Common tie-dye questions and mistakes to avoid

Common tie-dye questions and mistakes to avoid

We compiled a list of the most common questions we hear from tie-dye enthusiasts. Here you can find the answer to most of your questions. We also made a list of the most common mistakes you can make by starting out your tie-dye journey. Most of these scenarios we have experienced ourselves. We are happy to prevent you from stepping in the same pitfalls we have. Use these to troubleshoot any problem you may encounter.

Common questions


Is tie-dye hard?

No, on the contrary, tie-dye is very to pick up and get good at in a relatively short amount of time. Tie-dye is very forgiving and has a tendency to turn your mistakes into exciting surprises. Anyone can have success with tie-dye and it’s really amazing how much you can accomplish even as a beginner. You can supercharge your learning and cut out the learning curve entirely by reading our comprehensive instructions and following our handy tie-dye patterns.

Is tie-dye expensive?

No, in fact, tie-dye is a pretty cheap activity. It doesn’t cost much to get yourself a tie-dye kit and some blank shirts. Since it doesn’t use specialized tools or materials, you can easily gear yourself up for under 50$, which will give you enough supplies to tie-dye more than a dozen shirts. Another benefit of this craft is that you can use your old shirts and bring new life into them, essentially saving half the cost right there.

How long does it take?

The process of preparing your dyes, folding the shirt and dyeing it can all be done very quickly. For a single shirt it can take anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes depending on your experience level. You then have to let the dye react which can take a few hours of waiting. The main factors that determine how much time it takes are your skill level and the difficulty of the technique you’re attempting. Master tie-dye artists are known to make very intricate designs that can take multiple hours of folding and dyeing to accomplish.

How long should the dye react for?

After the process of dyeing the shirt you need to let it sit for a few hours for the dye to react. Anywhere from 4 to 8 hours at room temperature is usually sufficient to give you great color saturation. Keep in mind that the reaction speed depends on the temperature and you may need to let it sit longer if the room is cold or to bring it where its warmer.

Should I cover the shirt in plastic?

You don’t need to cover the shirt in order for the reaction to take place. It helps keep humidity in the shirt, but we found that it’s not needed in most circumstances. The shirt doesn’t have time to dry out in the amount of time it’s sitting. Covering the shirt is only useful if you live in a very dry climate or you plan on letting the shirt sit for a long period of time.

Can tie-dye be left overnight?

You certainly can let the shirt sit overnight. This is a method that works perfectly fine, not only because it ensures that the dye has enough time to react, but also because it makes the waiting period shorter for you. Your shirt can actually benefit from sitting longer by giving more time for the reaction to take place.

Can tie-dye sit too long?

Your tie-dye can sit too long and this can actually sabotage your results. Letting it sit for up to 24 hours is fine, but don’t overdo it. We tested multiple shirts and found out that adverse effects begin to appear after about 24 hours of idleness. 48 hours is definitely too much for most situations. The consequences of letting your shirt sit too long is that the dye will begin to settle in the crevasses of the shirt, leaving you with stains and spots of overly saturated colors.

Why use soda ash for tie-dye?

Sodium carbonate, also called soda ash or washing soda (not to be confused with sodium bicarbonate used in cooking) is an essential part of the dyeing process. We use it to elevate the pH so that the dye can react with the fibers. It’s only in the presence of an alkaline environment that the dyes are able to react at room temperature. Forgetting to use soda ash will leave you with very pale colors. If you’re still unsure you can check out our full post on the use of soda ash in tie-dye.

Do tie-dye shirts need to be wet?

The shirts don’t strictly need to be wet when dyeing them. There is no set rule about how much water you should have in the shirt when dyeing it. We prefer dyeing slightly damp fabric as it helps the dye penetrate easier. There is nothing wrong with dyeing a dry fabric, only that it dyes differently. The main difference is that the dye will have a tendency rest on top of the fabric. Another key difference is that a dry shirt will keep the dye more concentrated by reducing its spread. If you’re still unsure, feel free to check out our entire post exploring the question of dyeing wet vs dry.

Do tie-dye shirts have to be dry before washing?

You don’t need to let the shirt dry out before washing it. As part of the tie-dye process you should let the shirt sit for the dye to react and then rinse the excess dye before washing the shirt. The shirt should stay wet from the moment of dyeing until the washing.

Can I wash tie-dye shirts with other clothes?

