The tie-dye technique for decorating shirts is a classic fabric craft that anyone can enjoy. Typically, you’ll need a white or undyed piece of fabric for tie-dye to work. But you might be wondering, can you tie-dye colored shirts?
You can tie-dye colored shirts, but the results will be different than with white t-shirts. The color and saturation of the shirt’s color will impact how the dye shows up. For dark and black colored shirts, you can also use reverse tie-dye or re-dyeing techniques to get a similar effect.
So how do you take a colored shirt and turn it into a tie-dye masterpiece? First, you have to think about color theory; then, you can choose your dye style and colors to work best with the shirt you have. Read on to learn more about what colors dye best, how to reverse tie-dye and more.
Can You Tie-Dye Colored Shirts?
It’s possible to tie-dye colored shirts, but you will get different results than using a white shirt. The color of the shirt will influence how well the tie-dye colors show up and what those colors are. Adding blue dye to a colored shirt might not give you blue results.
Knowing how the dye will blend with the original color of the shirt will help you predict what the final shirt will look like. How saturated the shirt is will also have an impact. Color theory basics can help you decide whether or not to dye your colored shirt.
Most tie-dye kits have three primary colors: red, yellow, and blue. All other colors come from a blend of these hues, so knowing how they interact with each other will show you how the dye will react with your colored fabric.
You can also use bleach or black dye for a dramatic effect. Black dye works best on grey or lighter colored shirts, whereas bleach works best on darker or black shirts. The black dye will show up black, whereas bleach will leave an orange tint on most colors.
Grey ShirtsYou can tie-dye grey shirts, especially lighter grey shirts. Light grey fabric will dull the tie-dye colors you apply, but it won’t change which colors they are. For example, if you use red dye to tie-dye a grey shirt, the red will appear dull or dusky, rather than vibrant like it would on a white shirt.
Dark grey shirts will be harder to dye. The darker the grey, the less the dye will show up. With very dark grey shirts, you can get a similar tie-dye effect with bleach dyeing. You can think of grey shirts as between black shirts and white shirts. The closer to white, the easier it will be to see the dye.
Green ShirtNot all of your dye colors will show up as their original color when you tie-dye a green shirt. Green is a secondary color. That means it comes from a mix of two other pigments, in this case, yellow and blue. Adding yellow or blue dye to a green shirt will shift the shade of green rather than showing up as a separate color.
Blue-green and yellow-green are tertiary colors that refer to the shades you get when you mix green with one of its primary colors. But what happens when you put the red dye on a green shirt? Mixing red and green tends to show up brown. The darker the green, the muddier the red dye will be.
Blue ShirtPrimary colors like blue will give you more straightforward results. Adding blue dye to a blue shirt can deepen the shade of blue. Yellow dye will show up green, and red dye will show up purple.
If your tie-dye kit or supplies have dyes outside the primary colors, then the make-up of those colors will determine the final color on your shirt. For secondary colors that already contain blue, like purple or green, the blue shirt will make tertiary colors like blue-purple or blue-green.
Yellow ShirtYellow is also a primary color. It’s also easier to overdye than many other colors. Red and blue dyes (and dyes in other colors that contain these colors) tend to be stronger than yellow dyes. However, just because the dye will be visible doesn’t mean it will show up the same as the color on the bottle.
The same primary color rules apply with yellow as with blue. Adding red dye will give you orange results and adding blue will give you green. Using secondary colors that already have yellow will give you tertiary colors, and adding secondary (or tertiary!) colors without yellow will show up brown or muddy.
Black ShirtsTie-dyeing black shirts take a few extra steps, but it is possible. If you tie-dye a plain black t-shirt without bleaching it first, the dyes will not show up. Faded or old black shirts may show splotches of darker black, but you won’t be able to see any dye colors.
However, if you bleach dye your black shirt first, you can then re-dye or overdye the shirt to get a tie-dye effect. This is also called reverse tie-dye and re-dyeing because you have to remove dye rather than add it (the reverse part) and then dye the shirt again (re-dyeing). We’ll talk more about these processes later.
What Happens When You Tie-Dye a Colored Shirt?
When you tie-dye a colored shirt, the dye soaks into the shirt’s fibers the same as it would on a white shirt. However, the dye will blend with whatever dye colors are already in the shirt to create a new shade.
