History of tie-dye

You may have heard the word tie-dye floating around, especially since its one of the biggest trends of the 2020s. When my friend suggested that we try to make a hippie shirt I had plenty of questions. We had seen the typical clothing of the 60’s with their colorful rainbow shirts but before this experience we weren’t aware that this type of clothing even had a name. If you’d rather skip the history you can get started immediately by learning how to tie-dye.

As it turns out, the origin of tie-dye is very rich and complex and learning about it gave us a new understanding and a sense of appreciation. What we found is that tie-dye is both a craft and a form of art. It’s practiced daily by thousands of people around the world but it’s origin is deeply rooted in the history of the United States. Tie-dyeing is the process of coloring a piece of fabric or more commonly a shirt with purpose-built dyes that are both permanent and beautiful.

The history of tie-dye is mysterious and not many people know its true origins. Some people say it started a long time ago and some say that its a really recent phenomenon. In this post we’ll fully explore where it came from and where it’s heading in the future. You first impression might be that tie-dye started with the hippy movement and you would be halfway right, but the truth is a bit more complex and we’ll have to dig a bit deeper to uncover the full truth.

History of tie-dye

First generation (1965 to 1980)

Dyeing is a very old craft, but let’s begin by jumping straight into tie-dye itself, which is a modern manifestation of dyeing. Tie-dye in it’s current form is a craft all in itself and is separate from other form of dyeing. It first came into public knowledge in the 1960s. There are reports of the term “tie and dye” being used earlier by academics but for our purpose it’s better to consider this as the starting point.

The late 1960 to early 1970s is when tie-dye was first popularized in the United States. The anti-war movement at the time created a high demand for colored, flashy and extravagant clothing to represent defiance from authority. Tie-dye quickly became a trend and could be seen on the streets and on television. At that time only a few people knew how to tie-dye at an advanced level and experts were few and far between.

Second generation (1980 to 2015)

After the counterculture movement fizzled out, tie-dye slowly declined out of the mainstream and entered a new phase. It became more of a tradition, still strongly ingrained in the culture but not seen as much. In the United States, it becomes common to do tie-dye as an activity. A lot of children experience tie-dye at school, in summer camp, and as family activity. The people who experienced it in the first generation are now teaching it to their children.

During this period of time we see apprentices arrive on the tie-dye scene, either trained or self-taught. Only a handful of artists and experts hold the sum of all the tie-dye knowledge. Some are the original artists of the first generation that are still making tie-dye. The science of tie-dye is not very advanced. The techniques and methods behind the craft are still obscure and not well understood. More people have a basic understanding of it, a good amount have practiced it at a beginner level.

Third generation (2015 to present)

What separated this generation from the others is the added means of communication. The internet is ubiquitous and we start to see tie-dye appear on social medias. Individual artists are able to share their work and some of them even start sharing techniques and production methods. Social medias bring immense potential for connectivity and communication. Tie-dye knowledge is exchanged at an increasingly faster rate, in part thanks to instructional crafting videos.

Tie-dye is a lot more advanced than in previous generations, the basic methods are well understood and artists start to venture into complex new techniques. The late 2010’s mark a turn for tie-dye, propelling it again in the mainstream. People are getting familiarized with it at an unprecedented rate and not just in the United States, but on the worldwide stage. Many articles are written about the basic procedures and supplies required for tie-dyeing.

People are starting to experiment with increasingly creative and interesting techniques. In the years 2019 and 2020 we have an acceleration in the number of videos about tie-dye. More people than ever are getting interested in it. Aspiring artists are hungry for more techniques and want to create and share a style that’s unique to them with some artists having success selling their creations. There are a handful of masters, tie-dye artists who push the boundaries and redefine the limits of what’s possible.

Origins of clothing and dyeing

Now that we’ve talked about tie-dye, let’s go further and explore the origins of clothing and dyeing. What we want to uncover is the first instances where someone purposefully dyed or, in this case, stained their clothes to achieve a different look. What was the earliest form of dyeing? If I had to guess I would say it started with either dirt, mud, or blood, natural substances notorious for their staining abilities.

To talk about the earliest form of dyeing it’s imperative to set the context right. Experts estimate that humans may have begun wearing clothing as far back as 100,000 to 500,000 years ago. Similarly, crude paint-like substances made of ochre are estimated to have been used as far back as 100,000 years ago. It’s not far-fetched to imagine both of these inventions to have been used in conjunction with each other pretty early on in our history.

Animals regularly stain their fur in the wild doing their regular activities but these stains eventually wash away as the fur grows and sheds. Humans are a unique case in the animal kingdom. Instead of growing our own fur, we prefer wearing clothing made of other animal’s pelts or from vegetation. This clothing does not have the self-cleaning properties of living tissue, so it’s only a matter of time until they get stained or discolored in some way.

Staining by mistake and then by purpose

We know that accidents happen, which was especially true at a time when humans lived closely with nature. It would have been common for humans to stain or dirty up their primitive clothing because of their lifestyle. These early humans were very intelligent and were totally able to make the correlation between stains and staining substances.

