How to Tie-Dye with Food Coloring: Tips and Tricks

Since Americans dump billions of pounds of textile waste, much of it clothing, into landfills every year — it’s time to start thinking outside the box when it comes to our clothes. If you have a bunch of old clothes lying around, perhaps you should consider learning how to tie-dye with food coloring.

You see, food coloring is a much safer dye to use than some of the others, and works nearly as well.

You don’t have to use these skills to repurpose old clothes, of course. However, if you learn how to tie-dye with food coloring, there are a million different ways you can put those skills to work.

Why Would I Want to Tie-Dye with Food Coloring?

Before we dig in, let’s talk about how to spell tie-dye. If you are researching online, you may enter, “how to tie die with food coloring,” into the search bar. That will get you plenty of results. However, the correct spelling is, “how to tie-dye with food coloring.” As we said, though, you will get search results either way.

So, you probably wonder why you would want to dye your fabrics using food coloring instead of one of the other dyes. Well, first of all, using food coloring is much cheaper than purchasing everything you’re going to need to use another type of dye. Secondly, depending on who is dyeing the stuff, food coloring is much safer and non-toxic.

The Long History of Tie-Dye

You may think that tie-dyeing started back in the late 1960s with the hippies — and you aren’t entirely wrong. Indeed, a form of it surged in popularity at the time. However, types of tie-dyeing date back much further than that.

For example, some records date back in China and Japan as early as 618 C.E. At that time, the people there used natural dyes from things like berries, leaves, roots, and flowers to color fabric.

Then, in India, as early as the 6th century, the people there used a type of tie-dye known as Bandhani. Bandhani uses thread and ties off small pieces of the fabric to create intricate patterns. After the material goes into the dye, the ties keep those sections from taking on any color — this was the earliest known form of tie-dyeing.

Tie-Dyeing with Food Coloring for a Cheap, Fun, and Safe Summer Activity

tie dyed fabric showing brilliance of dyes

Now, as we said before, learning how to tie-dye with food coloring can be beneficial for many reasons. First of all, if you have children, food coloring is much less toxic than any of the other types of dye.

Secondly, food coloring is much cheaper than the other types of dye people use, and you don’t need that many more supplies to pull everything together. So, with very little preparation and money, you can keep those kids busy for hours at a time this summer.

Have a tie-dye party

Of course, you could take things a step further and have a full-on tie-dye party this summer, too. Using the techniques, you’re about to learn, send out a few invites. You can prepare everything before the guests arrive.

Then, when everyone gets there, you can just jump right in. Make sure that you get enough supplies for everyone, of course. You can even think about having contests with prizes for things like, “most inventive design,” or, ” most colorful.”

How to Tie-Dye with Food Coloring

Finally, let’s get into things and learn how to tie-dye with food coloring. First, you’re going to need to gather your supplies.

Items you will need to gather

aprons for tie dying clothes with food coloring

Of course, before you begin, you’re going to want to get all your supplies together to help things run along more smoothly once you get moving.

  • Apron
  • Newspaper or an activity mat
  • Fabric to dye (preferably white cotton)
  • One large plastic bowl
  • White vinegar
  • Water
  • Rubber bands
  • Small squirt bottles
  • Food coloring in many colors
  • Optional: rubber gloves (the food coloring will stain hands and clothes)
  • Resealable plastic baggies
  • Salt
  • One large pot

How to tie-dye with food coloring — selecting your fabric

Now, in our research, we found some conflicting information about which type of material is the best for the kind of dye job. Overall, though, we did find that the vast majority of people prefer to use cotton fabric for tie-dyeing with food coloring.

Of course, using white fabric makes the most sense. Remember, food coloring won’t be quite as bright as using other methods. However, that doesn’t mean that if you use a shirt that’s lightly colored, it won’t also come out looking pretty good.

