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How to Tie Dye – Easy Techniques for Beginners

Learn how to create colorful tie-dye shirts and more with this easy tutorial for beginners. I’ll share all of the essential tips and tricks you need to know to make all sorts of tie dye designs, including that perfect rainbow spiral, right at home.

close up of bright rainbow tie dye t shirt

Tie-dye is a resist-dyeing technique that often uses bright, saturated colors and bold patterns. To tie dye, first, fold or crumple fabric and tie it with string or rubber bands. Then, dip the fabric in buckets of dye, or apply the dye with squirt bottles.

The folds and ties act as a resist, preventing the dye from saturating the fabric evenly. Any place that the dye can’t reach will stay white, creating the design.

Tie Dye Tutorial

This tutorial will cover the basics of tie-dye: how to prep, tie, dye, and wash tie-dyed garments. I’ll share the best and brightest types of dye to buy, as well as all the other supplies you’ll need.

Then, I’ll show you how to tie some of the most popular tie-dye patterns, such as the scrunch technique, the rainbow swirl, the bullseye, sunbursts, and shibori-inspired designs. Be sure to keep reading for tie dye designs with easy-to-follow instructions.

After that, I’ll answer your frequently asked questions about how to tie-dye. You’ll get all of my best tips and tricks so that you can get a great result the first time, and every time, you dye.

Types of Tie Dye

There are a few different categories of tie-dye techniques.

Traditional Tie Dye

The first is the most common type of tie-dye characterized by bright colors and bold patterns. This style was popularized in the 60s and 70s and remains trendy today. This type of tie-dye starts with a plain white shirt, which is then tied and dyed with one or more colors of liquid dye.

In the rest of this article, I’ll walk you through how to do traditional tie-dye step by step.

Ice Dye

Ice dying is similar to the traditional tie-dye, but the process is a little different. It starts the same, with a white or light-colored garment tied or secured with rubber bands. Then, the garment is covered in ice cubes and sprinkled with colors of powdered dye. As the ice melts, it will dissolve the dye powders and saturate the fabric.  

This type of tie dye can create some eye-catching organic designs. If you want to learn more, check out my tutorial on how to ice dye.

Tie Dye with Bleach

Bleach tie dye, also called reverse tie dye, has become super popular in the last year or two. Bleach tie-dye starts with a black or dark-colored shirt, which is then tied and lightened with bleach. The bleach lightens the color of the exposed fabric, creating the tie-dye design. If you are interested in learning more, don’t miss my tutorial about how to tie-dye with bleach.

6 multicolor tie dye shirts in a variety of colors and patterns

How to Tie Dye

In brief, here’s how to tie dye.

  1. Prep your supplies, and set up your work area.
  2. Mix your dyes. Pre-soak your garment, if necessary.
  3. Fold and tie your garment. (more on that below)
  4. Apply the dye.
  5. Let it sit. (The hardest part is waiting!)
  6. Rinse, wash, and wear your garment.

Tie-dye is a pretty simple process, but there are a few tricks you need to know to get the best results. Don’t worry; I’ll walk you through the process in more detail below.

Tie Dye Supplies

Before you can start dying, gather some supplies and materials. First and foremost, you’ll need the dye itself and some fabric to dye. Then, you’ll need to grab some tools and safety materials.

Here’s what you’ll need for this project.

  • fiber-reactive dye in assorted colors
  • fabric items, like shirts, socks, or sweatshirts
  • soda ash (you may or may not need this, depending on the type of dye you purchase)
  • Synthrapol, or another laundry detergent
  • rubber bands or strong string
  • buckets, to dip items in dye
  • squeeze bottles, to apply dye
  • plastic tablecloths or large trash bags to protect your work surface 
  • wire rack to elevate the garment off the work surface, optional
  • gloves and a dust mask
  • zip-top bags or plastic wrap
top down view of tie dye socks on a wire rack with squeeze bottles filled with liquid dye

Best Dye for Tie Dying

The best type of dye to use on cotton fabrics for tie-dye projects is fiber reactive dye. This type of dye is much brighter, longer-lasting, and easier to use than other all-purpose dyes.

