Tie-Dye Talk: The Ultimate Glossary for Every Dye-hard Fan

Library of tie-dye shirt patterns

This page is a glossary of the most common terms used in tie-dye. These terms refer to objects, processes, or any other relevant information.

Abrasion resistance – The ability for a fabric to resist wear by rubbing. Fabric equivalent to rubbing fastness.

Acetate – Semi-synthetic fiber. Makes soft and silky cellulose fabric. Similar to rayon, some forms of acetate can be dyed using fiber-reactive dyes.

Acid dyes – Dyes used to color wool, silk, and nylon. Require acidic pH and high heat to set. Cannot be used on cotton. Not commonly used in tie-dye.

Acrylic – Synthetic fiber. Visually similar to wool. Cannot be dyed using fiber-reactive dyes. Acrylic fibers are often used for yarns and carpeting.

Activator – Used to fix fiber-reactive dyes. Increases the pH to enable dye fixing. Soda ash is the most common activator used in tie-dye.

Additives – Also called auxiliary chemicals. Products you can add to your dyes to enhance their properties. Popular additives include alginate, urea, and calsolene.

Alginate – Popular additive used to thicken dyes. Refined from seaweed, it comes in powder form. Blend it in water to create its viscosity. Reduces color spread when dyeing.

All-purpose dyes – Contains a mixture of multiple types of dyes. Can be used on many fabrics, at a reduced intensity. Not commonly used in tie-dye.

Analogous – Series of colors sitting next to each other on the color wheel.

Antichlor – Substance used to neutralize residual bleach on the fabric after reverse-dyeing. The most common antichlors used in tie-dye are hydrogen peroxide and sodium metabisulfite.

Anti-diffusant – Additive used to reduce the spread of dyes. Includes thickeners and fabric sizing.

Baking soda – Weak alkali. Not to be confused with soda ash. Too weak to set fiber-reactive dyes at room temperature. Requires heat to set.

Batching – The process of permanently fixing dyes into the fabric.

Batik – The process of using wax resist on the fabric to manipulate the spread and penetration of dyes.

Blank – White fabric awaiting to be dyed. Most common are blank shirts and tapestries.

Bleeding – The effect of dye color spreading into each other mistakenly. Also, colors spreading into white areas.

Blending – A deliberate mixing of colors. Colors smoothly transitioning into each other.

Calsolene oil – Wetting agent used to increase evenness and penetration of dyes. Required for dyeing extremely tight and dry fabric.

Cellulose fibers – Naturally sourced fibers used to make fabric. Cotton, linen, hemp, and rayon are fabrics made of cellulose. Can be dyed with fiber-reactive dyes. Perfect for tie-dye.

Chemical water – Water solution containing one or more additives. A basic recipe contains both urea and alginate. Often prepared in large batches. Let’s you prepare dyes more efficiently.

Citric acid – Naturally occurring acid compound. Mildly acidic. Used to lower the pH when dyeing wool and silk. A pH of 2.5 to 3.5 will enable fiber-reactive dyes to work on protein fibers.

Cold water dyes – Most common dyes used to tie-dye. Informally called fiber-reactive dyes. They react to form permanent bonds with natural fibers. Only dyes that can permanently color fabric at room temperature.

Color fastness – The property of a colored fabric to retain its color. General term used to describe the resistance of a dyed cloth to discoloration.

Color spectrum – Arrangement of colors by their wavelengths. A rainbow is a natural color spectrum.

Cotton – Natural fiber. Made from the fibers of the cotton plant. They work very well with fiber-reactive dyes. Most common natural fabric.

Detergent – Cleansing product that helps when washing fabric. Holds particles in suspension and away from the fabric.

Dip dyeing – Technique where the fabric is dipped into a dye bath.

Direct dyeing – To pour dye directly on the fabric, most commonly using squeeze bottles. Tie-dye is often done with direct dyeing.

Discharge – Also called reverse dyeing. The process of removing colors from fabric. Bleach is commonly used to discharge dye from cotton.

Dispersant – Chemical used to break up the dye into smaller droplets.

Dyeing – To apply dye on fabric. The application of dyes to textile material with the goal of coloring them.

Dyeing technique – The way you apply dye on the fabric to color it. Each technique produces its own unique effect. Common dyeing techniques include direct dyeing, reverse dyeing, and ice dyeing.

Dyes – Used to permanently color fabric. Dyes chemically react with fabric. Unlike paints, dyes actually become part of the fabric. There are many types of dyes, with only one being used in tie-dye. Tie-dye uses “cold fiber-reactive dyes”.

Exhausted – When a dye solution is used up or is too old. When mixed with water, fiber-reactive dyes gradually become weaker.

Fabric – Material made of fibers, often woven together. Flat, two-dimensional material used to make garments. Fabrics can be dyed to change their color.

Fastness – Ability of dyes to resist discoloration once on the fabric. Resistance to washing, high temperatures, and exposure to light.

Fiber – Single strand or filament of material. Can be woven into fabric. The fabric is then made into garments.

Fiber-reactive dyes – Dyes used to color natural textile. Class of dye used tie-dye.

