Tie-Dye Cover Image

The Science of Tie-Dye

Here are the secrets to inexpensive tie-dye shirts with the most amazing, mind-blowing colors and designs you've ever seen!

Along with a sixties revival, tie-dye is making a comeback! Actually, this activity is not a fashion statement, it’s a science experiment, art project, and summer activity rolled into one. There are many tie-day kits available at craft stores today. You may have even researched them but your search is over. Here’s a great, time-tested kit you can get right from Steve Spangler Science.


ACTIVITY TIME:

This activity will take two days to complete. The first day will be busy. Give yourself 20-30 minutes to prepare the mixtures and the dyes. The shirts need to soak for 60-90 minutes in the dye fixer solution. Allow 10-15 minutes to tie the shirts and 20 minutes per shirt for dyeing. You don’t want to work too quickly as you squeeze the dye onto the fabric. You do want to be thorough. The freshly dyed shirts need to be wrapped in newspaper and sealed in a plastic bag.

The second day will be much easier. Allow 20-30 minutes to unwrap all of the shirts and to get them into the wash. NOTE: This step can be done by the participants at home later in the day if that’s doable.

Experiment Materials

  • 100% cotton items (t-shirts, pillowcases, handkerchiefs, etc.)
  • 30 Jumbo pipettes
  • 40 Pair small vinyl gloves
  • 4 Pair large vinyl gloves
  • 4 Tie-dye colors (fuchsia, purple, turquoise and yellow)
  • Urea
  • Ludigol
  • Tie-dye fixer (calcium carbonate)
  • 1 Instructional DVD
  • Something to protect your clothes (an old shirt or apron)
  • 5-gallon (19 l) bucket
  • Empty, clean, 1-gallon (3.8 l) jug, e.g. a water jug
  • Empty containers for the dye colors
  • Funnel (optional)
  • Stir sticks (optional)
  • Rubber bands for "tying"
  • Large aluminum pan
  • Wire mesh or hardware cloth to fit over pan
  • Newspapers (lots)
  • Large zipper-lock bags (1 per shirt)
  • Get everything including an instructional video in our Tie-Dye Classroom Kit!
  • Adult supervision

Experiment Videos

Experiment

1

PREPARATION:

    Tie Dye - Soak in Urea Solution

  1. Put on the latex gloves to protect your hands.
  2. Fill the bucket half-way with warm water. Add the one pound bag of “dye fixer.” It’s sodium carbonate; also called washing soda.
  3. Soak the new shirts in the solution for 60-90 minutes.

2

DYE MIXING:

    Tie-Dye - Dye Mixing

  1. Fill the plastic jug 3/4-full with warm water.
  2. Add the 1-pound (454 g) bag of urea.
  3. Add 3 tablespoons of ludigol, put the lid on the jug, and shake it.
  4. Add a dye color to an empty container. (The very fine dye powder will go everywhere!)
    TIP: Use a funnel and a stirrer to help load it. Rinse both items between mixing colors.
  5. Add the urea and ludigol mixture to the dye powders as directed on the package.
    NOTE: You have only 24 hours to use the dyes once you mix in the urea/ludigol solution. They can’t be mixed in advance.

3

TYING THE DESIGN:

    Tie-Dye Stripes

  1. Stripes
    For vertical stripes, lay the shirt face up flat on the table. Place your thumbs under the shirt at the neckline (or the hemline). Slide your thumbs on the table, gathering the shirt in your fingers as you do. Keep the shirt straight and scrunch it together. When you reach the other end, the shirt will have several folds. Place three or four rubber bands around the scrunched shirt to hold it in place. (You can make horizontal stripes by gathering the shirt from side to side instead of top to bottom.)
  2. Tie-Dye Mirror w/ Diagonal Stripes

  3. Mirror
    Lay the shirt flat on the table. Fold it in half longways if you want the design to mirror from side to side. Fold the shirt from right to left so one arm lays on the other. If you want the mirror to be top and bottom, fold the bottom of the shirt up to the neck (or the other way). Gather it as before and hold it with rubber bands.
  4. Diagonal
    Lay the shirt flat on the table. Place your thumbs under one bottom corner. Slide them on the table in a diagonal line towards the opposite shoulder sleeve. The shirt will have several folds and be in a long line. Place rubber bands around the shirt to hold it in place.
  5. Tie-Dye - Spiral / Burst

  6. Spiral or Burst
    Lay the shirt flat on a table and hold the fabric in the center of the shirt. Keeping the fabric flat, gather and  twist it in a circular motion in one place until the fabric is in a circular bundle around your fingers. Place four or five rubber bands around the bundle to hold it all in place.
  7. Tie-Dye - Spiral Mirror

  8. Use Your Imagination
    You can combine gathering techniques or start off-center instead in the middle. You don’t have to fold or scrunch it a certain way to make a cool t-shirt. You can also experiment with how you place the dye on the shirt to make different patterns. Remember, this is tie-dye and no matter what you do, it will look great!

