Introduction: How to Tie Dye an Old White Shirt

Picture of How to Tie Dye an Old White Shirt

Tie dye shirts are almost as American as apple pie. It’s impossible to be sad while wearing tie dye colors — especially if you accessorize with your favorite rainbow loom bracelet!

While some instructions suggest using string I find that rubber bands work the best. Either way, the most important thing is that you have fun preparing an old tee for its transformation into a rainbow masterpiece.

Step 1: The Shirt, Fit to Be Dyed!

Picture of The Shirt, Fit to Be Dyed!

The shirts that work best are 100% cotton, but you can also use 50% cotton/50% polyester. The results will not be as vibrant. I once tried to dye a 100% polyester garment and when it was unwrapped - all the dye washed off! The dyes only bond well with natural fabrics, like cotton, silk and rayon - but we're talking cotton here....

Step 2: Presenting Your Choice of Dyes

Picture of Presenting Your Choice of Dyes

You can buy dye kits very easily in the craft stores, which come with everything you need. They include rubber gloves, rubber bands, soda ash, urea and complete, easy to follow instructions. The dyes are already in the squeeze bottles, all you have to add is warm water (not hot). Other alternatives include buying single packages of dyes. These also come with the necessary urea, soda ash and instructions for mixing. However, you would need to purchase some squeeze bottles separately if you don't have any.

Although I have used kits, I prefer to use the Procion dyes as supplied by Dharma Dye. They have a great website where you can buy all you need. Procion dyes are the best and brightest dyes, I thoroughly recommend them. If you mix the dye powder yourself however, always wear a mask so that you don't inhale the powder into your lungs.

Step 3: The Tools You Will Need for Success

Picture of The Tools You Will Need for Success

If you are like me and not using a pre-packaged kit, you will need the following; Procion dye, rubber bands, rubber gloves, squeeze bottles for the dye, urea and soda ash, large ziplock bags, a tub for soaking the shirts, and a wooden dowel or something similar for creating the twist in the shirt. A funnel and a measuring curt are also useful for mixing the dye. Oh yes, don't forget to have paper towels and paper plates to hold your shirt while it's being dyed, and old rags to mop up the spills. Tie-dying does not have to be messy!

Step 4: Soaking the Shirt

Picture of Soaking the Shirt

To enable the Procion dyes to bond with the shirt, you need to soak it in a solution of WARM water and soda ash for about 10 minutes. Follow the instructions given with the soda ash so that you have the right mix. Do not use water that is too hot or too cold - and add a couple of tablespoons of common salt to the mix too!! Make sure the mixture is thoroughly dissolved before adding the shirt. The temperature of the water should be about about the same as a baby's bath! As the soda ash is slightly caustic you may want to wear rubber gloves at this point, especially if you have a cut on your finger - it will sting! After soaking, wring the shirt out thoroughly. The more liquid that you can squeeze out, the more dye will be able to get in! I usually spin my shirts on the spin cycle of the washing machine. (Note- if you use a brand new shirt, wash it first to remove the newness, which I think they call "size". This "sizing" will prevent dye from bonding properly, and you may get a streaky effect.)

Step 5: Tying a Rainbow Swirl Pattern!

Picture of Tying a Rainbow Swirl Pattern!

After you have soaked and wrung out the shirt (by the way, if you don't do it in the washing machine, try wringing it out with a friend!) place the shirt on a flat surface. Place it right side down, as you will then get a sharper pattern on the front of the shirt. Of course if you want the sharper pattern on the back - well, you know!

Place the dowel rod, (or your finger, or a wooden clothes pin) in the centre of the shirt and start turning clockwise until you have a nice flat pie shape. You can also turn counter-clockwise if you prefer, it makes no difference really.

Step 6: Achieving Pie!

Picture of Achieving Pie!

This what your shirt should look like at this stage. Do not allow the shirt to creep up the dowel rod, make it behave with the hand not turning the dowel rod! You are now ready to remove the dowel and put on the rubber bands. The trick is to place the bands, without disturbing the shirt! It can be done! Be careful removing the dowel. You do not want to pull the shirt up in the middle - thus unachieving pie! This part of the process is the most important step of all. Believe me if you do a sloppy "tie" you will achieve a sloppy and messy "dye" and live to regret it.

Step 7: Join the Band!

Picture of Join the Band!