Fixation – Process by which the dye is permanently attached to the fabric. With fiber-reactive dyes, soda ash is used to set the dye. Also called setting and batching.

Folding techniques – To manipulate the fabric according to folding techniques, in order to apply patterns to a design. Common folding techniques include the crumple, spiral, and pleat.

Glauber’s salt – Used in dye baths to increase levelness and yield. Not typically used in direct dyeing.

Gradation – Technique of gradually transitioning between colors. Also called ombre.

Hand feel – The subjective feeling of touching fabric. How rough, smooth, and pliable the fabric is. Dyes do not affect the feel of the fabric, while paints add a distinct feel.

Hemp – Natural fiber, made from the hemp plant. Strong and tough fibers. Can be dyed with fiber-reactive dyes.

Ice-dye – A technique in which powder dye is put on a folded shirt. Ice cubes are then piled on top along with soda ash. The melting ice pushes the dye along its path and creates flowing, glassy designs. Best used with mixed dyes, as they separate and make color gradations.

Immersion dyeing – To color the fabric in a dye bath. The fabric is lowered until completely or partially submerged.

Intensity – The level of brightness of a color. Also called chroma or saturation, it represents how bright or dull a color is.

Jute – Natural fiber. Strong and coarse fiber. Often used in rope making. Can be dyed with fiber-reactive dyes.

Leveling agent – Additive used to increase the levelness. Improves the homogeneous distribution of dyes. Urea is often used in dye bottles for this purpose.

Levelness – When dyes are even distributed on the fabric they are said to be level. The degree of homogeneity of your colors.

Light fastness – Property of dyes to resist fading by light. Resistance of dyes to light rays.

Linen – Natural. Textile made from the fibers of the flax plant. Strong and sustainable, it can be dyed with fiber-reactive dyes.

Monagum – Modified starch used to thicken bleach.

Natural fibers – Made from natural materials. Composed of cellulose or proteins. Can be dyed with fiber-reactive dyes. Cotton, wool, and silk are natural fibers.

Neutral colors – Includes shades of white, gray, and black.

Nylon – Synthetic fiber, made from petrochemical polymers. Strong and resilient. Cannot be dyed using fiber-reactive dyes.

Overdyeing – The process of dyeing over an existing color.

pH – In chemistry, scale used to specify the acidity or alkalinity of a solution. Neutral is 7, while fiber-reactive dyes react best at around 10.5.

Polyester – Synthetic fibers made from petrochemicals. Strong and resilient. Cannot be dyed with fiber-reactive dyes. Often found in fabric blends.

Presoak – To prepare fabric in advance prior to dyeing. Some artists prefer to presoak the fabric in soda ash rather than putting it in their bottles.

Primary colors – The three basic colors from which all other colors are derived. Tie-dye uses a system of cyan, magenta, and yellow.

Procion MX – General term for fiber-reactive dyes. Disused trademark. First trademarked by Imperial Chemical Industries, now disused.

Quality – Visual properties of color. Determined by its tint, brightness, shade, and value.

Rayon – Semi-synthetic. Made from regenerated cellulose. Most commonly from wood chips and other byproducts. Can be dyed with fiber-reactive dyes.

Ready to dye – Garments that contain no sizing and require no scouring before dyeing.

Resist – Technique or product that lets you control the spread of dyes. You can fold the fabric, add wax to it, tighten it with sinew, or compress it.

Rubbing fastness – The resistance of dyes to rubbing.

Saturation – Refers to the intensity and purity of a color. A fully saturated color is strong and brilliant.

Scouring – The removal of waxes, sizing, and other impurities from fabric prior to dyeing. Done by washing fabric in hot water with detergent.

Secondary colors – Colors derived from the mixing of two primary colors. They are called purple, green, and orange.

Sizing – Starch added to the fabric to improve its hand feel. Must be removed before dyeing.

Spread – Also called migration. The way dyes spread on the fabric. Can be controlled with additives and resists.

Squeeze bottles – Used to directly pour dyes on fabric. Most common instrument used to tie-dye.

Silk – Natural. Protein fiber produced by insects, most commonly harvested from the silk moth. Can be dyed with fiber-reactive dyes using heat and citric acid instead of soda ash.

Surfactant – Chemical that is able to break the surface tension of water solutions. Increases spreading and wetting characteristics, also helps the dye penetrate the fabric evenly.

Synthetic fibers – Man-made fibers composed of petrochemical products. Polyester, nylon, and acrylic are synthetic fibers.

Tertiary colors – Also called intermediate colors. These are made from a mixture of primary and secondary colors. Tertiary colors are blue-purple, red-purple, red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, and blue-green.

Thiourea dioxide – Also called thiox. Replacement for bleach in reverse dyeing.

Tie-dye – The process of manipulating and coloring fabric.

Urea – Naturally occurring chemical used to increase evenness when dyeing. Allows you to dissolve more dye powder in the same amount of water. Keeps the shirt wet longer after dyeing.

Washing fastness – Property of dyes to resist wear by washing.

Wool – Natural. Protein fiber obtained from animal hair, most commonly sheep. Can be dyed with fiber-reactive dyes, using citric acid and heat instead of soda ash.