Ever since the color explosion in the 1970s, tie-dye has remained a constant in the fashion world. We all love the vivid starbursts and pinwheels of rainbow colors! If you plan to launch a t-shirt business on Etsy or hold a tie-dying party for your kids, you will want to find the best dye for tie-dye.
The best dye for tie-dye depends on the type of material you plan to use, but the most permanent and vivid tie-dye color comes from using fiber reactive or cold reactive dyes. Some kinds of fabric, such as wool or silk, require acid-based dyes. Synthetic fabric such as polyester takes heat-activated disperse dyes but can hold a nice, vivid pattern.
In this article, you will learn all about the different kinds of fabric dyes that create the best tie-dye designs. You will discover which professional kits offer high-quality dye. Finally, you will get tips for how to make your own all-natural tie-dyes!
What Dye to Use for Tie-Dye?
The best way to get the perfect tie-dye job is to match the type of dye you use to the kind of fabric you want to color. Unfortunately, there is no one size fits all coloring agent that works for every single tie-dye project.
That said, most professional tie-dye artists and most commercial kits contain something called fiber reactive dye. This works really well on cotton or any type of cloth with cellulose in its fibers.
Protein-based fabrics like wool and silk work best with acid dyes. Synthetic, plastic-based cloth needs a type of heat-activated dye called disperse dyes.
Beyond making sure you pair the right kind of coloring agent to use with your type of fabric, you should also consider a few other factors when picking the perfect kind of tie-dye.
First, you have to decide if you want a commercial kit or put together your own dye and materials. Kits offer a convenient way to get everything you need in one neat package. On the other hand, you do not get as much say on the colors you will use if you work with a kit.
Hand-picking your colors may end up costing more, but it does allow you to create a more unique, personalized design. You can also find sets of colors for sale, often in color themes such as jewel-toned or pastel shades. If you go with a set rather than purchasing single colors, you will want to consider how many different colors you get as you compare sets and prices.
Best Dye for Tie-Dye
In general, the best dye for tie-dye is a fiber reactive or cold-reactive dye that will permanently bond with cotton or other cellulose fibers. This also means that the easiest projects use 100% cotton fabric!
Of course, you can make gorgeous tie-dye out of other types of cloth as well, by using the appropriate type of dye. But the fiber-reactive dyes have a leg up because they set well and do not fade or rinse out easily. They also do not require dangerous chemicals or high heat during the coloring process.
To find out more, check out this quick overview of the pros and cons of all the most popular types of dye you can use for tie-dyeing projects!
You will find two different kinds of fiber-reactive dyes on the market. Cold-reactive dyes make the most popular tie-dye option, but heat reactive dye has growing popularity as one of the most vivid and boldly colorful dyes ever.
Invented in the 1950s, fiber-reactive dyes changed the clothing industry dramatically. This kind of dye can form molecular bonds with the cellulose fibers in types of fabric like cotton and hemp. This makes the color permanent and bold, as it becomes a part of the cloth!
Among the many benefits of using fiber-reactives include its extreme colorfastness and the fact that it does not contain any toxic material. Many popular brands like Dharma and RIT sell fiber reactive dyes in kits, sets, or single colors.
Fiber Reactie kits or colors typically cost more than options such as acrylic paint or some all-purpose coloring agents, though. The other downside to choosing a fiber-reactive option is that it often requires additional chemicals like synthrapol and/or soda ash to help the color set.
This type of dye works on plant-based materials that contain cellulose. These include cotton, hemp, rayon, and linen, among others.
Cold reactive dyes are a Procion-type kind of fiber reactive that only need a temperature of 70℉ to bond with the material. “Procion” just means a kind of dye that bonds to fabric chemically and does not require heat. Most commercial kits contain this type of dye, often in powder form to dissolve with water before application.
Cold reactive dyes do not create vivid, bold colors as the heat reactive version. On the other hand, they remain colorfast much better than many other kinds of dye. Though this can vary in commercial kits, you often need additional chemicals to set procion-type colors in the fabric, like soda ash.
The reason cold-reactive dyes make such great tie-dye is that you can use squirt bottles, spray bottles, or dipping methods instead of immersing the fabric in a hot bath. This gives you much more room to create unique designs and patterns!
If you want to tie-dye wool, silk, or any type of fabric that contains protein-based fibers, you will need to use acid dyes. Technically you can tie-dye with acid dye, but this type of coloring does require heat. This means you will have to find a way to immerse your project in a hot bath.
Plus, acid dyes contain some riskier chemicals that you would not want to have around kids.