With your lovely pie shape achieved, you can now put on the rubber bands. Slip several bands on (see the picture) then turn the shirt over and put on some more. This keeps its shape. Keep the whole thing as flat as you can. Your are now ready to dye!

Step 8: To Dye For

Picture of To Dye For

When doing the actually dying bit, you will need to cover your working surface with plastic. Something like a plastic table cloth will work fine. You also need to wear old clothes, old shoes, etc. The dyes will stain your clothes, the floor, the walls, the ceiling, etc. So if you are not working outside please be careful. The dyes are harmless to your skin, but if you don't wear rubber gloves you will achieve red, yellow or blue dyed hands, which won't wash off (wears off in a couple of days - but can be a amazingly embarrassing!). Also be ready with the rags to mop up spills. When I mix the dyes I make sure that the caps are on tight and I also wipe the screw top and bottle neck to avoid "capillary action". I have also purloined some of my husband and son's old white socks and cut them down to fit over the bottles, which helps stem accidental leaks!
Hint: there is a product called Reduran, which can be purchased online from Dharma, which removes dye from the skin instantly, so you don't have to suffer "rainbow hand" syndrome!

Step 9: Actually Using the Dyes

Picture of Actually Using the Dyes

Place your shirt "pie" on a couple of thicknesses of paper towels on top of a paper plate on your plastic protected working surface. It's less messy, and easy to flip the whole thing over when dying the other side. Wear rubber gloves!

Just a note: When I tie dye I usually only use three colours, Fuchsia red, turquoise and lemon yellow. With these three colours you can make any colour you like. To make the rainbow swirl shirt, imagine that your "pie" is an actual pie chart! Working from the centre of the shirt and holding the bottle low over the shirt, dye one third of the shirt lemon yellow. Do not wave the bottle around as you will make a mess! Dye the second third of the shirt fuchsia red and the final third turquoise. Do not leave any white spaces showing - the "white" is hiding within the folds! If you overlap the colours at the edges of each section you will get the other rainbow colours, i.e. green, purple and orange! It's magic!

Hint: Always put yellow - (or other light coloured dyes) on first. Once you "lose" or cover it up by mistake - it is changed to something else (either orange or green) and you can't get it back.

Step 10: Turn the Pie Over!

Picture of Turn the Pie Over!

When you have finished putting the dye on the first side, turn the whole thing over. This will be easy to do if you just flip the plate over onto another paper plate with clean paper towel all ready for you. Throw the first paper plate and towel away (clean up as you go along whenever possible). Apply the dye on this second side in a similar manner. If you are making the rainbow swirl, you need to be sure to put the three colours behind the same colours you used on the other side (i.e. red behind red, blue behind blue, etc.) If you don't do this, you will not get a rainbow spiral, but a sort of rainbow spider pattern (which is quite nice actually!)

Step 11: Now Comes the Hard Part - Waiting!

Picture of Now Comes the Hard Part - Waiting!

After you have completed putting the dye on the shirt, pop it into a zip lock bag and seal it up tight. Put the bag in a warm place and leave it for AT LEAST 24 HOURS! The dye needs this length of time to "prove" and allow the beautiful colours to really bond with the fabric. For you desperate "have-it-nows," you can unwrap after 8 hours. But you can also leave the shirt for as long as 36 hours if you are very patient. If you leave it much longer I have found the colours go sort of fuzzy (don't know why). When you unwrap your shirt wear rubber gloves and old clothes again. Don't make a mess!

Note: you have it nows should try the bleach tie method!

Step 12: Unwrapping Your Masterpiece - Wear Rubber/latex Gloves!

Picture of Unwrapping Your Masterpiece - Wear Rubber/latex Gloves!

I love this part! This is the moment you have been waiting for. It's time to unwrap and discover your beautiful (we hope) creation for all to see. Take the shirt out of the bag! You can either take the bands off first, unwrap and start running the shirt under a cold water tap, or just run under the tap for a while and then take the bands off! BEWARE, if you have never tie dyed before you will be astonished at the amount of dye that pours out as you are rinsing. The water might turn black! Fear not, this is normal. All the dye you so lovingly applied will never bond with the fabric. Enough dye will remain, well and truly bonded. Keep rinsing until the water runs clear (it may take a while!) Hopefully, if you have done it right your pattern will be revealed in all its glory. It's like a butterfly emerging from a chrysallis! You may now wash your shirt in the normal way in a washing machine (on its own the first time). I usually wash my shirts two or three times on their own, before I trust them with other coloureds.

