Tie Dye: Chemical and Folding Magic

Geek Culture

Here’s a great summer geek project for kids: Tie Dye!

It’s fun, colorful and chemistry in action. It’s also perfect for groups of kids. We found doing tie dye fits perfectly well with being in a bathing suit — less worry about getting clothes stained.

This was our staging area for one tie-dye-in at a family reunion.

Here’s how it works. Get some clothes to dye. You can buy new white t-shirts, pants, tablecloths, or white bathing suits! — but you can also recycle free give-away t-shirts or other light colored used clothes for a lot of fun. You soak the clothes in a mordant. This is the chemistry part. We use washing soda (not baking soda!) from the grocery store — that is sodium carbonate. There are other optional chemical additives that will increase the quality of the dye — figuring out which ones you want to use is a good chemistry experiment for advance projects.


Then you tie the cloth up with rubber bands. This is the origami folding part. You have to think in 3D, and work backward from the final patter you want. (See the book recommendation below). You also have to think in color inverse, starting with the light colors first and working to the darks at the end. We recently visited some very sophisticated tie dyers in Yunnan China. Here is an example of their incredibly complex tie — which almost looks like origami — and the pattern it reveals as it is untied.



After tieing you dye. The key to successful tie dye (as in batik) is to use cold water procion dyes. If you try to use your ordinary drug store hot-water dyes they won’t work without heat, and you can’t “paint” with them like you can with cold water dyes. Procion dyes are diluted into solutions which you squirt from a plastic bottle, like it was liquid paint. These are light-fast dyes and will of course stain other fibers (carpets, clothes, drapes) that you — or kids — may spill dye on.


You can find procion dyes in small quanities at a good craft or art store. For a great selection of colors you can also order online. I’ve used Dharma Trading. They also sell kits (including ones for groups) and other paraphernalia for dying crafts. For the thrifty, all you need are 2 oz. each of four colors (lemon yellow, turquoise, fuchsia and black) and four clean squeeze bottles, washing soda, gloves, plenty of water, and a space that will tolerate indelible dyes (bathroom, patio, beach). Dharma also offers a page of tie dye activities and instructions for group tie dye.

The best introductory how-to book on the subject of tieing (not so much on dyeing) is Tie Dye!. It tells you how to tie up patterns that are simple enough for kids, and interesting enough for adult beginners.

If you ever decide you want to produce tie dye at the fine art level, or for commercial sale, these DVDs describe the process in great detail. Be prepared to set up a serious chemistry lab. The guy makes some awesome patterns.

Awakenings LotusAwakenings Lotus

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