How to tie-dye a shirt

Here you’ll find everything you need to know in order to get started successfully.  You’ll be able to go from a white shirt to a magnificent work of art. What tools and supplies do you need? What techniques to use? These are the types of questions we answer in this step-by-step guide. For best results you can use these instructions with our assortment of techniques to create beautiful shirts.

1) Mix your dyes – 1 tsp dye, 1 tsp soda ash, 250ml water in a bottle.
2) Prepare a shirt – Wet, then wring out the shirt to get it damp.
3) Fold and bind the shirt – Use one of many techniques.
4) Dye the shirt – Use a pattern to get accurate result.
5) Let the dye react – 24 hours for strong colors.
6) Rinse out the shirt – Remove excess dye from the shirt.
7) Wash the shirt – Wash it in cold water, the shirt is now ready.

Table of Contents

Essential Supplies



The essential supplies are the dyes, shirts, and dye activator (soda
ash). Start by planning your project and preparing your dyes. The next
step is to prepare the shirt. Wash it, then either spin or wring it to
remove excess water. Fold the shirt, there are many techniques to do so.
Bind the shirt in place. You can now dye the shirt to your leisure.
Once that’s done, let the dye react for a few hours. Finally, rinse out
the excess dye from the shirt and wash it once.

Tie-dye is a cheap activity when you know where to get your supplies. All you really need are good quality dyes and plenty of fabric. The best dyes you can use are called fiber-reactive dyes. They are better in every way than store-bought dyes. For the fabric, cheap blank shirts are the best choice to make. With all your supplies gathered up, you’re now ready to get started on your new obsession.

The easiest way to equip yourself is to get a tie-dye kit. In a kit you’ll find everything you need; bottles, dyes, soda ash, rubber bands, and instructions. Most people already have old shirts they can dye, but there are options if you don’t. With cheap blank shirts you’ll be able to dye to your heart’s content.

1) Mix your dye bottles

In practice you can put everything your need in the bottles and let the bottles do the rest. Turns out you don’t need anything special to have great results. I learned that the most simple way is the best, you weight or measure the dye you need and add it to an empty bottle. You then add lukewarm water to mix the dye. The amount of dye and water depends on what you want to achieve, we will see what kinds of mix will give you the best results for each situation.

The basic information I found about the dye mixing tells you how much dye you need to achieve specific colors. The most simple principle is that the more dye powder you add, the more your dye-water will be strong. The stronger your dye-water is, the stronger the color will be on your shirt. Easily guess that if you need a lot, you put a lot and go from there, there is really no point in being too particular. The colors you like, I find are the colors I like to use, and I only found out what I liked when I used it multiple times.

If you have the need for more precision and you are most advanced you can use this basic comparison of different color strength. I learned that it’s really easy to measure your dye with a teaspoon if you know that you can have about 8g of dye powder that fits in a teaspoon.

The easy way is to use a full teaspoon at first and go from there. You will be sure to have very good color strength and clarity. We were wondering how much it takes to make very soft and light colors. When you want to make something comfortable and smooth you will use a minuscule amount of dye for the amount of water you will use. Just a little bit of dye powder is plenty enough to make a good pastel and soft color. Red and blue are the most beautiful colors to use when they are soft.

StrengthDyeSoda ashWater
Pastel1/20 tsp (0.1g)2 tsp1 cup (250ml)
Soft1/8 tsp (1g)2 tsp1 cup (250ml)
Medium1/2 tsp (4g)2 tsp1 cup (250ml)
Strong1 tsp (8g)2 tsp1 cup (250ml)
Powerful2 tsp (16g)2 tsp1 cup (250ml)

Keep in mind that a teaspoon can fit about 8g of dye. So for strong colors, you can mix one teaspoon of dye in a medium bottle.

Do not be afraid and try your hand because you can always and you should try first with using very small quantities of dye. Start with the beginning with easy-to-use tie-dye techniques. Let your intuition guide your decisions. Make it how you like it.

Add water

So now you have the dyes in the bottles. If you need three colors for the design you want to make, you should now have 3 bottles, all with its own color inside. You just fill up the bottle, but not up to the top, you want some empty space in the bottle to make it easy to mix up by shaking the solution inside the bottle.

We find that what you want to do next is to use the sink to fill up the bottles. We found that when you use warm water it really helps the dye dissolve in the water. The dyes normally never have problems mixing in the water when it’s just a bit warm.

