Live Dye – Fine Art Tie-Dyes

We Both Live to Dye and Dye Live and in Person

New dyers Judah and Justin work with my son Craig in the dyeshop

Craig and I planning our next round of craziness (see bigger versions of these side images on your computer screen by narrowing the width of your browser window)

Techniques 2 – First Decisions

Before You Start

First, let's speak briefly of what kind of fabric you're trying to dye, the kind of crew you expect to do the dyeing, and how elaborate you intend to get. This will help focus your decisions on the most important issues: safety, safety, and your tolerance for complexity and attention to minutae.

Fibers used to make fabric break into two broad classes, natural and man made, and within these classes there are sub-classes based on the composition of the fiber

Fibers, Fabrics and Dyeing

The following list shows the breakdown of natural and man-made fibers into four groups. I've attached a code for the dyes that can be used with each fiber, with [brackets] around marginally usable dyes.

A = acid; D = disperse; DI = direct; F = fiber reactive; I = indigo; L = lanaset; S = sabracron; V = vat; NO = resistant to dyeing; [ ] = marginal

Natural - Cellulose

Cotton: DI, F, I, V, S

Most commonly used, derived from the fiber of the seed pod, and often blended with polyester to reduced wrinkling and shrinkage. Since polyester is difficult to dye (and doesn't react with the fiber-reactive dyes most commonly used to dye cotton), the higher the polyester content, the paler and more pastel the fabric will dye.

Linen: DI, F, I, V, S

A bast fiber, meaning it's taken from the fibers inside the woody stem. In the case of linen, they're from the flax plant, and in ramie fiber from the ramie plant of Asia and S. Europe. A very durable fiber

Hemp: DI, F, I, V, S

Similar to Linen in that the fibers are from the stem of the hemp plant, related to marijuana but without the psychoactive compounds. As with linen, hemp fibers make a very durable fabric.

Natural - Protein

Wool: A, I, L, S

A term for fibers made from the fleece of sheep and lamb, but also extended to the similar fabic made from goat (cashmere) and the special hair fibers made from alpaca, vicuna, or llama. Wool is often blended with man-made fibers to allow easier care. Extra caution must be taken with wool, as some commonly used conditions (strong bases, high temperatures, certain discharge agents) can destroy wool.

Silk: A, DI, F, I, L, S

A natural filament is made by the silkworm in constructing its cocoon, and thread is directly spun from it. As the thinnest natural fiber, its fabic is often sheer. As with wool, extra care must be taken with silk to prevent damage to the fiber.

Man Made - Cellulose

Acetate (cellulose acetate): [DI]

Soft, does not absorbant moisture readily, and dries fast, so often used in linings. Typically dry-clean only.

Triacetate (cellulose acetate): [DI]

Similar to acetate, but washable.

Rayon (Viscose): DI, F, I, S

First man made fiber, soft and absorbent. Typically dry-clean only. Also known as viscose after the most common manufacturing process. Caution must be taken when manipulating wet rayon, as the fabric loses considerable strength when wet and so can be easily damaged.

Rayon (acetate): D

Silky blend of rayon and acetate fibers.

Lyocell: F, S, DI

New fiber similar to rayon but washable.

Man Made - Artificial

Acrylic (polyacrilonitrile): D

Similar in feel to wool, often used in coat linings. Dry clean only.

Nylon (polyamide): A, D, L

First completely synthetic fiber, strong, light, often used in undergarments. Machine washable, often used in wool blends.

Olefin (polypropylene or polyethylene): NO

The lightest of the fibers and now very popular, especially in underwear, socks, and sportswear.

Polyester (polyethylene terephthalate): D

Second only to cotton in fabrics, used in all kinds of fabrics (I still have my Dad's poly leisure suit), often blended with other natural and man-made fibers.

Spandex (polyurethane-polyurea co-polymer): NO

Very elastic (up to 5x its length), and so often used in sportswear. Aka Lycra. While blends can be dyed (or at least the other fiber in the blend), and Lanaset dyes are used industrially, this is not a great target for the tie-dyer. I have had good luck dyeing nylon:spandex blends (82% : 18%) using acid dyes, even at relatively high temperatures (up to 140° F), though high temperatures can damage spandex. Test before use.

Which fabric should I use?

