How to Tie-Dye Shirts 10 Ways

Boy in brown t-shirt with white circle
Photograph by Allie Cottrill
Follow these DIY tie-dye instructions for groovy swirls, stripes, polka dots, and more patterns.  
Jim Franco
Jim Franco

Tie-Dye Basics

Tie-dye is an excellent way to fill a lazy afternoon, culminating with a "wow" moment when the tied shirt is unfurled. "It's virtually impossible to tie-dye incorrectly," says textile artist Shabd Simon-Alexander, author of Tie-Dye: Dye It, Wear It, Share It"and with single-color designs, it's easy to keep things tidy." Below you'll find tying ideas for 10 patterns, plus Simon-Alexander's formula for a fabric dye bath that creates more durable and longer-lasting colors. (Of course, you can always use a premixed dye and follow the package instructions. Add a cup of salt to the dye bath to enhance the color!)

To start, have kids wear an apron or a smock over old clothes, cover the surface you'll be working on with plastic sheeting. Don't sweat it if you make a "mistake" or two—some of the best designs have come from happy accidents, says Simon-Alexander. 

Jim Franco
Jim Franco

Tie-Dye Basics: Prep

For best results, use a prewashed, 100-percent cotton T-shirt. Immerse the shirt in hot water, wring out the excess water, then lay it flat before tying it tightly with rubber bands, using one of the patterns below. For special patterns, plan out the design with dots of colored chalk (it washes off in the dye bath; that's how we got the heart shape on the previous slide). Do this before mixing the dye—dye baths start losing strength after about an hour. 

 You will need: 

- 3-gallon bucket (plastic, if you don't mind it getting stained, or enamel or stainless steel)

- Glass jar with tight-sealing lid*

- Rubber gloves

- Measuring spoon*

- Fiber-reactive dye, such as Jacquard Procion or Dylon Permanent

- Soda ash fixative (This and the dye can be found online and at some craft stores.)

*Use only items that you will not be using again for food.

Photograph by Allie Cottrill
Photograph by Allie Cottrill

Tie-Dye Basics: Step 1

Fill the bucket with 1 gallon of cool water.

Fill the jar halfway with cool water. Put on the rubber gloves. 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.

Fill the jar halfway with hot water. Add 6 teaspoons of soda ash. Close the lid and shake vigorously. Pour the mixture into the bucket and stir.

Jim Franco
Jim Franco

Tie-Dye Basics: Step 2

If your shirt has dried out since you tied it, wet it again with water. 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 a color you want. (If you're using two or more colors, dip and hold each section in dye.)

Jim Franco
Jim Franco

Tie-Dye Basics: Step 3

Remove T-shirt with tongs or a big stick. Rinse under warm, then gradually cooler water until it runs clear. (Wear rubber gloves so your hands don't get dyed.) When you throw the shirt in the laundry for the first time, wash it alone in warm water, rinse in cool water, then line- or machine-dry.

Jim Franco
Jim Franco

Bull's-Eye Pattern: Step 1

Lay T-shirt flat. Pinch center of the garment and rubber-band both layers, about 1 to 2 inches from center.

Jim Franco
Jim Franco

Bull's Eye: Step 2

Space rubber bands 1 inch apart.

Jim Franco
Jim Franco

Bull's Eye: Finished Product

Even onesies look, um right on target, with this design.

Jim Franco
Jim Franco

Diagonal Stripe Design: Step 1

Lay T-shirt flat and fold accordion-style from bottom corner.

Jim Franco
Jim Franco

Diagonal Stripes: Step 2

Once folded, wrap with rubber bands every 1 to 2 inches.

Jim Franco
Jim Franco

Diagonals Stripes: Finished Product

If you're looking for a clean, cool design, this pattern is for you.

Jim Franco
Jim Franco

Rosette Pattern: Step 1

Lay T-shirt flat. Pinch a 2-inch section through both layers and rubber-band it.

Jim Franco
Jim Franco

Rosettes: Step 2

Push your finger down through the rubber band to make a donut shape. Repeat.

Jim Franco
Jim Franco

Rosettes: Finished Product

This design ends up looking like fun, funky flowers.

Jim Franco
Jim Franco

Swirl: Step 1

Lay T-shirt flat. Hold a fork on the center of the shirt and twist.

Jim Franco
Jim Franco

Swirl: Step 2

Gather into a circle and wrap 4 to 6 rubber bands around the shirt.

Jim Franco
Jim Franco

Swirl: Finished Product

This classic tie-dye pattern is sure to be a hit.

Jim Franco
Jim Franco

Crinkle: Step 1

Crumple T-shirt at random.

Jim Franco
Jim Franco

Crinkle: Step 2

Wrap haphazardly with 4 to 6 rubber bands.

Jim Franco
Jim Franco

Crinkle: Finished Product

Because all you have to do is bunch up the shirt, you really can't mess up this simple look.

 

Photograph by Allie Cottrill
Photograph by Allie Cottrill

Nebula Design

Even very young kids can help make this cosmic design.

For the best results, use a prewashed and dried 100 percent cotton T-shirt. Gather up some rubber bands and prepare a shirt for the dye.

First, wet the shirt and lay it flat. With your fingers, scrunch and wrinkle the fabric, gathering it into a tight disk.

Wrap several rubber bands around the disk. The tighter you bind it, the more white there will be in the final shirt.

Photograph by Allie Cottrill
Photograph by Allie Cottrill

Polka Dots Pattern

The size of the dots on this shirt depends on the size of the beads or beans you use to make them.

Gather a handful of plastic beads or dried beans. Cut plastic wrap into squares that are about four times larger than the beads or beans. Place a bean or bead inside the shirt, then place a piece of plastic wrap on top of the shirt. Working with just the front layer of the shirt, wrap a rubber band tightly around the plastic- and shirt-covered bead or bean, as shown. Repeat to make more dots. Wet the tee before dyeing it.

Photograph by Allie Cottrill
Photograph by Allie Cottrill

Sunburst Design

This spiral pattern (shown on the yellow shirt) will have you and your kids doing the twist. Choose a spot in the center of the shirt, between the armpits; with your thumb and forefinger, press down and twist the fabric clockwise. Try to keep the resulting folds at approximately the same height, creating a shape like a flat cinnamon roll.

Wrap the shape tightly with rubber bands, as shown. The tighter you bind the shirt, the more white there will be in the design.

Photograph by Allie Cottrill
Photograph by Allie Cottrill

Sailor Stripes

Tie-dye doesn't always mean groovy spirals and circles—you can make straight-line stripes, too. Starting at one side, gather the tee to create accordion-like folds that run vertically from neck to hem.

Wrap a rubber band tightly around the shirt. For more stripes, add rubber bands as shown.

Photograph by Allie Cottrill
Photograph by Allie Cottrill

Ringer Design

This circle shirt couldn't be simpler to create. At the center of the tee between the armpits, pinch just the top layer of the tee. Pull the fabric up into a point, letting the rest of the shirt fall away. Smooth the fabric down evenly from your pinched point, creating a skinny cone shape. Wrap a rubber band tightly around it.

Move the rubber-banded ring up or down to make the circle smaller or larger. For a wider line, wrap a few bands around the same spot. Or create a bull's-eye by adding bands above and below the first one. Wet the tee before dyeing it.

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