Tie dye is in fact a highly-specific term. It does not simply refer to tying up fabric and dipping segments into dye—though, in practice, that’s basically it. While we won’t bore you with the specifics, essentially, tie dye is a reactive clothing dye which you fix with soda ash and urea. Like any other commercially available reactive dye, the pigments only
react to natural fibers. That means, whether you purchase an at home kit or prepare dyes yourself, any synthetic fibers will not take, and will simply wash out. As for the “tie” portion, as mentioned earlier tie dying utilizes resists, often rubber bands but sometimes dowel rods to spin, wrap or segment the garment. Once the garment is bound to the desired shape, you can apply the dye to individual sections so, when the resists are removed, only the exposed segments will dye while the bound portions will be untouched creating a spiral, stripe or swirl effect.
That, however, is just a simple overview. The amount of patterns, techniques and methods are endless, and with varying water temperatures, dye combinations, fabric compositions and fixing agents, the end result is constantly in flux. So, before you begin any tie dye project, there are a few handy tips you should always keep in mind.
As mentioned above, avoid synthetic fabrics at all costs. Though cotton/polyester blends can work on occasion, the higher the percentage of synthetic material, the less fabric the dye will be able to bond with. In order for your intended pattern to stick, always attempt to use cotton and its relatives—like linen, silk and rayon.
doing your laundry, tie dye is still active (you have literally just applied the fixer), so it bleeds a ton. In order to ensure success, pay close attention to temperature at every stage of the process. When mixing dyes, always use warm ( not hot) water. At every other stage, the water should be cold. This prevents excess bleeding. If you have ever purchased any naturally dyed indigo, the same principles should apply, except drastically more severe.
If you are tie dying multiple garments at once, rinse and wash each piece individually, or they will bleed on one another, altering your design entirely. Lastly, the dye is still fresh, and may likely bleed again over the next few wash cycles so, as always, wash with similar colors. Avoid the “pink sock” fiasco at all costs.
Keep It Tidy
As you must have assumed, tie dying is not the cleanest of activities. Unless you are incredibly careful, you will most likely make a mess. Given the stay-at-home orders, for those fortunate to have front or backyards, we absolutely advise you to
not tie dye indoors. If outside is simply not a safe option, plastic tubs, gloves, numerous water proof or disposal bags and plenty of newspaper lining the floors is essential to avoid permanent stains. Remember, the dye is supposed to go on the clothes, not your parents' rug.
While by no means an exhaustive list, below are the most popular patterns to get you started. Again, these are general outlines, however for the majority of first time offenders or even semi-regular tie dyers, this should more than suffice. Remember for each pattern, this will be step four in the tie dye process (refer to the sections below for further details).
Patterns: The Spiral
First consider where you want your spiral, the front or back of the shirt. Next, your shirt flat on the ground with the corresponding side face down. Place a dowel rod (preferably wooden with a round head to protect the fabric), in the center, and twist until you have a flat pie shape. Once you finish twisting the shirt, gently pull the rod up and very carefully begin stretching rubber across the diameter several times, making sure they intersect to form distinct sections. Now, feel free to alternate colors, or choose the three primary to create a rainbow effect. No matter your color combination, a classic spiral will take shape.
Note: For a double spiral, simply apply the same process—however rather than placing the dowel at the center, place it at a random point, stop once half the fabric is spun, and repeat with the remainder of the shirt to form two opposing shapes.
By far the easiest tie dye method, stripes are formed by pleating the fabric—folding it either vertically or horizontally. Note that this is the most versatile technique as well, and works just well on pants, sweatshirts, and even soft hats. Essentially, beginning at either the side or top, fold the garment lengthwise (or widthwise) in even, repeating sections. Fold until the garment is essentially one flat bar. Then apply rubber bands perpendicular to the folds, creating even, distinct sections. Now, apply die alternating colors between sections to form strips. If you start from the top or bottom of the garment and fold lengthwise you will create vertical stripes, while if you begin at the side and fold along the width your stripes will appear horizontal.
Patterns: The Bullseye
A slightly more advanced technique, the bull’s eye is really only possible with a T-shirt. Begin by laying the shirt flat, and pinching up from the center. As the shirt hangs vertically from the center point, apply rubber bands creating even sections from the tip in your fingers all the way to the bottom, creating a long rope. The top section you are pinching is the center of the bullseye. Dye each section a distinct color to create growing concentric circles that circumscribe one another. The more colors you use, the more circles you will see. Traditionally, the last three or four sections are dyed the same color, so the center bull’s eye is distinct from the upper and lower portions of the shirt as well as the sleeves.
Patterns: The Crumple
The crumple is messy, lowbrow and minimal effort, but the effect can be stunning. Essentially, by laying a shirt flat on the ground, crumpling together into a rough circle and using only one dye, you can create an almost-marble like effect, where the shirt is predominantly a single color dye, however certain sections due to randomly placed restraints—you pretty much rubber band this sucker in every which way—will remain white, creating a haphazard texture. Also worth noting that this is the one method that works on any garment, bag or cotton item you can imagine. For those looking for a tie-dye feel but prefer solid colors and more subdued patterns, this is the option for you.