Color is crucial in fashion—it sets moods, shows off brands, and even sways shoppers. Getting the color right can make an outfit a hit. Getting color wrong can mean a pile of unsold clothes and a damaged reputation. That’s where the art of color matching comes in. The lab dip process is the heart of color matching.
Designers and manufacturers work hard to get the exact color from the drawing board to the store. But it’s tricky because fabrics can react differently to dyes, and colors can look different under various lights.
That’s where lab dips come in. They’re the secret stars of the fashion world. A lab dip is when a small fabric piece is dyed to match a specific color code, like a Pantone. It’s then checked for accuracy. This helps avoid big mistakes and waste when making a lot of clothes.
Lab dips give everyone a real look at what the final fabric will look like. This helps them make better choices. It’s possible that once the color standard is translated onto the body fabric, the designer may not like that color anymore. A lab dip is the first time during this process that a designer can actually see that. If the color/fabric combo doesn’t work and they catch it at the lab dip stage, they can avoid costly errors.
No matter the size of the brand, lab dips are a must for high-quality clothing.
In our guide, we’ll dive into lab dips, the dyeing process itself, and how lab dips are key to nailing color in clothes. We’ll also discuss the challenges and tips for the best color match.
Join us to see how lab dips make that perfect color a reality every time.
Understanding the Lab Dip
What's a Lab Dip?
Think of a lab dip as a fabric’s test run in your chosen color. It’s a small piece of fabric dyed to match a color you’ve picked out. This ensures that when it’s time to dye a whole lot of production fabric in a dye house, it’ll look just like you want it to look.
Why Lab Dips Matter
Lab dips are super important for keeping your clothing line consistent. They help everyone agree on the exact color before making tons of garments. Without lab dips, you could end up with different shades, even different fabric color within the same garment, and that’s not good for anyone’s look or brand.
How Lab Dips Work
Creating a lab dip is like a mix of cooking and chemistry:
Pick Your Color: It all starts with choosing the color you want. This is usually something like a Pantone color reference or a custom color standard from a provider like CSI.
Prep the Swatch: A little piece of the actual fabric gets ready for its color transformation. The fabric used for lab dipping stays in the dye lab.
Mix the Dye: A dye expert mixes up the perfect dye formula to match your color. They often go through several formulas that are never seen by anyone but the dyer.
Dye the Swatch: The fabric gets its new color using small-scale equipment in the dye lab.
Dry and Check: The dyed fabric is dried and then assessed under different light sources according to the customer’s specifications. This work ensures the color is just right.
Send to the Brand for Approval: Once the dyer feels they have a close match, they will assemble the swatches they want to send, cut samples, affix to a lab dip submission form, and submit to the person responsible for looking at color.
Make Tweaks: If the color or dye formula’s off, it’s back to the dye mixing until it’s perfect.
Give the Thumbs Up: When everyone’s happy with the color, the lab dip gets a green light, and the recipe is saved for the big dye job.
Designers, brands, and dye houses all team up to nail the color in this process. Understanding lab dips means you’re on your way to making clothes that match your vision to a T.
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The Nitty-Gritty of Lab Dips
Inside the World of Dye Houses and Color Labs
Dye houses and color labs are where the color magic happens. They’re like the kitchens for fabric colors, stocked with all the tech and know-how to whip up any shade on any fabric. Sometimes, they are actually called the “kitchen”. Pretty cool, huh?
In the dye lab, technicians mix the dyes, affix them to the fabric, and ensure it all looks just like you wanted. They’ve got a whole pantry of dyes and chemicals for different fabrics and colors, and they know how each dye acts on different materials.
Color labs are the color science geeks. They’ve got specialists who are wizards at fine-tuning colors. These folks use their color theory smarts and chemistry tricks to get the color spot-on, and they keep a close eye on quality at every step.
Cooking Up the Perfect Color With a Lab Dip
Getting the perfect color mix is like a cooking show challenge. You’ve got to pick the right dye for your fabric—cotton, wool, and polyester all play differently with colors.
The chefs in the color lab start with a base recipe, maybe tweaking a bit here and there, aiming for that Pantone color or standard you’ve picked out. Pantone is a great choice and where most small brands start when choosing color standards because Pantone is like the recipe book everyone agrees on, so you know the color will look right no matter where you’re working from.
But getting it just right usually takes a few tries. They’ll mix a little, test a little, and check it under various light settings because colors can change their look like chameleons—that’s metamerism for you.
If the first batch isn’t perfect, it’s back to the mixing beaker. They’ll adjust the dyes and keep at it until the fabric swatch could be twins with the Pantone sample in your primary light, and possibly even your secondary.
This back-and-forth keeps going until everyone’s nodding, and then, boom, you’ve got your color recipe for the bulk production batch.
Understanding all this techy lab dip stuff means seeing the big picture of how those awesome colors in your clothes come to be. It’s a mix of art, science, and a whole lot of teamwork.
Lab Dips and Different Fabrics
Lab Dips: It's Not a One-Size-Fits-All Deal
Making lab dips isn’t the same for every fabric. Different materials—like cozy cotton, warm wool, or sleek polyester—react to color in their own ways.
Natural fibers like cotton and wool are pretty thirsty—they soak up dye well, which can make colors pop. But you’ve got to watch out for things like shrinkage and uneven color. Cotton can be especially tricky because it likes to change shape when you dye it, especially if it hasn’t been pre-shrunk.
Synthetic fibers, like polyester, don’t drink up dye as easily, so getting those deep colors can be more difficult. And if you’re working with a mix of natural and synthetic, like in a poly blend, you will need to dye it with a more complex formula so that the color looks the same on both types of fibers.