Add the dye activator

The last thing you need in you dye bottle is to put in soda ash, which is the dye activator. Its only use is to activate the reaction with the
dyes. The moment you introduce the soda in the dye bottle, you will
activate the dye, so it can be ready to dye and color the shirt! The sodium carbonate goes directly in the bottle with the dye. A teaspoon of soda in a 8oz bottle will do the trick.

2) Prepare a blank shirt

The way you prepare your shirt can have a big impact on the final result. There’s nothing more nerve-wracking than waiting for you tie-dye to batch and then you think “wait, did I do this step correctly?”. Just like when you realize that you left your oven on, you can be scared of having failed the preparation process.

The thing we learned first is to always be sure that the shirt is very clean and without any impurity. We found out that the manufacturers who make the shirt all use finishing products to make their final result feel and look better. They often use waxy substances that leave residues on the shirt and can affect the way the dye will react with the shirt during the dyeing process.

The first thing we do is clean the shirt in the washing machine, at least the first time when we receive it, but after that, let’s say it’s an old shirt that you have laying in your closet, maybe you don’t need to clean it again. Just put the shirt for a wash and you will be sure that the dye will stick to it and the process will happen.

Once the shirt is all nice and clean, what we found is the best way to tie-dye is to have a perfect base for our project. We always soak the shirt or the piece of fabric, whatever your are using for your tie-dyeing project, and we just simply soak it in warm water. Just like the higher temperature helps the water absorb the dye, it can help the shirt fibers accepts more water and open up to the dye.

The soaking should last 5 minutes or longer, but really even a quick soak is way better than no soak at all. Once the fibers are full of warm water and are all opened up and ready, you can go ahead and remove the excess water from the shirt. The way to do it is to simply wring out or spin out the shirt. We like to use the washing machine method where we put the shirt on the spin cycle for 30 seconds to 1 minute. It will helps the shirt retain just the right amount of humidity.

3) Fold and bind the shirt

When you ask yourself how to fold the shirt before dyeing, you may be wondering how does it even work? There’s a lot of different patterns and looks out there for tie-dye. You may have seen recently some very fine examples of the art and you may be asking yourself “can I even do that?”.

The way to fold a shirt just the way you want it is to follow the right recipe. Just like when you want to make a cake, now you need a tie-dye recipe. The process of folding is often to fold, pleat, and scrunch the fabric to make different forms. Definitely what helped us the most was following tie-dye patterns.

The design can be repeated any way you want. If you want to make a spiral, you use the spiral fold, when you want to make a crumple pattern, you make a crumple fold. There are basic ways to fold a shirt, we like to call them pattern families and they help you determine what techniques you need to use to fold and then to dye the specific way you need. So definitely follow the right tie-dye patterns.

The most common ways to fold a shirt use the following techniques :

1) Spiral
2) Crumple
3) Pleating
4) Geode
5) Reverse-dyeing

What I found that makes it a lot more complicated, is the fact that even for the folding techniques we know about, there’s and endless way to do any one fold. Let’s say you want to do a spiral, the way the spiral places itself naturally when folding it will have a specific result that is different from the result you would get by making the spiral even slightly differently.

Simply, you can fold the shirt any way you like, you can crumple the fabric into a ball, you can fold it on itself multiples times, you can try to make triangles, and circles, and spirals. Try everything you can possibly imagine, if you can imagine it, there is a way to tie-dye it on a shirt. The easiest and one of the most fun technique to do it the spiral fold. To achieve the spiral fold, simply pinch the shirt in the middle and twist it until the fabric wraps around itself.

So now what we want to do is to fold the shirt and tie it into shape. Simply put rubber bands or string around the folded shirt to help it keep its shape, especially when you need to move the shirt and when you’re dyeing it.

4) Dye the shirt

If you’re wondering how you can dye a shirt, we find that the best way to determine how to place the dyes is to follow a dyeing pattern. Using such a pattern has a lot of benefits. First, it help beginners to learn easily how to tie-dye. You only need simple and clear instructions and you can dye like the pros.

There is no real answer to this question, as there is an infinite number of ways you can dye a folded shirt. Just like the way different folds produce different results, the dye placement also affects the way the design will look. Only by using pattern can you be sure to place the dye correctly. Another way to learn how the dyed shirt will look like is to imagine it in your head. With enough practice you will be able to visualize with great clarity the folding and the dyeing and then be able to predict the final state of the shirt.

