Tie Dye Success in a Group

June 16, 2016

Tie Dye is a summertime activity as American as cookouts and burgers. Ask anyone you know–young old, conservative, liberal– if they want to tie dye something, and chances are they will be so very excited! There is something rewarding about the rubber bands, the vibrant dyes, and the happy surprises that result from tie dye that just brings out the awe and wonder of all who try it. Read on to learn more reasons why tie dye should be added to your list of activities to do with a group of friends, kids, campers, or students.

Easy to Learn, A Lifetime to Master

Tie dye is extremely rewarding because the basic techniques are very simple, and just about anyone can create an attractive and wearable art form. Even young children will love twisting rubber bands around marbles onto a t-shirt. Larger balls like tennis or golf balls can even be used to make it even easier for small hands. On the other end of the spectrum, even if you have done tie dye before, there is always a way to tie, fold, twist, and dye your fabric in a different and exciting way than you did before. It is wonderful to browse some artwork of historical and contemporary tie-dye artists to gain inspiration and practice some new techniques. There are some really fantastic tie-dye artists in the world. These people devote lots of time and energy into perfecting intricate mandalas and highly detailed images on shirts and tapestries.

On the other end of the spectrum, even if you have done tie dye before, there is always a way to tie, fold, twist, and dye your fabric in a different and exciting way than you did before. It is wonderful to browse some artwork of historical and contemporary tie-dye artists to gain inspiration and practice some new techniques. There are some really fantastic tie-dye artists in the world. These people devote lots of time and energy into perfecting intricate mandalas and highly detailed images on shirts and tapestries.

Happy Accidents Foster Creativity

Wonder. Experimentation. Surprises. Improvisation. These are some of my very favorite things that the creative art process allows and encourages. With experience, the end result can be predicted and controlled to some extent, but happy accidents are what make tie-dye so fascinating that and even a first timer can have great results with. Tie dye artworks are a lot like snowflakes. No two are ever exactly alike! The art of tie dye fuels creativity and I tell students often that their shirt will be unlike anyone else’s and that’s OK! 

dye bottles

Tie dye allows kids and adults to ask, “What If?” “What if, I use marbles and try to do a spiral on the same shirt?” “What if I put red dye next to blue dye? What if I put black dye on the back of my spiral because I REALLY like black?” Oftentimes the results are truly amazing. Other times students are less than happy with their results. The good news is, it’s just a shirt, and there will and always should be another chance to tie-dye! This is where you come in.

Parents Love It Just as Much as Kids

As an art teacher, a lot of parents assume that I just LOVE doing art with my kiddos all day. Don’t get me wrong, we do have many days where we do get into a creative wonderworld of fun together. However, lots of times I am trying to slow down the 3year old glue monster, or keeping the evils of glitter out of my house. Tie dye is one of the mediums my students, friends, and kids never get tired of. When people are eager and excited to do something, it just makes the mess so much easier to deal with!

It’s NOT That Messy

Through the years of teaching tie dye to large groups, including 50+ six-year-olds during summer day camp, I have filled my art teacher goodie bag with lots of tips to share with you. Ensuring tie dye success requires that you do your prep before you even tell anyone you will be tie dying with them. Mix your dyes, gather your supplies, prewash your t-shirts, wait for a beautiful day, and then you can tell them they will be tie dying today. Trust me, if you plan to tie dye outside in the summer and tell all the kids the day before, it WILL RAIN. It has to be spontaneous if at all possible, which also gets the kiddos even more excited! If outside isn’t an option, I have some key tips at the end of this tutorial for keeping tie dye neat indoors.

Tie Dye for a Group

Supplies needed:

  • one 100% cotton t-shirt per person, prewashed
  • Black sharpie markers
  • Plastic bags, one per person, small waste basket bags or Ziploc
  • Soda ash, 1 cup per gallon of warm water
  • 5-gallon bucket and paint mixing stick
  • Premixed dyes: Dharma Fiber Reactive dyes are my favorite!
  • Bins and baking rack setup- 1 per 2 people
  • Rubber bands
  • Marbles and/or stones
  • String
  • Latex gloves
  • Optional: Synthrapol, spray bottle of water

**It is highly recommended that you read all instructions before beginning, especially my helpful and clarifying tips at the end of this tutorial**