Each fabric also has its own chemistry with different dyes and fixatives—the stuff that makes the color stick. Dye houses have to play matchmaker to make sure the color isn’t just pretty but also sticks around after washing and wearing. This is called colorfastness, and the dye lab chooses dyestuffs that have great color fastness so your color won’t fade over time.
Why the Right Fabric Matters
When you’re doing lab dips, you must use the same fabric you’ll use for the final clothes. That’s because every fabric has its own personality that affects the color—things like how heavy it is, what it feels like, and how it’s woven.
Using production fabric means the dye house can see how all these little traits will influence the color. It’s key for avoiding oops moments and keeping the color the same, even when making many SKUS, across many fiber types.
Plus, the way a fabric and dye formula interacts with light can make the color look different. Testing it on the actual fabric means you can be sure the color looks good in sunshine or store lights, wherever people are checking out the clothes.
Testing on the real fabric also lets you check that the color won’t bail on you the first time you wash it or take it out on a sunny day. It’s all about making sure that the color you see in the fabric sample is what you’ll get in your hands and on your garment.
Using the actual fabric for lab dips is a big deal. It’s like a promise that the color you fall in love with is the color that shows up in your wardrobe.
Lab Dip Approval: Final Checkpoint Before Bulk Fabric
When a lab dip gets the color just right, it’s time for the thumbs up—or not. This is when designers, brand reps, and customers get super picky about the color.
Here’s how it goes down: They take a good look at the lab dip under various light settings according to the brand specs to check the color. If it looks good, the client might take a peek, decide if they want to see more options or say it’s all systems go. Once they give the nod, the dye recipe is set, and the supplier has the OK to dye production fabric when the order comes through.
Strike Offs: The Print Preview
Now, if we’re talking prints and not solid colors, that’s where strike-offs come in. It’s basically a lab dip for patterns. They print a little sample so everyone can check out the colors, size, and details of the design on the actual fabric. Strike-offs make sure the printed fabric will look just how the brand imagined.
Lights, Color, Action!
Lighting is a big deal in color matching. The same color on a fabric can look different under different lights, thanks to metamerism. That’s why they use a lightbox during approval to mimic different lighting scenarios—like the sunny outdoors, the soft light at home, or the bright lights at the store.
This step is super important for shops because the store lights can change a color’s appearance. If a shirt looks fab in daylight but not so hot under store lights, it might not sell as well. Brands that are sold all over the place, in different stores or online, need to make sure their colors stay true no matter where you see them.
This whole approval thing shows just how much care goes into making clothes. It’s all about getting every detail just right, from the first sketch to the final piece hanging in your closet.
Lab Dips: Timing and What to Expect
So, how long does a lab dip take? It’s not a one-answer-fits-all kind of question. The time it takes can change a lot depending on the color, the fabric, and how close the first dye mix is to what you want.
If you’re dealing with a simple color and a fabric that’s not too fussy, you might get your lab dip in just a few days. The dye pros might already have a recipe that’s pretty close and just needs a little tweak.
But if you’re after a really specific shade, or if the first try isn’t quite right, it could take a lot longer. Sometimes, just getting the color perfect can take several weeks, counting all the back-and-forth of sending swatches out for approval.
Remember, the more people who need to say “yes” to the color, especially if they’re in different places, the longer it’ll take. So, plan ahead and chat with your supplier’s dye house manager about your schedule to keep everything on track.
Why a Lightbox is a Game-Changer
A lightbox is a super handy gadget for checking out lab dips. It lets you see what your fabric looks like under all kinds of lights—like sunshine (D 65), store lights (CWF or TL84), or the lamp in your living room (Inc A).
This box of tricks has different lights inside, like daylight, cool white, and the kind you have at home, plus UV light. By looking at your dyed fabric in the lightbox, you can tell if the color will look good everywhere or if it willd look different under certain lights (metamerism).
Checking your colors in a lightbox makes sure that the shade you pick won’t let you down, no matter where your clothes end up. It’s all about making sure your customers are happy with their purchase in any light, which means less chance they’ll bring it back.
Keeping these practical tips in mind helps brands to set the right timelines and use cool tools like lightboxes to make sure their clothes come out looking awesome.
Tips for Smaller Brands
Lab dips might seem a bit much if you’re a small brand or an independent designer, but they’re totally doable. Here’s how to tackle them:
Plan Ahead: Get started with lab dips early in your production schedule to avoid a last-minute rush.
Talk It Out: Tell the dye house exactly what you want. A Pantone code or a standar swatch is crucial.
Know the Costs: Lab dips can add up, so budget for them and chat with the dye house about any fees.
Ask for Options: If the first try isn’t perfect, ask to see a few more shades.
Check the Lighting: If you can, look at your lab dips in a lightbox to see how they’ll look in different settings. X-Rite makes wonderful light cabinets.
Be Flexible: Sometimes the perfect color just isn’t possible, so be ready to tweak your vision a bit, or accept a “Best Match” for a certain style.
Keep Records: Write down all the details about your colors and your agreement with the dye house for future reference.
Lab Dips: Why They Matter
Lab dips are critically important. They’re your chance to make sure the color is spot on before you commit to dyeing a production lot of fabric. They’re like a safety net, making sure that what you designed is what you get.
Remember, making a great garment is a team effort. Clear communication and a bit of back-and-forth are part of the process. If you need help creating your color-matching process, let’s hop on a Clarity.fm call together. We can get this type of process detailed and put in place in about 30 minutes or about $60. It will be the best money you ever spent as a fashion designer or small apparel brand.