Step 13: The Moment of Truth - It's Gorgeous!

Picture of The Moment of Truth -  It's Gorgeous!

Here's my shirt. I hope yours is as good or even better! No more "dingies." Enjoy!

Step 14: No White Cotton Garment Will Ever Be Safe Again!

Picture of No White Cotton Garment Will Ever Be Safe Again!

Once you have the tie dye bug life will never be the same. Your family members may become paranoid and start hiding their cotton underwear. They may become very afraid if you to take any white cotton bed sheets and bath towels to be transformed! They don't call me the "Tie-dye Queen" for nothing!


alittlestranger made it! (author)2009-12-16

just wanted to say thanks so much for the instructable, i used it to make this tie dye shirt for my boyfriend to wear to my rainbow birthday party :)

It was really easy to follow and now i want to tie dye everything!! :)

frenzy (author)alittlestranger2010-07-26

This posting has won today's "I Made It" Challenge. For winning you will receive a 3 month pro membership!

Thanks for using instructables!

Catsonthebed (author)2017-11-13

I have been tie dyeing for years and years and years. This is the first tutorial that shows how to do the "swirl" with great clarity and ease. Thanks so much. I'm still a "free hander" and have dyed everything from baby clothes, duvet covers, yoga pants, tights and leggings! I too am known as a The Dye Queen! My husband EXPECTS new tie dye T shirts for Christmas, which I am starting today. Wish me luck!

criffster (author)2017-07-05

Absolutely brilliant!

The best tie dye Instructable I've seen to date.

Kudos, Madame!

RolandO1 (author)2017-07-04

fantastic Woodstock

WhyHello (author)2011-06-20

WHy soda ash? Is that baking Soda? Would it be found in the same area as baking soda in a grocery store?

Jayque (author)WhyHello2017-07-04

Slight difference. Soda Ash is Sodium Carbonate and Baking Soda is Sodium Bi- Carbonate.

Soda Ash is helpful so it opens up the fabric for paint to get soaked easily. In other words it adds pH levels in water to help the process.

Cristy janeT (author)WhyHello2015-03-22

No. Its different from baking sod. however, instead of soda ash you can use washing soda.

slivie (author)WhyHello2011-07-16


Soda Ash isn't the same as baking soda. you can buy it from a dye store or get it at a pool and spa store. It is caustic so be sure to protect your hands and eyes.

As for banding. Once you twist your shirt into a bun. (I use a fork and twirl like its pasta) Just take your rubber band, hold it open and slide it under , and around the shirt while it's sitting flat. Do that 2 more times and you'll have your triangles. (almost looks like a pie chart at this point.)

Once you've allowed the garment to sit dyed for 24 hours, rinse, then wash with the hottest water for the garment in the machine...with Syntrapol or similar product. The shirt is amazingly color fast. I have one dress I bought about 5 years ago that the colors are still vibrant... the fabric is showing wear... but the colors are still awesome.

thundrepance (author)2017-07-04

FINALLY a tie-dye easy enough for me to make! ?? thank-you, stinkymum

ShawnS60 (author)2017-07-04

Awesome; thank you! I will do it soon!
I have made several tie-died shirts, as I was born in 1960, and I lived through every one of those years, although sometimes it was a narrow escape indeed.
But none of them were as precede and pretty as yours in this Instructable. I learned as I went, never actually learning how to do it properly. I remember a couple of shirts I liked. I still have one I wear that came from my favorite canoeing resort--they gave it to me.
Now, the time has come for me to RULE this tye dye shirt!
Thank you again; I will follow your Instructable to. A. T. and even share knowledge with a nephew and a grandchild, if I live that long (she's going in 2 months I need to make it three more years, at LEAST, to properly teach my adorable little granddaughter, Margot!

1229912289 made it! (author)2017-05-28

it was awesome!!!!

1229912289 (author)12299122892017-05-28

It took a wile lol

1229912289 (author)12299122892017-05-28

but it was worth it

KimoraC (author)2017-05-18

I am tie dying my shirt at school for the last day of school.

sblackard (author)2017-03-02

I want to use your quote in a speech for a class of mine. Tie-dye is almost as American as apple pie. How do I give you credit?

