Vibrant and Long-Lasting: Tips for Achieving Perfect Tie-Dye Colors

Comparison between two color swatches, one having deep, vibrant colors and the other showing dull, faded colors.

If you’re like me, you love when your tie-dye comes out perfect. After putting in time and effort, there’s nothing more frustrating than having your colors looking weak and faded.

When made correctly, tie-dye shirts are meant to keep their colors bright and vibrant forever.

In this post I’ll go over all the common mistakes that can cause dye to wash out or look faded. Read on so your colors stay bold and beautiful.

How to achieve permanent tie-dye colors

The key to getting beautiful, permanent colors that don’t wash out or fade is to follow the tie-dye process to the letter.

Get permanent colors by using 100% cotton fabric, fiber-reactive dyes, and soda ash. Let the shirt set for 24 hours after dyeing, then rinse out the excess dye.

There are many ways to dye fabric, and many ways it can go wrong. Most people will encounter at least one of these events when they first learn how to tie-dye.

How to keep tie-dye from washing out

Most cases of colors completely washing out is the result of forgetting the fixer, also called soda ash. Other common reasons include using the wrong kind of dyes and using polyester or other artificial fabric.

You can prevent your tie-dye from washing out by following a few simple rules:

  1. Don’t forget to use soda ash
  2. Use 100% cotton fabric only
  3. Only use fiber-reactive dyes
  4. Let the dye set for 24 hours

Other situations may cause your tie-dye to retain some color, but to look faded. These include using old or exhausted dyes, a setting temperature that is too cold and not letting your tie-dye set long enough.

Let’s take a look at each of these situations in detail so you are better prepared for your next project.

Use soda ash in your bottles or on the fabric

Forgetting soda ash (or using too little) is one of the most common reasons for colors washing out.

Soak the shirt for a few minutes in a solution containing 1/4 cup of soda ash per quart of water. Alternatively, mix in a teaspoon of soda ash per 8oz dye bottle.

Whether mixed in your dye bottles or soaked into the shirt, soda ash is an essential part of the dyeing process.

Tie-dyeing without fixer results in very poor color fastness. Soda ash is needed for the reaction between the dye and the fabric to take place.

Without soda ash, you can expect most of the color to disappear right as you’re rinsing your tie-dye.

Use the right kind of fabric

The fabric is not only your canvas, it is also an integral part of the dyeing process. The kind of fabric you use will make of break your tie-dye project before you even start.

Always use fabric 100% made of cotton. Cotton is the best type of fabric for tie-dye. Cotton is cheap and readily available. It dyes beautifully and produces great colors that last forever.

Other natural fibers can also be tie-dyed, including rayon, hemp, and linen or any combination of those.

Stay away from polyester and nylon. These and other synthetic fabrics won’t take dye at all. The color will wash out when rinsing.

Check your garment’s tags before you tie-dye to figure out its composition.

You can dye fabric blends, but keep in mind that only the portion of natural fibers will retain color. A 50/50 blend of cotton and polyester, for example, will result in noticeably paler and faded coloration.

Use the right kind of dyes

Not all dyes are created equal. This is especially true for tie-dye. Choosing the right dyes is the most important aspect of ensuring your colors don’t wash out or fade.

The best dyes for tie-dye are fiber-reactive dyes. They are the only type of dyes suitable for tie-dye at room temperature.

When combined with soda ash, fiber-reactive dyes form a chemical bond with the fabric. This bond is permanent, meaning that the color actually becomes part of the fabric.

Fiber-reactive dyes are used by professional tie-dye artists and amateurs alike. They are both safe and effective and cheap to buy.

Other dyes may not work as intended. All-purpose dyes and store-bought kits will not give you the intended result.

Using the wrong dyes will result in either weakened colors or no color at all. When in doubt, always stick to reliable dye vendors.

Let the shirt sit for 24 hours after dyeing

After dyeing your shirt, you need to give it enough time to react.

Tie-dye needs time to react for the colors to become permanent. Make sure to give your shirt enough time.

Let the shirt set for 24 hours at room temperature after dyeing. It takes a few hours for the dye to react fully. As you wait, color molecules become attached to the fabric.

Being patient is hard, but it’s well worth the wait. Being too eager to open up your tie-dye before the time is up can sabotage your results.

Rinsing the shirt immediately after dyeing will result in poor coloration of the fabric. Most of the dye will not have had time to react.

Use enough dye to achieve desired colors

The strength of your colors is directly related to the amount of dye used.

Another way you can have subpar results is if you didn’t use enough dye. The color you get is proportional to the concentration of dye in your bottles.

Use one to two teaspoons of dye per 8oz bottle to achieve strong colors.

IntensityDyeSoda ashWater
Vibrant3 tsp1 tsp1 cup
Intense2 tsp1 tsp1 cup
Strong1 tsp1 tsp1 cup
Medium1/2 tsp1 tsp1 cup
Soft1/4 tsp1 tsp1 cup
Pastel1/8 tsp1 tsp1 cup
Light1/32 tsp1 tsp1 cup

Using less dye will result in pale or even pastel colors. This can be great if that’s what you’re going for. But if you want to achieve maximum saturation, then be sure to add enough dye powder to your dye solution.

Avoid using old/exhausted dyes

You dyed a first time with great success, the shirt came out great. The next day you tie-dye using the same bottles and to your surprise, you end up with faded, muted colors.

Dyes actually have a limited shelf life once mixed. Dyes mixed with soda ash only stay good for a few hours.

PreparationRoom Temperature 68° F (20° C)Refrigerated 40° F (4° C)
Dye powder2-5 years5 years+
Dye mixed with water1 week1-2 months
Dye mixed with water + soda ash8 hours24 hours

Once mixed, dyes begin reacting with the water itself and gradually weakens as time goes by. This process is called hydrolysis. When dye reacts with water, it becomes unavailable to react with fabric.

Old dyes are said to be “exhausted” and will leave you with subpar results.

Always mix fresh dyes if you’re unsure and dispose of mixed dyes after using them.

Set your tie-dye in a warm room

You followed all the step, you didn’t forget a thing. But you still end up with color that looks weak and don’t know why. Reaction temperature plays a crucial role that is often overlooked.

After dyeing, place the shirt in a room that is at least 70°F (21°C) or more. The lower the temperature, the slower the dye will react. While it normally takes 8 hours to set, a cold room will disrupt the process.

The reaction between dye and fabric requires a certain warmth. The warmer it is, the faster the reaction. This can be the cause of your problem especially in winter or in cold climates. Place the shirt near a heater or in a warm room.

Troubleshooting your situation

Almost no color, completely washed out

You rinsed your shirt only to find out that most of the color just slides right off. This might seem like the worst scenario. But luckily it’s also the easiest to solve.

The main reasons for a complete lack of color are forgetting the dye fixer and using the wrong fabric material.

Some color, but appears discolored/faded

After rinsing the shirt, you find out that there is some color, but the result is underwhelming.

Using spent dyes and not setting the shirt long enough are common causes. Cold temperatures when setting the dye will also produce weakened colors.

Colors appear fine, but soften when dried

You rinsed the shirt and everything looked fine. Colors looked strong and bold. You pull out the shirt from the dryer and suddenly it looks different. With the shirt now dry, the colors appear soft.

This is totally normal. Colors appear darker when the shirt is wet. This is an optical illusion caused by the water trapped in the fabric. Because of the water, less light bounces off the fabric, making it appear darker.

There is no solution to this natural phenomenon, only to keep your expectations realistic. Practice often and you will learn to get the most out of your dyes.