Tie dye has seen a huge surge in popularity in recent months, and it’s easy to see why it’s the trend that always comes back for more. Any of us who lived through the 1990s, 1960s – or both! – will remember the allure of a tie-dye t-shirt. Those rainbow colours, those psychedelic patterns… not to mention the amazing uniqueness of any tie-dye creation. Fast-forward another 30 years and tie-dye is back with a bang!
Our step-by-step tutorial will explain what is tie dye and show you how to tie dye t-shirts (or other fabric items) using a classic swirl pattern – taking them from boring to beautiful using Dylon fabric dyes. These are readily available and come in a fantastic range of vibrant colours, giving you the chance to really experiment with this cool process and create something original. There are loads of different patterns to try too, from bullseyes to spots and stripes.
Once you’ve mastered the basics on a T-shirt, these techniques can also be used to dye tote bags, baseball caps, hoodies, cushion covers, bedding… anything that’s 100% cotton works brilliantly. We all know how satisfying it is to repurpose and upcycle, too, so rather than buying new, why not have a rummage through your drawers and look for white cotton items that have seen better days? Tie-dye is great for covering up those pesky little stains!
We’ve got a couple of words of warning before you crack on with tie-dying. Firstly, protect your surfaces and yourself. The dyes are can permanently stain, so make sure you’re well prepped for accidental spills and splatters. And secondly, be aware that you need the patience of a saint while waiting for the dyes to process, but the results will be totally worth it!
If you’re in the mood to try this beautiful craft, you might also like our guide to the best tie dye kits.
What is tie dye?
Tie-dye is a three-step hand-dying process that can be used on cotton fabric. When you manipulate and bind the fabric you create ‘resists’, which means you are creating areas that the dye cannot reach. This results in amazing patterns once the dye has cured and the fabric is unfolded.
- The first step is manipulating the fabric by pleating, folding, twisting or crumpling it.
- The second step is binding the fabric using rubber bands (string can also be used but is much more fiddly).
- The third step is applying colourful dyes directly to the fabric.
Read on for our full step by step guide to how to tie dye.
What do you need to tie die?
- Plain white 100% cotton t-shirt
- Rubber gloves
- Elastic bands
- Dylon Fabric Hand Dye 50g in one or more colours (we used Passion Pink, Sunflower Yellow, Paradise Blue)
- 250g ordinary salt per dye, any supermarket
- Plastic squeeze bottle(s)
- Plastic tablecloth
- Measuring jug, plastic bowl and plastic bag
- Paper towels and old tea towels
- Apron to protect clothes
How to die dye: step by step
You Will Need
- Cotton t-shirt
- Rubber gloves
- Elastic bands
- Plastic squeeze bottle
- Measuring jug
- Paper towels (and old tea towels)
- Aprron (to protect your clothes)
First of all, protect your table with a plastic tablecloth (or tape down a large bin bag if you don’t have one) and set out all your supplies. It’s a good idea to have some paper towels or old tea towels handy in case you spill any dye, and to set up somewhere well away from soft furnishings or anything you don’t want stained.
If using an old t-shirt, make sure it is washed first, but leave it damp. For a new t-shirt, soak your t-shirt in lukewarm water, then squeeze out as much excess water as you can. Be sure that the water is warm and not hot –warm water helps your dyes to spread more effectively.
Lay your damp t-shirt flat on the table. Now, pinch the fabric in the middle of the t-shirt between your thumb and fingers, and start to twist the fabric round to create a spiral effect.
Take your elastic bands and wrap them around the spiralled t-shirt. Overlap them, using at least three to create different sections.
Pop your bound t-shirt into a plastic bowl and leave it to one side. The next step is preparing the dyes, so put your bowl somewhere it cannot be accidentally splashed.
Put on your gloves to prepare the dyes. Measure 500ml of warm water into the measuring jug, then add the contents of one pack of dye, plus 250g of salt. Stir the mixture well. This quantity of dye will easily tie-dye two or three t-shirts if used with the other colours, so you may want to plan to do a few projects at a time. Alternatively, if you’re only tie-dying one t-shirt, we recommend halving the quantities of dye, water and salt, saving the remaining dye for another time.
Once your dye is completely mixed, carefully pour it into one of your plastic squirty bottles.
Now it’s time to add the dye! Lay your damp, bound t-shirt onto a couple of pieces of kitchen paper.
Using your three squirt bottles, apply the different colour dyes to the different sections of the t-shirt, with the nozzle close to the t-shirt for a nice direct application and no splashes.
We started with three segments in pink, followed by three in yellow and two in blue. Make sure that every bit of visible white fabric is saturated with the dye.
Once the top half of the t-shirt is covered in dye, lay another piece of kitchen paper on top of your bundle and carefully flip it over. Now cover this side with dye in the same way, making sure that the colours on top are mirrored below.
Once it is completely covered, put your t-shirt into a plastic bag and leave the dyes to set overnight. Try to leave it for 24 hours if possible – the longer you leave it, the brighter the colours will be! You can speed up the process by leaving the bag in a warm place, such as an airing cupboard.
Put your gloves back on to remove the t-shirt from the bag, and rinse it under cold water to remove any excess dye. It’s a good idea to do this in the bath to avoid splashing your clothes. When the water starts to run clear, remove the elastic bands and rinse some more. Now wash the t-shirt straightaway in your washing machine on a cool cycle, without any detergent.
Hang your t-shirt up to dry, making sure it’s not in direct sunlight. Once it is dry, iron on the reverse.
Tie dye patterns to try
Lay the t-shirt out flat. Fold up the bottom edge of the t-shirt a few centimetres, then fold it under in a concertina motion. Continue pleating the fabric in this way until you get to the top. The t-shirt should resemble a long strip. Use 6-7 elastic bands to tie the t-shirt into sections (this will create the stripes), then squirt dye onto each section. Turn over the t-shirt and make sure the back is covered, too, before popping in into a plastic back to set. For a different effect, concertina-fold from sleeve to sleeve, or even bottom corner to opposite top corner for diagonal stripes.
Pinch small sections of the t-shirt fabric and tie an elastic band around each one. For larger dots, make sure you pinch out more fabric, tying it further down. This technique can be quite time-consuming if you cover the whole t-shirt with dots. Once you have added as many elastic bands as you want, squirt on the dye to the entire t-shirt, both front and back.
One of the easiest binding methods is literally scrunching the fabric into a ball, then tying the ball into segments with a few elastic bands, criss-crossing at the centre. You can also scrunch the t-shirt into a long, thin shape and tie the bands along the length to create a crumpled stripe effect. Add the dye to each section, both front and back.
Lay the t-shirt out flat and pinch the centre, where you want the middle of your bullseye to be. Pull the fabric straight upwards into the air, so that the rest of the t-shirt drapes down. Guide the fabric underneath with your other hand to create a tube shape. Wrap an elastic band around the tube, a few centimetres beneath the centre point. Continue adding elastic bands at different intervals. Add dye to each section, making sure the t-shirt is completely covered.
Triangles and squares
These patterns work better if you use just one colour of dye, and are often used in Shibori indigo dying. Firstly, fold in the sleeves of your t-shirt, then fold the whole t-shirt lengthways into a long strip. Working from the bottom edge of the t-shirt, accordion-fold the fabric in either a triangle or square shape, going from front to back until you reach the top. Now cut two pieces of cardboard to the same shape (triangle or square), a little bit smaller than the fabric. Place one piece of cardboard either side, sandwiching the fabric in between, and secure in place using two or three elastic bands. Add dye to all the exposed surfaces.