Tie Dye and Batik: Crafts for the Unartistic


If you have the nerve to dunk a piece of old sheet into a bucket of dye, you may be on your way to becoming an artist. Michelangelo may not have approved of your end results, but then chances are Michelangelo will never be one of your close associates anyway. Even if you consider yourself definitely unartistic, you can create a striking wall hanging.

Tie dye and batik are the methods discussed here, and they have several advantages in common. First, the cost of materials is next to nothing. Second, even an unartistic beginner can be confident of a surprisingly successful end result. And third, the projects are just plain fun! Tie dye and batik are especially appropriate for sunny summer days because, although they can be done indoors or in a basement, there’s not nearly as much worry about messy dye dripping when the projects are done outside. Besides, the sun’s quick drying power speeds the process considerably.

Tie dye is the least complicated way to make a colorful art splash. This craft is based on the principle that dye will not penetrate parts of a fabric that are tightly bound with twine, string, or rubber bands. Steps in the procedure for creating a tie dye wall hanging are as follows.

A. Collect your materials. You will need:

1. A piece of clean white or pastel cloth. The fabric that works best is thin cotton. The cheapest source is an old sheet, cut or torn to slightly larger than the size you want for your finished wall hanging. If you purchase your fabric, buy the cheapest lightweight cotton available; unbleached muslin will do nicely. Fancy cotton-polyester blends are not only unnecessary; they may be a detriment since some polyester does not take dye well.

2. Rubber bands, string, or twine.

3. Two colors of liquid or powdered dye concentrate. Color combinations are up to you. If your fabric is white, pink and deep purple might make an attractive combination. For yellow fabric, perhaps you’ll want to try orange and brown dyes. As a general rule, choose one light or bright color and one dark one.

4. Buckets to hold dye baths.

5. Plastic trash can liners to protect the buckets.

6. Clothesline and several clothespins.

7. Masking tape and newspaper.

8. Sturdy stick or paint stirrer.

9. Rubber gloves.

B. Prepare the working area. Line the mop buckets with trash can liners. Place a long strip of masking tape over ten feet or so of outdoor clothesline, or cover the line with newspaper. Clip the clothespins to the line to keep them handy. If the clothesline hangs over a patio or cement area, use masking tape to attach newspaper to the cement underneath the ten feet of line you plan to use. Dye drips can be removed from cement with bleach or heavy-duty cleanser, but it’s much easier to catch the drips in the first place.

C. Mix dye baths. The less water used, the more intense your colors will be; therefore, fill each bucket with just enough lukewarm water to submerge the piece of fabric you are dying. If you are using liquid dye concentrate, add about four ounces (one-half cup) of liquid dye directly to the water in the bucket; stir with the stick or paint stirrer. If your dye is powdered concentrate, stir one package (one and one-eighth ounces) of powdered dye into two cups of very hot water in a quart jar, dissolving all dye granules. Then add this mixture to the water in the bucket and stir. You may want to pour the hot dye mixture through cheesecloth to strain out remaining dye granules; however, this step is optional.

D. Gather knots in the fabric. You may choose a random or symmetrical pattern. For each knot, gather together a small area of fabric and wrap it tightly with string, twine, or a rubber band. This area of puckered fabric is referred to as a “knot.” A simple knot (diagram 1) will result in an interesting uneven circle. A simple knot with the center tucked inside (diagram 2) will produce a circle within a circle. A knot in which the whole piece of fabric is pleated lengthwise and then tied crosswise (diagram 3) will produce an uneven striped or plaid effect.

E. Dip all the fabric—or only the knots—into the lightest of your two dye baths. If you dip only the knots, you will have less overlapping of the two colors. Also, the second color will be truer—that is, closer to the shade shown on the package. However, the mixture of the two colors may be just what you want. For instance, if a yellow fabric is dipped in orange dye, then in brown dye, the brown will probably be richer because of the orange dye underneath it. But if you want a crisp yellow and a crisp blue on a white background, as in the wall hanging shown below, you will want as little overlapping of dyes as possible; so dip only the knots in the first dye bath, then hold the knots above water when you go on to the second dye bath later.

F. Dry the fabric. Remove the fabric from the dye bath when it looks slightly darker than you want the finished color to appear. Leaving the knots intact, spread the fabric as flat as possible on several layers of newspaper on the ground. When the fabric has dried to slightly damp, remove the rubber bands or string by cutting them, being careful not to cut the fabric. Hang the damp fabric on the protected clothesline to complete drying.

G. Retie the knots. Again, the design is up to you. You may form the same or different types of knots in the same or different locations on the fabric. For the clear-cut delineation of color shown in the blue and yellow example, the four outside knots were retied in the same places and were held above the water when the rest of the fabric was submerged in the second dye bath. For a more overlapping effect, the knots would be different types and in different locations.

H. Dip all the fabric, part of the fabric, or only the knots in the darker of the two dye baths. Keep the fabric submerged until a shade darker than the desired darkness is reached.

I. Dry the fabric again, following instructions given in step F.

J. Press the wrinkles out. When the wall hanging is nearly dry, remove the twine or rubber bands. Place several layers of newspaper underneath the fabric to protect the ironing board cover; then press the wall hanging. Some dye may rub off, since this process does not produce colorfast results. If you were going to wash and wear the fabric, you would need to submerge the fabric in boiling dye baths; however, for a wall hanging this complicated procedure is not necessary.