You can wash tie-dye shirts with other clothes. As part of the standard tie-dye instructions you will need to rinse the excess dye off and then wash the shirt by itself the first time. After these steps are completed you can then wash it with other clothes without any problem. If you still are unsure you can wash it with dark clothes or even old towels. Check out our full post on the best practices when washing tie-dye shirts.

Can I wash tie-dye shirts together?

Yes, you can totally wash tie-dye shirts together. Once they’ve been properly rinsed you can wash them like any other piece of clothing. There’s nothing stopping you from washing multiple shirts together and we’ve never had problems even by washing up to half a dozen fresh tie-dye shirts at the same time.

How to dye over a stain?

There are multiple ways to go about it. The first is to try to remove the stain by using a bleaching solution. After removing the stain you are then free to dye over the area. Another method is to directly add dye on top of the stain. Be mindful that you can only dye it by using a stronger, darker color. If the stain is dark itself you might have to resort to using black dye to cover it.

Can my tie-dye kit go bad?

Tie-dye kits can expire in some circumstances. The dye itself in powder form should stay good for a few years at normal temperature and humidity. As for the dye solutions, as soon as the dye is mixed with water it will begin to degrade in quality until it no longer is potent enough to use. Dyes in solution only stay good for a few days, extended to a few weeks when refrigerated. If your tie-dye kit contains soda ash it can degrade the dye solution even more quickly, exhausting it in a matter of hours and rendering it useless if you don’t use it quickly enough.

Do tie-dye shirts need to be 100% cotton?

Shirts don’t have to be strictly 100% cotton. A multitude of natural fabrics work perfectly fine with common fiber-reactive dyes as used in tie-dye. The key ingredient in these fabrics is their cellulose fibers which can all be dyed using the same methods. Linen, bamboo, rayon, and hemp to name a few can all be dyed just like cotton. Wool and silk are other natural fibers that can be dyed but require an acid environment instead due to their fibers being made of proteins.

You can have success by dyeing a shirt that is less than 100% cotton, but keep in mind that the dye will only color the threads which are actually made of cotton. This means that for a shirt made of 50% cotton and 50% polyester you will only dye half of the total amount of threads. This can leave you with a design that looks paler than expected. Check out our full post on dyeing different types of fabric.

Will tie-dye work on polyester

Tie-dye does not normally work on polyester. Normal fiber-reactive dyes have no effect on polyester and will not stick to them. The only reliable way to dye polyester is to use another king of dye altogether, called all-purpose dyes. This type of dye requires heating the fabric and is not suitable for most tie-dye purposes.

Why did my tie-dye wash out?

If this happens you can start by looking at the composition of your
shirt. Make sure that the shirt is 100% cotton. If the shirt is made
from natural fibers and the dye still faded then there are two possible
scenarios. The first one is that you forgot to use soda ash in your
tie-dye process. Soda ash acts as the dye activator and is an essential
part of the process that cannot be skipped. Forgetting to use soda ash
will leave you with extremely weak colors on the shirt as the dye didn’t
have the opportunity to react.

Another scenario is that you simply didn’t use enough dye in your
solution. Refer to our guide on how to mix bottles to make sure you used enough dye powder in your mix. If both of these scenarios are untrue and you made sure to use soda ash and plenty of dye then there is still one possibility. The most likely scenario at this point is that you
didn’t let the shirt batch for a long enough period of time. You should
let the shirt sit for 4 to 8 hours after dyeing for proper dye reaction.

Why did some threads stay white after dyeing?

This has everything to do with the material of the thread itself. The most common scenario is for the sewing threads to stay white after dyeing a shirt. It simply means that the threads are made from a material that cannot be dyed with fiber-reactive dyes.

Clothing will often have polyester sewing threads since it’s both cheaper and longer-lasting than cotton thread. Polyester cannot be dyed with conventional fiber-reactive dyes so it will stay white. This is often not a big deal, but can compromise the look of your design in certain cases. Try to look for clothing which is made of 100% cotton and also has the threads made of cotton or other natural fiber.

Another scenario is for some threads on the shirt itself to stay
white. If this is the case you probably have a shirt that is made from a mixture of fibers, most commonly cotton mixed with polyester. Dyeing a shirt which has more than 50% polyester can prove problematic as the undyed threads will leave your design looking dull. Make sure to use 100% natural fiber shirts.