MostafaO5 (author)2016-12-25

really really its very good instruction to success in tie and dye

and its very beauiful

Tekapua (author)2016-10-11

this is cool


Smilinggirl14 (author)2016-07-09

wow love this

TesseractCloth (author)2016-06-24

Nice tutorial!

Aaliyah cameron made it! (author)2016-06-19

it was so fun to make but a stupid idea i hate it

lesleycupcakechavez (author)2016-03-21

i did try this but it didnt work. Maybe its because it wasn't 100% whool

rajkirank (author)2015-11-16

Beautiful!!! Have lot white t-shirts, I will definitely try this....

Willo90 (author)2015-08-17

Apple pie is English..just saying

fsumichelle (author)2015-08-06

When you soak it in the soda ash, can you let it dry after before tie dying or does it need to be damp? Can I let it dry and then just run under water once I am at school? I want to do this in my classroom, but would like to do the washing and soda ash part at home (our attention span won't hold out that long).

CharlineCaisse (author)2015-07-15

Seems like you had so much fun! :))

Seanysean (author)2015-05-29

Thanks so much! Can't wait to try it!

rockin-robin (author)2015-05-05

zeenia.zehra (author)2015-04-06

i like it

marj1999 (author)2015-03-03

Hello, we love the tie dye! How long can my dyes be stored after mixing before using? I have about 12 bottles of colors mixed from before I went on vacation, 3 weeks ago. They have been in my basement where it's pretty cold this winter. Should I chance it to see if they'll still hold up?

katherinegrixti (author)marj19992015-03-13

From everything I have been reading the dye needs to be used straight away, within an hour or so or it won't come out very bright. after 3 weeks I would say you can't use it anymore.

lauravitali95 (author)2014-01-13

Hi there, I been trying to find some white shirts to tie dye but all of them a pretty much see through. Does this matter at all?? will the dye stop them from being see through or should i find better shirts???

KelliK1 (author)lauravitali952015-02-01

as long as it is cotton. Any other material the colors will come out weird.

doodlecraft (author)2014-07-08

I love it! Thank you! :)

bballer2000 (author)2013-07-08

It will work if you only dry it for 8 hours?

KB09 (author)2013-06-20

Would a Person be able to vinyl print a logo onto the shirt once its been dyed?

Justmychucks101 (author)2013-03-12

What if it dries in the 24 hours

sjohnson75 (author)2013-01-02

Hi me and my partner love tie dying and have tried so many differnet ways but everytime we rinse off our tshirts they seem to fade and dont look so vibrant like yours. What are we doing wrong? We soak in soda ash solution for 10 mins, then wring out and fold, add bands then squirt on our dye. We then leave this for 24 hrs but still they look faded. Can u help please?

bschneid (author)2012-12-09

If i want to make a lot of tie dye items how much dye do you recommend buying? How many tshirts can you make from 2oz of each colour?

chrissy77 (author)2012-10-23


chrissy77 (author)2012-10-23

Thanks so much!!! I love how my tank top turned out. I love it soo much....I thought I'd post a picture. Thanks again!!!

kerryxxx (author)2012-06-18

oh i got so excited about then i saw what i need and thought okaaaay i wont be doing this i have no idea what procion dye is... :/

WhyHello (author)2011-06-20

So, like, say you wear this evey day. And wash it ever night. How much more would the die wear out? =(

flo2012 (author)WhyHello2012-06-07


Reed_Sky_Born (author)2012-04-05

so awesome im gonna make it (:

SanDiegoSaunie (author)2012-04-04

thank you for the easy to follow "instructables". We are planning a combo egg dyeing and shirt dyeing party for our Easter celebration. The kids can dye 3 dozen eggs in under a half hour and we wanted to do something to continue the theme. Lone behold, my Grateful Dead following (those were the!) husband suggested Tie Dye! Perfecto! thx again

kariaist (author)2011-07-18

I think the colors are in the wrong spots here in the photo as the instructions describe if you want to achieve the cool spiral pattern.

lakramer (author)2010-06-25

RIT dye works, probably better than the procion dye if you're working with children. :) Really nice instructable! Thank you!

slivie (author)lakramer2011-07-16

rit dye often requires boiling hot water. I've tried both and I'd rather cover my nieces and nephews with garbage bags and give them squirt bottles. (Adults should mix dyes and soda ash solutions)

About This Instructable




Bio: Born in England many years ago, moved to California in 1980, moved to New York in 1993, became a US citizen. Favourite place to visit ... More »
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