Make It Last: How to Wash Tie Dye Shirts

Even though it screams Summer of Love, tie dye is totally in these days. Whether you have a favorite homemade tie-dye shirt that you’ve had forever or you just brought a brand-new one for the summer, keeping the vibrant colors is probably one of your primary concerns. 

The good news is that most commercial dyes tend to maintain their bright colors through repeated washings. The bad news, though, is that if you make certain washing mistakes, your favorite tie-dye clothes could fade much sooner than you’d like.

Tie dye designs are bright and colorful additions to any wardrobe. Plus, the act of tie-dyeing itself is a great way to release your creativity and show off your artistic side using things you already have around the house, like rubber bands, warm water, white vinegar and a few old t-shirts. All you need is some dye powder or liquid or a tie-dye kit — and a bit of creative vision — and you’re good to go!

Of course, you want your wearable work of art to last as long as possible, which is why it’s so important to follow these care and maintenance tips in addition to closely following your specific tie dye instructions. This article lays out all the ways to wash your DIY tie-dye shirts and keep them looking as good as new.

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How to Tie Dye a T-Shirt Step-By-Step

Tie dyeing is a creative way to add color and personality to a plain t-shirt, and it’s an easy craft for beginners and kids, making it fun for the whole family. 

woman wearing tie die shirt

Supplies you will need:

  1. A plain white t-shirt (or any light-colored cotton fabric)
  2. Fiber reactive dyes (choose your favorite colors)
  3. Rubber bands
  4. Rubber gloves
  5. Plastic bags or plastic wrap
  6. Large bucket or basin
  7. Stirring utensil
  8. Soda ash (not baking soda, which isn’t alkaline enough)
  9. Salt (optional)

Step 1: Prepare the Dye

First, prepare the dye according to the instructions on the package. Typically, you’ll need to dissolve the dye powder in warm water, add some salt (if recommended) and stir well. Make sure to wear gloves to avoid staining your skin.

Step 2: Prepare the T-Shirt

Wet your t-shirt thoroughly with water. This helps the dye penetrate the fabric evenly. You can also soak the shirt in a solution made from one cup of soda ash in a gallon of warm water and then gently squeeze to remove the excess water

Then, lay the shirt flat on a work surface and decide how you want your tie-dye design to look.

Step 3: Create Your Design

There are many ways to create a tie dye design, but here are a few popular techniques:

  • Spiral: Pinch the center of the shirt and twist it into a spiral. Use rubber bands to secure the shirt in place, creating sections for the dye.
  • Stripes: Accordion-fold the shirt vertically or horizontally and secure it with rubber bands at regular intervals.
  • Crumple: Crumple the shirt into a ball and secure it with rubber bands all over.

You can also experiment with different combinations of these techniques to create your own unique design.

Step 4: Apply the Dye

Using gloves, dip the shirt into the dye, making sure to saturate each section of the design. You can also use a squeeze bottle or a spray bottle to apply the dye more precisely.

Step 5: Let the Dye Set

Once you’ve applied the dye, wrap the shirt in plastic wrap or place it in a plastic bag to keep it moist. Let it sit for at least six to eight hours or overnight.

Step 6: Rinse and Wash

After the dye has set, put the shirt through the cold rinse cycle until the water runs clear. Then, wash the shirt in a washing machine using cold water and a mild detergent. Avoid washing it with other clothes on the first wash, as the dye may bleed.

Step 7: Dry the Shirt

Hang your tie-dyed t-shirt to dry. Avoid using a dryer to dry tie dye shirts, as the heat can damage the fabric and cause fading. Instead, hang the shirt to air dry in a shaded area.

Getting It Right with the First Wash

If you’ve recently made your own tie-dye shirt, the way you wash it the first time is extremely important. If you wash your new tie-dye shirt incorrectly, it might fade significantly before you even have a chance to wear it! That very first wash is important to helping seal in the dye colors and pattern. Here’s how to do it:

  • Let the Dye Marinate — One step is to avoid washing your shirt for at least 24 hours after dyeing it. The longer you wait, the more time the dye will have to set into the fabric, creating more vibrant colors.
  • Wash It on Its Own — When you’re ready to wash, put it in the washing machine by itself or with other similar colors or tie-dyed items. Wash using the hot water setting and mild detergent. This will help prevent excess dye from staining your other clothes. When you’re done, wring it out under running water and make sure the water runs clear. This indicates that all loose dye has been rinsed.
  • Choose the Right Laundry Detergent — Using a color-safe detergent rather than a regular laundry detergent is important because it helps enhance the rinsing process and reduces the amount of excess dye in the fabric. The very first wash should be done with a high-concentration synthrapol detergent in your top-loading machine (this type of laundry detergent is not suitable for front-loading washers). 
  • Dry on High Heat — Dry in your dryer on high heat setting and leave it in for a full cycle. The heat helps set the color and prevents it from fading during future washes. Be sure to follow the instructions on your dye kit or tutorial, as some products may recommend avoiding the machine and air drying instead. Just make sure to hang your tie dye creations to air dry for even coloring and to avoid staining.

How to Keep Tie-Dyed Shirts Looking Great and Avoid Fading

To preserve your tie-dye garments for the long run, you’ll have to think about ongoing maintenance in addition to the initial care period. Luckily, caring for tie-dye shirts isn’t especially difficult. You just want to make sure you take steps to preserve the fabric dye so your shirt stays vibrant for the long term.

tie dyed shirts hanging on clothes line

  • Wash with Care — The next few times you wash your tie-dye shirts, you may want to wash them separately to avoid color bleeding. Turn your shirt inside out before putting it in the washer. By washing your shirt inside out, you will reduce the amount of fading outside the shirt. Wash using cold water to prevent dyes from bleeding and be sure to use a gentle detergent formulated to work in cold water.
  • Wash on the Gentle Cycle — Avoid washing your tie-dye shirt with heavy items like jeans. Heavy items will cause friction in the wash, which can make other fabrics fade. Consider using short or gentle wash cycles to minimize friction.
  • Don’t Give It the Chance to Bleed — Don’t leave your wet shirts in the washing machine for too long after the cycle has completed. If you let your wet tie-dye shirts sit, you’ll give colors time to bleed out. When possible, dry your shirts on a clothesline indoors or in the shade. Remember: Sunlight fades bright colors. Avoid drying in the dryer after the first washing, if possible.

Avoid Certain Products — Unfortunately, certain laundry products you love are not the best choice for your tie-dye t-shirts. Avoid using anything that could alter the color of your garments, such as bleach, as this will remove pigment and ruin your elaborate color pattern. Fabric softener should also be on the no-fly list.

Treating Stains on Tie Dye

If you get a stain on your tie-dye shirt, you must be careful when selecting a pre-treatment product or spot remover. Using the wrong one could remove both the stain and the dye on your shirt. For best results, use a pre-treatment spray that does not contain bleach. Any product that contains even a small amount of bleach will ruin your shirt.

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When applying a pre-treatment, follow the instructions carefully and do not leave it to soak any longer than recommended. Wash your shirt immediately after in cold water.

Additional Considerations

Always be mindful of the fabric content when washing tie-dye shirts. While most people use cotton shirts for tie-dyeing, different materials and blends work, too. Before washing any garment for the first time, always check the care instructions. If you accidentally damage the shirt by washing it incorrectly, it won’t matter whether the color fades or not.

When storing your tie dye, avoid putting them in direct sunlight. Direct sunlight causes tie dye shirts to fade because it contains ultraviolet (UV) rays that can break down the dye molecules in the fabric. Over time, exposure to sunlight can cause the colors to fade and become less vibrant in a process known as photodegradation. 

The more sunlight a tie-dye shirt is exposed to, the faster the fading process occurs.

Direct sunlight can also cause the fabric to weaken and become more prone to tearing and fraying. To prevent fading and damage from sunlight, store tie-dye shirts in a cool, dry place like a drawer or hanging in your closet to preserve the colors and keep the fabric in good condition over time.

Also, keep in mind that every tie-dye shirt will eventually start to fade. Rather than only making one tie-dye shirt at a time, consider dyeing multiple cheap bulk t-shirts at once. When you tie dye in bulk, you’ll have plenty to go around. Still, you can prolong your shirt’s lifespan by washing it with care. If one of your shirts is already starting to fade, consider handwashing it in cool water with a mild detergent.

tie dyed shirts drying on hangers


Even if you wear wholesale polo shirts to work every day, tie-dye shirts are a colorful addition to any weekend wardrobe. Keep your shirts looking their best by washing and drying them with care. Give your shirts the TLC they deserve and they will look great for several years to come.


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