You might associate tie-dye with the Woodstock-era rainbow swirl, that visual analogue for friendly LSD- and patchouli-fuelled rebellion. Or, if you’re a ’90s child like me, you may have a soft spot for that ’60s-via-the-’90s look as exemplified by Lisa Simpson.
But tie-dye has an extraordinary history of almost 2,000 years, spanning the globe. From Indian Bandhani, which binds fabric tightly with stitched designs, producing delicate printed patterns, to Japanese Shibori, which uses stitching, pleating, clamping, and binding around shaped objects to create luminous repeats—resist dye techniques have long been a way of beautifying textiles and garments, resulting in infinite outcomes.
So, what if…you took the afternoon to upcycle a few old cotton t-shirts, napkins, and pillowcases?
Here’s a simple tutorial to make a totally non-aggressive tie-dye tee perfect for these final days of summer. To make these kid-friendly (tie-dye is a blast to do with little ones, just make sure you put down extra plastic to account for, well, kids), this guide calls for RIT All-Purpose dyes, which are easy to get, inexpensive, and non-toxic. Let’s get tying and—and heck—dyeing!
Supplies for tie-dying
- Measuring spoons (Note: none that you intend to use for cooking again. Value Village is a great place to find inexpensive, craft-worthy measuring utensils)
- Measuring cup (preferably one with a spout for pouring; ditto one you won’t want to put anything edible in again)
- RIT All-Purpose dyes of your choice (I used Aquamarine, Petal Pink, and Lemon Yellow)
- RIT Dye Fixative and Brightener
- Four squeeze bottles (feel free to repurpose old condiment bottles—well-cleaned, naturally)
- Kosher salt
- Elastic bands
- Metal cooling rack
- Tray or plastic container to go under the rack
- White 100 percent cotton t-shirt
- Hot water
- Plastic microwave-safe cling wrap
- Rubber gloves
- An apron (or clothes you don’t mind getting a bit messy)
- Plastic drop sheet (or trash bags)
- A microwave or a hot/sunny day
Clean your t-shirt
If your t-shirt is new, give it a wash to remove any finishes that might still be on it from the manufacturing process. If you’re using an old one, make sure to thoroughly soak and wring it out before tying it—the water will help the fibres drink up the dye more readily. I soak my shirt in a bucket until I’m ready to tie it up. Then I wring it out well so that it’s damp to the touch, but not wet.
Prepare your tie-dye colours
Mix up your dyes! One of the reasons I like RIT is because they have, essentially, a formula cookbook (also available to download as a PDF) to make a thousand different shades using their all-purpose dyes. They’re also non-toxic, which means you can safely pour your excess dye down the drain.
For this shirt, I used three colours—but you can play with as few or as many as you want. You don’t need a lot of dye if you’re making only one t-shirt, so I measured out 1/4 of a cup of hot water (60 degrees Celsius or thereabouts), added 1/4 of a tablespoon of dye, and 1/8 of a tablespoon of salt. Salt helps the dye cling to the cotton fibres, making the outcome brighter and more colourfast—very good things in the world of dye.
Unless you intend to dye your hands, too, wear rubber gloves. Mix the hot water, dye, and salt well in your measuring cup, then pour into your squeeze bottle (this is why a measuring cup with a spout is preferred).
Repeat this process for all of your dyes.
Fold, squish, accordion, or bunch your damp t-shirt in any way that strikes your fancy. I was curious to see if I could get something in the domain of a symmetrical design, so I folded the shirt lengthwise down the centre, then accordion folded it up from the bottom. Remember making paper fans? It’s exactly the same—but thicker and floppy.
Grab a handful of elastics and band the length of your shirt into a nice tight tube. The tighter the elastics, the more white spaces you’ll have between the folds. Tie-dye is a funny thing: it’s very hard to do wrong, but you will find over time that you prefer certain outcomes. Like cooking, you can refine the recipe to your particular taste. The rubber bands can also serve as a paint-by-number style border. I created five sections—three of which will get the dye.
Prepare to dye
Now! Place your folded shirt on the metal rack with the tray or basin underneath (stainless steel sink or bathtub will also work, just remember that the dye has a tendency to travel, so cover anything you don’t want stained).
