I tie-dye for a living—here's the right way to do it at home
Picture this: It’s June 2020, you’ve just finished baking your 26th loaf of banana bread, you have a year’s supply of scallions growing on your windowsill, and there’s a perfect sourdough starter in your fridge patiently waiting to be turned into bread. It’s month three of quarantine, and you’ve touched upon every new hobby the internet has to offer, except the most intimidating: tie-dye.
There’s a reason why it’s not the easiest DIY project. It’s messy, for starters, but it’s also tricky—until you get the hang of it. I credit eight summers at sleep-away camp for my dyeing skills, which I put to use last summer when I started my tie-dye business out of my apartment’s 200-square-foot dining alcove. It’s true that it’s just like riding a bike. So if getting started is what’s been holding you back, we’re here to make sure you don’t have a single white piece of clothing left in your wardrobe come September.
Here, a simple guide to creating three of the internet’s most popular styles.
Before getting started, you’ll need:
- A tie-dye kit, with colors that’ll make you the happiest.
- Rubber gloves
- Rubber bands (most kits come with enough for a few pieces)
- A sink and/or a washing machine
And a few essential guidelines to keep in mind:
- Most kits will work best on fabric that’s primarily cotton. Your classic white T-shirt will almost always work, but not all sweats are created equal. Before ordering 10 white hoodies, make sure they’re at least 70 to 100% cotton, as most polyesters will not dye.
- You’ll need to wet the fabric entirely, making sure there are no dry spots, as the dye won’t penetrate the same on dry fabric.
- Once you’ve soaked the fabric, ring it out completely. The less liquid in fabric, the more precise your results will be.
- A hard, uncovered surface is an ideal workspace. A glass table is great since you can just wipe it clean.
- Basic color theory is key when using more than one color. Primary colors (red, yellow, blue) are great when used next to each other, but if complementary colors (purple, green, orange) touch, you’ll most likely end up with a not-so-pretty shade of brown.
Level 1: Crumple watercolor
Step 1: Start with your shirt laying flat. Simply scrunch the outer edges of your shirt towards the center until the entire shirt is crumpled together. There’s not much skill required here—the less uniform your shape, the better the results will be.
Step 2: To tie your shirt without ruining its shape, grab a rubber band with both hands and stretch it until it’s wider than your crumpled shirt. Then, simply slip it around the edges—it should slide right under the shirt without messing with its shape. Repeat with about three rubber bands or until most edges of the shirt are secure.
Step 3: The goal is to create a totally random pattern here, so add splotches of dye in random spots until you’ve covered as much white as desired. Remember, not all colors mix well, so try to only layer colors that will blend nicely.
Step 4: Flip and repeat on the back.
Level 2: Classic spiral
Step 1: With the shirt laying flat, choose where you want the eye of your spiral to be: the center, off to one side, etc. Pinch that spot with your thumb and forefinger.
Step 2: Slowly begin twisting from that spot, using your opposite hand to guide and separate the pleats. The more uniform your pleats, the more uniform your spiral will be. Continue until your shirt is twisted into a circle.
Step 3: Add rubber bands around the shirt, layering them diagonally to create a pie-like pattern. If you’re working with more than two colors, it’s great to have as many sections as you have colors, as they will act as guides for your dye.
Step 4: Dye! To create a basic two-color spiral, apply one color on each half of your circle. Flip your shirt and repeat on the back, applying the corresponding color on each half.
If you’re using more than two colors, simply divide your sections accordingly and apply one color to each section.
Level 3: Color-blocked stripes
Step 1: With your shirt laying flat, use both hands to pinch an inch-high pleat, spanning from armpit to armpit.
Step 2: Similar to how you most likely created paper fans back in pre-K, repeat until the entire shirt is folded into an accordion.
Step 3: Add rubber bands, spacing each a few inches apart.
Step 4: With the folds facing up, dye each section. For a large amount of white, as pictured above, only dye one side. For a more saturated look, flip, and repeat.
The final wash:
In most cases, following the instructions on your tie-dye kit is the way to go when it comes to washing. But after a bit (a lot) of trial and error, I’ve come across a few tips that’ll put your mind at ease during the last step of your project.
- As a general rule, the longer your pieces sit with the die, the more vibrant your colors will be. Want pastels? Wash right away. Want brights? Wrap them in plastic wrap or a plastic bag and let them sit for up to 24 hours or as directed on your kit.
- If you’ve created a few pieces that are all different colors, you can wash them together. However, for best results, make sure to rinse each piece in warm water until the water runs clear before putting them into the washing machine.
- If you have a top-load washer, fill the machine with water before throwing your pieces in.