Tie Dye

Let’s talk tie-dye. It’s back in style but that’s not all it’s a super cool and fun art activity with results that you can wear! Tie-dye has been a well loved way of dyeing cloth since the sixth century. You read that right! In sixth century India people were using a tie-dye technique called bandhani that is still being used today. In the United States tie-dye has had several hay days, most notably in the roaring 20’s and then again and more predominately in the psychedelic 60’s. But what is tie-dye? And more importantly, how can we do it?

Tie dye is the art of dying fabric using a resist technique. The resist technique prevents dye from getting to parts of the fabric. Typically, the material is tied in some way with thread, as is the case with Bandhani or with rubber bands, to create resistance to the flow of the dye onto the material beneath. There are many ways that fabric can be tied and each one creates a different kind of pattern when dyed. Some of the most popular tie-dye designs include the bullseye, the nebula, polka dot, sunburst and ringer.

In today’s conscientious fashion communities we can see a rise in the popularity of natural fabric dyes being preferred over traditional synthetic fabric dyes. Natural dyes are those made from fruits, vegetables and flowers. Avocado, onions, red cabbage, beets, turmeric, blueberries, lemons, black beans, spinach, marigolds, roses and hibiscus are just a few of the common sources for natural fabric dyes. These dyes are not harmful to the Earth, to the user or to the wearer if the fabric being dyed happens to be clothing, as many tie-dyed articles are.

In the studio my students have delighted in creating tie-dyed fabrics and also in creating works of art that replicate some of the tie-dye effects. And you can too! Some of the materials needed for these projects include white crayons, watercolors, watercolor paper, markers, and plastic wrap. The first method involves using a white crayon to create a resist for your watercolor paint. You can use the white crayon to make the tie-dye design you want, such as a sunburst on your watercolor paper. Next, you get to use watercolor paints to color the entire paper using different colors to create whatever patterns you prefer. Once the entire paper has been painted you will see the relief design that you colored with the white crayon appear within the colorful field of watercolor paint.

Another fun method of replicating the tie-dye effect on paper, without actually tie-dying, also involves watercolor paint. For this activity you paint the entire watercolor paper applying colors however you wish. Afterwards, lay a sheet of plastic wrap over your paper and krinkle it so that it is bunched and not flat. This causes the wet paint beneath the plastic wrap to pull away from some areas and into other areas on the paper creating a dyed effect that resembles the nebula tie-dye design. Here’s another great way to explore creating tie-dye effects using markers instead of watercolor paint. Begin by coloring tie-dye patterns onto a sheet of plastic wrap. Then using a paint brush, wet your watercolor paper with water. Next, lay the plastic wrap on top of the wet paper, marker side down so that the wet paper pulls the marker ink onto itself creating a super cool tie-dye effect.

Of course, you can also have fun blending colors in a way that replicates some of the aspects of tie-dying with digital art too. There is a really great website called This website allows you to choose between 7 different colors which you can swirl and blend to create fluid like, colorful works of digital art. Because it’s digital art, it’s free and you can create again and again!

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