On the bright side, acid dyes create gorgeously vivid colors. If you want a bold, jewel-toned silk scarf, you may want to consider tie-dyeing with acid dyes!
You can tie-dye with acrylic paints if you thin the paint with the correct medium first. The easiest way to do this is to purchase an appropriate fabric medium and mix it according to the instructions on the package. You can also combine glycerin and water to thin acrylic paint into a convenient fabric coloring agent.
What is acrylic paint? It is a water-soluble paint containing microscopic plastic particles that carry the color in the paint. It dries quickly and produces crisp lines when applied with a brush.
The big advantage of using acrylic paint is that it is cheap, easily accessible, and comes in thousands of different colors at almost every craft store! The disadvantage is that incorrect thinning of the paint can lead to cracking and peeling in your design later on.
All-Purpose or Union Dyes
Also known as “universal” dyes, all-purpose colorings encompass some of RIT and DYLON’s most popular dyes. This type of dye usually needs only regular table salt to fix the color to the material. It uses a quick, easy dying process and doesn’t usually cost too much.
All-purpose solutions do not require any extras like soda ash, but they also do not remain vivid for very long, as they don’t have a great track record when it comes to colorfastness. On the other hand, if you plan to host a tie-dye party for your Girl Scout troop, a few handy RIT packets of all-purpose powder mixed with water will make the process a lot easier than using professional-grade dyes!
Disperse dyes do not offer the easiest tie-dye method because this type of coloring requires high heat to set with synthetic fabric fibers. The tiny particles of color in this solution do not totally dissolve in water and instead “disperse” through the liquid, eventually bonding with plastic fibers through the application of heat.
The benefit to this type of dye is that you can use cheap polyester t-shirts, socks, or bedsheets and save a lot of money. The downside is that creating tie-dye patterns in a pot of boiling water can get quite tricky!
On top of that, disperse dyes contain chemicals that are not friendly to the environment, though they will not harm you unless you accidentally ingest them!
In the beginning, all textile dye came from the natural world, and you can still make and use your own all-natural colors today if you want to put in a little extra work! Natural dyes typically come from plants or from other things you can find in the wild, like some kinds of shells.
Beets, blueberries, curry powder, coffee, onions, and even purple cabbage can all create unique and interesting shades of color. You usually have to boil and distill these products in some way to create the color you will use.
The biggest pro to natural coloring agents is that they have a distinct, organic look to them and offer a totally non-toxic and environmentally friendly approach to dying. The con is that these colors rarely create the bold, bright hues of a commercial dye. You may also find it challenging to make your all-natural shades entirely colorfast without some practice.
Best Professional Tie-Dye Kit
Whether you’re new to tie-dye or creating professional work as an Etsy artist, you may find purchasing a ready-made kit easier than mixing and matching your own colors. You do have to take care in pairing colors in a tie-dye design to avoid creating a morass of muddy brown instead of vivid spirals and stars. For that reason, letting a professional preselect colors for you has a lot of appeal!
Plus, tie-dye kits typically come with all the supplies you need. This makes the setup super easy. Kits are also the perfect solution for tie-dyeing with kids!
Finally, you can find kits that help you learn a particular style, such as shibori or reverse tie-dye. Of course, you can master that style on your own, if you prefer! But the kit makes everything easier.
The big downside to using a kit is that sometimes, these kits do not contain the best quality products. You will want to research the type of dye used before buying a kit!
Tie-Dye By Kind of Fabric
If you already have the item you want to dye, you may want to match your coloring agent to your fabric instead of the other way around by finding the right coloring for your kind of fabric.
As you now know, different types of fabric dye work on different kinds of fabric. Here you can find a quick overview of what kind of fabric dye to use with the most popular types of fabric for tie-dyeing.
Far and away, cotton is the most popular material for tie-dyeing. Its cellulosic fibers easily bond with or absorb multiple different kinds of dyes. And, of course, it feels soft and comfortable against your skin!
Cotton works very well with universal, natural, and fiber reactive dyes and acrylic paint. Acid and disperse dyes will not work well on cotton.
Most commercial kits are used with 100% cotton and contain either fiber-reactive or universal dyes.
You will want to double-check the manufacturer’s label inside a cotton tee to make sure it does not contain a blend of cotton and polyester before attempting to color it, though.
Denim actually contains 100% cotton fibers, though it uses a unique blue and white threads pattern to create its trademark appearance. Tie-dye denim jackets and jeans go in and out of style quite regularly and can look very hippie and fun!