  1. Premix Dharma dyes according to package instructions. For 30 people, I like to mix up 10 bottles of dye (2 each of primaries (fuschia, yellow, turquoise), 1 purple, 1 orange, 1 green, and 1 black.
  2. In a large bucket, mix 1 cup soda ash per gallon of warm water. I like to use 2 gallons in a 5-gallon bucket for about 25-30 shirts.
  3. Set up the dye stations by covering tables and floors with plastic sheeting or old tablecloths. For each dye station, place a bin large enough to place a baking cooling rack in. Old Cake pans work fine. You could also use aluminum pans from the dollar store. This setup will allow the excess dye to drain from the shirt. The shirt is elevated above the excess dyes below.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          shirts on racks
  4. Distribute prewashed shirts and have students write their names on the tag or top seam. Next, have students label the outside of a plastic bag and set aside.
  5. Demonstrate some basic folding and tying techniques such as spiral, marbles, circles, V-accordion fold, horizontal accordion fold and diagonal. Creativity is encouraged and students can experiment and combine techniques.
    Let participants fold and tie shirts, preferably on a flat surface like a table or sidewalk. Guide and help as needed. Try to make sure they can still see their tag with their name on it. If their folding causes the tag to be hidden, you can always use a safety pin or other marking device to ensure they can find their shirt after the soda ash soak.
  6. Place folded and tied shirts in soda ash water for 10 minutes. Use your stick to make sure they are all completely submerged.
  7. Use this soak time to discuss the dying process. Review color mixing and discuss what colors look nice next to each other (analogous–red next to orange ) and which combinations lead to browns (complimentary–blue next to orange)
  8. Use gloves to wring out and remove shirts from soda ash solution.
  9. Have participants put on gloves, get their bag out, and then distribute the correct shirt to each person. If kids are taking turns at the dye stations, have them put their shirt in a bag and wait patiently.
  10. I have students work in partners-2 at each dye station. I have them help each other by asking questions about what colors to use and if red will look bad next to green. Dye shirts according to the color wheel. Ensure the dye penetrates the inner folds. Use your fingers to peek at the inner layers. Insert the tip of the application bottle into the folds to avoid leaving too much white on your finished product.
  11. When you are done dying, put the shirt in labeled bag and allow to batch (fancy tie-dye word for rest) for 24 hours. If it’s very hot outside, you can batch for less time, 4-6 hours.
  12. The next day put on gloves and remove the shirt from the bag. LEAVE THE TIES ON and rinse in cold water to stop the dying process. Then remove the ties and rubber bands and rinse in warm water thoroughly until the water runs clear. Wash in hot separately (or with other tie dye shirts) with Synthrapol to remove any remaining dye.


1. CHOOSING A SHIRT: Always use 100% Cotton shirts or other natural fabric to dye. The dye only reacts with natural fabrics like linen, ramie, rayon, silk…etc. Do not use polyester blends, which are very popular at the stores. Using a synthetic blend fabric will result in washed out tie-dye that is sad, not happy. BE AWARE and read tags carefully!
2. MIXING YOUR DYES: Pay very close attention to your dye mixing instructions. Dharma’s dyes require different amounts of dye powder depending on the color, for example. Be on your A game when you are doubling a recipe. Some dye brands require salt, others don’t. Premixed dyes don’t last very long, so it’s best to mix them up the morning before or the day before the dying process.
3. SODA ASH SMARTS: Use gloves and wear a dust mask when handling soda ash (and dyes!), even when diluted in water. It can sting. Its purpose is to raise the PH of the shirt so that its fibers react better to the dyes. I store my soda ash solution in a 5-gallon bucket with a lid on it that I have used over and over.
4. DYE STATION SETUP: I like to put plastic table clothes or drop clothes on the dye table and underneath it. If you are outside, you can even set up your dye stations in the grass. I also like to stock the dye station with paper towels for quick cleanups. If you want to be fancy, you can put out clean water bowls for participants to dip their gloved fingers into between colors. Most “unhappy accidents” result from accidentally touching dye to the shirt. 

Many people “recycle” the mucky dye in the bottom of the dye station bin/pan. Simply pour it into a bottle and you will have a mystery color to experiment with. For groups, in addition to t-shirts, we usually make a couple small tapestries from recycled sheets folded into mandalas as a group project. We try to add some of the mystery colors as a collaborative and unifying effort!
6. PREWASH and BUY AHEAD: I prewash all the shirts before tie dying. I like to supply the shirts for a group, even if I have to have students bring in money. I find this much easier than them bringing wearables from home. Kids often bring shirts that are polyester blends. Trust me, parents would rather fork over $5 than go out to the store checking tags on shirts for hours. Then they also have to wash it first. Lame. Just supply shirts for your group.
7. BAGS TO BATCH: Depending on the setting, I have my group put their labeled bags in their pocket or laying near the dye station with a rock on it so it doesn’t blow away. Either way, ensure you have a plan on “where to put the labeled bag.” These need to be ready when it’s time to dye. I just think it’s easier to label shirts and bags at the same time and then put the sharpies away. There is always one kid who wants to just Sharpie designs on their t-shirt otherwise.
8. TYING: When demonstrating folding, binding, and tying techniques, I use several shirts. I show some finished examples first and ask kids to predict how I will fold or tie it to get the desired result. As kids finish folding, I have them work on the collaborative tapestries by adding a few folds, marbles…etc. I like to put all the shirts in the soda ash at the same time, so I have their complete attention while we discuss the dying process. I have students work in partners to help each other bind their shirts. Often 2 hands are better than one! Damp shirts are easier to fold and will eliminate some frustration if you are a perfectionist. Use a spray bottle of water if you are doing a more intricate fold. If folding outside, damp shirts pick up dirt, which may really upset children. 

9. DYE PROCESS: I like to keep a color wheel handy when explaining the dye application process. I also am sure to show some “not so happy accidents” so kids can strive to keep their colors clean and crisp and to not overapply dyes. I explain that the fabric will absorb all the dye it can handle, and then the rest will run into the bottom of the bin and be wasted. Slow dye application is key so it saturates the fabric evenly, as the excess dye is both wasteful and unnecessary. It will not make a shirt brighter or more happy.
10. RINSING AND WASHING: It is best to rinse tie dye shirts the next day and allow the participants to do their own shirt. With young kids, you will likely need to help them. However, allowing them to watch you unfold their tie-dye is an integral part of this creative process. Don’t let them miss this part by taking the shirts home and doing it all yourself! If hot water and a slop sink is unavailable, use a garden hose outside next to a rain gate. When doing a final wash, hot water should be used to ensure all the excess dye is removed. While Synthrapol isn’t necessary, it is recommended to avoid a poorly washed tie dye shirt from ruining a load of laundry. If you don’t have a washer on location, directions can be sent home with participants to rinse and wash at home.

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