For many, the most difficult part of tie-dye is letting the shirt set. It’s hard keeping your hands off, but the wait is well worth it.
Letting the dye set is a necessary part of the tie-dye process. In order for the color to stick permanently, you need to let the dye react for a few hours.
- How to set tie-dye so it won’t fade
- Should tie-dye be wet when setting
- What temperature to set tie-dye
- How long to let tie-dye sit
- Can tie-dye sit too long?
- How to speed up the setting process
- How to prevent tie-dye from drying up
- Can you heat set tie-dye in the microwave?
- Common myths about setting tie-dye
- What to do after the dye has set
Once you’re done dyeing, you need to let the garment sit. We call this “setting” the dye. During this process, color molecules from the dye chemically bond with the fabric.
How to set tie-dye so it won’t fade
Setting the dye is an essential part of the process. If you rush this step you can end up with pale, faded colors.
To set your tie-dye properly, place the dyed shirt in a warm room and let it sit for 24 hours. The shirt must stay moist during this time.
For the dye to work its magic your need three ingredients: water, heat, and time. The reaction will not proceed
Luckily, tie-dye is very forgiving. There is a wide margin of error that still let’s you get excellent results even if your parameters aren’t perfect.
Should tie-dye be wet when setting
Yes, the fabric needs to stay moist during the entire batching process. Water is required for the dye to react with the fiber and become one.
Water is introduced when wetting the shirt prior to folding it. Pouring dyes on the shirt also adds water, so there is plenty to go around.
If your shirt dries out, the process stops and not all the dye will become connected to the fabric. The unreacted dye will wash out and leave you with only partially saturated colors.
Generally you don’t need to do anything special for the shirt the stay wet. Some people like to cover their tie-dye in plastic, but this is not necessary. Unless you live in a very dry climate or the temperature is high, the shirt won’t have time to dry out in 24 hours.
What temperature to set tie-dye
The reaction speed of the dye is highly dependent on the temperature. Make sure to let your tie-dye sit in a room that is warm enough.
Let your tie-dye set at a temperature of at least 70°F ( 21°C).
Lower temperatures will slow down the reaction. And if the reaction temperature is too cold you will get pale colors.
Temperatures higher than 70°F are even better and will make your dye react faster.
How long to let tie-dye sit
Fiber-reactive dyes require time in order to form a permanent bond with fibers from the garment. Rinsing the shirt immediately after dyeing will result in faded colors.
It takes a few hours for a tie-dye shirt to set. The exact time it takes depends on the ambient temperature.
Let the shirt set for a full 24 hours at room temperature.
In a pinch you can make do with as little as 8 hours, but I find that I get better results by letting it set a bit longer.
Minimum required time to set
|Time to set (hours)
As you can see from the table, the reaction between dye and fabric happens faster at high temperatures and slower at low temperatures.
To account for variations in temperature, we normally let the shirt sit longer than the minimum required time.
Beware of cold temperatures. At 55°F (13°C) it would take multiple days for the dye to bond. At such low temperatures, you will get weak and faded colors.
Can tie-dye sit too long?
Yes, waiting more than 24 hours after dyeing may result in dark patches of color. Waiting too long may cause the shirt to dry up.
A dried shirt can result in uneven coloration. When the shirt dries up it creates patches of over-saturated blemishes.
How to speed up the setting process
It is possible to speed up the setting process by increasing the reaction temperature.
Increase the temperature of the room, place the shirt near a heater, or cover it with an electric blanket to cut down on the wait time.
A temperature of 80° (27°C) will set the dye in about four hours. A temperature of 90°F (35°C) will cure the dye in about 2 hours.
How to prevent tie-dye from drying up
For the reaction to take place, the dyed garment needs to stay moist. Wrapping the shirt is not necessary in normal conditions, but can be helpful in dry climates.
If you find that your tie-dye dries up before the full reaction takes place, you may need to trap in humidity.
Place your dyed garment in a zip-top bag or wrap it in plastic wrap. This will trap in humidity, preventing the fabric from drying up.
Mixing urea in your dye bottles is a great alternative. Urea holds on to moisture and keeps the shirt moist longer.
Can you heat set tie-dye in the microwave?
Yes, it is possible to set a dyed shirt in the microwave. This speeds up the process tremendously and makes it possible to set the dye much faster.
First, make sure the shirt is damp enough so it doesn’t become a fire hazard. Wrap the shirt in plastic. Seal the edges to trap in the steam. Microwave for 1 minute bursts at a time. Microwave the shirt for 2-3 minutes total. Let the shirt cool down for 10 minutes before rinsing.
Common myths about setting tie-dye
There are many myths surrounding the setting process. You may have heard of helping set the dye with many products including vinegar, salt, or baking soda.
In reality, those products won’t help set or fix tie-dye. Homemade recipes advocating for vinegar, salt or other product won’t do anything to help set the dye.
The only way to permanently lock-in color is to follow the tie-dye process. You don’t need anything more. Fiber-reactive dyes, when used correctly, will not fade and do not need to be “fixed”.
Does vinegar help set tie-dye?
No, vinegar will not help set tie-dye. It does nothing to make the dye more resistant to fading or to help fix it.
Vinegar will not make the dye react faster. In fact, using vinegar can prove counterproductive.
Being an acid, vinegar can actually hinder the dye from reacting with the fabric. Fiber-reactive dyes require and alkaline environment to react.
Does salt help set tie-dye?
No, salt does not help set or fix tie-dye. It is not a dye fixative and won’t make your tie-dye more colorfast.
Salt can be used in immersion dyeing to help drive the dye onto the fabric. But it does nothing to help for regular tie-dye using squeeze bottles and direct dye application.
Does baking soda help set tie-dye?
No, baking soda will not help set tie-dye. Baking soda is sometimes recommended as a soda ash substitute, but this is false information.
Baking soda is much less alkaline than soda ash. It does not produce a pH high enough for the dye to react with the fabric at room temperature.
Do commercial dye fixatives help set tie-dye?
No, commercial dye fixatives will not help set tie-dye. Products such as Retayne, Raycafix, Dyefix, and other dye fixatives will not help set or fix tie-dye.
Dye fixatives are not required for fiber-reactive dyes. There is no need for them if the dye has been applied and set correctly.
What to do after the dye has set
After waiting the appropriate amount of time, take your shirt to the sink and rinse it out under cold water. Remove as much excess dye as possible.
Continue rinsing every nook and cranny of the shirt until the water runs clear. Cold wash the shirt in the washing machine and tumble dry.