Early humans would certainly have tried to clean off stains from their favorite clothing. Sometimes stains would be persistent and couldn’t be removed. We can imagine that at some point someone purposefully refrained from washing a stain. Even more than that, at some point someone purposefully stained a piece of clothing. There is no precise date as to when it happened first but the earliest dyed fibers that have been found in a prehistoric cave date back to 36,000 years ago.

Dyeing with natural dyes is a fairly complex procedure that often requires boiling the fabric to achieve permanent coloration. It is probable that most forms of early dyeing consisted mainly of dyeing the fibers or the piece of clothing whole with a single or with very few colors. The dyeing substances and processes where very limited, the only practical way being with immersion dyeing.

Refining the technique

Once humans figured out the action of staining, it was only a matter of time before someone had the idea to refine the practice. Many different people over the course of thousands of years independently tried out any dyeing substances they came across. These pioneers mostly operated at different places and times and were mostly unaware of each other. Over time, people began converging into larger tribes formed societies where knowledge could be shared.

These groups were still separate, but societies made it possible to pass down the knowledge from one generation to the next. The result is that each group created their own techniques and methods according to their preferences. Sets of guidelines and principles of dyeing began to take shape, which led to the creation of different schools of thoughts. While many of them have been lost, some of these traditions still exist to this day.

Dyeing traditions alive to this day

These traditions brought along with them new and inventive techniques that made it possible to create patterns and designs on the fabric. The basic principle behind these techniques is to arbitrarily resist the penetration of dye on the fabric, owing to the name of resist-dyeing. Some of the most well-preserved schools of resist-dyeing can be found in these regions and under these appellations :

Japan : Shibori, almost exclusively dyed with natural indigo dyes.

Indonesia : Plangi, using precise wax techniques.

West Africa : Gara and Adire, from Sierra Leone and Nigeria respectively.

India : Bandhani, a collection of multiple block printing techniques.

That’s only to name a few. We know China, Malaysia, and the Philippines also have rich histories of dyeing, but our information about them is limited. More research is needed in this area. Tie-dye shares the same basic principles of resist-dyeing but is completely different in terms of style and expected outcome.

There’s no way to tell how much these earlier methods influenced the advent of tie-dye, but we can consider them to be related in some way. Tie-dye borrows from all of these techniques and more to create something completely unique. You can think of tie-dye as being an amalgamation of all these different techniques but being much more advanced in terms of its possibilities and breadth.

What separates tie-dye from the rest

The first and probably the biggest factor that sets tie-dye apart is the use of modern dye technologies that let you apply the dye directly on the clothes without the need for a hot dye bath. These new synthetic dyes are a recent invention, only commercialized in the early 1950s. They make the process of dyeing clothes safer, easier, and more reliable, as well as giving you a nearly endless range of colors to play with.

The technological advantage of cold process fiber-reactive dyes was crucial to the way tie-dye evolved. It made it possible for anyone to easily decorate their clothes without prior experience or specialized equipment. The use of modern dyes opens up a whole new realm of possibilities. Before then you where bound to use immersion-dyeing techniques, but now you can directly apply the dye on the fabric.

Not only do the technical aspects of tie-dye separate it from the other ancient dyeing techniques, there is also a unique social aspect to it. With tie-dye there is a very strong social and cultural significance taking its roots in recent history, more specifically, it represents freedom of expression and liberation from tyranny and authoritarianism.

The social significance of tie-dye

Tie-dye was born out of a need for expressing opinions of love and peace. The same meaning is still present today with an important distinction. The last few decades has seen a tremendous improvement of individual rights and liberties and we are now more free than ever to be ourselves. What was then a defiance of authority is now, simply, a celebration of life.

The beauty of tie-dye is that it doesn’t care about codes or norms. It’s a completely free form of art that let you enjoy it anyway you want. From bold and audacious patterns to subtle and elegant attire, anything is possible and the only limit is the one you set for yourself. People are getting more comfortable with wearing colorful clothes and it’s a tendency that’s only gonna increase. The clothing industry as a whole is changing and is heading towards experimentation and exploration of self.

Pushing the barriers of tie-dye will invariably push the barriers of clothing as well. Modern tie-dye artists can execute a great variety of complex patterns and by tweaking them and combining them they are creating new styles that have never been seen before. We are at the dawn of creative clothing, heading towards wearable art.

The future of tie-dye

There has never been so many people and groups dedicated to the advancement of fabric dyeing and tie-dye specifically. With increasingly intricate techniques that can take years to master, who knows what people will be able to create in the future. What we know is that it will continue to gain appreciation and respect. The fight for a better future is not over and we will continue marching together in unity to defend everyone’s right to be as beautiful as they wish.

Tie-dye represents freedom of association and freedom of expression. It’s also a big family of artists that welcome anyone with an open heart and an open mind. We’re only in tie-dye’s infancy. With more people practicing it every day and new techniques constantly being invented, the future of tie-dye is looking bright.

There has never been a better time to practice and wear tie-dye. In this world where it’s getting increasingly harder to stand out and be unique, this is the perfect opportunity to represent yourself. The most empowering thing you can do is just to be yourself and to love yourself. The best way to do that is to create and to be surrounded by your creation.