How to Prevent Your Dyes From Spreading (Explained)

White fabric showing a large line of dye and another, thin line of dye

It can be frustrating to have your dyes spread when you don’t want them to.

It’s normal to be surprised the first time you tie-dye. The color tends to expand on the fabric and can spread quite a bit.

Luckily, there are ways to slow down and even stop the dye from spreading so much.

There are multiple advantages to having your dyes spread less, from better color placement to increased color saturation.

Why Dyes Spread on Fabric

Dyes tend to spread on the fabric according to natural forces.

As soon as you pour dye on fabric, it starts soaking up in the fibers. The color then travels and spread outwards from the initial point of contact.

The spread is influenced by the volume of dye used, the relative humidity of the fabric, gravity, and folds in the fabric.

Ultimately, dyes follow the principles of diffusion. Dyes flow from areas of high concentration to areas of lower concentration over time.

How to Make Your Dyes Spread Less

There are many methods to slow down and even stop the spread of dyes.

Thickening your dyes, using resist techniques or using less dye are all effective ways to do this. Combine these methods for even better results.

1. Thicken up your dyes with alginate

The first method you should try is to thicken up your dyes with alginate.

Sodium alginate increases the viscosity of water, giving it a gel like consistency.

Dyes thickened with sodium alginate flow slowly and stay in place better when poured on fabric.

As a natural additive, alginate is made from brown seaweeds. It is used as a thickening or gelling agent in many foods, cosmetics and medical products.

Thickening your dyes is the number one method used by tie-dye artists to prevent dyes from spreading.

2. Use needle tipped bottles

Another great way to limit spreading and mixing of dyes is to use smaller bottles.

The less dye you pour at a time, the less it will spread.

Needle tipped bottles allow you to place your dyes more precisely. They are perfect for pouring only a small stream that is easy to control.

Pouring less dye at a time is a great way to increase your precision. The trick is to pour slowly and see how much the dye spreads.

3. Apply your dye in layers

If you notice your dyes spreading too much horizontally, you may need to layer your applications.

The problem might be that you’re pouring too much dye at once.

Pour a first, thin layer of dye and wait a few seconds before pouring another layer.

Slowly pour your dyes one layer at a time. Continue until the dye has penetrated deeply enough into the shirt.

You need enough dye so it goes through the fabric. You also need to be careful not to pour too much at the same time.

Pouring too much will cause the dye to pool on top of the fabric and spread laterally.

4. Place your dyes farther apart from each other

Placing dyes close to each other is bound to create mixing. It’s all too common to have dyes overlapping when placed too close to one another.

Plan your dye placement before you start. Take into account that the dyes will spread when poured on the shirt.

Leave a 1″ to 1½” gap between colors when pouring your dyes. Leave enough space between colors so they can spread naturally without invading other colors.

5. Section off areas of the shirt with rubber bands or string

Tight bindings are an effective way to stop dyes from spreading.

Use rubber bands, string, or sinew to tightly bind the shirt into discrete sections. Dye each of these sections with a corresponding color.

Use your bindings as a guide, letting you know where to place your dyes.

Tight bindings also act as a barrier to prevent dyes from spreading, protecting other areas of the fabric.

Sinew is by far the most effective at this, it can be bound very tightly and holds strongly. It’s also waterproof so the dyes cannot spread through it.

6. Place your dyes from the inside out

Always start dyeing from the center of your sections.

Start coloring a section by pouring dye directly at its center. Observe how much the color spreads on the fabric.

Add in more dye until the color extends up to the the edges of the section.

It’s best to build your sections by starting with a strong central foundation and filling in the blank areas afterwards.

7. Let the shirt dry up a bit before dyeing it

Dye spreads less on dry fabric. Use this to your advantage to achieve tighter color placement.

Start by folding the shirt while damp, as you normally would. Bind it and then let it sit for a few hours to get some of the water to evaporate.

Leave the shirt in a warm room or near a heater to remove water even faster. This will dry up the shirt a bit and reduce the spread when dyeing.

Be mindful that drier fabric is also harder to dye. Letting the folded shirt sit for a few days will completely remove the water from the fabric.

This can be useful for designs that require extreme precision, but is not recommended for everyday tie-dye.

To dye a fabric that is completely dried up you will need a surfactant such as calsolene oil. Calsolene breaks up the water into smaller droplets that soak into the fabric more easily.

8. Use the fabric’s folds and features to your advantage

A folded shirt is, in most cases, made up of many small folds and features.

These peaks and valleys act like a guide, directing the dye in predictable ways. Think of the dye as a river flowing through the fabric’s landscape.

Dye will naturally flow from high points down to low points. In this way, pouring dye on top of a peak will bring it down into the surrounding valleys.

Conversely, pouring dye in the bottom of a valley will keep the dye in place and the vertical spread will be limited.