How Does Tie-Dye Work?

Written by beth ebersbaker
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How Does Tie-Dye Work?
(Photos by Beth Ebersbaker)

Gathering Materials

You will need fabric dye such as Rit, squeeze bottles, white cotton T-shirt, shorts, or other clothing articles, rubber bands, rubber or latex gloves, a large bucket or tub, and some plastic bags (shopping bags work well). You can also purchase tie-dye kits at your local discount store. This option is cheaper, but the kits usually contain only 3 colours. Purchasing Rit or a similar fabric dye offers you more options for colour but also requires you to purchase squeeze bottles, rubber bands, and gloves separately. Rinse the shirts in salt water and squeeze out excess water before you begin.

How Does Tie-Dye Work?
Collect all materials in your workspace.

Preparing to Tie-Dye

Tie-dye works by applying dye to wrinkled and tied cloth. The cloth absorbs the dye while the wrinkles allow for white spaces, creating a pattern. One such pattern is the spiral. To create a spiral tie-dye, lay your shirt (or other item) face down. Do not smooth out the wrinkles. Choose a spot on the item that you want to be the centre of the spiral, and begin twisting the material to form a cinnamon roll- type shape. You can do this by grasping a small bit of fabric between your thumb and forefinger and turning it like a knob. Keep turning until the entire shirt turns with it.

How Does Tie-Dye Work?
Twist the shirt like a stove knob.

Tightening the Roll

Keep your hold on the "knob" at the centre of the shirt, and use your other hand to pull the loose ends in and tighten the "cinnamon roll." Be careful here, and make sure that you are pulling the ends in the same direction that the roll is going. You should end up with a tight circle of fabric you can hold in one hand.

How Does Tie-Dye Work?
The front of the shirt

Tying the Roll

Now, use the rubber bands to tie the bundle of fabric together. For an adult sized T-shirt, use 3 rubber bands, and crisscross them in the centre like a pinwheel. For a smaller shirt, use only 2 rubber bands. Pull any remaining loose ends and secure them under the rubber bands, if possible.

How Does Tie-Dye Work?
Pinwheel pattern of rubber bands

Choosing Colors

Choose the dye colours that you want to use on your item. If you have the adult shirt, you have 6 pie piece-shaped sections to colour in. You can use 6 different colours, or you can alternate 2 or 3 different colours. You could even make it all one colour if you like. Be creative and do whatever you want. One great aspect of tie-dye is that you really can't mess it up.

Applying Dye

Lay newspaper or plastic garbage bags on the table to protect the surface from the dye. Put on the latex or rubber gloves, and hold the shirt roll over the bucket or tub while applying the dye. Use the dye to fill in the pie piece- shapes created by the rubber bands. You can use a different colour for each pie piece or alternate colours. Be sure to soak the fabric through with the dye, but try not to oversoak. Do not put the fabric down in the bucket because the excess dye in the bottom could spread to other parts of the shirt. Do overlap the dyes by crossing over the rubber banded sections.The colours will mix together to create new colours. For instance, red and yellow make orange, yellow and blue make green, and red and blue make purple.


When you have finished adding dye to the fabric, carefully place the bundle inside a plastic bag and twist and fold the bag around it. If you will be taking it somewhere, you might want to double or triple bag it to avoid leaking dye in your car. Leave the dyed fabric in the bag for 3 or 4 days. Then, remove the fabric from the bag and rinse with salt water in the sink or bathtub. If you are concerned about colour-dying your sink or tub, use a bucket and a hose outside. Remove the rubber bands and sprinkle salt all over the fabric. Rinse until the water runs mostly clear. Then, hang on a hanger outside or over the bathtub until it dries.
Some dye may still drip from the shirt as it dries, so take care to cover surfaces. Colours will fade as the shirts dry. For best results, do not wash in the washing machine until you have handwashed 3 or 4 times. Colours could bleed onto other clothing.

How Does Tie-Dye Work?
Finished spiral shirt

Trying Other Patterns

The spiral is only one pattern for tie-dye. Some other popular patterns include concentric circles, random circles, and pleats.
For concentric circles, pull the centre of the design up and tie with rubber bands the width of the circles you wish to create. You can dye them all the same colour or change colours between rubber bands.
For random circles, pull up small sections of the shirt and tie them with rubber bands. You can dye the whole shirt one colour or each circle a different colour. For pleats, fold the shirt accordion style to create one long strip. Tie with rubber bands every few inches. Again, you can die it all one colour for white stripes or change colours between rubber bands.

How Does Tie-Dye Work?
Other tie-dye patterns

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