The strength of the dye, how long you let the shirt soak before washing, and how saturated the original shirt color is will all impact the final shade of the dyed spots. The longer you soak, the stronger the dye colors will be. Paler shirts and more concentrated dyes will also give you more vibrant results.
The best shirts for tie-dying are 100% cotton. Cotton absorbs dye well and is colorfast. This means it will take on tye-dye well and any color already added to the shirt is less likely to run or bleed. The less the shirt bleeds, the cleaner the tie-dye effect will look.
What Color Shirts Work Best for Tie-Dye?
Light-colored shirts work best for tie-dye. Primary colors offer you more control over the final dye colors as well. It’s also possible to tie-dye bright colored shirts, but you’re more limited in what dyes you can use and how well the design will show up.
When choosing a shirt to tie dye, consider what you want the shirt to look like. Subtle, faded, or vintage-looking designs will need different shirt colors than neon, vibrant, or dramatic looks.
The lighter the color of your shirt, the truer the dye colors will show up. Pastel shirts and saturated dyes will give you more vibrant results. Less concentrated dyes will give you a faded, more vintage result on light-colored shirts. You can also get a similar effect by letting the dye sit for a shorter amount of time than recommended.
If you use a primary-colored shirt, you can more easily control the final color results, making them a great choice for a colored tie-dye shirt. This technique works especially well for single-color patterns. For example, using yellow dye and a pale red shirt, you can make an orange design.
Using primary colors also reduces the risk of the colors turning brown or muddy on the shirt. Mixing secondary colors with each other or with the primary colors that they don’t already have will give you brown results. If you want to use brown intentionally, however, that’s the easiest way to do it.
Black dye also shows up nicely on light shades. However, you’ll want to be very mindful of where you’re putting the dye. If it bleeds through, you could end up with a shirt that’s more black than tie-dyed.
While it isn’t impossible to tie-dye brightly colored shirts, it is harder to get clear results with them. Re-dyeing works best with bright colored shirts, particularly primary colors. For bright colors, the dye already on the shirt is saturated enough that it will be harder to get any other colors to show up brightly.
The places on the shirt that you tie-dye will show up as very dark versions of the color. For example, if you have a bright blue shirt and add a red dye, the tie-dyed portions will be a very dark purple. The same dye on a pale blue shirt will give you a paler purple.
Black dye works well on bright-colored shirts. It will not be as stark a contrast as with pale shirts, but it will show up clearly. As with pale or light-colored shirts, be mindful when you use black dye as it will cover other colors very easily.
What Dye Works Best to Tie-Dye Colored Shirts?There are dozens of tie-dye kits on the market, including specifically for reverse dyeing dark-colored shirts (more on reverse tie-dye in a moment!). However, most of these kits are geared specifically towards white shirts or fabrics.
Three brands are stand-out dyes that work well with white fabric as well as most colored fabric. Tulip, Rit, and Dharma Trading Company each have a line of dyes that have strengths for tie-dyeing colored t-shirts.
Tulip is a leader for complete tie-dye kits. Their kits come with a wide variety of dye colors and inspiration and instruction booklets that will help you use color theory to get the results you want. All the supplies you need (except the shirts) are included with these kits.
They also sell reverse tie-dye kits. These kits expand your options for shirt colors as they work better with black and dark-colored shirts. You can combine multiple Tulip kits to re-dye dark shirts after reverse tie-dyeing them for a stained-glass effect.
Rit dye is a well-respected fabric dye brand. They sell both tie-dye kits and individual dyes that you can use to create your own tie-dye setup. Rit has different formulas for synthetic fabrics versus natural fibers, so you can use it to tie-dye your polyester fabrics more easily.
They also sell black dye, color fixatives to help prevent bleeding, and dye remover to help clean up mistakes or reverse tie-dye without bleach. Using Rit without a kit may require more experience with dye and color, but the results will be saturated and stunning.
Dharma Trading Company sells powder dyes for natural fibers in a huge range of shades, including primary colors. Like Rit, Dharma dyes need a color fixative to keep the color from washing out of the fabric.
However, the extra step is worth it for bold, brilliant colors. Dharma is a fiber-reactive dye, so it bonds better with natural fibers than other dyes. Using this type of dye will give you stronger color results, which means the dye will show up brighter on colored shirts than other types of dye, even without reverse dyeing first.
