Raise your hand if you’ve ever bought a tie dye kit with the best of intentions and then left it sitting in your laundry room for three years because you just didn’t have the emotional capacity to deal with the mess. We get it. Tie dyeing is so much fun and never seems to go out of style. But, just like when you tried to dye your hair purple at home, it can go wrong very quickly.
The tie dye process is proof that there is more than one way to earn a “green thumb” and let’s face it — your kiddos are “dyeing” to do it. And, honestly, the mess might be worth the fun, especially if you’re stuck in quarantine and social distancing during COVID-19. They’re going to keep those shirts or pillowcases around for as long as possible and always remember the giggle fits you had while tackling this fun project. Keep in mind, you can always use your coloring options as a chance to teach some science too. (Unpopular opinion: It’s also a great time to teach your kids how to use the washing machine on their own. Life skills moment!)
Tie dyeing emerged and became a mainstay in pop culture in the 1960s, but the art is actually much older and meaningful. A reference to the process can be found in a 1941 book about the Philippines in which members of the Bagobo tribe are described as wearing “highly decorated clothing made of hemp fiber, all tied-and-dyed into fancy designs.” The practice of this ancient tradition even dates back to Peru as far back as A.D. 500 to 800 but was also found in Japan, China, South Asia, and Africa.
With such a rich history behind it, this is a great way to have some fun and sneak in a history lesson to your little ones. Here’s how to start:
Prepping for Tie Dye
Prepping for tie dye is easier than you’d think. Always wash your shirt (or any other material you’re dyeing) first and leave it slightly damp for the process. Other than that, the most important thing to keep in mind is something you probably already know: Dyeing is messy! Try to dye outside or plan on putting down a leak-proof drop cloth. If you’re not working from a kit, you’ll want to make sure you have rubber gloves, rubber bands (or string) and a plastic bag handy, as well.
Tie Dye Patterns to Try
1. Spiral Dye
Decide where you want the center of your spiral to be. Remember: No rule says the center of your spiral must be in the center of your shirt. Once you find it, pinch the center and then slowly twist your shirt. You’ll notice that as you twist/rotate, your shirt will gather and the wrinkles will look like a spiral. Keep twisting until your shirt is in a tight circle. Secure with several rubber bands that overlap in the center. With the rubber bands in place, your shirt will look like a sliced pizza. Use each “slice” as guidance for where to put dye. You can put a different color on each slice (do the front and the back), stick to a color “family” and pattern just 2 to 3 colors or even just use one color.
2. Bull’s Eye
Decide where on your shirt you want the center of your bull’s eye and pinch your shirt there, picking it up as you do. The rest of your shirt will drape below. Secure a rubber band about an inch below your pinch. Continue adding rubber bands further down your shirt, creating a long tail. Squirt your shirt in your desired dye colors — this is another time when just using one color might work best.
3. Mini Bull’s Eyes
Instead of pinching once and creating a tail, with mini bull’s eyes, you’ll make several pinches on your shirt and secure them with a rubber band. You can make one-ring bull’s eyes using only one band for each pinch. You could also add a second band an inch before (or after) the first pinch/band to get that peak bull’s eye look.
4. Crumple Method
If patterns aren’t your thing, try the crumple method. Just gather up your shirt in a wrinkled, crumpled mess, then secure with rubber bands. Use one color or a couple of colors that all blend well together.
5. Heart-Shaped Pattern
Start by cutting out a heart shape on a piece of paper. Fold your shirt in half. Trace your heart onto your shirt using a washable marker, making sure the seam of your heart is flush with the seam of your shirt. Next, pleat your shirt along the line and suspend with a band. Add more bands along the “tail” of your pleated shirt. Once you’ve secured your desired bands, use dye to properly soak each section in a preferred color.
6. Shibori Tie Dye
Shibori is a super cool Japanese style of tie dye. The key? Getting your shirt bound as tightly as possible and (typically) only using one color. Start by twisting your shirt lengthwise, as tightly as possible. Think about it like you’re about to snap a towel at someone at the pool. The tighter the better (read: more painful). Next, roll your shirt into a spiral, also rolling as tightly as possible, like when you roll a poster to put into a mailing tube. Finally, secure with string, instead of rubber bands. Why string? Because it has less give and you’re able to make it as tight as humanly possible, without snapping it. Soak your shirt in the desired dye of your choice, though navy is the typical option.
7. Triangle Pattern
First, fold your shirt into a long strip. You’ll probably need to fold in your sleeves, then fold your shirt in half at the collar so the sleeves meet. Then, fold in half or thirds. If you can, fold it again. Next, start at one end and accordion fold your shirt into a triangle. (Remember when you learned to fold the flag in safety patrol?) Finally, cut pieces of cardboard into triangles to cap each side and secure tightly with bands or string.
8. Square Dye Pattern
You’ll follow the same instructions as you would for the triangle pattern, except you’ll accordion fold your shirt into squares and put cardboard squares at the ends. Both of these patterns work best if you use the squirt bottle dye and submerge your shirt in dye. Your shirt is very densely packed and dye will have an especially hard time reaching the center.
9. Firecracker Method
While the firecracker tie dye pattern is usually made with red, white, and blue for a patriotic feel, you can really do it with any two colors on a white shirt. Pleat or scrunch up your shirt lengthwise so the sleeves come closer together. Next, eyeball your shirt and decide where to separate your shirt into thirds, putting rubber bands in place to separate the thirds. If you’re going with the typical color scheme, soak the top third of your shirt in red dye and the bottom third in a blue dye. Leave the middle white.
