Want to learn the best tie-dye techniques? Follow these instructions for mixing dye and creating groovy patterns.

By Nicole Harris
April 24, 2020
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Tie-dye makes an excellent and low-key DIY project for kids. "It's virtually impossible to tie-dye incorrectly," says textile artist Shabd Simon-Alexander, author of Tie-Dye: Dye It, Wear It, Share It. To help parents out, we rounded up two techniques you need to know: using a store-bought tie-dye kit and making your own tie-dye bath.

Read on to learn the step-by-step instructions. And don't sweat it if you make a "mistake" or two—some of the best designs have come from happy accidents, says Simon-Alexander.

Using a Tie-Dye Kit

Want to make a groovy, colorful tie-dye shirt? Then you'll want to follow the instructions for this classic tie-dye technique!

Find a workspace. Start by locating a workspace for your project. Tie-dye can be messy, so we recommend arranging garbage bags or plastic sheeting outside, in the garage, or on a craft table.

Prepare your T-shirt. Choose a pre-washed, 100-percent cotton T-shirt. Immerse the shirt in lukewarm water, wring out the excess, then lay it flat. (You don't need to wet the T-shirt before dyeing it, but the color won't spread as far on dry fabric.)

Alternatively, soak the T-shirt in soda ash (sodium carbonate) for better color absorption. Soda ash might come in your tie-dye kit, and you can also find it at craft stores and online. Follow the instructions on the soda ash packaging; you'll need to mix soda ash with warm water, then soak your T-shirt for several minutes. 

Prepare your dye. Grab a tie-dye kit and follow the package instructions. The highly-concentrated dyes will come in partially-empty squirt bottles. You'll probably fill the bottles with warm water and shake to combine. Simon-Alexander recommends adding a little salt to enhance the color. (You can also make your own dye; most instructions require you to mix powdered dye with water.)

Plan the design. Check out this slideshow for pattern ideas, choose one you like, and tie your shirt tightly with rubber bands to make the desired design.

Tie-dye your shirt. Squirt dye from the spray bottle onto the shirt, following the pattern of your choice. Make sure to apply only one color at a time. Work with lighter colors first (pink, yellow, lime green, etc.), since darker colors can be layered over the top of them.

Let it dry. With the shirt still rubber-banded together, place it in a plastic bag or cover it with plastic wrap. Let it sit for 12-24 hours so the colors set. You can also take it out sooner to achieve pastel-like colors.

Wash the shirt. Unwrap the shirt and take off the rubber bands (wear gloves!) Rinse it in cold water until the run-off is clear. Then wash it in the washing machine with cold water; don't put any other clothing in the machine. Dry the shirt and it's ready to wear!

Melissa Ross/Getty Images

Making a Tie-Dye Bath

Instead of buying a store-bought tie-dye kit, DIYers can make their own dye bath. This is especially useful for single-color designs. Consider using Simon-Alexander's formula, outlined below, which creates durable and longer-lasting colors. 

Get the materials. You’ll need the following materials: 

  • 3-gallon bucket (enamel, stainless steel, or plastic if you don't mind it getting stained)
  • Glass jar with tight-sealing lid
  • Rubber gloves
  • Measuring spoon
  • Fiber-reactive dye, such as Jacquard Procion or Dylon Permanent
  • Soda ash fixative 

Make the DIY dye bath. Find a workspace that can get messy. To make the dye bath, put on the rubber gloves. Fill the bucket with 1 gallon of cool water, then fill the jar halfway with cool water. Depending on how dark you'd like the color, measure 2 to 4 teaspoons of dye powder into the jar. Close the lid securely and shake the jar until all the powder is dissolved. Pour the dye into the bucket and stir.

Next, fill the jar halfway with hot water. Add 6 teaspoons of soda ash, then close the lid and shake vigorously. Pour the mixture into the bucket and stir. Repeat these steps to make dye in other colors, if desired.

Prepare the T-shirt. Pick out a pre-washed, 100-percent cotton T-shirt. Immerse the shirt in lukewarm water, wring out the excess, then lay it flat.

Plan the design. Check out this slideshow for pattern ideas, choose one you like, and tie your shirt tightly with rubber bands to make the desired design.

Soak the shirt. Place the shirt in the dye bath and stir frequently with a long-handled enamel or stainless steel spoon. Let it soak for 30 minutes to 1 hour, depending on how deep of color you want. (If you're using two or more colors, dip and hold each section in dye.)

Wash it. Remove the T-shirt with tongs or a big stick. Take off the rubber bands. Rinse under warm, then gradually cooler water until it runs clear. (Wear rubber gloves so your hands don't get dyed.) Throw your shirt into the laundry. Wash it alone in cold water, then line- or machine-dry. Now it’s ready to wear!

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