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The Secrets of Tie-Dye.

Updated on May 7, 2008

An introduction to Tie-Dye.

Tie-dye is an ancient art. In Japan they have a form of tie-dye called Shibori they've been using since the 8th century or earlier. Batik is a type of dyeing used for generations in India and is similar to tie-dye. Other techniques associated with tie-dye have been used for hundreds of years in West Africa and other parts of the world. These techniques are the inspiration for 1960s hippie fashion. Tie-dye sure has come a long way.

I remember dipping thin undershirts tied with rubber bands into buckets of RIT dye as a child. The shirts faded with each wash, and you never really had control of dye placement. Nowadays with a few tips and directly applied fiber-reactive dye, you can create a tie-dye masterpiece.

You'll need a quality 100% cotton shirt and a few other things we'll get to in a little bit. I recommend using a kit that includes all the necessary ingredients to get you started.

The Diamond
The Diamond

The Basics of Folding and Dyeing.

What you'll need to Tie-Dye any Design.

First of all, I'd just like to say that making tie-dyes is a lot of fun, so don't get hung up on the small stuff. I'll teach you the basics of folding and dyeing, and you'll be off and running.Here is a list of the things you will probably have to order.* squeeze bottles for dyeing

* Procion fiber-reactive dye

* soda ash fixer

* Sodium Alginate

* synthrapol detergent

* butcher's twine

* one pair rubber gloves

* dust mask

You can order everything you need in a kit, or buy each item separately.

You'll also use some stuff you can scrounge up around the house, like a spray bottle (maybe an old Windex bottle), and a fork to use while folding (yes, a fork, I'll explain later). You'll need scissors to cut your twine, a bucket to presoak your shirt in soda ash, something to mix dye in and with (like mason jars and an old whisk), and you'll use paper and cellophane for wrapping and curing your shirt.

The Spiral
The Spiral

Let's make a Classic Spiral Tie-Dye T-Shirt Together!

What do you mean, Scour?

Well, just like everything else in life the secret to getting great results is in the preparation. In the case of tie-dye this means scouring our shirt. What does scour mean? It essentially means pre-washing our 100% cotton shirt in hot water with soda ash and Synthrapol detergent. The Synthrapol is a strong detergent that removes dirt and optical brighteners that may be present on the fabric. Soda ash, the way I look at it, kinda scuffs the fabric, helping the dye bond permanently.

So let's scour the fabric by machine washing in hot water, medium load size, with about 1/2 cup soda ash and 1/4 cup Synthrapol. Usually I scour about 10 shirts at a time. You're probably not going to dye that many shirts, so just use the manufacturer's guidelines. Now just put on some good music, and wait for the washing machine to finish.

Learn to Fold like a Pro. It's easy.

The Trick to making nice crisp Folds.

OK, our shirt is fresh out of the washing machine. It's still a bit wet, but probably not wet enough, so let's lay our shirt out flat on a table and spray it evenly with our spray bottle filled with water. Make sure you don't overdo it. The shirt should be damp but not dripping. If there's too much moisture, it's difficult to work with. If there's not enough moisture it can be equally frustrating. You'll develop a feel for it with practice, I promise.

Now let's locate the approximate center of our shirt and pinch 1/4" to 1/2" inch of fabric between our thumb and forefinger. Be careful not to allow the fabric on the front and back to separate. It's time to stick a fork in it (here's the part when we use our fork!). Let's put the fabric pinched between our fingers in the middle of the teeth of our fork, we'll use it as a tool to spin our shirt in circles. Try to keep the fabric at a uniform height, about the height of our pinch or maybe a tiny bit more. Go slow at first. Turn the fork with one hand and assist with the other until the shirt is nicely spun into a fairly tight spiral.

If your shirt didn't go so well, just shake it out and start over. Maybe consider whether your shirt may be overly wet or a bit too dry, and give it another spin. I should tell you that after we're done dyeing our shirt, it's very difficult to notice mistakes.

OK, now we're looking at a nicely folded spiral t-shirt lying flat in front of us. Get out your butcher's twine. Slide the twine under the shirt by holding the twine to the folding surface in front of you with one hand, and pull the twine taught along the folding surface and then slide under the shirt and away from you. Being careful not to disturb the folds, bring the twine over the top, and tie it together. It should be fairly tight.

Wrap the twine under and over the shirt about 3 times, then turn the shirt. Wrap 3 times and turn the shirt until it looks kinda like a sliced pizza. It is important to have the right tightness when you tie the twine. If your shirt is tied too loosely it will fall apart during dyeing. If your shirt is tied too tightly the dye will have trouble penetrating the fabric, and you will see a lot of white in the finished tie-dye.