Fiber reactive dyes react with fabric in cold water to create a permanent bond – so you don’t have to worry about your tie-dye design washing out the first time you put it in the laundry.

For this style of tie-dye, I don’t recommend using all-purpose dyes like Rit or Dylon. In my experience, the colors are too pale and tend to wash out in hot water. 

Types of Fiber Reactive Dye

Procion MX dyes: This is the most popular type of dye for tie-dye enthusiasts and professionals. Procion MX dye is colorfast, non-toxic, and very easy to use. Plus, it comes in a huge range of colors! You can find Procion dye kits from supplies like Jacquard or Dharma Trading Co.

Note: For best results, soak the shirt in a soda ash solution before dying with Procion dyes.

Tulip One-Step dyes: This type of dye is a great choice for the occasional tie-dyer, younger kids, and parties. The Tulip brand kits use a one-step dyeing process that eliminates the need to pre-soak fabrics in soda ash. The Tulip dyes are formulated with soda ash already in the dye powder, so all you have to do is add water, shake and apply.

Best Items to Tie Dye

You can dye all sorts of garments, like cotton shirts, sweatshirts, socks, even shoes! Items made with natural fibers are great for tie-dye. Look on the label for cotton, rayon, hemp, linen, or even silk.

Procion MX dye powders and the Tulip one-step kits are formulated to work with natural fibers, such as cotton, rayon, and silk. Synthetic materials such as polyester, nylon, Spandex, etc., do not absorb these dyes very well. 

If you can’t find 100% cotton shirts, you can use an 80/20 cotton/polyester blend, but the dye colors will not be as vibrant. Avoid 50/50 cotton/polyester blends because the dye will not react well, and the colors will come out very pale. 

Here are a few cotton garments and items to tie-dye:

woman holding up a tie dye t shirt with a bullseye or sunburst pattern

How to Tie Dye: 6 Basic Steps

Tie-dye is a fun and safe project that kids and adults can enjoy together. But, before we get started, let’s go over a few safety tips.

  • Work outside or on a protected work surface.
  • Be sure to wear old clothes or an apron.
  • Wear gloves so the dye won’t stain your hands.
  • Wear a dust mask when mixing soda ash or dye powders.

Alright, let’s learn how to tie-dye.

Step 1. Prep the materials

Before you tie dye, you need to prewash the garments. Use a laundry detergent like Synthrapol to remove any oils, dirt, or anything else that might be on your garment. These things can resist the dye, leading to dull or spotty results.

Next, set up your work area. If you will dying inside, protect your table with a plastic tablecloth or large trash bags. It’s a good idea to keep some paper towels or rags nearby to clean up any spills.

Then, gather your other tools, including plastic buckets, rubber bands, string, squeeze bottles, wire rack, and gloves.

Step 2. Mix your dyes. Pre-soak your garment, if necessary.

For Tulip One-Step dyes: all you need to do is add water to the dye bottles according to the package instructions and shake to mix.

For Procion MX dyes: Put on your dust mask and gloves. First, mix the dyes. Add 4 teaspoons of dye to a mixing bucket. Add a few teaspoons of lukewarm water to the dye powder – just enough to make a paste. Then, add 1 cup of lukewarm water to the bucket and stir to dissolve the dye. Ensure that you stir well and get rid of any lumps because the undissolved dye will leave spots of color or “freckles” on your finished garment.

If you want, you can use a funnel to transfer the dye to squeeze bottles.

Then, make the soda ash solution. Add 1 cup of soda ash to 1 gallon of warm water. Stir to dissolve. Right before tie-dying, pre-soak your garments for 15 minutes. When time is up, squeeze out the excess solution so the fabric is damp but not dripping wet.  

how to tie a tie dye rainbow swirl pattern

Step 3. Fold and tie your garment.

There are so many ways to fold and tie your fabric. Tie-dye techniques patterns range from simple to intricate. You can scrunch your garment, secure it with rubber bands, fold your garment, clamp it together, or even stitch a design into your garment with a needle and thread.  

