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Bright, bold, and beautifully unpredictable, tie-dyed clothing is a summertime staple that’s as fun to wear as it is to create. “Tie-dye has been around forever, but people aren’t just looking at it as a … trend anymore,” said Rajni Kavula, who runs Adroit, a California-based Etsy shop specializing in eco-conscious tie-dyed textiles. “You can tie-dye with family and friends out in the yard—it’s a nice way to bond with people,” said Kavula in a phone interview. “If you’re doing it solo, it’s very meditative because you’re focused on the technique and what the outcome will be.”
Modern DIY tie-dye kits come with conveniently sized, reusable squeeze bottles that seem to have completely replaced the old-school bucket-dunking method, making for a neater, more streamlined process. To keep our testing focused on dye performance and ease of use rather than color variety, we chose four of the most popular tie-dye kits from well-known dye or craft companies that contained a limited three- or four-color palette, which Kavula recommends for beginners. “Try working with one or two colors at a time so you can find what you like and learn the technique, then you can build on it,” she said.
After testing all of the kits on multiple T-shirts, we then rounded up our best step-by-step tips to help novices and experienced crafters alike create professional-looking gear they are proud to wear.
This easy, low-mess kit includes gloves, rubber bands, dye, and bottles to create bright, bold patterns from start to finish in just one day.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $26.
The T-shirts we dyed with the Tulip One-Step Tie-Dye Kit were the brightest and boldest, with very little effort or mess. The small squeeze bottles are easy to handle and come prefilled with powdered dye, so all you have to do is add warm water and shake carefully to combine. Also included are two pairs of basic disposable gloves and 20 just-right rubber bands (stretchy enough to work with but strong enough to secure the shape). In our test we found that you can achieve vibrant tie-dye designs using a moderate amount of dye: It took approximately one-third of the bottle to cover one T-shirt (the size of the shirt had a negligible effect on the amount of dye needed), so three bottles of dye should yield approximately nine T-shirts. If you want to tie-dye more than nine items, you can buy a kit that comes with more bottles or purchase additional tie-dye refill packs and reuse the squeeze bottles. And since the dye needs to set for only six to eight hours before you rinse and wash, you can create a beautiful tie-dye project from start to finish in a single day. Compare that with the Jacquard Tie Dye Kit we tested, which takes longer and is more involved, requiring the extra step of presoaking in soda ash and setting the dye for 12 to 24 hours.
We tested two of Tulip’s three-color kits, Classic and Vibrant, though the company sells many variations of its One-Step kit, including party packs with 18 bottles and a carrying case, as well as a Two-Minute Tie Dye Kit that can be used only on 100% cotton shirts and cuts the dye-setting time down to—you guessed it—two minutes.
Oh, and you’ll need some shirts to dye. We have recommendations, of course.
This super-affordable, decent-quality shirt has a great size range. Our XXL and larger testers especially loved the shirt’s fit and comfortable weight. But size up, because it shrinks.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $6.
These shirts come in multipacks and range from size XS (2/4) to XL (18/20), so dyeing multiples is cost-effective.
Prewash or wet your shirt until damp (not dripping). You should do this for two reasons: First, it helps remove the water-repellent coating many manufacturers add to the fabric. Second, we found that wet shirts are easier to fold and bind. We also tested the dyes on both wet and dry shirts. With our top-pick Tulip kit, the dye absorbed and saturated through the shirt’s layers nearly the same on the dry shirt as it did on the wet shirt, which was a pleasant surprise.
Cover your work surface with a durable, disposable tablecloth. If you’re tie-dyeing outside, first put a piece of sturdy cardboard on the ground so you have a flat surface to work on to prevent any dye from pooling underneath your project. Next, put on a pair of disposable gloves and mix your dye. Our top-pick kit comes with a colored cap for the squeeze bottle and a handy fill line for the warm water that help eliminate confusion and prevent permanent mistakes. With the cap firmly on the bottle and your finger securing the tip, shake for 10 to 15 seconds to make sure the powdered dye dissolves completely. Undissolved dye creates pesky dye dots and streaks on your project. Once the dye is fully mixed, bring your other materials—rubber bands, plastic wrap, and a plastic bucket if you’re using one—into reach, while leaving the center of your surface open for your T-shirt or base fabric.
Tip: While it’s tempting to dye a lot of items at once, try not to take on too many projects your first time. “Start with four or five simple pieces and patterns so you can learn and enjoy the process,” said Kavula. “The dye usually stays for a couple of days, so you can always go back and do more once you’re comfortable.”
Lay your damp shirt flat in the middle of your work surface. The best technique for beginners, said Kavula, is bunching fabric in sections and tying it with rubber bands or rolling the fabric lengthwise and adding rubber bands every few inches to create vertical or horizontal stripes. To create a swirl design, pinch the middle of your shirt with your thumb and pointer finger and twist clockwise until all of the fabric is swirled. To bind, stretch three to four rubber bands around the fabric to create pie sections. “Folding the fabric in different ways is how you end up with different designs,” noted Kavula. “But the beauty of hand-dyeing fabrics is that even when you follow the same technique, no two pieces are alike.”
All of the kits we tested include step-by-step instructions for tying techniques, but the Tulip kit’s instructions are the most comprehensive and inspiring.
“You can dye beige, yellow, or pastel fabric—anything light-colored,” said Kavula. “Save your old clothing—even if it has stains—and you can upcycle into something new.”
With your fabric folded and secured with rubber bands, make sure the cap is on tight and give the squeeze bottles another good shake to ensure the dye is completely mixed. Uncap the bottle and flip it over, squeezing gently to apply dye to the fabric. The goal is to use enough dye to penetrate the fabric without oversaturating it, which can cause the colors to run and become muddy, so don’t worry about pushing the squeeze bottle into the folds. Some overlapping is of course a good thing if you want to mix colors. Red, yellow, and blue, for example, are all you need to create a rainbow if you overlap colors carefully when you’re applying.
