If you want something fun you can try this summer, have a go at tie dyeing. It comes from, and is most associated with 60s hippy counterculture, but it's also just a neat way of making your own colourful clothing. If you want an easy guide to tie dyeing, then look no further; we're here to tell you everything you need to know.
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It's the love or hate look that can make people thinking of flower crowns, camper vans and peace signs, but whether you're a secret hippy, or you just don't mind the look of tie dye swirls, there's no reason not to try out a few different looks and embrace some colour.
What is Tie Dye?
Although the term 'tie dye' was invented in the 1960s, the process itself is ancient. Early surviving examples of tie dye from Peru dated 500-810AD attests to the practice being used in pre-Columbian America. Elsewhere, there is evidence of similar dyeing processes dating back centuries in Africa and East Asia.
However tie dye really took off in the 60s era of peace and love, following the example of rock stars such as Janis Joplin and John Sebastian. The introduction of affordable dyes opened up the ability for anyone to customise clothes with psychedelic designs.
How Do You Tie Dye?
So if you like the idea of customising some of your old pieces, or hey, maybe you've got a 60s fancy dress party to go to, here's the rundown on how to do your very own DIY tie dye at home.
Equipment you will need
- Dyeing surface – you can use a disposable work surface such as cardboard or plastic tarpaulin so you don't ruin any surfaces. Alternatively, you can cover a work surface such as a table or the floor with a special surface cover, bin bags or a plastic tablecloth.
- Rubber gloves to protect skin from dye staining and fixer irritation.
- Eye protection to protect eyes from splashing fixer water and detergent.
- Dust masks to prevent the inhalation of breathing powders.
- Things to dye – this can be any garment you want to give a groovy design, such as t-shirts, dresses and jeans
- “Paint shirts” to protect clothing.
- Bucket to mix fixer solution.
- Pitcher or jar to mix chemical water.
- Cups, bottles and other containers for mixing dye colours in.
- Ties to tie fabric, such as big, thin rubber bands, though zip ties, twin and sinew all work well – these will resist the dye, creating the patterns. Try different sizes of ties for more variety in your designs, Make sure you have enough rubber bands.
- Squeeze bottles, pipettes or another tool to apply dye.
- Measuring cups and measuring teaspoons.
Instructions on How to Tie Dye
Whether you want to know how to tie dye a shirt or something larger, like a table cloth, the method still is the same, and although it requires a little prep and time, it can be a pretty fun process if you're not in a hurry.
1. Set up your work area
Tie dyeing is messy, and you can't be too careful with preventing a dye-related accident. Check you have enough room to work and safely make a mess. You can cover your work space in bin bags or a plastic sheet. To protect your clothes, wear old clothes as a 'paint shirt', or an apron or smock.
You will also need to wear rubber gloves to protect your hands from the dye and the hot water. You'll need to keep your rubber bands at hand for making different designs. Set aside some bleach or cleanser for cleaning up afterwards. Choose which materials you want to dye and make sure they are also at hand.
White cotton works very well, but nylon, wool and silk can also be tie dyed. The most common article of clothing that gets tie dyed is the white cotton t-shirt, but you can tie dye any article of clothing, as long as it's an appropriate fabric. If you decide to work with cotton, put a cup of salt aside, as adding salt to the dye bath will enhance the dye's colour. Tie dyeing materials such as silk, wool or nylon will require a cup of white vinegar, which gentles the process for sensitive materials.
2. Wash fabric
Wash the fabric to remove any sizing or oils that could interfere with the dye. If you aren't concerned about the condition of the fabric or tie dye, this isn't an essential step, but washing the fabric is traditionally recommended for dyeing fabric.
Items that have been soaked in water and wrung dry tend to take better to clothes. This can be done in a sink or bucket. If you are using clothes you have just bought, you may want to machine-wash the clothes first with some detergent.
3. Prepare fixer water
Dye fixer is a chemical called Sodium Carbonate or Soda Ash. It is the most necessary chemical in the dyeing process because it causes the chemical reaction that allows the dyes to become part of the fabric. It fixes the dye to the fabric. Get it?
Be sure to wear gloves to keep it from irritating your skin and try not to get it into your eyes, as it will irritate and burn. Treat it like you would treat a strong soap. In a plastic bucket, or some other container, mix ¾ cup dye per fixer of warm water. Expand recipe as needed.