Remember, as you watch the tutorial videos below, don’t follow any of the instructions they give you for for the dye part — you are only interested in the tying part. We talk below about what to do with your fabric once you apply the dye.

How to tie-dye with food coloring — prepare your fabric

Second, after you choose what you want to dye, you have to prepare the material. For many types of dye, you would want to use a soda ash soak to get the dye to absorb more efficiently. Instead, since you’re learning how to tie-dye with food coloring, you want to use vinegar.

Here’s what you do:

  1. Fill the large plastic bowl with equal parts of vinegar and water
  2. Make sure there’s enough solution in the bowl to soak all the fabric
  3. Place the fabric into the bowl and let it soak for 30 minutes to an hour
  4. Prepare the dye bottles while you wait
  5. After the soak, take the material out of the bowl and ring it out

Remember, you want to have everything ready when the fabric comes out of the soak. You see, you want to put the dye on the fabric while it’s wet.

How to tie-dye with food coloring — prepare the dye bottles

Next, as you wait for the fabric to soak up that vinegar solution, get your dye ready to go. If you have only one bottle, that’s fine — just do one color at a time. However, if you have several bottles, prepare as many colors as you can.

To get the dye ready:

You will want to use eight drops of food coloring for every half a cup of water. So, those little bottles are the perfect size for that amount. Pro-tip: You can always mix food coloring together for fun, secondary colors like purple. Check out this food coloring mixing chart for ideas.

How to tie-dye with food coloring — let’s get tied in knots

Now let’s talk about the super fun part where your only limit is your imagination — tying the rubber bands onto the fabric to create your designs. First, let’s talk about the basics (remember to do this while the fabric is still wet):

The first, and perhaps most straightforward way to tie your shirt will be to make stripes. For this technique, you will need prepared fabric, dye, and rubber bands.

Check out the video below:

Now, you can gather the fabric randomly like she did, for sure. However, for a slight variation on this idea, you can do precise folds as well.

The spiral

Secondly, we have one of the most popular tie-dye deigns — the spiral. To do this one, you simply lay the fabric flat and grab it in the middle and start to twist your hand. For this technique, you will need rubber bands, fabric soaked in the vinegar solution, and dye in whatever color you want to use.

Check out how to swirl in the video below: 

Of course, your final designs will vary greatly depending on how you put the dye on there. So, we found you a video with six different techniques to get the dye on in the best possible way.

Check out this video:

As you can see, with only slight variations in how you apply the dye, you can make an entirely different design.

The spider

Next, you can’t very well learn how to tie-dye with food coloring and not learn our next technique — the spider. It’s pretty similar to the spiral method except you fold the fabric in half first. To try the spider, you will need the prepared material, dye in several selected colors, and rubber bands.

Check out the spider in the video below: 

Remember, just like the spiral you learned; you can apply the dye in many different ways to create different effects.

How to tie-dye with food coloring — after the dye

After you apply the dye, grab those resealable bags, and stick each piece of fabric in its own container. Next, place the bag somewhere and let it sit overnight or up to 24 hours.

Next, take out each piece of fabric and get it ready for its final bath. For this step, you want to remove all the elastic bands. Secondly, you heat some water in a large pot on the stove to dissolve around 1/2 to 3/4 cup of salt.

Then, before you ring out the shirt, give it one more bath in that warm salt water. The salt will help to set the dye. Then, take the fabric over to the sink and run it under water and squeeze out the excess. For this step, you want to run it under water until it runs clear.

After that, hang it up, dry it out, and get ready to sport the coolest shirt you ever made.

Now It’s Time for Some Summertime Fun in the Sun

We don’t know what it is about tie-dye that makes us think about summer, but it certainly does. Now that you know how to tie-dye with food coloring, you can have some messy outside fun without any worry about toxic chemicals.

Remember, you should be careful what you stick in the washing machine with your freshly dyed duds. Preferably, you will wash each one by itself.

Do you have a favorite tie-dye design that we missed? Tell us about it in the comments.

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