For a spiral design, squeeze dye onto a section of your pie and alternate between colors as you work clockwise. Then, flip the T-shirt over and repeat on the opposite side. Remember to apply dye around the sides of your shirt, too.
Cover your tie-dyed fabric or T-shirt with plastic wrap or place it inside a zip-top bag to keep it damp while the color sets. Then put the wrapped fabric in a plastic bin (cover optional) along with your gloves, which you’ll need later, while you play the waiting game. If you choose to leave the wrapped fabric in your sink, make sure it’s lined to protect drips from staining the basin. We found that the Tulip kit’s suggested six to eight hours of dye-setting time was plenty to achieve vibrant colors.
To unbind your creation, put your gloves back on, remove the rubber bands, and rinse the fabric in cool water until it runs clear. We rinsed our T-shirts in a plastic slop sink, and all of the dyes we tested washed away easily or wiped away with a paper towel and a few squirts of household cleaner. To play it safe, opt for a nonporous sink or head outside and use your garden hose to rinse.
The recommended instructions for another kit we like, the Rit Tie-Dye Accessory Kit, are to dye over a sink. We were concerned about the dye staining porcelain, but if you use the recommended dye fixer, Rit ColorStay Dye Fixative (sold separately), minimal color comes off during the rinse process. If you want to be extra safe, use the bucket or hose method.
When the water rinses away clear from your fabric, drop your creation in a washing machine with a small amount of detergent (we recommend no more than 2 tablespoons) and run a regular cycle. For total color confidence, add a light-color rag or an old T-shirt to the initial wash. If you don’t find any color transfer, you’re good to wear the dyed fabric and wash it with other clothes. If you see streaks, wash it again alone before popping it in the dryer. We found no dye left behind from placing the dyed fabrics in the washing machine.
For multiple dye sessions: The Rit Tie-Dye Accessory Kit is an affordable investment that pays off in the long run. The kit comes with two pairs of gloves, 20 rubber bands (a little thick, but usable), three medium-size squeeze bottles, and a magical microwave container that speeds up setting time. Not included, however, are the actual liquid fabric dyes and the highly recommended dye fixative, which you have to purchase separately. You need only 2 teaspoons of dye per squeeze bottle, and Rit sells its dyes in 8-ounce bottles, so one bottle of dye can make 24 squeeze bottles, yielding you dozens more projects than the all-in-one kits we tested.
We also really liked the Rit kit because the microwave shortcut made tie-dyeing pretty quick. But you should stick to fabrics containing less than 35% synthetic fibers for this method. First, you dye your fabric, apply the dye fixative, and let it set. After 30 minutes, you microwave the clothing in the tray for five minutes, which opens up the fibers in the fabric so they absorb more of the dye. Once the T-shirt we tested cooled (about 10 minutes more), it rinsed nearly clear right away and washed without any bleeding onto a light towel that we threw in the machine too. That said, we caution using the alternative approach Rit offered: placing the fabric in the sun for three hours on a hot, sunny day. When we followed those steps, we found that a lot of dye rinsed off the T-shirt, turning our towel pink when we washed them together.
If you want a quick dye kit without buying in bulk: The Tulip Two-Minute Tie Dye Kit comes with four squeeze bottles and colors (yellow, fuschia, turquoise, and green), 10 rubber bands, two pairs of gloves, and two microwave trays that can be used only with 100% cotton fabric. This is a good option if you want quick dye-setting time without the investment and extra purchases of the Rit system.
For truly beautiful colors: Consider the Jacquard Tie Dye Kit. The rainbow spiral design we created with the red, yellow, and blue dye achieved beautiful blending of colors, but this kit took the longest to use from beginning to end. It includes three applicator bottles with enough premeasured powdered dye inside to create 15 T-shirts, plus a bonus bottle for premixing colors, soda-ash dye fixer, one pair of disposable gloves, and 40 small, stretchy rubber bands.
First, submerge your T-shirt into a solution of soda-ash dye fixer (included) and warm water for 20 minutes, which helps the dye set and stay. Then you need to let the dye sit on the fabric for at least 12 hours, which is twice as long as our top pick and makes tie-dyeing more of a two-day project. On the plus side, the kit includes more dye than Tulip’s all-in-one, and the presoak was worth it—the colors were bright and didn’t bleed in the first washing machine cycle (after a quick rinse in the sink).
The S.E.I. Crafts Classic Tie Dye Kit took more trial and error than the other kits we tested. The kit includes liquid dye in a spray bottle that is ready to use right out of the box—no mixing involved—and does not require rinsing or washing the fabric afterward. Instead, you let the fabric air-dry and then use an iron to heat-set the dye before wearing. While the prefilled spray bottles were initially less messy than other kits’ squeeze bottles, we found it took a lot more time and effort to fully cover and saturate the fabric, which was necessary to achieve a colorful, classic spiral pattern. Our first shirt barely looked like it was tie-dyed. Once we realized we needed to spray on more dye, we were able to improve the designs and vibrancy. In addition, the waiting time for both wet and dry T-shirts ended up being about 24 hours, approximately four times as long as other kits’ setting, rinsing, and washing time combined. It wasn’t the speedy option we’d hoped for.
This article was edited by Erica Ogg and Annemarie Conte.
Taryn Mohrman is a freelance writer who reports on holiday topics for Wirecutter. She’s a former magazine director who has covered a range of lifestyle topics, including home design, cleaning and organizing, and parenting. She’s also the person who’s buying out the remaining stock of pumpkins in November for a Halloween story she’s working on for next October.
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