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How to tie dye t-shirts: 5 different methods to try at home

Take some inspiration from the psychedelic sixties to upcycle your old t-shirts.

Updated

Person wearing a tie dye t-shirt

Whether you’re looking for a project to do with the kids, or you just fancy adding a splash of colour to your wardrobe, tie dying is quick, easy and a whole lot of fun. Here’s how to tie dye t-shirts at home, with or without a kit.

What you’ll need to tie dye t-shirts

Newspaper, gloves, a plain t-shirt, elastic bands and three bottles of clothing dye.

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First off, you’re going to need your ‘canvas’. It doesn’t matter if your t-shirt has the odd stain on it, but it needs to be a plain, light colour (ideally white), without any obvious patterns.

Ideally, you want to use a 100 per cotton t-shirt. A tiny bit of added Lycra might be OK, but if the t-shirt has a high percentage of man-made fibres it’s going to be harder (or impossible) to dye.

If you’re using a new t-shirt, give it a good wash before you dye it. This will help to get rid of any lingering bleach or other chemicals that might affect the dye.

You’ll also need:

  • Old clothes to wear while you’re crafting (you don’t want to accidentally dye anything else)
  • Fabric dye
  • Elastic bands
  • Rubber or plastic gloves 
  • Plenty of newspaper or a plastic sheet to cover the table
  • Kitchen towel to mop up any accidental spills

If you’re buying a tie dye kit, it usually comes with dyes, elastic bands and rubber gloves, plus instructions. Otherwise, just save the rubber bands from your parcels, reuse some rubber gloves and order some fabric dyes from a craft shop.

The most useful thing about tie dye kits is that the dye usually comes in squeezable bottles with slim nozzles (which makes directing the dye a whole lot easier). So, if you’re not using a kit, you’ll also need something to mix each dye in, as well as a measuring cup and a few paintbrushes.

How to tie dye t-shirts: your step-by-step guide

Get everything ready

Coffee table covered in newspaper
  • First off, get your work area ready. If it’s a sunny day, why not head outside and minimise the risk to your kitchen table? Otherwise, cover the table with plenty of newspaper or a reusable plastic sheet (kids’ party tablecloths are perfect for this).
  • Read the instructions on the dye packets. Most need to be mixed with water. The packet should also say whether you need to use hot or cold water to set the dye in place once you’ve decorated the t-shirt.
  • Get changed into old clothes.

Tie dye the shirt

  • Dunk the shirt in hot water and wring it out. Damp fabric will soak up the dye better. Do check the dye packet first though, in case your dye needs to be applied to dry fabric
Hands wringing a white t-shirt out
  • Mix the fabric dye according to the instructions on the packaging.
  • Fold, twist and bind the shirt using elastic bands. Different techniques will result in different patterns, (scroll down to find out more). You’ll need to wrap the elastic bands around several times, to make sure they’re really tight and no dye can get underneath. If you don’t have elastic bands, you can use string. Unfortunately, it doesn’t usually work as well, as the string can absorb the dye and transfer it to the material you’re trying to block.
  • If you’re just dying the t-shirt one colour, dip it into the fabric dye. Alternatively use the squeezy bottle or paintbrush to apply each dye directly onto the area you want it. Top tip: Make sure you get the dye right into the creases. Otherwise you’ll end up with lots of plain white areas and the pattern won’t be as dramatic.
Red fabric dye being applied to a t-shirt bundled up in elastic bands.
  • Pop each tie-dyed shirt into a plastic bag. This will keep it damp as the dye sets. The colours should turn out brighter after a longer period of setting.

Rinse the t-shirt

  • After 24 hours, rinse as much of the dye off as you can using cold water. You might want to do this in the shower or just in the sink, wearing rubber gloves to protect your hands. This step can take a long time. It’ll look like all the dye is coming out, but don’t panic!
Gloved hands rinsing dyed fabric bundled up with elastic bands
  • Once the water runs clear, cut the elastic bands off carefully, and open the t-shirt out to admire your unique, one-of-a-kind design.
Tie dye shirt being held over newspaper
  •  Rinse the t-shirt in cold water again, until the water runs clear, and then pop it into the washing machine. Wash it on 40 degrees on a long setting. A lot more dye will come out in the wash, but your t-shirt should still be uber colourful at the end.