I started with the yellow dye, which—based on my folding—would place the yellow “line” at the centre of the t-shirt. Then, respecting the rubber bands, I left the next section blank and filled in the third with the pink dye. Then, I left another blank space before filling the final section with aquamarine. Carefully flip your t-shirt tube over on the rack and fill out the same spaces with the same colours on the other side.
A note: you can absolutely mix up the colours if you want, but remember the logic of the colour wheel: Yellow next to blue will mean that the sections that touch will be green. Pink and yellow, something like a coral; blue and pink will turn out purplish. But it’s hard to get the proportions right, and any colour bleed might get a bit muddy-looking. Experiment! Tie-dye is a place to be brave. There are always more t-shirts in the world…and pillowcases. And leggings. Once you start digging through your closet, you will discover that you have more subtly stained white items than you knew.
Now that the shirt is dyed, let it sit on the rack for 30 minutes. It looks like a burrito. This is a good time to clean up, or watch some TV. Choice is yours!
Fixing the dye
Once the 30 minutes is up, mix one tablespoon of RIT Dye Fixative and Brightener in one of your squeeze bottles with a cup of hot water. Mix the solution well (make sure the lid is on tight). Then, as if liberally squeezing hot sauce on a burrito, cover your t-shirt so that you hit as much as possible with the fixative. This will help make the whites whiter and the brights brighter.
Zap your masterpiece
You’re now ready for the absolutely weird, but delightful component of the RIT process. Wrap your t-shirt up well in plastic and place it on a paper towel in your microwave. Zap it for two minutes. The plastic wrap will puff up and create a heat chamber that sets the dye. MAGIC.
If you don’t have a microwave, or if the prospect of blasting a dye-soaked t-shirt wrapped in plastic freaks you out, you can also place your little bundle out in the sun for a good hour or so. One of these hot August afternoons should bake that dye in nicely.
If using the microwave, carefully remove the plastic (don’t burn yourself!) and place the t-shirt on the rack to cool. Carry the rack to the plastic basin, sink, or tub.
Once your shirt is cool, pour cold water over the bundled shirt, trying to keep it as stationary as possible so that the diluted dye goes straight down through the rack while you rinse. When it seems like the water’s running relatively clear, cut or pull off your elastics and continue to gently rinse out your shirt with cold water. I like to put it in the plastic basin and swish it through the cold water until it seems like the colour isn’t bleeding anymore. Pull out your shirt and take a look at what you’ve done!
Give your shirt a wash in cold water and a bit of gentle detergent with a towel, or something that you don’t mind soaking up a bit of excess dye, should it be released in the wash. Toss it in the dryer or on the clothesline.
When dry, the colours won’t look as vibrant as when the shirt was freshly rinsed, but that’s ok! It’s subtle tie-dye. Refined.
You’re finished! Enjoy the heck out of your new t-shirt, and if you liked this process, consider going deeper into the world of tie-dye. Save your sourdough; dye a sweatshirt!
Further resources for becoming an at-home tie-dye master
Tie-Dye: Dye It, Wear It, Share It by Shabd Simon-Alexander – if you can get your hands on a copy of this book, Simon-Alexander’s gorgeous tutorials are amazing for creating something really special on cotton, silk, and other natural fibres.
Withwendy’s Tie-Dye Tutorial
The absolutely delightful Wendy, famous for reverse-engineering some of the hottest trends out of affordable materials, does a delightful quarantine video with three different dye patterns.
Dharma Trading Co.
The iconic dye shop (founded in 1969) are thee dye dealers if you’re looking to get serious. They have everything you need to make headway into the world of fibre-reactive and acid dyes. Truly a dream.
This wonderful Toronto shop may not have as huge a selection as Dharma Trading, but they have pretty much everything you need to go deeper into more serious dye craft.
If you want to combine the fun of tie-dye with the peaceful beauty of natural materials, Vancouver’s Maiwa is unparalleled. Not only can you get all the plant (and bug-based!) pigments you need, but also plenty of tutorials and books about natural dye techniques, as well as how to make your own dyes from regional plants.
Originally published in 2020; updated in 2022.