How To Tie Dye: The Ultimate Guide
Want to learn how to tie dye? Well, you’ve come to the right place. Let’s walk through the different types of tie dye that are common today, the supplies you’ll need, and the step-by-step basics of tie dyeing.
Before we get to all that though, let’s chat about what tie dye is. It is a resist-dyeing technique used on fabric to create bold color patterns. More simply, fabric is tied in a particular pattern using rubber bands or string and then dye is applied to it. The process of tying the fabric up helps prevent the dye from reaching all of the fabric, thus creating a pattern.
For those of you interested in a bit of the science, or the how this works, here it is. Tie dye uses both resistance dyeing and over-dyeing. We talked about the resist-dyeing already, but understanding how over dyeing works is important. Over dyeing is when fabric can only take so much dye and it’s like first come, first serve. This is why we always dye the weakest color (yellow) first, so we can control what shows up. The blending of colors happens when the first dye didn’t fully saturate the fabric.
Ready to explore the world of tie dye and start creating your own colorful designs? Let’s go!
TYPES OF TIE DYE
There are 4 common types of tie dyeing done today: traditional, ice, bleach, and reverse tie dye. Let’s discuss each in more detail.
Traditional Tie Dye
Traditional tie dye techniques use liquid dye to create the patterns. The dye is added to the fabric item after the item is tied up with rubber bands or string.
The ice dye technique uses powdered dye sprinkled on top of ice to dye the fabric item. The item is tied up first with rubber bands or string in patterns similar to traditional tie dye. It is then placed on a grid over a tray or bucket. The ice is added to the top of the item and finally the powdered dye is sprinkled on the ice. As the ice melts and the powdered dye liquefies, it drips onto the item to create unique dye patterns.
BLEACH Tie Dye
Bleach tie dye uses bleach or other bleach-like products to remove the dye/color from an already dyed item, such as a black shirt. Traditional tie dye patterns are used with the item and dye is substituted with bleach.
Reverse Tie Dye
Reverse tie dye starts off with the bleach tie dye process of removing the dye/color from an already dyed item and creating a traditional tie dye pattern with the bleach. After completing the bleach tie dye process, the item is re-dyed using the same tie dye technique and dye to add color where it was removed.
TIE DYE SUPPLIES
Before we get into the list of typical supplies needed for tie dyeing, let’s discuss the types of dyes you can use and how to look for ideal items to tie dye.
Types Of Dyes
Tie dyeing works best with fiber reactive dyes. They use cold water, set in the fabric (or cure) without the need for additional chemicals and produce bright popping colors. Fabric dyes like Rit, which are not fiber reactive, are best used for dyeing whole items or yards of fabric.
There are 2 types of fiber reactive dyes on the market these days:
- One Step Dyes (such as Tulip One Step Tie Dyes)
- Dyes That Require Soda Ash (such as Procion MX Dyes)
The one step dyes include soda ash in the dye, so it can be applied directly to the item in one step. The dyes requiring soda ash need the items to be soaked in soda ash for 15 minutes prior to starting to tie dye.
Personally, I spent a lot of time in college using Procion MX dyes as a textile design student and while the dye creates some nice bright colors, there are some definite downsides. While measuring and mixing the dyes we ALWAYS wore a respirator mask and worked under a large range hood for optimal ventilation. This was required because breathing in any of the powder could cause significant health issues. Since I now do all of my tie dyeing in our home, I only use the one-step dyes from Tulip since they already come in their own bottles and just require adding water. No measuring or mask required. I also like not having the added step of soaking in (and paying for) the soda ash. Oh, and the colors are still bright!
BEST Items To Tie Dye
There are many items that you can tie dye. Anything made from natural fibers like cotton, linen, hemp, rayon, and silk are fair game. Ideally, the item should be 100% natural fiber, but some blends do work if the majority is natural, like an 80%/20% cotton/polyester. Just be aware that the colors may be slightly muted.
Some items that are great to tie dye are:
- Short Sleeve T-shirts
- Long Sleeve T-Shirts
- Baby Onesies
- Face Masks
- Cooking Aprons
- Pillow Covers
The Complete List Of Things To Tie Dye: 30 THINGS TO TIE DYE
Tie Dye Supplies List
Here is a list of what you will typically need for most traditional tie dye techniques. There are several items on this list that I list as optional, however, I believe they make tie dyeing easier. I will point out the “why” below in the how to tie dye basics.
What You’ll Need:
- Item To Dye
- Rubber Bands
- Dye Kit (Which Includes Rubber Bands, Gloves, And A Plastic Sheet)
- Plastic/Rubber Gloves
- Plastic Covering For Work Surface
- Painter’s Tape (optional)
- Bucket (optional)
- Baking Tray With Rack (optional)
- Paper Towels/Rags
- Gallon Plastic Bag or Plastic Wrap
HOW TO TIE DYE: THE BASICS
The basic steps in tie dyeing are as follows:
- Prepare the workspace where you will be dyeing
- Mix the dyes and pre-soak the item if needed
- Create the tie dye pattern using rubber bands or string
- Dye the item
- Let it sit so the dyes can cure
- Rinse and wash the item
- Dry the item
These are the basic steps. Now let’s break them down in detail. I will also share some tips and tricks I’ve learned over the years. (I’ve tie dyed over 150 items thus far.)
1. Prep The Workspace
Tie dyeing is a fun project, but it can be messy and, if not careful, damaging to surfaces that the dye touches. To prevent any spills on your work surface (i.e. craft table, kitchen counter, floor, etc.) we want to cover this with TWO, yes, TWO layers of plastic. Why? Because no matter how careful you are, there is always a chance that the first layer gets a tiny hole in it and dye sneaks through. I have had this happen on multiple occasions, especially when I’m dyeing with my kids, and was SO thankful that second layer was there.