From this list you can see that there are a variety of options for the most commonly used fabrics in tie-dye, cotton and other natural cellulosic fibers and silk. Wool is rarely tie-dyed, perhaps because of its poor washability and the likelihood of warping the fabric when strong resists are applied. Of the synthetic fibers, viscose rayon and nylon have the most options when dyeing, while the other fabrics require disperse dyes. In general, tie-dyeing man-made fabrics requires more attention to dyes, the resistance of the fabric to manipulation, color fastness, the effects of dyeing and washing, and so I won't be focusing on these fabrics. I have recently done a lot of work using acid dyes on nylon:spandex blends (tie-dyeing bikinis), but I wouldn't recommend this for novices, especially since acid dyes are really promiscuous – they're the dyes responsible for the "pink socks" you get when you wash Rit-dyed fabric with whites.

The tie-dye decision can be simplified without much sacrifice: use cotton, linen, hemp, or silk, and dye them with fiber-reactive, vat, synthetic (partially pre-reduced) indigo, or perhaps acid dyes for silk, though I've gotten great results with fiber-reactive dyes and steaming. Retail RIT dyes with mordants are also a possibility, with approximately the range of fiber-reactive dyes but nowhere near the wash fastness.

I also recommend highly trying a very simple tie-dye technique: discharge resist with household bleach. This is particularly tasty on black cotton fabric, which bleaches toa complementary spectrum of colors depending on the dyes used to make black (it's always a mixture): brown, red, greenish brown, yellow, and even white (though that much bleaching ususally destroys the fiber). It's easy, doesn't require much prep, is cheap, and gives great results. Check out my discharge pages to see the effects of household bleach and another discharge agent, thiourea dioxide, on predyed cotton.

Just Who is Going to Dye?

If you're a fabric artist interested in resist techniques or planning a commercial tie-dye business, you should be out doing your own legwork, as I'm not going to give you the encyclopedic knowledge you'll need. Nevertheless, I will be suggesting what combinations of dyes and fabrics are suitable for various purposes and occasions.

Your Kids and Their Friends, While You Supervise

I would suggest one of three choices, partially based on the ages of the kids and how well you think they can be supervised.

RIT Dyes and T-Shirts or Fabric

It's the most accessible and safest for younger kids, though the range of RIT dye colors available in grocery and big-box stores nowadays is dramatically less than it used to be, and they tend to be drab. If you have time, buy the liquid dyes direct online - I heartily recommend the Royal Blue and Fuschia. I recommend pre-boiling the fabric in a mordant solution (alum, available in styptic pencils). I also recommend using squares of fabric over t-shirts, as they're both less trite and more amenable to interesting techniques.

FIBER Reactive Dyes and T-shirts or Fabric

Since caustic solutions will be used, this is usually something for the older kids or kids with parents in constant attendance. I have regular all-ages tie-dye parties using these dyes which everyone enjoys (though it keeps me running). Since the dyed fabric is as colorfast as a commercially dyed fabric, the potential is greater than using RIT dyes, which, despite new formulations, inevitably fade with washing. One issue is that without steaming the dyed material should be allowed to react with dye overnight, at least if you're applying dyes directly. So if you're having a party you'd like to have a steamer so that by the end of the festivities you can unwrap and view the final products.

RIT Dyes, Inks, or Food Coloring and Paper

An all-ages affair with almost all the resist technique possibilities, it also requires less equipment, less fuss, and less mess. I won't be discussing it further, but plenty of other sites go into detail. You could probably start with the RIT site.

Bleach on Pre-Dyed Cotton

Another all-ages affair with almost all the resist technique possibilities, it also requires less equipment and less fuss. You must be cautious to wear clothes you don't mind being bleached, and you should take precautions to prevent bleach from getting in eyes or sensitive mucous membranes (like up your nose). Ventilation is necessary. See the section below on Discharge Dyeing, and check out these two pages to see the effect of bleach on commercially dyed tee from Gildan, and how bleach affects fabric dyed with Procion fiber-reactive dyes.