4. Soak fabric
After you have made the dye fixer solution, soak your fabric in the solution. Let the fabric soak for five to fifteen minutes, or until the fabric has entirely saturated. You can re-use the fixer water and treat several batches of fabric in the same mixture.
Many dye packages come with dye fixer, but if yours didn't, you can soak the fabric in lukewarm water. Dye fixer can also be bought separately from a craft store. Don't use hot or cold water, as these will make the dye less effective.
5. Fold, twist or tie the fabric
Wring out excess water back into the bucket of fixer water. Place your fabric now soaked in fixer on your dyeing surface and fold, twist or tie it into the pattern you want to dye. The dye spreads on the fabric differently depending on how wet the fabric is with fixer water.
If you don't want the dyes to spread that much on your clothes, don't let it get wet before adding the colour. Dyeing damp fabric is a way to make the colour travel further on the fabric more quickly. Therefore, dye when it's dry if you want to keep your colour isolated. Wet fabric makes the dye flow out into more marbled or feathery patterns, whilst dryer fabric results in cleaner lines with less spreading.
6. Prepare chemical water for dyes
Chemical water is made up of urea, ludigol and optionally, water softener. The recipe for chemical water is ¾ cups of urea, two teaspoons ludigol, and an optional single teaspoon of water softener for every single quart of warm water. This is the chemical water you mix your dye powders with in order to make dye colours. If you don't have these chemicals, you can mix the dye powders with plain warm water. Expand recipe as needed.
7. Mix dye colours
In this stage, you will mix the chemical water with the dye powder in bottles, cups, or other containers in small batches. To create bright, vibrant colours, use a lot of dye and not so much water. We recommend mixing four to six teaspoons of dye powder per cup of water. For more pastel or faded colours, use more water and less dye.
We suggest a quarter to two teaspoons of dye water per cup of water. For medium shades, mix two to four teaspoons of dye powder per cup of water. Stir dye well to dissolve dye powder completely.
8. Dye your clothes
Put the fabric on your dyeing surface and apply the dye to the fabric by squirting dye onto the fabric with a squeeze bottle, pipette, or another dye application tool. Turn the fabric over and apply dye to both sides, saturating each side of the fabric. If your dye is in a large container such as a bucket, you can do a dip dye.
Simply pick up your fabric and dunk it into the dye in different places. If you decide to layer your colours, always apply the lightest colours first, as applying a light colour over a dark colour will jumble them.
9. Let the dye set
After you've finished dyeing the fabric, wrap it in saran wrap or a plastic shopping bag in order to keep it moist. Then, leave it alone for 4-6 hours, without untying it or hanging it up. The longer the fabric sits, the easier it will be to wash away loose dye from the clothing.
However, the length of time you leave it is not important, so you can just leave it for however long you have time for. Placing the fabric in a warm area will help the dye to cure faster.
10. Wash loose dye from fabric
Put on rubber gloves when handling the fabric as the dye will stain your hands until after it has been washed. Then, rinse the fabric out with cold running water to remove excess dye. A lot of loose dye will come off the fabric, but this is to be expected. The wash water might look black and brown, and the fabric may look discoloured with dirty-looking dye. This is also normal.
11. Wash your fabric
After rinsing, move to the washing machine. You can wash different pieces of clothing at once, even a full load of different colours. Put the wash setting on cold water, and wait for the washing machine to finish. You can run the wash again with an empty cycle and some soap if you want to get rid of dye that might have moved to the inside of the machine.
12. Dry and wear your tie dye clothes
You can dry your clothes by putting the dryer on the coolest setting, or you can just let the fabric hang dry. Congratulations, you've just made your very own tie dye clothes!
Different Tie Dye Patterns
There are various ways you can personalise your tie dye outfits, creating differing patterns and shapes depending on your preference and what you have on hand.
The simplest tie dye pattern and one of the most popular. Lay your fabric flat on your surface. Then, put your thumb and index finger in the centre of the fabric and move them in a circular motion, revolving the fabric around the central point. Once the fabric has been spiralled, use large rubber bands or string to tie the fabric. There needs to be at least six sections, so you should use at least three ties.