What color will I actually get?

It all depends on the dye solution you prepared and how you applied it to the fabric. You can check out our bottle mixing guide which will guide you through the process of choosing and preparing the right color for you. The colors will be a bit paler than what you see during the dying process. This is because there is a limit to the color saturation when dyeing cotton fabric.

In general, the color you get after the tie-dye process will be
similar to what you would expect. A green will give you green, a red will give you red. The main difference is in the color saturation. This is especially true after the shirt has had time to dry out. While it’s still wet, the shirt will display colors that are far darker than the actual color on the shirt. The same effect can be applied to any shirt, wether tie-dyed or not.

Do you add hot or cold water to tie-dye powder?

You should add lukewarm water to your bottles when preparing your dye solutions. Adding water that’s too cold can make it hard for the dye powder to dissolve. Adding water that’s too hot can make the dye react with the water, exhausting the dye before it reaches the fabric. Using lukewarm water is the perfect blend of easy dissolution and dye stability. Always put the dye first in the bottle before adding the water, this will help you mix the dye without making clumps. Check out our full post on the preparation of dye bottles for tie-dye.

How many rubber bands do you need to tie-dye a shirt?

The number of rubber bands you need depends largely on the design you’re going for. Generally you’ll use three to ten rubber bands, it’s all up to you. The role of rubber bands is to hold a folded shirt neatly in place in order to dye it. The more rubber bands you use, the tighter the shirt will be. Using too many can cause the shirt to fold on itself and can be a nuisance. Try experimenting and follow your instinct. We even had success tie-dyeing without rubber bands, so everything is relative. Additionally you can use string instead of rubber bands, giving you more control. Check out our full post on the alternative materials to bind your shirt.

How do you make tie-dye set faster?

The best way to supercharge the reaction between dye and fabric is to increase the ambient temperature. The hotter it gets, the faster the dye reacts. Try moving your shirt to a warm room. Use a space heater to heat up a room in order to set the dye faster.

Can you tie-dye without bottles?

There’s many ways to tie-dye and there’s even a way to do it without bottles. You might be familiar with the normal process involving the preparation of dye bottles. What you might not know is that the bottle is entirely optional. You can just as easily use the dye, soda ash, and water and place them directly on the shirt. Simply place your dye powder on the folded shirt, followed by the soda ash. Finally you can add the water. A common method to tie-dye this way is to add the water in the form of ice cubes which will melt and mix with the dye and soda.

Should tie-dye sit in the sun?

It’s a pretty thing to picture in your head. Your freshly dyed shirt sitting outside in the light, bathed by the sun. While it may sound like a good idea, it doesn’t provide you with any benefit. Leaving the shirt to sit outside while the dye reaction is happening can actually harm your result by drying out the uppermost layer of the shirt and leaving patchy areas of pale fabric.

Will my tie-dye fade?

After the tie-dye process is complete and the shirt has been properly washed you shouldn’t see any fading or discoloration. The dyes we use in tie-dye are permanent and bond with the fabric for life. The only thing able to separate them are chemical reactions as is the case with bleaching.

Can you dye with food coloring?

While you can technically change the color of a fabric by using food coloring, the result leaved something to be desired. The colors will often be pale and won’t stay for very long. Dyeing cellulosic fibers with food coloring is out of the question, it can only stain and won’t be permanent. It is, however, possible to dye nylon with food coloring.

How to dye with a washing machine?

A neat little trick to use if you want to dye effortlessly is to use
the power of your washing machine. Simply prepare your dye solution like you would before tie-dyeing. Start up a wash cycle in your washing machine and let it fill up with water. Once it’s filled you can add in the fabric and the dye solution. Close the lid and let the machine run its cycle. You should use warm water for better even better results.

Make sure to wash the machine after the dyeing is complete. The machine itself won’t get stained by the dyes since it’s made of metal and is non-porous. Still, this process can leave dye residues on the interior walls of the machine that can then stain other clothing. Make sure not to stain any clothes you might put in it by washing the machine or by starting a new cycle with old towels and dark clothes.

What can I use instead of soda ash?

If you don’t have any soda ash and you can’t find a way to buy it you might be wondering about using alternatives. The best alternative is washing soda, which is made from the same molecule and is a common household product. Do not try to use baking soda as it will simply not work – it’s not alkaline enough. Another alternative, although we do not recommend it, is sodium silicate. Also called liquid glass, it serves the same purpose as soda ash but is more tricky to manipulate and should be handled with care. Do not let sodium silicate dry on your shirt or on any surface. It will harden and become almost impossible to remove.

