The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Tie-Dye

tie-dye fabricWhile tie-dying became prevalent in the United States in the 1960s, the principles of tie-dying go back over 1500 years. Tie-dying is a type of resist-dying technique where dye is applied to fabric that has been set up with a number of “resists” or areas that the dye will not color. In tie-dying, the resists are created by crumpling, twisting, folding, and even “tying” the cloth prior to applying the dye. Tie-dying rarely uses subdued colors like other forms of resist-dying. Instead, tie-dye is known for its bright, bold, primary explosions of color.

While most any fabric can be tie-dyed, it is important to choose the right dye for the right material. For example, silk and wool should be dyed with an acid dye due the protein base of the fibers. Acid dyes are safe and easy to use. In fact, many of them are used in the food industry. Vat dyes are complex and can be toxic, but they are the best way to dye silk and cellulose fibers like cotton, hemp, and linen. Cellulose fibers can also be dyed with a high pH dye if you want a color-fast result. If you are not averse to a bit of color bleed, household dye like Rit can produce excellent results on cellulose. Just be careful when washing them with the rest of your laundry.

Tie-dye shirts came into vogue in the 1960s and 1970s. Many performers and participants in the peace movement wore the bright,peace movement psychedelic shirts as a symbol of the Age of Aquarius and as a contrast to “the system,” which forced people into conservative, drab business attire. This iconic fashion of the 1960s is attributed to two retired artists, Will and Eileen Richardson, whose work was picked up by the designers at Halston. With the Halston brand behind it, musicians like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix wore the groovy colors of tie-dye onto the stage. The tie-dye movement was born.

The liberalism of the 60s and 70s gave way to the conservatism of the 80s and 90s, and tie-dye almost faded away. Several anti-establishment groups and one mainstream band are attributed with keeping the style alive. The band, “The Grateful Dead,” and their loyal fans, “The Deadheads,” kept the symbolism alive. The style has experienced a resurgence in the second decade of the new millennium.

There are two main ways to experience tie-dye: buy it or create it. You can go to a Phish concert and pay through the nose, or you can purchase exceptional quality tie-dye shirts through a t-shirt discounter. The advantage to purchasing tie-dye is the quality of the materials. The dyes will be colorfast and not run, and the patterns will stay intact.

On the other hand, much of the fun of tie-dye is the artistic expression that goes into the creative process. If you desire to tie-dye your own shirts, consider these steps:

  1. Purchase shirts based on the type of dying you are prepared to do. If you are going to use Rit or some other household dye, 100 percent cotton tees are your best bet. Cotton/poly blends can be dyed, but the results will not be near as bright or crisp unless you use special dyes or color enhancers. If your shirts are new, be sure to wash them prior to dyeing, or the dye may not adhere properly.
  1. Shop at a t-shirt discounter or even consider irregulars for the most economical experience. Remember, part of the tie-dying culture is thrift, so shopping frugally and picking up high-quality shirts at a discount is part of the process.
  1. Choose your dyes. Rit is a classic, but Procion dyes offer some of the brightest, clearest colors. If you don’t buy the dye already in a kit, you can purchase the components separately: dye powder, urea, soda ash, and bottles for each color. Rubber or plastic gloves are recommended so you don’t dye your hands. While many kits suggest you use string to tie the shirt, many people swear by rubber bands.
  1. Gather your accessories and prep the area. Tie-dying can be messy, but, if you are prepared, you can moderate the impact on your environment. You will want to have a roll of paper towels, some old rags, some plastic, a short stick, and a bucket. Lay the plastic out. You want enough to cover your entire workspace. Nearly everything the dye touches, it colors, so be careful.
  1. Mix warm water and soda ash in the bucket. Wear gloves if you don’t want to get “burned,” and soak the shirt in the solution for 10 to 15 minutes. Wring out the shirt as much as possible. The more water that is left in the shirt, the less dye which can be absorbed. Prepare the dye mixtures while the shirt(s) are soaking.
  1. Twist a shirt around the stick. There are no wrong ways to do this, but you will find some methods better than others. The more twisted t-shirtdifferent ways you twist the shirt, the more different patterns you will get. To create an amazing swirl pattern, put the shirt face down and put the stick in the middle of the back. Start twisting. Pull the stick out of the shirt and hold your creased, folded, and twirled shirt in place with half a dozen or more rubber bands.
  1. Start to apply the dye. Hold the bottle close to the shirt so you don’t get a lot of splash-back. Divide the shirt up into as many segments as you have colors. Most tie-dye patterns use three to four colors. If you use fuchsia or magenta, yellow, and turquoise, you can get all the colors of the rainbow (Think about your bubble jet printer. These are the three colors used to create all of your pictures). The alternate colors are created as the colors overlap. Remember to start with yellow first, since it will be changed when it comes into contact with any other color. Flip the shirt over and repeat on the back side.
  1. Put your creation into a Ziploc bag and let the shirt sit for 18-36 hours. Too little time, and the colors won’t set right; too long, and the colors start to lose their brightness. After the requisite time, run the shirt under cold water until the dye stops running. This could take a tie-dye shirtswhile. Take off the rubber bands and run the shirt under cold water again until the dye stops running. Dry out your shirt. Remember, the dye may still run, so wash your shirt with dark colors or by itself for the first two or three times, at least.

Tie-dye shirts are a great addition to any wardrobe. Whether you buy them at a discount or create your own, you now have the information needed to join in this millennium-old tradition.

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