When you're social distancing is the perfect time to try the trend.

By Emily VanSchmus and Shabd Simon-Alexander
Updated April 16, 2021
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Tie-dye is officially back and I am here for it. We created tie-dye Easter eggs, and we've been eyeing the tie-dye nail trend as well. A quick scroll through the Target site shows dozens of tie-dye clothing options (We love this sleeveless dress, $20). And while you could easily have a brightly dyed shirt shipped directly to your door, if you’ve been wanting to try your hand at tie-dye, now’s the time to start!

We saw this old trend beginning to come last summer, with social distancing measures, there's been a huge increase in at-home dyeing. Google searches for “how to tie-dye” have skyrocketed more than 1,000%, so it looks like I’m not the only one picking up a new hobby.

To help you get started, artist, professor of textile, and tie-dye expert Shabd Simon-Alexander is sharing her favorite methods to tie-dye your own colorful patterns at home. The beauty of tie-dye is that it doesn’t have to be perfect! Accidental drips and splatters are A-OK in this at-home craft, so it’s a perfect outdoor activity to do with the kids while you’re taking a break from online learning. Simon-Alexander is also sharing her best tips for keeping things mess-free: “If you’re worried it’s too complicated or messy to tackle with kids, don’t be,” she says. “It’s virtually impossible to tie-dye incorrectly, and with these single-color designs, it’s easy to keep things tidy.”

For even more tie-dye tips, pick up a copy of Simon-Alexander's book, Tie-Dye: Dye It, Wear It, Share It, $23, Barnes & Noble. Then grab a white shirt (you can get a pack of six plain t-shirts for $15 from Walmart, or opt for a more fitted women’s shirt, $8, Target) and a patch of grass in the backyard and get to dyeing with her favorite method.

kids in tie dye
Credit: Allison Cottrill

How to Tie-Dye Shirts

Supplies Needed

  • White shirt 
  • Plastic tarp 
  • Bucket 
  • Glass jar with a tight-sealing lid
  • Rubber gloves 
  • Measuring spoon
  • Fiber-reactive dye powder
  • Soda ash fixative

Step-by-Step Directions

Follow these simple how-to instructions to tie-dye your own white fabric. You should be able to prep your shirt and dye in about 20 minutes, and then it'll need to soak for an hour. Note that none of the supplies for this project can be used for food after.

tie dye hanging outside
Credit: Allison Cottrill

Step 1: Tie a White Shirt

The key to tie-dyeing is creating the pattern. Use one of these five methods from Simon-Alexander to start your dye project. In the above photo, the methods used (from left to right) create the following tie-dye patterns: Nebula, Polka Dots, Sunburst, Sailor Stripes, and Ringer.

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t-shirt rubber band
Credit: Allison Cottrill

Nebula

Soak the shirt in clean water before beginning, then lay it out flat. Then use your hands to scrunch up the fabric into a tight circle, and wrap several rubber bands around it. Keep in mind that the tighter you rubber band it together, the more white will show on the finished fabric. For a more saturated and colorful shirt, band the fabric loosely.

t-shirt rubber band
Credit: Allison Cottrill

Polka Dots

To create a polka dot look, gather a handful of plastic beads, dried beans, or marbles. Place one inside the shirt, then place a piece of plastic wrap on top of that area (you’ll want to cut the plastic wrap to be about four sizes bigger than the bead you’re using. Keep placing beads and wrapping them in plastic wrap until the entire front of the shirt is polka-dotted. You’ll want to get this shirt wet before dyeing. 

t-shirt twisted
Credit: Allison Cottrill

Sunburst

Start by getting the shirt wet (just use clean water) and then lay it down flat. Choose a spot on the front of the shirt and pinch the fabric together (this will be the center of the sunburst pattern), then press down and twist the fabric to create a circular roll. Wrap the fabric tightly with rubber bands (the looser you wrap it, the more color will show through on the final shirt).

t-shirt rolled up
Credit: Allison Cottrill

Sailor Stripes

Get the shirt wet and lay it down flat, then begin folding the shirt accordion-style. For horizontal stripes, start at the top and fold down; for vertical stripes, start at one side and fold over to the other side. Then wrap a rubber band around the shirt for each stripe you want to make.

t-shirt rubber band
Credit: Allison Cottrill

Ringer

Lay a dry shirt down flat, and pinch small areas of the shirt into cone-shaped peaks. Wrap each one with a rubber band, and continue all the way around the shirt creating different sizes for a totally random pattern. Or, do just one in the center as we did. Once you’re done, get the shirt wet (you can spray it with the hose, or squirt it with a bottle of plain water).

kids measuring dye
Credit: Allison Cottrill
girl with dye and yellow gloves
Credit: Allison Cottrill

Step 2: Mix Dye in Jar and Shake 

Once you’ve tied the shirts you want to dye, protect yourself and your surface. Don a pair of rubber gloves and lay down a plastic tarp to protect your floor or grass. Now, it’s time to mix up the dye. Keep in mind that the dye will lose strength after an hour, so you don’t want to mix it up too far in advance. Fill a gallon Mason jar (such as this Glass Jar, $4, The Container Store) halfway with cool water as well. Measure 2-4 teaspoons of fiber reactive dye powder (we used Jacquard Procion, $5, Joann) into the jar. Fiber reactive dye creates a chemical reaction between the powder and the fabric, which means the dye will actually become part of the fabric, unlike dyeing with food coloring where the color sits on top of the fabric). Keep in mind that the more you add the more saturated the design will be. Then, close the lid and shake the jar until the powder has totally dissolved. Fill a large bucket with a gallon of cool water, and pour the dye from your jar into the bucket, and stir.

Step 3: Add Water and Soda Ash

Then fill the jar halfway back up with hot water and add six teaspoons of soda ash, which is a form of sodium carbonate: It's what reacts with the fiber dye powder to actually dye the fabric. It's fairly inexpensive and can be found at most craft stores (such as Tulip Soda Ash, $3, Michaels). Close the lid and shake again, then pour that mixture into the bucket and stir again. If you can't find these materials, you can use Simon-Alexander's method with a tie-dye kit (Tulip Tie-Dye Kit, $32, Michaels) instead.

girl with pink dye
Credit: Allison Cottrill

Step 4: Dye Shirt

The shirt should be wet before you dye it, so if your shirt has dried out while you were mixing dye, get it wet again before putting it in the dye (the shirt should be totally wet with clean water to help the dye saturate and spread over the fabric). Then, gently place the shirt in the bucket of dye and let it soak for one hour. When time is up, put your gloves back on and rinse the shirt out either in the sink or in the backyard with the hose until the water runs clear. Then remove the rubber bands to reveal your tie-dye designs before washing and drying the shirt (we recommend washing it by itself the first time). Now that you've mastered how to tie-dye a shirt, try using this technique on other clothing items or cotton fabrics.

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