A Group of Interested Folk

In apition to the previous options, if you have the time and inclination to attempt something more elaborate these combinations provide more possibilities for depth and value:

Fiber Reactive Dyes and Cotton or Silk Fabrics

Sticking to fabric rather than the cliched t-shirt allows more complexity and nuance. When dyeing t-shirts, it's difficult to dye a single layer, and so the resulting resists are coarser, leading to a blurry overall appearance to the final product. The structure of a t-shirt also limits the design possibilites, as you can't just ignore the fact that the miple of the shirt is where everything will focus when worn. Using fabric also allows (encourages) folding, which leads to some appealing symmetrical patterns.

Pre-Dyed/Fiber Reactive-Dyed and Discharge Dyeing

Discharge dyeing, or bleaching with household bleach (sodium hypochlorite) or other discharage agents, requires more attention to the potential release of toxic levels of gases, and so only mixes with kids when they watch from afar and you do the discharge work. However, discharging commercially-dyed fabric (with black leading to some of the best results, especially with bleach) can lead to very striking and asthetically pleasing results (that don't remind people of the Grateful Dead), and aping a discharge step after tie-dyeing with fiber reactive dyes aps considerably to the final complexity and appeal of the work. As such, it's a standard part of my work. Check out our Discharge Galleries to see some of the possibilites.

Vat Dyes

Vat dyes include a reducing agent, typically Thiox (thiourea dioxide), which is by itself an effective discharge agent. Thus, in one step the color of a commercially dyed t-shirt can be bleached away and recolored with the vat dye. Since the thiox migrates better into resists than the dye (which can be assisted with agents like glycerin), a halo appears at the interface between vat and fiber-reactive dyed areas. This leads to lovely effects, though maintaining a vat dye is not a trivial affair, though not beyond the means of a persistent practitioner. Caveat: thiox will destroy wool.


Another vat dye and dyes to a delightful deep-blue color. With polishing or ironing, the fabric becomes shiny, which is an apitional benefit of using this ancient dye system. I've seen reports that you can use wool in with indigo dyes, particularly with the largely pre-reduced synthetic indigo dyes that don't require thiox reduction, but I have no experience with it. It's an arts-and-crafts project, but the results can be well worth the apitional preparation time.


There is a lot out there, and I'm only skimming the high points. The above options are enough for several lifetimes anyway, and are the most accessible. However, it's worth perusing the fabric art magazines and professional publications for ideas that can fit into groups of kids, students, party-goers, like-minded friends, dedicated hobbyists, or professionals. However, get your feet seriously wet with fiber-reactive dyes on cotton and silk first to understand resists and colors and discharging before you seek apitional novelty.


We at Live Dye are very interested in fun, and we're making it and studying it, usually both at the same time. We are available to give advice and consult, and we've also started a whole new business, Funshop, to study, promote, and share fun. Check out the Fun Manifesto and our blog, and contact us to arrange a dye party or Funshop. Most important, go have fun! Why wait? How about right now?

Elaboration on Elaborateness

Our dyeshop consists of tables topped with a 6 mil plastic sheet-covered 4' x 8' sheet of 3/4" plywood, a laundry sink, and storage space, and our discharge shop is on a screen porch and also has tubs for bleaching, rinsing, neutralizing, and thiox discharging. My dye resist and discharge resist parties are held around two of the same work surfaces mounted on sawhorses. You need buckets galore, as many c-clamp and pinch clamps as you can afford (actually, quite a few more would be nice), string, rubber bands, and gloves. Eye protection if you discharge, aprons or work clothes, utensils that aren't used for food afterwards, and a steamer would be nice. I like having a scale to weigh dyes, but you can go by volume if you aren't fussy about batch-to-batch color consistency. You can get by with a few dye colors to start, so the cost of getting on board is really fairly low, the matter of a few hundred dollars for a very workable setup. I would definitely spend extra on pinch clamps, everyone loves them, and if you're doing the entertaining as well as dyeing, your guests will appreciate their ease of use.

You can also go low budget and low stress. Household bleach discharge can be done with clothes out of your closet, is fast, requires no special equipment (but if you do it with guests, get eye protection), and gives wonderful results. I'll talk more about that on the next page.

As you'll see, how elaborate you are does reflect on your final product, or at least on the options you have at each step. But don't get scared off, it really isn't that difficult to get started. Or even to set up for a big tie-dye party that impresses the heck out of your guests with your dedication to their fun. In the next pages I'll explain the specifics, and again, if you need advice, consultation, to attend a workshop (Funshop), or want to have us run the show for you, let us know!