Here Are the Best Tie-Dye Do’s and Don’ts

Here Are the Best Tie-Dye Do’s and Don’ts
Screenshot: David J. Mitchell, Shutterstock

When my daughter decided she wanted to give her brother a homemade tie-dye shirt for his birthday, my first thought was Cool! What’s better than a hand-made gift? My subsequent thoughts included: But how the hell do you do tie-dye? How much time do we need? That sounds messy.

I’m happy to report it’s not nearly as messy or time-consuming as I feared, but there are a few things I wish I’d known going in that would have saved me a lot of last-minute Googling.

Do: Buy a kit

I don’t know why I thought tie-dye-ing involved swirling garments in large tubs of dye for long periods of time, but luckily, it doesn’t have to. (Unless you’re into that kind of thing.) For the time-pressed among us, many one-step kits exist for purchase that contain a handful of powdered colours in plastic bottles (to which you only need to add water), gloves, rubber bands, extra dye packets, and instructions. Do yourself a favour and get one.

Do: Choose the right fabric

Tie-dye works best on natural fabrics such as cotton, rayon, hemp, linen, silk, and wool. According to Crafty Chica, it will not work on polyester, lycra, or spandex. For your first foray, a lightweight cotton is your best bet.

Do: Wear gloves (and an apron)

Again, I don’t know why I thought this (I guess because all kids markers and paints have become gloriously washable), but I thought I could assist my daughter sans gloves. I mean, I could and I did, but my cuticle beds are purple and my index finger is teal. Tie-dye is dye, folks. It stains. Wear the gloves. And while you’re at it, take off those white sneakers, roll up your sleeves, and wear a smock or apron. Because those droplets can fly.

Do: Cover your work surface (or just go outside)

Bottles of liquid dye can wreak havoc on your pants, shoes, counters, and floors. Being an impatient sort (and because we only had an hour), I rushed into the project without properly setting up my space. If inside, cover your surfaces thoroughly with a plastic tablecloth or trash bags; place paper towels on top of the plastic to prevent the dye from rolling.

If you’re working outside (which I recommend), you’ll still need to bring a plastic bag with you so you can either roll the damp, freshly dyed garment up in it or lay it flat to dry on it. Make sure you have those plastic bags close by so you don’t have to traipse through your house with a dripping t-shirt. Perform this colour magic over the grass if you can; all the stray drops will vanish into the ground, leaving very little cleanup.

Do: Watch a tutorial on how to wrap the garment

There are many different tie-dye patterns and folding techniques to choose from, each of which will yield different designs on your finished product. Before you get started, familiarise yourself with the different designs (there’s the crumple, the spiral, the bullseye, and hearts, rainbows, and stripes, to name a few) and watch someone else do it first.

Do: Use a dry garment with caution

The instructions on my kit did not mention using a wet shirt; the tutorial video I watched on YouTube however, did advocate for dampness. I tried both methods, and while a damp shirt more readily absorbs the dye, the dry shirt sent red droplets rolling right off the side of the fabric and onto the ground. Many sites suggest pre-washing the garment to “remove sizing” and aid with dye absorption. A prewash and spin would provide the right amount of dampness; or you can run it under a faucet and wring out all excess water.

(Caveat: While a dry shirt won’t absorb the dye as readily, it will keep the lines sharper than a damp garment, which will cause the colours to run a bit more.)

Don’t: Mix too much dye, or hang onto the liquified leftovers

Dye loses its efficacy after about 48-72 hours. Only activate (mix with water) the colours and the amount of dye that you plan on using in one session. When you’re finished, discard leftovers to avoid unfortunate spills inside your house; it wont’ be potent after three days anyway.

Do: Apply light colours first (and get it in the folds)

Whether you choose to use rubber bands or zip ties to create your design, some amount of colour running between sections is to be expected. For this reason, apply light colours first and let them make their mark. Once a dark red or blue has penetrated the fabric, there’s no hope for the yellows of the world to leave their mark.

Unless you’re OK white a lot of white spots (which can look quite cool), after your first application, go back over the garment section by section, and open up any folds to make sure the dye has penetrated the buried portions of fabric.

Do: Wrap the wet dyed garment in plastic

When the garment is saturated with colour, it’s time to wrap it up in a plastic bag to allow the colours to set while remaining damp — and warm. Heat helps the dye set. Many sites say use a Ziploc; I rolled our t-shirts up in an old Target bag.

Don’t: Rinse the colour out too soon

While my kit instructions said to let the colours set for 6-8 hours, most sources in my supplemental research said to let the colours set for a minimum of 8 hours, and ideally for as long as 24. While it’s a good rule of thumb to follow your kit instructions, I left mine for about twice the suggested time, and they turned out fine — hopefully better for having a few extra hours to absorb the dye.

Don’t: Be alarmed when you rinse the dyed shirt

It’s time to put the gloves back on, cut rubber bands off, and rinse the garment in lukewarm water. Don’t be alarmed when a lot of colour sloughs off during the first rinse. It’s not possible for all the colour to bond to the garment, but in the 8-24 hours, enough will have set into the fibres to make it worthwhile. Rinse until the water runs clear.

Do: Wash in cold water (by itself)

For at least the first wash, if not the first two or three washes, the newly tie-dyed garment should be washed solo, with a small amount of detergent, in cold water. Dry on low heat, or line dry — and take pride in the fun design you created from scratch.

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