If the tying didn't go so well just use your scissors to cut off the twine, and start over. No worries. Remember, it doesn't need to look nice, it just needs to keep our spiral firm during dyeing. So there you go, one beautifully tied spiral shirt ready for dye, well almost.

Mixing Chemical Water.
Mixing Chemical Water.

Mixing our Procion Fiber-Reactive Dye.

Chemical Water and Thickener, essential Ingredients.

The type of dyeing we're going to do today is called Direct Application using Procion dye. Procion is a fiber-reactive, colorfast dye. This means it bonds with the fabric permanently. Procion dye was not widely available until fairly recently. It's superior to other dyes, and it's the secret to long-lasting, vibrant colors. We'll be using the direct application method.

Direct application is when we apply the dye exactly, or "directly," where we want it. This part can get pretty messy, so make sure you have an appropriate place to mix the dye and dye the shirt. Let's put on some old clothes and cool jams while we get our supplies together. For this part we're going to use our dust mask, rubber gloves, Mason jars, whisk, Procion dye, sodium alginate thickener, Urea, soda ash fixer, and the bucket. I usually work on a table out in my garage so I don't make anyone angry.

Mixing Procion dye is a two-step process. First we make chemical water, and then we add the Procion dye. It's a little like cooking at this point, so here's the recipe.

Chemical water :

* water

* sodium alginate

* urea

Just a few words about our ingredients. Sodium alginate is a thickener made from seaweed. It is an essential ingredient because we want our dye to have a consistency like honey. This will allow us far more control over dye placement, as you will see. Urea is a humectress and will allow our shirts to cure properly leaving our colors vibrant and fully bonded to the fabric.

Here we go! Put on your gloves and mask, and fill 3 or 6 large mason jars halfway with water (If you use large-mouth mason jars you can get your whisk in there really well). The number of jars you fill depends on how many colors you're going to use. I like to mix up at least 6 colors at a time, but you can great results with 3 (and I'm not just saying that).

Let's add Urea to each of the jars and mix until it dissolves. Now add the Sodium alginate and mix until it's dissolved. If you have a second blender in your house that you will no longer use to mix anything edible, you can use it instead of mixing the chemical water by hand. OK, break time. We're gonna give our chemical water some time to thicken up a bit. I usually make chemical water the day before I dye, but you should at least let it sit 1/2 hour. You can store chemical water a couple of weeks in a refrigerator sure, but make sure you label it.

OK, break time's over. Put on your gloves and mask, and let's mix the dye. I suggest we start with yellow, red, and blue. These are primary colors, and from these we can mix all kinds of colors, like orange, green, and purple (secondary colors). This is just one idea for a color scheme. Remember, have fun and experiment. If you use a little more or less dye it's just going to change the color a bit, and you might even like it more. You may want to write down the amounts of dye you add to make a color, so if you like how it turns out you can replicate it. Here's the amounts for mixing the colors I'm using,

* yellow /2 tbsp.

* red /2 tbsp.

* blue /2 tbsp.

* orange /1 tbsp. yellow + 1 tbsp. red

* Green /1 tbsp. yellow + 1 tbsp. blue

* purple /1 tbsp. red + 1 tbsp. blue

Using the whisk, mix the dye and the chemical water together in each mason jar. Mix in order from light colors to dark (i.e., yellow to purple). This way if you get, for example, some yellow in the orange or blue into the purple no one will ever know. Rinse the whisk between colors in a mason jar of water. Make sure you mix the dye well until it is completely dissolved. It may take a few minutes. Good, let's fill our squeeze bottles with dye and put the tops on. Our dye is finished being mixed, so let's clean up this mess, and prepare to dye.

2 Swirls and a Accordion Fold
2 Swirls and a Accordion Fold

Direct Application using Procion Dye.

Dyeing our Classic Spiral T-Shirt.

Well you made it this far! We've scoured, folded and tied our shirt, prepared our chemical water, and mixed our dyes. Let's put on our old clothes and rubber gloves, and we'll presoak our shirt in a solution of 1/2 cup soda ash fixer to 1 gallon of water. Soda ash reacts with Procion dye, allowing it to bond with the fabric. Let the shirt soak in the solution for 5 to 10 minutes while we prepare to dye.

Here's a tip: I usually go to the local newspaper, The Telegram, and get "end rolls" of paper. An "end roll" is the end of a big roll of newspaper before they print on it. I use the paper to cover my tie-dye table, and I wrap my tie-dye in it to cure. The best part is they just give the end rolls away, and covering the table makes for easy clean-up.