And that’s the beauty of the patterns. They are easy instructions for beginners and experts alike that allow you to create tie-dye shirts perfectly each time, so we strongly suggest you go check out the list of patterns we are compiling right now.

Now let’s imagine we are in front of the shirt we just folded and tied. The shirt is right there in front of our eyes, on a table maybe. It sits right there and you wonder how you will dye it. You simply take the dye bottle and you squirt at the shirt. You can do it multiple ways, for example, you could gently drip the dye water, or you could spray the dye very strongly all over the shirt, maybe a combination of both?

All you need to know is that the water and well as the bottles you use are only a vehicle for the dye. The dye will dye where it sits, no matter how the dye ended up on the shirt. The most popular option to deposit the dye on the shirts is the use of squirt bottles. There are a few different sizes of bottles also. You can choose what kind of dye flow you want. The smallest bottles give you much more precision and control over the dye placement.

The most famous and common techniques for dyeing shirts are :
1) Quadrant dyeing for patterns using the spiral fold
2) Line dyeing, used in straight pleat patterns
3) Zigzag dyeing for use in the zigzag pattern
5) Random dyeing, where you squirt dye just about anywhere
6) Spots dyeing, where you dye different islands of dye

The reason why it’s difficult to explain where to place the dye is because you could just as easily dye a quadrant form on a straight-pleat folded-shirt. Now try to imagine that, if you were to dye the same form but on a shirt that is completely differently folded, the result would not be the same.

The truth is that there are many ways to put the dye on a shirt, and that there are many ways for the shirt to be folded. It is the combination of both the folding and the dyeing that gives us the patterns. Don’t let it discourage you if you have other ideas on how you would like to dye. We found that the most fun we had tie-dyeing was when we were advancing in new territories and we let our curiosity guide us.

5) Let the dye react

This is a question I’ve been asking myself a lot. How long should I really let the dyed shirt sit for? Called batching, this step is essential for the tie-dye because it takes time for the fiber-reactive dyes to properly color the fibers. We know that we need to let the tie-dye sit for a while, but really how long is too long, and do we really have to wait at all?

The shirt has been prepared, folded and dyed, now comes the hard part: waiting for it to finish reacting before you can rinse it and reveal your creation. Many people suggest to let it set overnight. Others will say only 24 hours will do. But really what does it take for the color to stick on the shirt? We suggest 8h or overnight as a rule of thumb.

The real answer is that the more you let it sit for, the more the dye will react and the stronger the color will be. Now this is only a general rule, and you can break it a little bit. The first thing you need to know is that the coloring happens very rapidly. Let’s say the first 50% of the color strength can happen in less than 10 minutes, which is really fast. When you want the strongest colors, let’s say 75% strength, then you need to wait 2 hours. Letting it sit overnight can provide up to 85% strength. Please keep in mind that this process depends on the temperature of the room where the tie-dye is sitting. A room too cold (under 21°C or 70°F) will slow down the process.

Should I put the shirt in a plastic bag?

You probably have seen most educational videos about tie-dye to show you how to batch the shirt by putting it in a plastic bag to let it set overnight. The question everyone is asking then is: “why the plastic bag and do I really need it?”.

The real answer we found is that you do not need to use a plastic bag. The only reason people will tell you to wrap the shirt in plastic is because it’s supposed to help it keep its moisture and to help the dye react longer. What we found is that for the amount of time you need for the dye to color the shirt, which is a few hours at most for most situations, you do not need to wrap the shirt in plastic. The shirt does not have enough time to dry that it would affect the tie-dye process negatively.

Can I make the dye react faster?

Because I am an impatient person, I really didn’t like the time it took to wait for the tie-dye process to finish before I could rinse and reveal my homemade creation. Along with my friends, we thought of all the ways we could speed up the process of tie-dye batching. What we found will surprise you because of how well it works.

The method we found that works the best is to simply increase the temperature of the shirt. The hotter is it, the hotter the reaction temperature will be and that let’s the dye and the fibers react more effectively with one another. Most importantly it makes it so the dye reacts more quickly. The easiest way is to simply soak the shirt in warm water before wringing and dyeing it. Another way is to mix the dyes in warm bottles of water. The hot water will make it so the dyes are ready to react as soon as they touch the fabric.