10. Rainbow Pattern
Want to create a tie dye rainbow on your shirt? Decide the placement and use washable markers to draw the top and bottom arches of your rainbow. Next, pleat or accordion fold your shirt along each of the lines. Your marker line should be visible and straight. Secure a rubber band over both marker lines. Next, consider how many colors you want for your rainbow and secure more bands between the two arches. Finally, you’ll add dye to each bulge.
11. Star-Shaped Tie Dye Pattern
Does your kid want their tie dye shirt to really shine? A star-shaped pattern is the best design to make them glow. Making a star-shaped pattern is very similar to doing the heart-shaped pattern. You’ll start with your shirt folded in half and trace half of a star shape onto your shirt with a washable marker. Afterward, you’ll pinch/gather/pleat your shirt along the line, making sure to keep the visible marks as straight as possible. Once you’re done, you’ll secure with a rubber band. From there, you can add more bands inside or outside of the star, or just leave it alone for one giant star. Dye accordingly.
12. Sunburst Tie Dye Pattern
First, fold the shirt in half and then again lengthwise. Pinch the cloth up about an inch or so. Then secure that pulled fabric with a rubber band. You can do this as many times as you want, depending on how many sunbursts your little ones want. Put dye on the edges of the cloth and the space between and in the center of each sunburst.
13. Stripe Tie Dye Method
Stripe tie dye is definitely one of the easier hippie-dippie creations. Start by accordion folding the shirt from the bottom. Then secure it with a rubber band and put the dye on both sides of the fabric. You can use as many colors as you want.
14. Ombre Tie Dye Method
If you’re not a traditionalist tie dye connoisseur, why not go for an ombre look to give your T-shirt some edge. This video does a great job of explaining many different methods, and gives step-by-step instructions for how to nail that ombre lewk.
15. Kaleidoscope Tie Dye Method
Looking for a trippy tie dye design or one you haven’t tried yet? Then the kaleidoscope or Mandala pattern might be the one for you. This motif calls for meticulous folds ahead of the dyeing process but luckily there are tons of instructional videos to help guide you step by step.
16. Smiley Face Pattern
What’s screams 1960s more than tie dye? The smiley face, that’s what. This might also be one of the coolest, most unusual tie dye patterns and is sure to be a conversation starter wherever you go.
17. Alien Face Pattern
Do your kids wonder what’s in outer space. Using this alien pattern, help them create a design that’s out of this world. After folding a white t-shirt into an accordion circular style, draw the face of an alien. Outline a teardrop shape in black ink. Then fill it in with green ink and make two eyes with the black. When you open it back up, you’ll have about four alien faces.
Dye Color Tips
Once you’re ready to add dye, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- No rule that says tie dye must include every color of the rainbow. Your patterns will look just as bold with a single color or two shades of one color. If you’re still wondering what colors go well together for tie dye, though, here are a few ideas: turquoise plus fuschia makes purple, a lot of fuschia and a little yellow will give you red, and yellow and turquoise turn into a vivid green.
- When working with multiple colors, consider the rainbow or the color wheel. While it might be fun to do the green and orange colors of the Irish flag, your first attempt might lead you with a lot of brown spots. To avoid bleeding two colors and creating an “ugly” color, consider where you place each option. You can still do green and orange, but leave a white spot between them… or add yellow, so they blend better.
- Try “reverse dyeing” all of these patterns will work for reverse tie dye, too. Just use a dark or bold-colored shirt. Instead of adding color, take color away by using bleach. (In a well-vented area!)
- This should actually be clear but feel free to do a practice run on a T-shirt-sized piece of cloth. It doesn’t have to be white but practicing will help perfect your rubber band skills and dying technique.
- Experiment with other items, you don’t just have to dye shirts and pants. Go wild and try the look on socks, bedsheets, curtains, and pillowcases.
- Remember, you don’t have to just dye a T-shirt. Go nuts! Tie dye a baby onesie, a dog outfit, your bedsheets, and even your blankets. As long as you practice and have a game plan going into the process you can tie dye your whole house.
Here’s a tutorial on how to tie dye a bedsheet for inspiration.
Tie Dyeing With Bleach
ICYMI, the bleached tie dye look is very on-trend right now. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to do — you can even use any of the tie-dye patterns included here. The main difference, of course, is that you’ll be working with bleach as a medium as opposed to dye. You can use liquid, gel, or spray bleach for the process, and you’ll also need a plastic bucket, a pair of gloves, and your trusty rubber bands. Since you’re using bleach, it’s best to test a small dot on your fabric in an inconspicuous place prior to starting to see how it’ll react with the fabric you’re using.
Once you feel confident about moving forward, fold (or scrunch or whatever, depending on the pattern you’ve picked) your fabric and secure with rubber bands. Next, apply a 1:1 bleach/water mix to the fabric. Remove after 10 to 15 minutes, rinse well, then toss in the washing machine and run through with mild detergent.
After You Dye
Once you’ve dyed your shirts, you’ll want to give them time to absorb the color. There are tons of different options for this, but it seems like the absolute best comes from Tulip, one of the leading makers of tie-dye kits. Simply toss your project in a bag so it stays damp. Then use patience for at least six hours. Afterward, wash your t-shirt separately and in cold water. (Pro-Tip: Wash it separately for the first couple of washes, just to be safe.)