Keep reading for 10 ways to tie your garment for tie dye.

Step 4. Apply the dye.

There are many ways to apply the dye to the fabric. You can dip the garment into buckets of dye. Or, you can apply the dye directly to the fabric with squeeze bottles, paintbrushes, or sponges. You can use as many or as few colors as you want.

You add to adjust the intensity of the colors by changing the dye-to-water ratio. If you want more pastel colors, you can add more water to the dye mixture.

When applying the dye, consider color placement. Think back to art class and the concept of the color wheel. Colors placed next to each other will bleed together at the border, creating new colors. Red placed next to yellow will create orange, green placed next to blue will create teal.

If you place complementary colors next to each other (that’s red-green, orange-blue, or yellow-purple), you may create brown or other dull colors where the dyes bleed together.

Check out some of the tie-dye techniques down below to get some pattern inspiration!

how to apply dye to a tie dye rainbow swirl pattern t shirt

Step 5. Let the dye set.

Once you have finished applying the dye, you need to give it time to react with the fabric. It’s important to keep the fabric damp and relatively warm. (The warmer the temperature of the fabric, the quicker the dye reaction.)

I recommend placing the dyed fabric in a plastic bag or wrap it in plastic wrap. Place the wrapped fabric in a sunny spot, and let the dye process for at least 6-8 hours. For the brightest colors, you can let the dye cure for up to 24 hours.  

See the FAQ section at the end of this post to learn about a 2-minute microwave processing shortcut.

Step 6. Rinse, wash, and wear your garment.

One of the keys to getting the cleanest, brightest colors is the washing-out process. Take your time here!

First, leaving the rubber bands or ties on, rinse the garment under cold running water. Then, rinse in lukewarm water while you remove the rubber bands or ties. Keep rinsing until the water runs clear. Then, run the garments through a complete washing machine cycle with Synthrapol detergent.

For this first wash, you can wash multiple garments together, as long as they have been dyed with similar colors. If you wash too many colors together in the same load, the garments can come out muddy looking.

For the next couple of loads, you’ll want to wash your tie-dyed clothing separately from the rest of your clothes. Then you can wash them with the rest of your colors.

finished tie dye t shirt with a rainbow swirl pattern

Tie-Dye Patterns and Folding Techniques

There are lots of different tie-dye patterns and folding techniques that you can use to create unique designs. For more step-by-step folding instructions, check out this article: 17+ Tie Dye Patterns and Folding Techniques.

a variety of ways to fold and tie t shirts for tie dye patterns

Here are a few of the various designs you can create with tie-dye:

  1. Scrunch or Nebula: Lay the shirt flat. Scrunch the fabric together, gathering it into a tight disk. Wrap several rubber bands around the disk. The tighter you scrunch it, the more white areas there will be in the final shirt.
  2. Swirl: Pinch a small section in the center of the shirt. Hold on to that small section while you twist the shirt clockwise. Keep twisting, and the shirt should fold in on itself like a flat cinnamon roll. Secure the shirt with 3 or 4 rubber bands, crisscrossing them over the center of the disc. The tighter you bind the shirt, the more white there will be.
  3. Bullseye: Pinch a section of fabric at the center of the shirt. Pull the fabric up to a point, and smooth the rest of the fabric down to create a skinny cone shape. Wrap rubber bands around the cone of fabric – starting about an inch below the point of the cone. You can add as many or as few rubber bands as you want. 
  4. Sunbursts: Lay the shirt flat. Pinch a series of small sections and pull them up to create small, skinny cone shapes. Secure each with a couple of rubber bands. 
  5. Stripes: Lay the shirt flat. Starting from the bottom or one side, fold the shirt in a series of small accordion-style folds. Wrap the folded shirt with rubber bands every 1 to 2 inches.
  6. Square Box Folds: Fold the shirt lengthwise in a series of accordion folds, each section about 3-4 inches wide. Press each fold well to get sharp creases. Then, fold the shirt widthwise in a series of accordion folds, each 3-4 wide. Sandwich the fabric between two squares of cardboard. Secure well with rubber bands.
  7. Triangle Folds: This technique is very similar to the previous technique. In the second step, you’ll fold the strip of fabric into triangles instead of squares. Then, sandwich the fabric between two triangles of cardboard. Secure well with rubber bands.
  8. Kaleidoscope or Mandalas: For this look, you’ll be creating a design with one or two lines of symmetry. Lay the shirt out on the table and fold it in half lengthwise and then again widthwise. After the shirt is folding in quarters, you can secure the shirt in whatever pattern you like.
  9. Ombre Dip-Dye: For this technique, you don’t have to fold the fabric. Simply dip one end of the shirt into a bucket of dye. As it sits in the dye bath, the dye will slowly work its way up the fabric. You can repeat this process by dipping the other end of the fabric into a different color of dye.
  10. Heart. First, fold the shirt in half lengthwise. Draw half a heart shape on the fold with a washable marker. Starting at one end of your line, make small accordion pleats. Follow the drawn line, making the pleats so that the line appears straight at the top of the folds. (You’ll be making the folds a little deeper on the outside section and a little shallower on the inside section to accommodate the curve of the line.) When all of the fabric has been pleated, secure it with a thick rubber band placed on the line itself. Then, you can add more rubber bands on the inside or outside sections as desired. 

Tie Dying Other Items

Don’t stop at shirts! There are all sorts of other garments and items you can tie-dye: hoodies, sweatpants, headbands, socks, and even sneakers. When you’re shopping, look for garments with a very high percentage of cotton or other natural fiber.  

How to Dye Hoodies and Sweatpants

Thicker fabrics like sweatshirts and sweatpants work really well with more organic techniques, like the crumple technique, the swirl pattern, and stripes. While you can do the more intricate designs on thicker materials, it may be a little tricker.  

How to Tie Dye Sneakers

You can even dye cotton canvas sneakers. Remove the laces and liners before you start, and soak them upside down in warm water and a little bit of Synthrapol to “prewash” them. 

You can’t actually scrunch them up and tie them with rubber bands, but you can dip them in buckets of dye or apply the dye with squirts bottles, paintbrushes, or sponges.

How to Tie Dye Socks

Socks are easy and fun to tie-dye. If you want matching socks, you can tie them up together and dye them at the same time. Since they have a small surface area, you can’t make large mandala patterns, though.  

3 pairs of rainbow tie dye socks

Frequently Asked Questions

Do you need to prewash the fabric before dyeing it?

Yes. Prewash your garments in detergent, such as Synthrapol, before dying. Prewashing removes dirt, oils, and sizing that can prevent the dye from penetrating the fabric.

Do you tie-dye wet or dry fabric?

In most cases, I recommend tie-dyeing fabric that is slightly damp but not dripping wet. When the garment is wet, the dye will more easily saturate the material, leading to more even coverage. That said, you are welcome to experiment with applying dye to dry fabric. Applying dye to dry fabric will result in less uniform saturation and more white spots.

How long should tie-dye set before rinsing?

After dying, wrap your garment in plastic (or place it in a zip-top bag) and let it sit for at least 6-8 hours. This processing time helps the dye soak into the fibers of the fabric. If you have more time, you can let the dye sit overnight or up to 24 hours.

How do you wash tie-dye shirts for the first time?

Before washing your tie-dyed garments in the washing machine, rinse them under running water until the water runs clear. Put the newly tie-dyed fabric into the washing machine by itself and run it through a cold water/delicate cycle with Synthrapol or another color-safe detergent.  

To be extra safe, wash your tie-dyed garments separately for a few washes before washing them with the rest of your laundry.

How do you get tie-dye off your hands?

The best way to prevent stained hands is to wear gloves! Otherwise, wash your hands with soap and water. The dye will fade in time – about a day with frequent washing.

How do you make tie-dye colors brighter?

