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Tie-dye is summer's favorite trend. Here's what to know before you hop on the Technicolor bandwagon.

By Betsy Cribb
Updated May 15, 2020
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Tie dyed tee shirts
Credit: Melissa Ross

Never thought I’d say it, y’all, but tie-dye is back! In recent online window shopping, I’ve spotted tie-dyed crew socks, tie-dyed leggings, and of all things, tie-dyed cashmere sweaters. While I generally favor tried-and-true staples over the flavor of the month, I’m not totally immune to a trend. After spotting the umpteenth tie-dyed sweatshirt on my Instagram feed (a hand-embroidered one, no less!), I decided that it was time to board the Technicolor bandwagon. In my pre-quarantine life, I may have lazily shelled out the dough for such a sweatshirt. But now that I’m home all the time and consequently embracing a variety of hobbies—including researching my family history and waltzing around in housedresses—I decided to take my tie-dye temptation into my own hands. Here’s what I learned.

Go ahead and buy the kit.

My childhood tie-dye memories include buckets of dye, a tarp in the backyard, and general mayhem. There’s enough chaos in the world right now as it is, so skip the vats of dye and soda ash and spring for a comprehensive pack that includes all the necessary supplies instead. I went with Tulip’s One-Step Tie-Dye Kit: It comes with 18 bottles of dye (just add water), a tablecloth, gloves, rubber bands, and easy-to-follow instructions. Tulip seems to peddle the most popular tie-dye kits on the market, but the main thing is to find one that doesn’t require the soda ash soak (which helps the dye attach to the garment)—one less thing to buy, one less step to follow.

Wash the item you’re dyeing first.

You’ll want to wash your shirt/bandana/socks before you dye them. Dyeing while they’re still damp allows the colors to appear more saturated, plus it allows the dye to have a more organic, feathered look, rather than the straighter edge that would come from dyeing it dry. One warning though: the colors run more easily on a damp shirt, so space out changes in color to avoid a muddy convergence of clashing dyes.

Set up your tie-dye station outside.

This is a project best reserved for sunny days with little to no wind. I did all my tie-dying on a metal table on our back porch, where I could also leave my projects to dry for 6-8 hours. While you can spread out the plastic tablecloth or tarp on the grass as your workspace, I think it's best to do it on an elevated surface if possible, as grass, pollen, and bugs won't sneak onto your garment as easily.

Wear gloves.

They may feel a little cumbersome, but wear plastic gloves for the entire process, including adding water to the dye, to avoid staining your hands. If you opt not to, plan to spend several minutes scrubbing your hands with warm water and soap afterwards. The dye is significantly harder to wash out from under your nails. My nails are a disaster right now anyway, and teal, dye-stained tips aren’t helping.

Make a plan.

Choose which dyes you want to use and what pattern you want to create before you start squirting dye everywhere. Be sure, too, to keep the lids with their respective bottles, as some of the colors are hard to tell the difference between on their own. I accidentally created a deep purple stripe where I wanted to create a bright fuchsia stripe because I failed to keep my dyes organized. ¡Qué horror! How you fold your garment, and where you place the rubber bands, also determine the pattern and final outcome, so be sure to follow the included instructions carefully, as well.

Let it sit, then rinse thoroughly.

Once you’ve finished dyeing, wrap your garment in plastic wrap and let it rest for 6-8 hours. I left mine in a shady spot on the back porch. After it’s had time to marinate, unwrap your tie-dyed number and run it, with rubber bands still on, under cold water until the water runs clear. Then, take off the rubber bands and run it under hot water until the water runs clear. This ensures the excess dye is rinsed out. (I opted to do this in our kitchen sink as it’s stainless and I was a little worried the dye might stain a white ceramic sink. I can’t confirm or deny if this happens, though, so rinse in the bathtub at your own risk.) Then, put your garment through the wash at the warmest temperature the material allows. Toss it in the dryer, and voila! You’re ready to go.

My tie-dyed shirt may not be perfect, but she’s mine. And now, every time I see another tie-dyed something pop up on Instagram, I pat myself on the back for doing it the old-fashioned (and less expensive) way. That’s pretty rad.

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If tie-dye doesn't float your quarantine-craft boat, keep your hands occupied with needlework instead.