Most dye kits come with a plastic sheet (which I use as my top layer). You can also purchase plastic sheeting from the hardware store. Personally, I use one or two plastic kitchen garbage bags as my first layer. They are extremely cheap and readily available.
Once you have your plastic sheet(s) you should secure them to your surface. Technically, you don’t need to, but I find it so much easier to work on top of something that doesn’t move. I use painter’s tape (for everything….but that’s another conversation) to secure the plastic to my craft table. It’s strong enough to hold the plastic down while gentle enough on the surface and easy to remove.
2. Mixing The Dyes And Pre-soaking The Item
When the work surface is protected, its time to move onto preparing the dyes and your item to tie dye. If you are using a one step dye kit, the dye is already in a squeeze bottle which is great. There is nothing to measure, no extra squeeze bottles to have to purchase and pour into, and no masks to wear while measuring/mixing.
There is, however, one important step to do before filling the bottles with water and shaking: WIPE THE BOTTLES with a wipe or damp paper towel. Even though the bottles look clean, they are NOT! They have dye powder on the outside of the bottle, but you cannot see it until it gets wet. If you skip this important step, once you start dyeing and your gloves are a bit wet, you will transfer the dye, unknowingly to your shirt. Not cool!! It is a bit of a pain in the butt, especially if you have a lot of colors, but it is SO worth it!
Once each bottle has been wiped, fill it with water, put the cap back on and shake it until all of the powder is dissolved. If you tip the bottle over you will see if any clumps of powder are still stuck to the bottom. TIP: Once the dye bottle is ready to use, I place them all in a bucket or tub. I can move them around easily especially if I’m not the only one tie dyeing. More importantly, any drips of dye that fall down the side of the bottle will end up in the bucket and not on the table. Also keeps the bottles from falling over and rolling off the table. Extra caution if you work in your house like I do.
Now for the item you’re going to tie dye. Any item that will be dyed should be washed prior to tie dyeing. This removes sizing, dirt, etc. that may affect how the dye adheres to the fabric.
Tie Dye wet or dry? Most techniques start with damp, but not wet, fabric. The item could be fresh out of the washing machine. If you washed it on a different day, like I usually do, then just dunk it in a bucket of water or sink and wring it out before starting. When the fabric is damp, the dye soaks in easier, so it covers better (i.e. less white space). If you leave the item dry, the color is a bit more intense, but it takes a lot more dye to cover and there are usually large areas of white. There is no right or wrong way to do it (I prefer damp, my older daughter prefers dry).
If you are using dye that requires soda ash, follow the instructions for preparing the dyes and be sure to soak the item in soda ash for 15 minutes prior to tie dyeing.
3. Creating The Tie Dye Pattern
There are many different tie dye techniques and patterns. Here are some of the most common designs with a link to step-by-step instructions which any beginner can do:
4. Dyeing The Item
Each tie dye technique uses a slightly different approach to adding dye to create a particular pattern. The most common way to apply the dye, and probably the most controlled, is by using a squeeze bottle. Some techniques, however, dip the item in a bucket of dye or even brush it on using a sponge or paint brush. Be sure to read through all of the instructions before starting in case it uses an uncommon approach.
Baking sheet/rack versus just a work surface covered in plastic: I have dyed MANY shirts on just a covered work surface. As long as you have a ton of paper towels and are careful, you will be fine. It is, however, MUCH easier and more environmentally friendly (i.e. paper towel usage) if you use a baking sheet and rack because any excess dye goes directly onto the pan, away from your item, and you barely need to use any paper towels. If you plan on tie dyeing a number of items now or in the future I strongly suggest the investment (and the ones I purchased are not expensive).
5. Allowing The Dye To Cure
Once your item is fully dyed, carefully place it in the gallon plastic bag or wrap it in plastic wrap. Personally I prefer the plastic bag as you can easily seal it, label it (if you are dyeing more than one item) and move it if needed without worrying about dye leaking out.
Let it sit for minimally 6-8 hours and up to 24 hours max, so the dye can cure. This will help produce the brightest colors.
There is a new technique out there for heating the item in a microwave to cure the dye in a matter of minutes rather than hours. I have not tried this yet, but Tulip offers a very user-friendly kit if you would prefer not to wait to see your creation.
6. Rinsing And Washing
Once the dye has cured, it’s time to rinse and wash the item. This is an important step as, if done in the wrong order or rushed, it can muddy up the nice colors and pattern you created.
Take the item out of the plastic bag and put it in a sink or bucket (something that can get dirty and won’t stain). We have a stainless steel kitchen sink, so I use that. You can cut/take off the rubber bands or string and then rinse it in COLD water. The cold part is critical because it allows excess dye to wash out slowly while not dyeing the remaining white parts of the item.
Repeat this rinse process several times until the water is fairly clear.
Once the water is fairly clear, repeat the rinse process once more, but with luke warm water (not HOT). This should get the last bit of excess dye out before putting it in a washing machine.
Once the item is thoroughly rinsed, you can wash it in the washing machine either by itself or with several other rinsed tie dye items. If I’m tie dyeing a bunch of shirts, I will put up to 6 in one load. Wash on warm or cold with a bit of detergent.
NOTE: Wash the item by itself or with other tie dye items for the next few washings before adding it in with your other clothes.
7. Drying Your Item
Dry the item in the dryer or let air dry. Personally I prefer air drying as it extends the life of the dye color (as they will eventually fade a bit with washing and wear).