Do you rinse soda ash before dyeing the shirt?

Assuming that you’ve soaked the shirt in a soda ash solution in order to prepare it, you should not rinse off the soda. Rinsing the shirt would remove the soda ash. You should leave the soda ash on the shirt in order for it to activate the dye during the dyeing process. Additionally, instead of soaking the shirt in soda ash, you can simply add the soda in your dye bottles in a 1:1 ratio with the dye. This way you get the benefit of activating your dyes without the hassle of soaking the shirt.

Common mistakes to avoid

Using the wrong fabric

One of the most common mistakes when starting out is to try and tie-dye any old shirt laying about. You should always make sure that the shirt contains a reasonable amount of cotton fibers or other natural fibers. You don’t want to go through the efforts of tie-dyeing a shirt, waiting in anticipation for the result, only to watch in horror as all the colors wash away in the sink. This all happened to me and I was sad. Check out our full post on how to dye different kinds of fabrics.

Using the wrong dyes

The most worthy dyes are fiber-reactive dyes and we use them for a reason. Not only are they economical and practical, they can be used reliably at room temperature, a very important and unique characteristic. While there are other dyes capable of dyeing fabric, they all have major drawbacks that make them unsuitable for tie-dye. The most common perpetrator is all-purpose dye, which can only color your fabric at near-boiling temperatures. We have a full post on the best dyes to use for tie-dye.

Using too much dye

A common occurrence is to use too much dye when dyeing the shirt. Flooding the shirt will more often than not result in wasted dye. The fabric has a saturation point over which it cannot accept any more water in its pores. Pouring dye over and area that is already clogged with water will only waste your dye as it will flow away and into your tray.

Using too little dye

Using too little dye on your shirt can leave you with white areas where the dye wasn’t able to penetrate. This can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on the kind of results you expected. Leaving white areas can actually bring life to your design by elevating the level of contrast. If you wish to completely saturate the area with color, be sure to squirt dye between the folds of the shirt and use enough dye to penetrate the center of the fabric.

Spreading dyes on other colors

This can either a good thing or a bad thing depending on the design you’re going for. Tie-dye uses a lot of contrasting colors, often using complementary colors right next to each other. Be careful when squirting your dye so as to not mix the colors where you don’t want them to be mixed. While it can complement your design, mixing many colors will often result in a dull brown if you’re not careful.

Forgetting to use soda ash

Another common mistake is forgetting to use soda ash as part of the tie-dye process. Without the addition of soda the environment won’t be alkaline enough for the dye-fabric reaction to take place. This will impact the look of your shirt in a major since the dye won’t be able to react nearly as much. This often results in extremely pale colors and can ruin your project.

Not preparing the fabric

In order for the proper absorption of the dye solution, it is imperative that the fabric is void of any foreign residue. We always recommend to wash any fabric you plan on using for your tie-dye project. This is especially true for new shirts that have never been washed before. This is because suppliers will often use waxy compounds to protect the shirts after production. These compounds can prevent the dye from penetrating fully in the fabric. Washing will eliminate all possibility of contamination with a foreign product.

Using old, exhausted dyes

If you’ve ever used an old bottle of dye that’s been sitting quietly on a shelf for a while you will know that dyes really do lose strength over time. This is especially true for dye solutions which contain soda ash. We recommend using fresh dyes when possible. Using old, exhausted dyes will leave you with less than satisfactory results. Old dye solutions can often look fine to the naked eye, better to test them out on a piece of rag beforehand to make sure they still work.

Temperature too cold

Make sure the room is at least 70ºF or above. While fiber-reactive dyes are able to react at room temperature in the presence of soda ash, they still need some warmth to properly function. The higher the temperature, the quicker and stronger the reaction. Some people can have poor results when dyeing in winter because their room is too cold. It this is the case, try letting the dye sit for a longer amount of time.

Using hard water

Water from wells can dull out your colors. Heavily chlorinated water can also have a negative effect. You will often not have any problem using tap water, but something the culprit might be the one you least expect. If you find your water suspicious you can test it for minerals and see wether your water is too hard. A solution to this problem involves either using filters to remove most of the minerals or to use pure water.