K. Finish and hang your masterpiece. There are as many ways to finish the wall hanging as there are imaginations. One of the simplest and least expensive ways to finish a large wall hanging is to hem all four sides, making the top hem an inch deep and open at both ends. Insert a painted or stained wooden dowel—or a small brass curtain rod—in the opening made by the hem. Hang from a braided yarn rope. Add purchased or homemade fringe to the bottom of the wall hanging.

Tie dye may sound pretty complicated to you at this point. But actually, reduced to its basic elements, it’s not at all difficult. Prepare materials and area. Tie, dye, and dry. Tie, dye, and dry. Press, finish, and hang.

Batik is a particularly unique and interesting craft. Since this process is similar in many ways to the tie dye process, you may want to try one of each in the same afternoon, using the same dye baths. The batik process is based on this principle: where wax is applied to the fabric, dye will not penetrate. The steps in the batik process follow.

A. Assemble the materials. For batik, you will need all the materials listed in step A of the tie dye instructions, except for rubber bands. In addition, you will need the following:

1. Paraffin wax (available in grocery stores). You may also use a half-and-half combination of paraffin and beeswax. Beeswax is more expensive and harder to find, but many craft shops sell it.

2. A small disposable metal container, such as a tuna can or meat pie tin.

3. Either a stove or an electric frying pan.

4. A large flat working surface covered with plenty of newspaper.

5. One or two inexpensive paint brushes, such as the brush from your old grade school watercolors. Don’t expect to watercolor again with the brush.

B. Plan the design. It may be abstract or realistic. You might select an interesting or amusing animal such as a hippo or owl. Your idea may come from a greeting card, a poster, or a magazine illustration. Perhaps several large flowers or fruit shapes may appeal to you. Or you may simply want an abstract grouping of interesting shapes. Keep the design fairly simple and rely on color and texture to add impact to the finished product. The texture will be provided by the crackles made in the wax during the dye process, which will produce a crackled effect in the design. When you have settled on a design, draw it with pencil on the fabric, making sure that the lines are dark enough to see later.

C. Prepare the working area. Follow step B in the tie dye instructions for preparing the clothesline area. To prepare the working area in which you will apply melted wax to the fabric, cover a large flat surface with newspapers. The working area should be near the stove or electric fry pan. If you plan to heat the wax directly on a stove burner, set the burner at a medium low temperature and melt the wax in a tuna can or disposable pie tin. Use caution and avoid overheating the wax. To heat the wax in an electric frying pan, set the can of wax in boiling water in the frying pan. The water level in the frying pan should be well below the rim of the container in which the wax is melting. While the wax is melting and heating, bring your paint brush and your fabric to the working area. Lay the fabric flat.

D. Paint with wax the areas of fabric to remain white (or whatever color the fabric is). Hot wax has a tendency to spread, so start at the center of an area to be covered with wax. Work toward the outside and corners. If the wax is not absorbing into the fabric and instead makes a white coat on the fabric’s surface, the wax needs to be a little hotter. If the wax is spreading too quickly or if it begins to smoke, it is too hot. After you have finished painting all areas of the fabric that are to remain white, let the wax cool and harden for a few minutes.

E. Mix the dye baths. Follow the instructions in step C of the tie dye process.

F. Dip the entire fabric into the lightest dye bath. Keep it submerged by poking it down with a stick or paint stirrer. When the color is a shade darker than you want it to appear, remove the fabric from the dye bath; hold it over the bucket and let it drip for a moment.

G. Dry the fabric by hanging it on the protected clothesline.

H. Paint with wax the areas of fabric that are to remain the color of the first dye bath. Allow the wax to harden for a few minutes.

I. Crumple the material to produce wax crackles. Wad it up; don’t worry if some of the wax falls off. This adds the interesting textured effect mentioned earlier.

J. Dip the fabric in the darker of the two dye baths, repeating the process in step F.

K. Dry the batik on the protected clothesline.

L. Press the batik. This process serves two purposes: first, it removes wrinkles, and second, it removes the wax. Use at least eight layers of newspaper under the batik; cover it with four layers of newspaper. Press on top of the newspaper with a hot iron. Replace the lower layers of newspaper as they become saturated with melting wax.

M. Finish and hang the batik. The finishing process suggested in step K of the tie dye instructions is one excellent possibility. If the batik is fairly small, you may prefer to purchase an inexpensive frame. If you are handy with a saw, you might want to make a simple frame and staple the batik to the inside edges. An attractive frame or finishing process will add that final professional touch to your artwork.

Although these instructions for tie dye and batik have referred to using two dye baths, that number is arbitrary. You may create a striking wall hanging with only one dye bath; for example, you might begin with bright red fabric, and create a tie dye or batik using deep purple dye. Or you may want to use three or even four dyes; perhaps you will begin with white fabric, then dip it in yellow, orange, red, and dark brown dye baths.

The hardest part of any project is reading the instructions. Now that you have done that, the worst is over! So dig right in. Find an old sheet and use your creativity. Invite two or three friends to join you, and ask each one to bring a sheet and a package of dye. The rewards—an afternoon of fun and a bright unique artwork—will be well worth the effort!

[photo] Batik by Carolyn Nielsen