Make a tie-dye t-shirt with natural plant dyes

August 1, 2011
Author: Hannah


As part of our Festival of Play season, we’re offering loads of ideas for games and activities on the themes of outdoor play and circus fun to keep your kids occupied this summer.

Eden’s Carla Wentink explains how to give an old t-shirt your own personal touch by creating spiral coloured patterns with natural plant dyes.

You can use things from the kitchen, like red cabbage or onion skins to produce colours ranging from orange to bluish purple.

To dye a t-shirt you don’t need much more than a big pot, some ingredients from the kitchen or garden and half a day to play with.

If you’re in a rush, skip down to our quick dyeing method, which won’t give you such bright results but takes just a couple of hours.

What you need:

  • An old, light-coloured cotton t-shirt
  • Elastic bands
  • A big pan that can go on the hob (and isn’t going to be used for food)
  • An old pair of tights
  • An old jam jar
  • Natural ingredients chosen from the list at the end
  • A fixative, such as:
    • washing soda (1 tablespoonful)
    • vinegar (any clear vinegar – 1 tablespoonful)
    • rhubarb leaves (2–3 per t-shirt)
    • alum or iron rock salts from a specialist textile craft supplier (use 8% of the weight of your dry fabric for alum, or 2% for iron)

Full dyeing method:

1. Prepare your dye

  • Choose a plant to give you the colour you want, from our colour list below.
  • Chop the plant stuff in to small pieces.
  • Put it in a large pan of water and bring to a slow simmer for about an hour (flower dyes need only half an hour).
  • Let the ‘dye bath’ cool down for another hour.
  • Scoop the plant stuff into the foot of an old pair of tights, tie a knot in the tights, and put them back in the pan. That way, the colour keeps seeping out until you’re ready to actually dye the t-shirt.

2. Prepare your t-shirt

Meanwhile, you can be preparing your t-shirt.

  • The t-shirt you want to dye should be clean, so give it a wash if you need to.
  • If you’re planning a tie-dye pattern, use elastic bands to do this, ideally while the material is clean and dry. The bands squeeze the material tightly and stop the dye from reaching certain parts.
  • Gather a handful of the t-shirt at the point where you want the centre of the spiral spider’s web pattern to be and wrap an elastic band very tightly about an inch from the pointed end of the material.
  • Place another elastic band around the same bunch of material an inch further down.
  • Do this three or four times; the longer the bunch becomes, the bigger that particular spiral pattern.
  • Repeat the process in different areas of the t-shirt, if you’d like to create several spiral patterns across it.

3. Prepare your fixative

  • The fixative helps the dye stick to the fibres and means the colour won’t fade so easily in sunlight, or in the wash.
  • Choose a fixative from the ingredients list above. If using alum, do this outside so that you don’t inhale any of it.
  • Dissolve the appropriate amount in a little boiling water inside an old jam jar, then put that into a large pan along with enough water so that your t-shirt literally swims in it.
  • Add the t-shirt, bring it all to the boil and simmer for an hour, stirring every 5–10 minutes.
  • Let the pan of water cool down by itself.
  • Rinse the t-shirt out. If you’re not planning to actually dye the t-shirt on the same day, let it dry.

4. Dye your t-shirt

  • If you’ve just ‘fixed’ your t-shirt (step 3), then it will be nice and wet and you can go straight into the dyeing process. If you did this the day before and your t-shirt is now dry, soak it for at least an hour in water before dyeing.
  • Get out your ‘dye bath’ again, complete with the old tights filled with the plant stuff (prepared in step 1), and add your t-shirt.
  • Bring to a simmer for an hour.
  • Once it has cooled down, remove the t-shirt, rinse it in water and then dry it. Now the only thing left to do is enjoy wearing it! 

Quick dyeing method:

This method gives a much lighter and less-colourfast effect, but takes only a couple of hours.

  1. Put everything (plant materials, fixative, t-shirt) in large pot of cold water and simmer this all for an hour.
  2. Let it cool down for another hour.
  3. Rinse and dry.

Which plants make which colours?

See what you can find in the kitchen, garden or hedgerow to create some amazing natural dyes.

  • Blackberries = deep purple
  • Carrot leaves = yellow
  • Coffee grounds = medium brown
  • Daffodil flowers (that have recently bloomed) = yellow
  • Dahlias flowers (that have recently bloomed) = orange
  • Elderberry = pale purple
  • Gorse flowers = yellow
  • Grass cuttings (must be fresh; remove brown bits) = yellowy green
  • Hollyhock flowers (dark-coloured ones that have recently bloomed) = purpley brown
  • Ivy twigs and leaves = yellow and brown
  • Nettle leaves (use gloves so you don’t get stung!) = khaki green
  • Onion skins: white onions = yellow or orange; red onions = mossy green
  • Red cabbage (the water you cooked it in) = bluish purple
  • Rosehips = pinky purple
  • Tea bags (used ones) = pale or medium brown

This list above gives an idea of what type of colour you get, but you’ll find that the hues will differ with the type of material or fixative you use, and can even be affected by the time of day you pick the plant! So don’t be scared to experiment to get different colours.

Also, take care not to take so much of a plant growing in the wild that it can’t survive. And always wash your hands after handling plants and alum rock salts, as some could be poisonous if ingested or inhaled.

Experimenting with other materials and objects

You don’t have to dye a t-shirt; you can try other pale, natural materials or objects.

  • Man-made fibres won’t pick up the colour, but linen, wool, silk and hemp will. If you dye wool, just watch that the temperature doesn’t go above 85C in step 3. Also, don’t stir wool or silk during the process.
  • Or try objects such as white pearl buttons, bleached driftwood, shells, raffia, bits of sheep’s wool or any other natural, light-coloured things you can think of.

Thanks to asiadyer for the t-shirt photo.

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