What is Cellulose – Why is it Used in Tie-dye? (Explained)

Close up of cotton fabric, which is made of cellulose.

In your quest to learn tie-dye, you might have heard the word “cellulose” used a couple of times. Indeed, cellulose is an important component of what makes tie-dye possible in the first place.

Cellulose is the main component of plant fibers. It’s found in fabrics such as cotton, linen, and hemp.

In fact, it is said to be the most abundant organic compound on Earth. It’s found in all plants, from grass blades to trees.

What is Cellulose?

Cellulose is a type of complex sugar (carbohydrate) that is naturally found in plant materials. It’s an integral part of plant anatomy. It forms the cell walls and provides structural integrity.

It comes in at an average concentration of 40% to 50% of dry plant mass.

Cellulose can be thought of as one of the main building blocks in plants. It has many industrial applications thanks to its advantageous properties.

Cellulose is found in all sorts of products. It’s naturally found in most plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, and grains.

It is also used in non-food products such as paper, textiles, and pharmaceuticals.

What Kinds of Fabrics are Made From Cellulose?

All natural fibers coming from plants will contain cellulose, albeit in varying amount depending on the fabric.

For example, cotton has about 85% to 90% cellulose fibers per weight. Linen, hemp, jute, and most other plant fibers contain about 70% to 75% cellulose.

Another textile of note is rayon, which is made of 100% cellulose. Rayon is derived most commonly from wood pulp, bamboo, or other industrial plant byproducts.


Synthetic fabric, on the other hand, contains no cellulose. Fabrics such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic are derived from petroleum products. They don’t contain cellulose, which comes from plants.

Can you Tie-dye Cellulose?

Yes, in fact, cellulose is the exact fiber that we need. Tie-dye is practiced using fiber-reactive dyes, which have the ability to bind with cellulose fibers.

Fabrics containing cellulose can all be tie-dyed successfully using the standard method. Cotton is by far the most popular fabric for tie-dyeing.

Alternatively, it’s not possible to tie-dye fabrics that do not contain cellulose, such as polyester and acrylic, using the normal process.

Fiber-reactive dyes can be used on wool and silk, which are protein fibers. But the catch is that to dye those, you need heat, so it’s typically done in a simmering dyepot.

Why Cotton is the Best Cellulose Fabric for Tie-dye

Cellulose is used in tie-dye because it readily bonds with the dyes we’re using. All natural plant fibers are a natural and renewable resource.

Out of all the possible choices, cotton makes the most sense.

First, it contains a very high percentage of cellulose per mass, meaning that it can take more dye than most other plant fibers.

It’s also one of the most comfortable fabrics. Cotton is highly breathable and soft to the touch.

Not only that, it also boasts favorable strength and durability characteristics. Finally, it’s one of the cheapest and most ubiquitous options that you can get anywhere easily.

Can You Tie-dye Fabrics That Contain No Cellulose?

Yes, you can technically tie-dye other types of fibers, but they would require the use of special methods.

Tie-dye is not generally practiced on other types of fabrics, but it can technically be done if you are determined.

Cellulose is the only fabric you can dye at room temperature. For other fabrics, you need near-boiling water.

While you can dunk a folded garment in a heated pot of dye, this limits you to a handful of techniques and patterns.

To get the most out of the many tie-dye techniques, you need to be able to apply the dye directly.

This is considerably harder if you’re dyeing other fabric types, as they require temperatures somewhere in the range of 185°F (85°C) in the case of wool and silk.

For synthetic fabrics, you’re looking at 200°F (93°C) for the dye to permanently color the fabric.

It’s technically possible to dye the fabric and then steam it to set the dye. Other methods could also be considered.