sends a microscopic cuttings of colors to match, and this makes it difficult for the machines to read the colors accurately and for the mill to do in-person color matching. Always try to send at least a 3”x 3” color standard to make their lives easier. Trust me, as your friendly factory representative; it’s the little things that make your supply chain partners love you. 

      TIP 2

      Fabric tip: Always have your lab dips made on the exact same fabric that you plan to use in production. And when I say exact, I mean exact. Different fabrics, depending on their weights, construction, and even yarn density, will absorb the dyes differently and create fabrics that look totally different. To make sure that your bulk matches your lab dip approval, make sure you are using the correct fabrics. If you take nothing else away from this entire article, please let it be this. Because, this mistake could end up costing you thousands of dollars.

      TIP 3

      Tip for color assessment: Use photos first. Shipping lab dips and samples can be expensive. Nothing hits you harder than opening up a long-awaited package from a factory and being totally disappointed in what they sent. So, I like to have my factory send me photos but you need to do this in a very specific way.

      As previously discussed, some colors in certain lights photograph totally differently. I once had this teal color I was working on matching in India, and when the dye house sent me a photo, I was like, “What is this? It looks totally brown.” They assured me they had matched the color, but I didn’t believe them, so I used this trick. To help figure out if the color is actually matching to the standard, I always have them take 1 side-by-side photo with the color standard and the lab dip right next to each other.  In the above India example, I was able to see that they were indeed matching. By seeing the photos of the lab dips before shipping, it gives the brand an opportunity to have them remake them before they spend money and time on shipping.



      bulk fabric dye

      With the dye recipe approved, it's time to proceed to the bulk dyeing process.



      fabric dye resources

      Want to learn more about bulk fabric dying check out these articles…

      2. Pigment dyes and prints
      3. Textile printing machines
      4. DIY indigo dye


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