How to Reverse Tie-DyeAs the name implies, reverse tie-dye is the opposite of tie-dyeing. Rather than adding color to a piece of fabric, reverse dyeing strips it away. You can use the same patterns of folding and twisting in reverse tie-dye so that you get similar design impacts.
Most reverse tie-dye uses some form of bleach. It’s one of the most effective dye removers, whether you get it in a reverse tie-dye kit or if you use diluted household bleach. If you’re reverse tie-dyeing, always dilute your bleach. Using undiluted bleach can damage the fibers of your shirt, leaving you with holes and tears rather than a fun design.
For black shirts, the bleach will leave behind orange-tinted streaks. In dark-colored shirts, like deep blues, purples, reds, and greens, the bleach will lighten the color. The longer the bleach or remover sits, the stronger the contrast will be in your design.
No matter what form of dye remover you use, you can follow these steps to strip some of the color off your shirt or other fabric.
- Tie Your Shirt. Unlike regular tie-dyeing, you’ll want your shirt dry for this part. Twist or fold the shirt into the pattern you want, and secure it with twine or rubber bands. Make sure you’re working in a well-ventilated space that you can clean up easily, as the next steps can stain more than just the shirt you’re working with.
- Apply Bleach or Dye Remover. It’s best to use gloves and use a squeeze bottle with a precise nozzle for this. If bleach or dye remover lands on your clothes or work surface, you could accidentally stain them. Work outside if possible, and lay out cardboard or another material to protect your work surface. Dilute your bleach with water if you are using household or chlorine bleach. Squeeze the bleach or dye remover onto the shirt, near the rubber bands. You can also use bleach pens for a freehand or more precise design approach.
- Let It Sit. Leave the shirt to soak in the bleach solution you applied. The longer it sits, the more color the bleach will remove. You’ll be able to see it working very clearly, so keep an eye on it. Within ten minutes, you should start to see results.
- Rinse. When the t-shirt is the color you want it, rinse the bleach out. Leave the ties on for the first rinse; otherwise, you risk getting bleach on portions you want to stay dark. You want to get as much bleach out in this rinse as possible.
- Wash. Once you’ve rinsed out the bleach, wash the t-shirt with soap and water. You can run it through your washing machine or do it by hand. Be mindful that there will still be some bleach present, so don’t wash the shirt with other clothes, and run a rinse cycle in your washing machine afterward to flush out any lingering bleach.
After you wash your shirt, you’re ready to either re-dye it to add more color or leave it as-is!
How to Re-Dye
There are two ways to re-dye. The easiest is also called overdyeing. This technique is simply adding color to a fabric that’s already dyed. Instead of expecting the color of the dye to show through, for overdyeing, the goal is to use the existing dye and the new dye to create a third color.
The other way to re-dye is after reverse tie-dye. This method can be trickier, especially if the shirt you’re re-dyeing is any color other than black. For this method, you’ll add dye to the parts of the shirt that you previously bleached.
Instead of scrunching the shirt back up, lay it out flat. For most dyes, the shirt should be damp. Try to only put the dye on the bleached parts. Black shirts will absorb the dye and hide it well, but on colored shirts, if you dye outside the bleached areas, you’ll end up with splotches that are overdyed as well as re-dyed areas.
The orange tint that reverse tie-dyeing leaves behind won’t have a huge impact on your final color, especially when you’re using warm-toned dyes. Cool-toned dyes may look muddier than they would on a white t-shirt, however.
How Does Re-Dyeing Work?
Re-dyeing works by either adding dye back to a portion of the fabric where you removed it or dyeing over the already dyed fabric. With dyeing over a bleached-out part of the fabric, you’re adding dye in the same way you would if you were dyeing fabric fresh.
The new dye absorbs into the fibers, and you’ll see the original color of the dye. When you overdye, the fibers absorb the new dye, but the color you get in the end is a blend of the new and old colors. Either method will give you a fun twist on traditional tie-dye colors and designs.
Tie-dye is a fun and creative way to take plain fabric like simple cotton t-shirts and turn them into a fashion statement and expression of your creativity. When your creativity guides you away from white shirts, there are still plenty of tie-dye techniques that will help you make a masterpiece!
What’s your favorite tie-dye creation? Have you ever used reverse tie-dye or re-dyeing? Tell us about it in the comments.