It's a Dyeing Kind of A Day... (part 1)

I've been tie dyeing for close to fifteen years now. I was the "tie dye lady" for many years at 4-H camp, then passed my late nights, stained hands, and hours at the laundromat down to others. Now, I tie dye for fun only. Until recently. I have so much fun tie dyeing that I've decided to use this little talent to make a little extra money this summer. You know, to help support the other crafty project I'm working on.

Loads of people have asked how I get such bright colors, such good designs, etc, so I thought I'd put together a little tutorial based on my many years of experience.


I always recommend using new fabrics for tie dyeing. As we wear and wash our clothes, the fibers pick up detergents, body oils, and other grimies. Of course, I have successfully dyed older items before, so don't let me stop you from tie dyeing your white tube socks you've had since 10th grade P.E.
100% cotton items take dye the best. Why? Unless you are using RIT dye (which I don't recommend), the dyes we use for tie dyeing are specifically engineered to bind to plant fibers. Hemp (being a plant) dyes well too, but unfortunately is much harder to find in our country. That's a discussion for another time...

Step Two - THE DYE

It's very tempting to use a "tie dye" kit you buy at your local friendly big box mart, but resist the temptation. The dyes are pre-mixed, and I've never had good, vibrant results with those kits. It's much better to find a brick-and-mortar source for tie dyes (Earth Guild in Asheville, NC carries all the colors you could possibly want), or order from a reputable dye company - I've had great experiences with both Grateful Dyes and Dharma Trading Co. Both sites have great instructions for tie dying, which is where I learned most of my stuff!


This is the step most often left out of tie dying, but in my opinion, one of the most important. Dye fixer helps to open the fibers in your fabric, grabs more color, results in less bleeding and blending of colors, and over all makes me a happier person. Plus, it's a basic (as in pH) solution, so it makes your hands all slimy and soft, which is a cool chemistry lesson! Most dye distributors sell soda ash fixer, which I used for years, but the shipping on that can be pricey, since it's so heavy. A little tip I picked up from another blog this year - pH balancer for your swimmy pool is the exact same chemical, so head on down to the local hardware store, or your local big box mart, and pick up a bottle of pH-Up. The chemical is sodium carbonate.

Mix the fixer at 3/4-1 cup per gallon of warm water. Energy saving tip - use your outdoor hose on a hot day, and let the water sit in the sun for an hour or so before adding the fixer. TaDA! Solar warming! Soak the fabric for about 15 minutes, then wring them out and tie into your favorite designs.

Step Four - TYING

First of all - make sure you have proper adult supervision, as I clearly have in the above photo. There are countless designs for tie dye, but a few of my favorites are the simplest - spirals, scrunches, and accordion folds. I'm not going to delve into all the methods for tying, because there are loads of other websites that do just that (and many provide video, a feature I'm not ready for here). I will, however, share a few tricks with you.

1. Some sites recommend folding/tying before soaking in fixer. I find the wet floppy shirt much more fun to handle than the dry shirt. But try both ways and do what works best for you. Exception: designs that are sewn in, like hearts and peace signs. MUCH easier on a dry shirt.

2. Rubber bands are your friends. Learn to work with them, and be kind to them, and they will be kind to you.

3. Some designs are hard to rubber band, such as the accordion fold. I use my rubber bands like stretchy pieces of string and tie them in knots for these designs.

4. Once your fabric is tied, allow it to sit in the sun for a few minutes. It dries up some of the fixer, so your colors don't go all crazy wicking all over the fabric when you squirt them on.


Oh, the fun is almost here! Mixing dyes is a blast, and just so messy. I love it. But first things first. Don't mix your dyes into plain water. Use urea (it's made in a lab, not in a kidney) to help your dye powders go further. Through some magic I don't really understand, urea makes colors darker using less dye powder. It prevents those little "bursts" of undissolved dye powder. I like to mix up a big 'ol batch of urea water (sounds yummy, huh?), then just refill my squirty bottles from my large batch. And it keeps for a while, so if you're going to be tie dying several times over the course of a month or so, mix up a batch and put it in a recycled juice or milk jug. Just make sure to label the container! I mix my urea water at 1 TBSP urea to 8 oz of water. Oh, and where do you buy urea? The dye company, or a big craft store like Michael's. P.S. - Urea water will kill your grass. Imagine 75 neighborhood dogs peeing in the same spot on your lawn. Dispose of it properly.

Make sure you wear a mask when mixing dye. I never used to do this, since I was mixing outside, but this year I don't want to mess with the quality of my other crafty project, which means no inhaling harsh chemicals. Wearing safety gear is just good common sense.

When mixing dye, I usually start with 1 1/2 tsp of powder, then add more to get darker colors if I need to. You can really limit how much dye powder you have to use by using the proper chemicals and lots of bright sunshine.

Also, you don't need to buy every color dye powder available. Remember your elementary school color wheel? Use fuchsia and turquoise to make purple. Use turquoise and yellow to make green (though green is a little tricky). Use less powder to make lighter colors, more powder to make darker. Don't use every color you have on one shirt. My rule of thumb is three or less colors per item, with very few exceptions. The more colors you use, the more chance you run of making a big muddy mess - a brown tie dyed shirt. The best jobs I've ever done have had two or sometimes only one color. I'm really partial to shaded work too, though I haven't done much of that so far this year.

Step Six - DYEING!

Now for the really fun part - applying color to your fabric. There are very few rules here, except to go slowly and carefully. Make sure both sides of your item are colored. And don't fret if the dyes run away from you a bit - the magical part of tie dye is how amazing a shirt that you think is ruined will look when you unfold it. Wear gloves and old clothes. Unless you like your hands to look like you have a skin disorder. Take off your shoes before coming in the house, because a splash of dye always makes it onto the sole of your left shoe.

Once you are satisfied with your colors, come inside and sit in front of the air conditioner. Or do this frequently during your dyeing session, if you are like me. Let your items sit in the sun for several hours. The longer, the better. Watch a movie. Take a nap. Write a blog.


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