4

DYE APPLICATION:

    Tie-Dye - Dying

  1. Prepare to dye your scrunched up shirt by laying a piece of wire mesh on the aluminum pan. This sits on top of the pan and holds the bundled shirt while the pan catches excess dye. This makes clean up much easier.
  2. Set your scrunched shirt on the mesh on top of the aluminum pan.
  3. Plan the colors and the patterns before you start with the dye. Remember color mixing, too – red and yellow make orange, blue and yellow make green, and so on.
  4. Use the Jumbo Pipettes in the kit to soak the shirt with dye. Be careful not to oversaturate. When the dye begins to drip through the shirt and into the pan, you are done.
  5. If you are doing a spiral pattern, you can divide the shirt into “pie slices” and add one color per slice.

5

FINISHING:

    Tie-Dye Staff Photo

  1. Wrap your shirt in several layers of newspaper and put it inside a zipperlock bag. The newspaper will soak up extra dye. Let the shirt stay in there a few hours.
  2. If you have a top-loading washer, use cold water and detergent. Start filling the machine.
  3. Wear a clean pair of gloves and remove the shirt from the bag and newspaper.
  4. Add the shirt directly to the filled  washer. Wash it by itself or with some clean rags. Don’t add regular clothes!  Wash on the normal cycle.
  5. If you have a front-loading washer place the shirt in it and add the detergent in the drum. Don’t put it in the detergent drawer. Wash in cold water on the normal cycle.
  6. A lot of excess dye will come off in the wash and the water will be brown. That’s okay, too.
  7. Wash your new shirt separately for three or four washes before including it in with the regular laundry.

How Does It Work

Q: Why do I need to wear gloves the entire time?
A: Wearing gloves during the dying process makes sense. The dye is permanent and will color your skin. It’s also a good idea to wear gloves while handling the sodium carbonate or soda ash. It is mildly caustic and can dry out and irritate your skin.

Q: Why do I have to soak my t-shirts so long before tie-dying them?
A: The sodium carbonate solution opens up bonding sites in the cotton fiber molecules. This allows a place for the dye molecules to bond to the fibers.

Q: Why do I need to use 100% cotton or natural fiber fabrics?
A: Synthetic, or man-made, materials do not bond to the dye molecules. Think of synthetic fibers as though they were plastic. The dye molecules can not adhere to them.

Q: Why is urea in the kit?
A: This is a synthetic version of urea and is not the by-product produced in urine. Urea is used in plastics, animal feed, glues, cleaners, detergents and hair coloring products. In tie-dying, urea allows for more dye molecules to dissolve in the water. It also helps keep the fabric “wetter” for a longer period of time.

Q: What is ludigol and why is it used?
A: Ludigol is a brand name for nitrobenzene sulfonic acid sodium salt. It makes the colors more vibrant.

Q: What is the science behind tie-dye?
A: The dyes are called fiber-reactive. That means a chemical reaction takes place between the dye molecules and the fabric molecules. The dye bonds with the cotton and actually becomes a part of the fabric. That is why the dyes are so permanent and vibrant even after several washings.

Science Fair Connection

You could test which fabrics tie-dye the best. You’re told that synthetic fabrics are not a good match for tie-dying. Do tests to find out what happens when synthetic fabrics (like polyester or nylon) are tie-dyed. You might explore tie-dying a 50/50 blend of synthetic fibers.

Making a Hypothesis

This activity lends itself to learning how to make a hypothesis. In this case, a hypothesis is an educated guess about how the shirt will turn out based on the way it was scrunched and colored. Since there are a variety of ways to tie-dye a shirt, making a prediction about what it will look like works very nicely into the scientific method.

TIP

Some advice learned over the years: don’t sweat design “mistakes” because there aren’t any to make. People have gone crazy thinking they messed something up and that there’s no way to fix it. Funny thing, their shirts turned out to be the coolest ever! Don’t sweat the little stuff.

Now, if fiber-reactive dye gets spilled onto white carpet, that’s another matter entirely. The way to prevent that, of course, is to realize this is the perfect outside activity.

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