Now arrange your dye in some order, nice and close, but out of your way. Retrieve your soaked shirt from the soda ash bath, and squeeze as much of the liquid out of the shirt as you can. Try not to disturb the folds. Press the shirt flat between the palms of your hands and move the shirt around until you've pressed most of the water from your shirt. Put the shirt flat on your work surface, and we're ready to dye.

Now remember, we're going to apply the dye directly to our shirt. Since we're making a classic spiral tie-dye, let's dye our shirt in thirds: 1/3 yellow, 1/3 red, 1/3 blue. Let's start with yellow first. Apply the dye, in a stabbing motion, to 1/3 of your shirt, making sure to get the dye deep into the fabric. We can use our hands to gently massage the dye into the folds. These colors are going to mix together on the shirt and make more colors, so you can experiment with the amount of dye you use and the order of the colors. The less dye we use, the more white in our finished tie-dye and vice versa. We can also put as many colors on each side as we like, but for our first shirt let's keep it simple.

OK, let's put down our red and blue the same way as we did with the yellow. At this point our shirt may look a bit sloppy, dye running together and dripping off the sides, but trust me, this is going great. Now turn your shirt over and let's dye the other side. There are all kinds of variations we can do here. We can put colors directly behind each other, like yellow behind yellow, red behind red, and blue behind blue, or we can do something like blue behind the red, and red behind the yellow, and yellow behind the blue. That combination always makes a nice tie-dye. We can also offset the front and back. Let's say we put the red behind half the yellow and half the blue and so on.

Another cool way of dyeing a spiral tie-dye is putting 3 colors on the front and 1 color on the back. I've done this with a dark color on the back, and it turns out really nice. I've even used black on the back, and it kinda looks like the spiral is suspended in space. Luckily for us, however we decide to dye our shirt it's going to look great. Alright, now that our shirt is dyed we need to wrap it in several layers of paper. This absorbs the excess dye and keeps the shirt moist. Now wrap the shirt in cellophane, and let the shirt cure for 6 to 24 hours. I let mine sit for 24 hours before washing it out.

Accordian V Fold
Accordian V Fold

Washing out our Classic Spiral Tie-Dye T-Shirt.

The waiting is the hardest part.

Here we are 24 hours later, and this is my favorite part. What will our tie-dye look like? Well, let's find out. Get your scissors and synthrapol detergent together, and put on your rubber gloves. We're going to wash out our tie-dye in the washing machine. Set the water temperature to cold, and the load size to large or extra large, depending how many shirts your washing out. I usually put 10 shirts in the washer together, and they turn out great.

Start the washing machine first and let the machine partially fill, and add 1/4 cup of synthrapol detergent. Cut the cellophane and paper off with the scissors, and then snip the twine off and discard. Be careful not to clip the fabric, just let the shirt unravel and drop into the water. Run it through the wash cycle twice, and then before it gets to the spin, but after it's drained, start the washing machine over from the beginning. Let it run through all the cycles, and we're done.

You can dry your shirt in the dryer, but remember its 100% cotton so use low heat, or dry it on the line like me.

So how do you wash them from now on? I tell people to wash separately the first time in cold water, just in case there's some residual dye left over. After that I just wash with my jeans and other colors.

Well, I hope your shirt comes out great! Look out for my next article, in which I'm going to explain how to make some of the other basic patterns and will demonstrate how to put several patterns together.


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    • profile image

      3 bd carnot 

      5 years ago

      transcription lettres etc

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      AWESOME...spell check people lol

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      could u guve me some more info on the Procion Dye

    • craftybegonia profile image


      7 years ago from Southwestern, United States

      Pretty interesting and creative. Thanks for sharing!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      You can get kits with everything you need minus sodium algeanate at

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Why isn't there just a kit out there, with all the stuff we need?

    • profile image

      Cindy Valade 

      9 years ago

      Did anyone ever give an answer to the question regarding the Dylon dye?

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      dude this is so cool u should make a movie or video

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Thanks much. One question how much urea do you add to the 1/2 filled large mason jar?? Thanks for the cool patterns you shared.

    • profile image

      Leanna Mouton 

      9 years ago

      This is super ausome i mean i know the single and double swirl but come on this rocks oh holy molii do you have some kind of dvd or something i am totally interested.!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Ok I cant spell.... its AWSOME LOL. I love the accordian v fold, Do you sell your work??

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      This is soo awspome, I love your work!!

    • profile image

      Tomi Cahyono 

      9 years ago

      you're ROCK ! thank's a lot. God Bless You :)

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      ok, im using DYLON dye already should i add soduim Alginate and urea to them?

      beacuase everytime i make em they turn out amazing then when i rinse them out they fade and i get muddy colors


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