The complete guide to making the best tie dye shirts

Making tie dye shirts is a classic summer activity! Basically everyone gets nostalgic about making a tie dye shirt, from summer camp or just doing it  with your friends as a kid.  

Mostly people remember how fun it was to squirt the pretty fabric dyes, and then how awesome it was later to wear the cool shirt you made!

What people don’t remember so much is all the waiting and tedious washing the shirts out. I suspect it’s because the parents took care of that part. And then there’s the sad fact - sometimes your shirt came out ugly. That sucked - especially if your friend’s mom was a tie dye wizard and her shirt looked awesome.

Have you ever tried to make tie dye and it came out ugly, with a lame pattern, or the colors bled and looked muddy? ME TOO. And I decided that was never going to happen again. I have spent the last week exhaustively testing tie dying methods, and here’s my complete guide to tie dye shirts!       

So my work friends and I had a BBQ at my house and we thought it would be fun to do some tie die as an activity. We all had a lot of fun dying our shirts. When it was time to go home, several of them left their shirts behind because they have to sit for hours before you can rinse them out.

I told them to leave the shirts and I would wash them and bring them to work with me. When I unwrapped the shirts, some of them just didn’t turn out that cool. The patterns weren’t that nice, classic tye die shirt look - the dye was concentrated in one area and parts of the shirt didn’t get any dye on them.

I threw them all in the washer for a cold wash. When I opened the washer, I was bummed out to discover that some of the dye had bled and now all the shirts were muddy looking and the white parts had turned pale blue. They weren’t terrible - just not AWESOME.

So I spent the next several days buying a bunch of tie dye and shirts, and experimenting with techniques for making great tie dye. I learned a lot about making perfect tie dye shirts!

First let’s go over tie dye supplies.

I got all of my tie dye supplies at Michaels.  They have good sales and you can always get a 40% off coupon on the app.

The white tee shirts are a very good deal. The first day I went they were on sale for $2. When I went back for more supplies, they were $4 which is still really cheap. You can use any type of cotton shirt - but make sure it’s cotton. The dye won’t work on polyester or synthetic fabrics. You need a different kind of dye for synthetics.

The dye brand I used is Tulip, and I think it is an excellent quality. I got the 18 color tie dye kit. They make it in variations. They have almost the same colors, but one has black and one has dark blue. I got the one with dark blue. It was $30 at Michael's, and I used my coupon. Not super cheap but you can dye a lot of shirts with it. It comes with all the squeeze bottles with dye powder inside, rubber bands, gloves, and a sheet of plastic to lay the shirts on. All you have to do is add water to the dye bottles and shake.

I found that I used up certain colors - the yellow and the dark blue and dark purple. So I went back to Michael's to get some individual colors. I discovered that the individual colors are $7 and they sell a 3 pack for $10 so I went ahead and got the 3 pack. As it turns out, that’s an even better deal, because the 3 pack also has 5 extra dye powder packs in it, so you are getting waaaaay more for your money.

I also got a jug of white vinegar and a container of table salt at the grocery store to set the dye.

Here’s the step by step of what to do for perfect tye die shirts -

Dampen your shirts. I’ve discovered that the dye absorbs better if the shirt is slightly damp. It shouldn’t be wet, just damp. If the shirt is totally dry, the dye will tend to roll off of it and you don’t get good saturation. This wastes dye, but it is also the reason why sometimes you get ugly patterns. If the dye doesn’t soak into the tighter folds in the shirt, you won’t get any pattern there.

Twist your shirt correctly. There’s a variety of ways to make patterns in the shirt, but the best and most classic way is the spiral pattern. That’s the one I focused on perfecting. To do a good spiral, lay your shirt out flat. Point all your fingers together and place them in the center of the shirt. Then twirl the shirt. Give it a few twists and the center will make a nice tight spiral. Next, gently use your other hand to guide the outer edges of the shirt along the same direction as the spiral, while holding the spiral with your fingers. 

After you have your shirt neatly spiraled, take 3-4 rubber bands and place them over your tee shirt bundle. They should cross over one another so it looks like your shirt is a little pie with slices. Try to tuck in the loose sleeve ends that will flop out. If you have to do this a few times to get a neat bundle, that’s okay. It’s important to have it wrapped correctly or the design won’t turn out well. A larger shirt like a 2X will need more rubber bands than a small shirt.

Now it’s time for the FUN part! Place your shirt on something that won’t get destroyed by dye. I used my lawn, but a sink or bucket would be fine. It’s probably a good idea to use gloves if you don’t want to have disgusting blackish brown hands for a few days. I don’t use them because yolo. Get the dye colors you want to use and start squirting!

A surefire way to get a good shirt is to use analogous colors. This means colors that are next to each other on the color wheel - such as yellow, teal, green, and blue or yellow, orange, red, and purple. This will assure that your color blends will be harmonious. You can also get cool looks with contrasting colors, but there’s a bigger liklihood you will get muddy colors. Green and purple mix to make brown. Some colors just look ugly mixed. So if you’re just starting out, stick to colors that blend well.

Another good thing to keep in mind is that you’ll get better results from contrasting colors. Use a light, like yellow, a bright, and a dark for good contrast. My favorite technique is to put the lightest color at the center of the spiral, the bright color in the middle, and the dark color at the outside edges. Then I squirt a little of each on different parts, but just as an accent.

Use a LOT of dye. Use more than you think you need. Make sure you poke the squirt bottle down into the folds and get everything really wet. If you don’t get dye down into the fabric, you’ll end up with a mostly white shirt and it won’t look awesome.

Also, the dye only works while it’s wet. The longer the wet dye sits in the shirt, the brighter and more distinct the dye will be. So you want to get the shirt really wet, and then let it sit for a long time. It’s best to wrap your shirt in saran wrap or a plastic bag and let it sit over night.

After it’s been sitting for at least 8 hours, it’s time to rinse. I’ve discovered that rinsing can make or break your design. It’s so annoying to unwrap your shirt, admire how gorgeous it is, and then wash it and have it come out muddy and lame.

Here’s what you do. Prepare a bucket or pot of cold water. Add a half cup of white vinegar and a quarter cup of table salt and let it dissolve. Then add your shirt, still tied up. You can put multiple shirts in. Let them sit for 10 minutes. The vinegar and salt will help set the dye.

After your shirt has sat for 10 minutes, pull it out and unwrap it. Pretty! Now rinse it under cold, running water until most of the dye has come out. This will take several minutes. Next, turn the water to hot and rinse some more. A lot of dye will come out, this is okay. After you’ve rinsed in hot water for a few more minutes, wring the extra water out of your shirt.

Throw it in the washing machine with a splash of white vinegar and a little regular laundry detergent. You can throw several shirts in. Wash them on a cold cycle. Then throw them in the dryer on high.

They should come out looking amazing - bright colors, crisp patterns, and no muddy whites! It’s normal for the colors to look a little lighter when the shirt is dry than it does when wet, BTW.

Here's a little video of all my finished tee shirts!

And there you have it! Those are my tried and tested fool proof tips to make perfect tie dye shirts. I’d love to know if you use my method! Let me know how it works and if you have any tips to add! And share pictures of your tie dye with me too! You can share them to the Making Something Rad facebook page, or email me!

P.S. An amazing way to fix muddy or ugly tie dye shirts is to dye over them again after you've washed and dried them! The come out really beautiful - layered colors and patterns!