The best dye to use on denim is a fiber reactive or heat reactive dye. You can use universal or all-purpose coloring agents, but they may not remain colorfast as well.
Though it isn’t technically a dye, you can also create a cool reverse tie-dye look by using bleach on denim.
If you love DIY projects, you may have seen fun tie-dye curtains made out of canvas painting drop cloths. You can color canvas quite easily using all-purpose dye and table salt. You could use more expensive fiber reactive options, but since you probably will not need to wash your canvas item regularly, you don’t have to worry so much about the color fading.
You will want to make sure that your “canvas” is fabric containing 100% cotton, though Some cheaper modern versions may contain 100% polyester, which is much more difficult to color effectively.
The only dye you can use with total success on polyester is disperse dye, designed to work with synthetic fabric.
Most big dye companies offer a synthetic coloring agent. For instance, RIT DyeMore contains disperse dye and works well on polyester. Jacquard has a line called iDye, Dylon sells a disperse dye, and Dharma trading company also offers a line of polyester dyes.
The benefit to this type of dye is that it creates permeant bonds with the fabric and should not wash out or fade. The downside is that the coloring process involves some complicated steps and a heat bath. Polyester is not the easiest fabric to tie-dye.
What is the Best Dye for Tie Dyeing Shirts?
The best tie-dye for dying shirts depends on the fabric in the shirt, but usually, a fiber-reactive dye will give you a good result. You can apply this product without using heat and create many different unique designs and patterns. You can also count on the color remaining bold and vivid after multiple rounds in the washing machine!
That said, fiber-reactive dyes only work on cotton. You cannot use these dyes on cheaper, synthetic shirts made of polyester.
Can You Use Regular Dye for Tie Dyeing?
You can use regular dye for tie-dyeing instead of buying a kit, though you will have to mix and match your colors to form your design if you go this route.
Technically speaking, tie-dye kits also contain “regular” fabric dye; the company has just preselected the colors for you!
Of course, you will find pros and cons to using kits vs. selecting your own individual fabric dyes. Kits offer the easiest option but give you less control over the artistic process. Kits can also come with cheaper, less permanent types of coloring in some cases.
That said, if you want a fun project for your kids or a large group, you probably do want to use a kit instead of individual colors. If you work as a professional artist and plan to sell your work, you will do better using regular dyes you hand-select yourself.
What is the Difference Between Fabric Paint and Dye?
The main difference between fabric paint and dye is that the paint uses a glue-like agent to attach color to the material. In contrast, the dye physically bonds to the material on a molecular level.
Many types of fabric paint attach better to natural fabric than to synthetics, though acrylics work well on any type of cloth. You often have to use a pressing cloth and iron to heat-set fabric paint, and you may need a fabric medium as well to thin the paint so that it does not crack and crumble off the cloth later.
You can find a huge selection of fabric paint brands out there, from Tulip’s 3D puff paint to Folk Art acrylics.
How to Make Your Own Tie-Dye Liquid
You can make your own tie-dye liquid using food coloring, bleach, or plants from your backyard!
Food coloring dissolved in water makes a cheap, easy coloring solution. This type of coloring will not hold up well long-term but offers a fun project for kids and is safe, non-toxic, and easy to clean up.
If you have denim or a dark-colored hoodie you want to tie-dye, you could try bleaching instead of applying color. This will create a cool reverse tie-dye design using nothing but common household products.
Finally, if you really want to design your own style and create truly unique colors, you can also use plants to create all-natural coloring. Make sure you boil your fabric in vinegar and water solution before applying a natural coloring agent.
Though the recipe varies a bit depending on what kind of plant you use, you can generally make a natural dye by combining a 1:1 ratio of plant matter to water and simmering for one hour, then straining out all the solid matter. Alternatively, you could cook the water and plant matter overnight in your crockpot.
Some natural materials will have better colorfastness than others. You may need to boil your fabric in a dye bath to set some natural colors.
Ultimately, the best dye for tie-dye depends on the kind of fabric you plan to use and the type of design you want to create. For 100% cotton fabric, fiber-reactive dyes create the most vivid, colorfast designs. Different kinds of fabric such as wool or polyester do not work well with fiber reactive dye, though, requiring specialized coloring agents.
Tie-dye kits offer the easiest approach to coloring by giving you preselected colors and all the tools you need. On the other hand, selecting your own individual colors gives you more control over the design process. Many popular brands such as RIT, Jacquard, Tulip, and Dharma offer a wide selection of dyes that you can use to create your designs.