Tie dye methods to try today

How to make tie dye shirts with psychedelic swirls

When you think of tie dye, the first image that likely comes to mind is a brightly coloured snail shell style swirl. It looks complicated, but is actually one of the easiest designs to get right.

  • Lay the t-shirt flat on your table, facing down.
  • Place the end of a stick or wooden spoon on the middle of the t-shirt and twist it clockwise. Keep twisting until the t-shirt resembles a cinnamon swirl (or a snail shell). Carefully remove the spoon, trying to keep the t-shirt as still as possible.
  • Now comes the tricky part. You need to put elastic bands across the t-shirt to keep it in place. These need to be tight enough to keep the bundle secure, but they don’t need to block the dye. Use at least three bands, evenly spaced.
  • Imagine that the bundle is a cake and you’ve cut it into three or four equal parts, slicing through the centre. Put your gloves on and use the nozzle of the squeezy bottle or a paint brush to apply a different colour dye to each section. Make sure you get right into the folds, as you want to cover as much of the white as you can.
  • Carefully turn the bundle over, placing it on a clean piece of paper. Now repeat the step above to dye this side.
  • Once you’ve finished, pop your bundle into a plastic bag and follow the rest of the step-by-step guide above.

How to make tie dye shirts with stripes

Looking for a modern take on tie dye? This is the method for you.

  • Fold the t-shirt like an accordion or closed fan, starting at a bottom corner.
  • When you’ve finished, wrap bands around the shirt tightly, leaving a gap of two or three centimetres between them.
  • Dye half of the shirt one colour, and half a contrasting or co-ordinating colour. Or use three colours if you like.

How to tie dye t-shirts with a bull’s eye pattern

This is one of the easiest patterns to make, but it looks great.

  • Pinch the middle of the t-shirt and hold it up. Wrap a rubber band around the t-shirt, a couple of centimetres from the pinched tip.
  • Wrap another band a couple of centimetres lower down. Keep putting the bands on until you have something that resembles a tied up sausage.
  • Dye each section between the bands. You can dye each one a different colour, or alternate two or three colours.

How to make tie dye shirts using the scrunch method

This is even simpler than the method above!

  • Just scrunch the t-shirt up into a ball and wrap several bands around it, as tight as possible.
  • Use one, two or three dyes to colour the material. If you want less white showing, make sure you get into the folds as much as possible.
  • For more of a paint splattered effect, only paint dye onto the areas you can see.

How to make a starburst t-shirt

If you tried tie dye at school, this is probably the method you used.

  • Pinch the material of the t-shirt and wrap a band tightly around the fabric.
  • Repeat wherever you want your sunbursts to be. You could do them diagonally, horizontally, vertically or just randomly.
  • Doing the front and back of the t-shirt separately will probably achieve the best effect, but you can do both layers together if it’s easier.
  • You can dye the centres of the sunbursts a different colour if you like or just squirt plenty of dye on to the t-shirt and scrunch it up a bit before popping it into the bag.
  • Don’t leave the tips you’ve pinched undyed though, or you’ll end up with large white patches without any definition.

Create your own designs

While the above ideas are some of the most popular tie dye methods, there’s a lot to be said for experimenting . Why not try using different methods on different areas of the t-shirt, or tie objects into the fabric?

Looking after your tie dye t-shirts

You’ll want to wash your t-shirt on its own the first few times, as the dye might continue to come out for a while. It’s best to wash it on a cool setting (30º C) to keep it looking as bright as possible.

Don’t use any laundry products containing bleach (eg those designed for whites). Instead, choose a detergent specifically for coloured clothes, like Persil Colour Liquid.

If you accidentally throw the t-shirt in with another load, here’s what to do when the colour runs.

Other tie dye projects to try at home

Now you know how you can tie dye t-shirts, why not branch out into other items? Tie dyed reusable cotton bags make great gifts. Or how about transforming a plain tablecloth or a stained duvet cover?

Upcycling t-shirts

£140 million worth of clothing ends up in landfill every year. Looking after your clothes and avoiding fast fashion can help you to minimise waste. But if your t-shirt really is beyond wearing and you don’t fancy tie dye, here are a few other ideas for giving your clothes a new life.

Originally published