Materials and Setup
Like most things of value, tie dye takes time.
Don’t try to rush it.
Set an intention and work through the steps,
letting the process unfold as it will.
Basics of getting started
I have created hundreds (or thousands!) of high quality, tie-dyed shirts (and other things) in the past three decades. Not only do I
sincerely enjoy this versatile, main stream art form, but I also love creating clothing at a mere fraction of the cost of the designer labels. ;)
Well, I have seen some designer tie dye, but that really has very little to do with anything. Most people, when they think of tie-dye, picture
a hippie in the back yard dipping wads of material into vats of simmering colors. I work at the kitchen table on sheets of repurposed
cardboard with a dozen or more plastic jars of dye, squirt bottles and a pile of sponge brushes. I generally wear kitchen cleaning gloves
and cover the counter areas where I mix dye with newspaper or cardboard boxes. This helps speed the cleaning process.
I envision, one day, a spacious stainless steel workspace with an array of IV bags ready for use whenever the urge strikes. Working
outdoors in the grass is fine, but my back gets tired from being hunched over and counter height workspace with a durable, stain-resistant
stool makes the process more comfortable and enjoyable. Remember this art, not work.
How it all Works
Tie-dye is an art based on resistance. By this I mean that beautiful tie-dyes can be created with only one color, because the intent is to
create a pattern in the contrast between acceptance of dye and the places that resist the dye. Resistance is obtained by binding. This can
be accomplished with rubber bands, sinew, string or even your hand. With care, the material alone can be used to create patterns by
limiting the amount of dye applied and using the natural absorption rate of the material to control how much dye penetrates. Each binding
results in a unique effect that cannot be duplicated, but the results can be mimicked with care, planning and attention to detail, but every
project will be a one of a kind.
The folds you use control the general pattern. To help explain the concept, here are some basic methods that use rubber bands. For the
basic, let’s assume we fold the pattern, introduce some resistance and then apply an even coat of dye to the entire piece.
To create circles you pinch the center of the circle and pull the rest of the material away and apply your resistance by sliding rubber
bands over the resulting cone. Tight rubber bands will result in less dye penetration and big circles of white area. Loose rubber
bands will allow more dye penetration and less white.
To create vertical stripes you fold horizontal pleats across the material keeping even spacing. When it’s all folded, slide rubber
bands over the material (the number and spacing control the number and size of the stripes). Again, tighter rubber bands mean
more white space, less resistance means less white. Horizontal or diagonal stripes require vertical or diagonal folds, respectively.
A spiral is a little different. You pinch the center of the material and twist, trying to keep the resulting pleats even and then put your
rubber bands around the material. Again, more resistance results in more negative space. Are you getting the pattern here? Please
see the detailed instructions for more on the spiral.
The first step in making a great tie-dye is understanding the materials. Naturally, better materials reap better results. Synthetic shirts,
like polyester and rayon, will not take the dyes I use. Cotton, wool and silk are all acceptable, but cotton is preferred. T-shirts can be
purchased just about anywhere. I buy multi-pack t-shirts from the men’s underwear departments of Target or some other chain discounter
but you have to be careful about the seams. Often, the ribbing or seams contain synthetic threads that will stand out after dying so a
better source of supply would be and online or catalog retailer like Dharma Trading Co. who specializes in tie dye and will tell you the
thread counts and material weight of their products and alert you to factors like synthetic thread and sizing. In this case, sizing does not
refer to small, medium and large, but actually chemical treatments used to give clothing a crisp look and feel. Most retail clothing contains
formaldehyde or some other sizing chemical and should be washed per the garments’ care instructions before dying to ensure even dye
application and vivid colors.
Having the best material available still won’t yield the best results unless you use the right dye. Ritt will work, Deka has worked better for
me, but I prefer working at room temperature rather than over a stove and Procion MX dyes from Dharma Trading are night and day better
for color, ease of use, price and durability. Not to mention the best customer service EVER.
A quick note here: I am in no way affiliated with Dharma with this one exception: They have won my loyalty. I use their products because they
work, the sales staff is friendly and knowledgeable, and they deliver when they say they will -- that is my experience.
There are a variety of dye types and brands. Ritt and Deka are readily available at art supply shops and grocery stores, but they are more
difficult to use (as they should be hot) and produce poor results when compared to textile dyes. I will say however, that these "over the
counter" dyes are easy to mix and, though not as vivid, will last a looong time. Procion® MX Fiber Reactive dyes are used by most
professionals and are cheap, easy and long lasting. They are available, usually by mail order, in a vast array of colors. Dharma Trading
Co., in San Rafael, California, is my favorite supplier. They have everything you need, from the soda ash pre-soak to all cotton clothing, at
very good prices. Free catalogs can be obtained by calling 1-800-542-5227. If you know how to mix colors, red, blue, yellow and black will
get you started at a cost of less than $20 plus shipping. This will be enough dye to make at least 25 shirts.
Textile dyes work by creating a chemical bond with the material. This takes time but can be hastened by raising the Ph. This is most
easily achieved by soaking the shirt in solution of sodium carbonate. Sodium carbonate is called soda ash and costs next to nothing. Mix
about a cup of soda ash in one gallon of warm water. Put the shirts in this mixture and let them soak for ten or fifteen minutes. Remember,
you are soaking your material to adjust the pH. What does that mean? The dye works best when the pH is approximately 10.5 Soda Ash
is an alkali and the stated proportions should yield that pH with average water. A pH of 10.5 is mildly caustic and can damage your skin,
floor, clothes, furniture, etc., if allowed to set. While the material is soaking, I mix the dyes.
The best advice I can give on mixing dye is to follow the instructions included with the dye. Every manufacturer has a different
technique for what they consider optimum. Dye comes as a very fine powder to which you add water. Long term exposure to these minute
particles can lead to respiratory allergies (or cancer if you live in California) . You should always wear a dust mask over your face and work
in a well-ventilated area while mixing. When you are familiar with the results of a particular mix, experiment with different concentrations;
more dye produces deeper hues and less dye makes lighter shades.
I mix often in 8 oz plastic screw-top jars to allow for dipping sponge brushes, but most often poor the dye into squirt bottles for application.
One tip: stir some more. Seriously, stir a little more.