6) Rinse out the shirt

Ever since the first shirt I’ve tie-dyed I’m always looking forward to rinsing a shirt and looking at the result. The rinsing of the shirt is a crucial part of the tie-dye process. It can be especially nerve-wracking if you’re not sure how to go about it and you’re asking yourself questions such as : “how do I rinse my tie-dye shirt without staining it?”.

So we tried a lot of different ways to rinse our shirts, we tried rinsing them in the sink, we tried rinsing them with and without untying the shirts, we tried hot and cold water. The easiest method we found is to entirely dunk the shirt, still tied, inside a good volume of cold water. If you can submerge the shirt quickly enough in the cold water, it will freeze the dye in place, preventing the reaction from happening.

The reason why we want to submerge the shirt completely is that it also helps in removing the soda ash on the shirt. So put the shirt in a bath of cold water and untie the shirt in it, still submerged. As a general rule, once the shirt is in the cold water bath, rinsing is a breeze. This process makes it so the shirt has no chance for back staining. Simply, we put the shirt in a situation where the dye cannot react with the fibers of the shirt. In one instant you remove the soda ash and you reduce the temperature by a lot, to a level where the reaction stops.

Once you have the shirt in this situation, it is now time to untie and unfold the shirt. Just keep opening the shirt, removing rubber bands. Keep agitating the tie-dye shirt, removing as most excess dye as you can. At this point, not all the dye has reacted with the shirt and there is leftover dye that still clings to the shirt. Your mission is to remove all this excess leftover dye. Turn the shirt inside out under the water if you need to, you need to expose all the shirt to fresh water.

How to prevent staining the shirt?

Maybe you are worried about the water that is now turning all kinds of colors. You may notice that the water bath is very dark, and you’re probably wondering if this water will stain the shirt, called back staining. You may notice, as you pull out the shirt from the water that the shirt appears to have taken the color from the dye bath. Maybe you are worried about staining your hands.

What we found is that there is no worry at all with the water from the bath. First, with the large volume of water, the dye and the soda ash will be in very low concentration. Secondly, assuming that the water bath is cold, it will stop any attempt at a reaction with the fibers, so the white parts of the shirt will stay white.

If you notice that the white parts are taking some color from the bath, do not worry, it’s only the water that clings to the shirt, and the color will go away when you rinse it out further. Once you’ve fully opened up and agitated the shirt under the water, you can bring your new tie-dye shirt to the sink where you will rinse off the water from the bath.

Simply rinse the shirt under running water from the sink faucet, taking care to cover every inch of the shirt. The strategy we found useful is to begin by rinsing the shirt under cold water and, as the runoff water gets lighter and lighter, you can increase the water temperature. Continue rinsing and increasing the temperature until the water gets warm, but not too hot. At this point, you can wring out the shirt by hand to remove any dyed water that could be hidden inside the fibers.

7) Wash your tie-dye shirt

If you followed the previous step you should now have no problem washing the shirt. At this point, almost all the dye will be gone, along with the dye activator. There is almost zero risk of staining anything at this point, assuming that you rinsed the shirt properly. This is a brief overview, you can also check out our page of in-dept washing instructions.

Simply you can put the shirt in the washing machine for a quick wash cycle. You can choose to put the shirt by itself or with other fresh tie-dye shirts, or even with dark clothing and towels. A quick wash and spin cycle should leave your new tie-dye shirt in very good condition. You can now let the shirt dry by itself or you can choose to dry it in the drying machine, the dye is now permanent on the shirt and there is no problem when washing or drying.

Use the usual washing instructions such as washing in cold water, and think about turning the shirt inside-out when washing if you want to be sure the exterior stays fresh. At this point, the shirt is done and you can consider the color permanent and nothing can remove it except strong chemical products. Washing will not fade the color, heat will not fade it and the sun will only fade it if exposed for a few years.

Final thoughts

You should now have a pretty solid understanding of every little step that goes into tie-dyeing a shirt. With this in mind you’re all set to create your next project. For an idea of what’s possible you can check out our videos of many popular patterns that you can easily recreate yourself. If you’d rather not follow a tutorial it’s perfectly fine to go and create your own design.

Most techniques are discovered this way by people who follow their creative ideas and try out something new. Most importantly, remember that if you don’t get there the first time just keep trying and be persistent and the results will come. The time is right to learn tie-dye, it’s more popular than ever and you’ll only gain by adding this skill to your repertoire.