The best way to get bright tie-dye colors is to use the right kind of fiber-reactive dye and 100% cotton fabric. Then, remember to prewash your fabric and soak it in a soda ash solution (if your dye requires it.) Be patient and let the dye cure for up to 24 hours for the best color saturation.

Can you set dye in the microwave?

If you can’t wait the full 24 hours before rinsing out your newly dyed items, you can try speeding up the process with a microwave oven.

Heating the garments in a microwave accelerates the dye reaction so that you can wash them out after a few minutes rather than several hours.  

Note: Be careful, and only attempt this under adult supervision. Microwave in small time increments, and use your best judgment.

To process tie-dye in the microwave:

  1. Place the garment into a heavy-duty gallon-size zip-lock freezer bag, and squeeze out all the air.
  2. Seal the bag and microwave it for 60-90 seconds.
  3. Watch the bag closely, and stop the microwave when the bag inflates with steam – you don’t want the bag to pop!

The goal is to heat the garment all the way through, but not heat it so much that any part of it dries out. The actual time required to heat the garment will vary.

Let the garment cool, and then rinse it out as directed above.

What’s Next?

Pin this post: Save this tutorial to your Pinterest boards so that you can come back to it later.

Leave a comment: I love to hear your feedback. Tell me in the comments below!

Share on Instagram or Facebook: When you make this project, share it on social media and tag me @sarahmaker. I love to see what you make!

How to Tie Dye - Easy Techniques for Beginners

How to Tie Dye - Easy Techniques for Beginners

Yield: 1
Prep Time: 1 hour
Active Time: 1 hour
Additional Time: 1 day
Total Time: 1 day 2 hours
Estimated Cost: 20

How to tie-dye shirts, sweatshirts, and more with this easy step-by-step tutorial. Includes lots of tips and folding techniques for beginners.

Tools

  • rubber bands or strong string
  • buckets, to dip items in dye
  • squeeze bottles, to apply dye
  • plastic tablecloths or large trash bags to protect your work surface
  • wire rack to elevate the garment off the work surface, optional
  • gloves and a dust mask
  • zip-top bags or plastic wrap

Instructions

  1. Gather your supplies, and set up your work area. Prewash your garments with a laundry detergent like Synthrapol
  2. Mix your dyes according to the package instructions. Pre-soak your garment in a soda ash solution, if necessary.
  3. Fold or crumple your fabric to create the design. Secure the folds with rubber bands or string.
  4. Apply the dye solution with squeeze bottles, paintbrushes, or sponges. Or, dip the fabric in buckets of dye.
  5. Wrap the garments in plastic wrap or place them in plastic bags. Let the dye set up for at least 6-8 hours, or preferably for 24 hours in a warm spot.
  6. Rinse in cold water, and then unfold and rinse in lukewarm water until the water runs clear. Wash separately in the washing machine with Synthrapol detergent.

Notes

Important safety tips:

  • Work outside or on a protected work surface.
  • Be sure to wear old clothes or an apron.
  • Wear gloves so the dye won’t stain your hands.
  • Wear a dust mask when mixing soda ash or dye powders.

Did you make this project?

Please leave a comment on the blog or share a photo on Instagram

carolyn

Saturday 30th of October 2021

how to tie dye on a bleach tie dyed item

Sandy Rice

Wednesday 1st of September 2021

I want to do a purple and white tie dye. If doing a spiral would the purple be put on every other section or all sections?

Sarah Stearns

Wednesday 1st of September 2021

The white parts of the tie-dye spiral are usually the parts of the shirts that didn't get any dye. You can see them in the picture - they are the lines that sort of radiate outward from the center of the spiral.

Putting purple dye on every other section will also give you a white and purple spiral - but you'll probably still have those thin white lines coming out from the center. Sounds like a cool design! Tag me @sarahmaker if you try it.

How to Ice Dye - Easy DIY Tutorial - Sarah Maker

Friday 21st of May 2021

[…] you want a really quick tie-dye process, try traditional tie-dye shirts and process them with the 2-minute microwave […]

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