How to Tie-Dye Shirts

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

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 for how to tie-dye a shirt. 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.

Tie-Dyeing Shirts Using a Kit

Making a groovy, colorful tie-dye shirt is easier than you think. Simply follow the instructions in your tie-dye kit for this classic tie-dye technique. Generally, you'll follow these steps.

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% 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, but if not, you can 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. Most kits call for mixing the powdered dye with warm water and shaking to combine. Simon-Alexander recommends adding a little salt to enhance the color.

Plan the design

Check out various options for patterns, choose one you like, and tie your shirt tightly with rubber bands to make the desired design. Alternatively, you can just wing it!

Tie-dye your shirt

Squirt dye from the bottles onto the shirt, following the tie-dye 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 top of them. If you do darker colors first, the lighter colors won't show up.

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 to 24 hours so the colors set. You can also take it out sooner to achieve less vibrant, pastel-like colors.

Wash the shirt

Wearing gloves, unwrap the shirt and take off the rubber bands. 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!

Tie dyed tee shirts hanging from a clothes line
Melissa Ross/Getty Images

Tie-Dyeing Shirts Using a DYI 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 to tie-dye shirts:

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

Make the dye bath

Find a workspace that can get messy. To make the dye bath, put on 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% cotton T-shirt. Immerse the shirt in lukewarm water, wring out the excess, then lay it flat.

Plan the design

Decide on the pattern you're going for 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 you want the color. (If you're using two or more colors, dip and hold each section in dye.)

Wash it

Remove the tie-dye 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, you've learned how to tie-dye a shirt, and your masterpiece is ready to wear!

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