Once limited to beach wear and wash-faded jeans, tie-dye is coming into its own as an art form. All you need to do is tie some knots, fold some pleats, and add some dye, and the results will be original, if not always predictable. Clothes, pillows, bedspreads, wall hangings, and rugs are just a few of the items that can receive new life through color.

Whether applied to ready-made clothes or fabrics to be sewn, tie-dye can add a new dimension to your wardrobe. It allows for unusual color combinations as well as design. Perhaps its most enticing element is actually an added feature—the surprise of seeing what you’ve made.


Before dyeing, consider the fabric and its ability to pick up dye. All washable materials except some polyesters and acrylics can be dyed. Be sure to avoid metallic fibers, fiberglass, and fabrics with water repellent, wrinkle-resistant, and stain-resistant finishes. Recommended materials include unbleached muslin, cotton (including knits and cotton voile), nylon, tricot, acetate, satin, organdy, organza, hopsacking, tightly-woven burlap, felt, rayon, velvet, and chiffon. For best results ready-made clothing or fabrics should be washed to remove sizing (stiffness) and finishes before dyeing.

In tying, use various knots and folds (see pp. 22–23); use wide rubber bands for heavy stripes and smaller ones for finer lines. The bands should be applied tightly and may be used again.

When mixing dyes, enamel pots large enough to hold the whole fabric bundle should be used. A porcelain roasting pan works well, but stay away from Teflon.

Follow the directions on the packages of dye. You can generally count on one-quarter package liquid dye or one-half package power dye to each quart of water. When using the pour-on technique, put undiluted dye into a squeeze bottle. For more vibrant color, heat the bottles of dye before using. Eyedroppers can be used also. Work on a smooth, nonabsorbent or protected surface, and keep a sponge handy to wipe up the excess dye.

Points to Remember

Unless you are using a color remover, always dye lighter colors first, darker colors last.

When using a color remover, add it to simmering water, and immediately add wet fabric. After the color remover bath, always wash fabric in hot sudsy water and then rinse.

To aid color penetration of dense fabrics of many tightly tied layers, add a few drops of liquid dishwashing detergent to the dye bath.

Wear rubber or plastic gloves. Be sure that the poured-on colors penetrate the fabric through all of the folds. Squeeze additional dye into the folds if necessary. It may help to work the dye through the layers with your fingers.

Do not boil any fabrics in the dye bath. A simmering temperature is adequate to produce washfast colors. For materials that wrinkle permanently at high temperatures, such as acetate or some nylons, use a lower heat than a simmer and longer dyeing periods.

Colors dry lighter than they look when wet. You may want to iron dry a test patch of fabric before untying the knots.

Basic Knots

Donut Knot. Make a rosette knot. Push center of puff back down into gathers and through to other side. Fasten tightly with rubber band. Squeeze undiluted dye into center of knot.

Rosette Knot. Pinch section of fabric up to desired height; secure base tightly with rubber band.

Gathering. Hold edges of fabric in both hands and gather fabric toward you. Secure with rubber bands along length of fabric.

Accordian Pleat. Hold edges of fabric in both hands and pleat predetermined-width pleats; each should be the same. Secure with rubber bands along length of fabric.

Stripe. For a single stripe or a series, gather fabric in folds between thumb and forefinger. Secure areas where stripes are desired, and leave ends free.

Photos by Jed Clark and Frank Gale

There’s no room for “fence sitting” where tie-dye is concerned—it proclaims color and your particular love of it as boldly as your sense of experimentation allows. Bring your favorite colors together in traditional or unheard-of combinations. Tie-dye is a relatively cheap way of recycling the skeletons in your closet, and it’s not necessarily hard to do if you follow carefully the instructions you can get from nearly any dye company.

Spice up a basic white top by combining it with a long border-print skirt of your own design. You’ll need to cut the fabric to its pattern before dyeing it. The coordinating bag should be cut to pattern and simmered in the same dye bath with the skirt to insure even color. It can be quilted by hand or on a sewing machine.

Who says tie-dye can’t create the same delicate, feminine effects as more expensive and less original ready-mades? The soft, webbed texture of the design in this simple wrap skirt bespeaks not only the good taste of its wearer, but her sense of creativity as well.

Once again white gets a big color boost from a tie-dyed skirt and matching bag. Here the designer used a combination of accordion and triangular pleating in dyeing the fabric piece to achieve the kind of regular pattern that could be quilted. The skirt and bag were not cut into pieces until after the dyeing process.

Play your adventure in tie-dye for all it’s worth—be flamboyant with color, and you’ll get some pretty fluorescent results. Dye is inexpensive and easily accessible, but when you’ve mastered only a few techniques, it can pay fantastic dividends.

If, after a few successful experiments, you feel ready for the big time, you can put your growing skills to the test in designing and dyeing a coordinated pant set. The only possible limits to the intricacies of design and color are those you set for yourself. Don’t forget, though, that many dye companies print booklets giving advice and complete instructions.