DIY Tie-Dye

DIY Tie-Dye Step by Step Instructions

Every once in awhile you see one. Among the solids, stripes and patterns there is another kind of t-shirt, it is something wild, something organic, something that forces the observer to ask “how did they do that?” It is the DIY tie-dye t-shirt.


But it is no mystery, tie-dye has been around for decades, right? Well, the popularity of tie-dye in modern fashion in the U.S. does go back to the 60’s era when the hippies emerged. But it wasn’t there that this technique originated.


The real history of tie-dye

Tie-Dye can be traced to the 6th century. There are different styles and techniques that originated in India, Japan and Africa.

The oldest form is from India, called Bandhani. Bandhani comes from the Sanskrit word banda which means “to tie.” Bandhani looks like a solid fabric in a bold dark color with small, fairly regular light or white dots that form patterns. The creators of these patterns tie off small pinches of fabric and dip them, which is close to the modern technique, but far more controlled. Many examples have intricate patterns and a precise, consistent technique.

If you like a more varied, organic nature to the forms and shapes, then the Japanese Shibori technique may be a good style to study. Shibori is a couple centuries younger than Bandhani, dating back only as far as the eighth century. There are many techniques within the category of Shibori. Kanoko shibori is the one that most closely resembles what we see as the familiar American style. But there are a lot of different binding techniques that create very specific patterns, from spider web to diagonal chevrons.

Africa is also named as an historical origin of tie-dye. The western Hausa region is famous for indigo dye. Here, following the similar dying of the fabric, the material is embroidered to create yet another variation.

Ready to do it yourself?

The artistic, self-expression is one of the greatest appeals of tie-dying. Great, bold shapes and patterns can easily be created, even by beginners. The technique is hard to control if you are hoping for a very specific outcome. Remember, part of the fun of this technique is the untying of the fabric to see how it turned out.

Knowledge is power, so you should learn as much as you can about what steps produce each result. There are many good videos, like this one, that will demonstrate how to do it. It is better to know how the process works before you get your hands in buckets of dye, only then to realize you have a question.

Gather materials

You can start off by practicing on old white t-shirts and other light fabrics. If you want to buy inexpensive plain white or light shirts, that is also a good place to start if you are ready to wear what you make.

You’ll need some fabric dye. These are available in craft stores and often in grocery and other general merchandise stores. Rit is a well-known dye brand.

Gather lots of rubber bands. Get lots of them in varying size and thickness. Thicker, sturdy bands will work best to hold the fabric tightly.

Buckets or squirt bottles. If you want to do wilder, bolder work, use buckets. More control, is the result of the squirt bottles. If you save empty condiment bottles, they would work well.

This is an excellent outdoor activity. If you need to do it indoors, make sure you have a tarp, a dropcloth or newspaper to protect your floors.

You will probably also want to use gloves or at least the plastic bags from grocery stores to protect your hands.

After a little practice, if you are ambitious and want to work toward a specific design, you can use a highlighter to mark the shapes you want to make in advance. The markings can guide the way you tie it up.

For extra bright colors, you can also add soda ash to hot water and pre-soak the fabric. Laundry soda in the laundry detergent section of your local store.

Step 1

Soak your fabric or clothes to be dyed in warm water, This is water with the optional soda ash dissolved in if you have it. Leave them to soak for 10-20 minutes.

Choose a colors that will blend together well, they will be mixing in places. Add one color to each bucket of warm water. Making sure not to contaminate the buckets with the other colors. A half-packet will be good for a partially-full gallon bucket of water. You can add more or less to make the colors bolder or more pastel.

Tie them up

Take the soaking fabric out and start tieing up the fabric. There are many different ways to twist, fold, roll and bend the fabric to get different results. You can undo parts and try again at this stage if you’re bundles come undone or if you want to make adjustments. Make them tight! If liquid can soak in, there won’t be as much separation between the colors.

Add the color

Now you carefully dip the tied up shirts into the dye. If you want it mostly colored, dunk the whole thing under. If you want it partial, just dip it into the colored liquid. You only have to leave it in the dye for about 30 seconds. Then take it out and try to squeeze as much water out. This will help keep the clear parts from soaking in dye as it sets.

You can dip the other parts in different colors the same way, or untie and retie the fabric to get a different pattern with the next color.

Time to wait

Now you wait about 24 hours to let the color set in. Try to keep the different items separate so they don’t contaminate or accidentally color the neighboring items. It is best to keep them tied up tight so that the color doesn’t wick into the clear areas.

Once a day has gone by, you can untie or cut the bands. Wash each item separately in cold water. This clears the extra dye and finishes the process. Let them air dry this first time and then later they can be treated just like regular clothes.


Historically, dyes have been made in many ways. Some pigments come from sources that are toxic. In some parts of the world, the process in making the dye is harmful, especially to those who worked with the dye a lot. Once the fabric dying process is complete, the color is set and there is little to fear, but it wouldn’t hurt to read the labels in case your dye has anything dangerous in it.

Have fun!

Once you have your technique worked out, this can be a fun activity to share with friends. When you spot a new thing to try, ask how they did it. Or you can search the web for more tips.
If you have a club, like a sports team, a group of scouts or a church group, by using your colors, you can make shirts together to help identify you when you go to public events together.

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