It should be more or less round-shaped, with 'pie-slices' as well as the ties. The pattern will be more intricate the more ties you use, though remember that there has to be a central point at which all of the ties cross. To create multiple small spirals, spiral your fabric in multiple smaller sections with the same method already mentioned. If the fabric gains ridges, flatten them out. The fabric needs to stay flat on the table.
Another easy method is to just crumple the fabric however you want. For this technique, don't fold or roll the fabric tidily, but make sure it's messy and ruffled up. Then, take a bunch of rubber bands or string and wrap them round the fabric. Use as many as you'd like. It's possible to make a pattern with them, but most tie dye clothing made with this method tend not to.
Lay your fabric out on a flat surface. Roll the fabric from the bottom hem to the neck, so that it is rolled into a tube shape. Use rubber bands or string to tie loops around the fabric roll. For vertical stripes, roll the fabric upwards. For horizontal stripes, roll the fabric from left to right or right to left, and tie the strings along that direction. For a lot of stripes, use a lot of ties around the fabric, say twelve or more. For only a few stripes, space out the ties so that there aren't many, perhaps three or even fewer.
Pinch small sections of the fabric with your fingers. Tie up the end of the small sections of the fabric, perhaps with string. To create small dots, only leave ½ to one inch of fabric outside of the tie. For larger dots, tie the fabric further down so that more of the fabric sticks out. Target-shaped dots can be made by adding more pieces of string on the ends of the pieces that have been tied. More ties will make more rings. To add an extra ring of colour to the outside of your dots, you can dip the string in dye before tying it.
Rosettes are small floral shaped dots distributed around the fabric. To make them, first pinch a section of the fabric, as with the polka dots. Transfer the pinched section to one hand, and pinch another section with the other hand. Again, transfer the new section to the opposite hand.
You should eventually end up with a group of pinched sections in one hand. Then tie them with string or a rubber band. To create a striped or spiralled pattern in your rosette, you can use multiple strings. You are free to make as many rosettes as space on the fabric will allow. For a more detailed rosette, use more pinches of the fabric. A few pinches will just leave a basic print.
To do pleats, fold the fabric from the bottom to the top in a concertina fold by folding a section towards the front, then take the same section and fold towards the back, creating a zig-zag fold. Repeat until all of the fabric has been folded. It doesn't really matter how many times the fabric is tied, but, like the stripe pattern, the number of ties will determine the number of stripes.
To make a mirror design, fold the fabric in half. A mirror image appears on each layer folded. With a t-shirt, fold the material from one side to the other so that the arms overlap. This makes the pattern run from side to side. To mirror the image from top to bottom, fold the fabric the other way. With a t-shirt, the bottom of the shirt should be folded up to the neck.
The lightning bolt is the most complicated of the tie dye patterns. This one requires a lot of folding, but is worth it for its attractive design if you're willing to put in the effort. First, fold the fabric upwards at chest level, then fold it back down. This should create an N-shape from the side.
Do the same thing again, but lower down this time. Fold a section about 2 (1.51cm) from the top of the first fold upwards, then fold it back down again. Repeat this a few more times, maybe three to five times, until the fabric has several folds. Then, turn the fabric diagonally and visualise a line down the centre.
Concertina fold the fabric from one side to the centre, then turn the fabric and concertina fold the fabric from the other side to the centre. Once all the folding has been done, tie the fabric in bunches. You can create a basic look with just three or four ties, but for a more detailed lightning bolt shape, use a lot of ties.
Buy Tie Dye
Tie dye isn't difficult to get hold of, and a quick search on the internet will lead you to an endless list of suppliers to choose from. The cheapest ones are usually for kids, so you might have to deal with bright packaging with 'funky' and 'groovy' written all over them, but you'll cope.
Your Quick Guide on How to Tie Dye
- Make sure you have the appropriate equipment, such as protection for your hands, your eyes and your surroundings.
- Work out your colour scheme and what ones are going to work together.
- Decide on a pattern and make sure you have the necessary tools to create the look. Certain patterns such as rosettes require rubber bands to achieve the style.
- Always wash your tie dyed item afterwards to make sure there's no colour transfer.
On That Note...
Now you're an expert in the ancient art of tie dyeing. Tie dyeing gives you a lot of scope to try different things out. With the various colour combinations you can achieve as well as the different patterns, there's an endless amount of styles you can create. You can start small, tie dying items such as pocket squares or shoe laces, or go bold with t-shirts. So get creative and, above all, have fun!