A History of Color: The Origins of Tie Dye

  11/14/2015 at 21:39 pm

November 14th, 2015 by Jay Fratt



Tie dye: Whenever we see it, it is easy to appreciate its intricate beauty. Bright, artistic, colorful patterns offer new levels of creativity to clothing and accessories, and when we see an ornate work of tie dye art, we are taken back to the ’60s, a time of peace and love. What’s interesting is that tie dye far pre-dates the Age of Aquarius, and wasn’t even called tie dye until the 20th century. The names and styles of tie dye vary by location but most translate roughly into “tie and dye.” The tie dye technique first appeared in China, Japan, India and Africaas early as the 6th-8th century. Long before chemical dyes were available, people used various plant juices, roots, bark, flowers, fruits, leaves and spices to create their colors. Turmeric, for example, lends a rich yellow, while indigo will result in a serene blue-purple hue. Unfortunately, they generally don’t bond permanently with the fabric. Most of these plant-based dyes didn’t last long with the color fading after repeated washing and wear. Therefore, repeated dyeing was required. This difficulty was erased with the introduction of chemical dyes, such as Rit dye, which came onto the market around the Depression era, and Rit, costing only a few dollars per bottle, is still widely used today.

Tie dye involves using various methods of tying & folding with different materials used to bind the fabric such as thread, rubber bands, wax, stitching, or stencils. The binders are known as resists. Parts of the fabric are bound, knotted or pleated and then dipped into various colors of dye, depending on the artists’ desired pattern. The varying methods are determined by how well that particular method will work with a particular fabric. The term “tie dye” is rather broad, as there are many different methods and styles of tie dye depending on culture and location.

India created a tie-dye art form called Bandhani, where the artists would pull up small points of fabric and then dip dye the raised points, resulting in a colorful circular pattern. This is where our word “bandanna” gets it’s origins.  The artists grew the nails of their thumb and forefinger long so that they were easily able to pluck up the small points of fabric that they wanted to dye. Turmeric was widely used in Indian art as well as diet, and is responsible for the warm orange-yellow that we typically associate with Indian art.

The Japanese went with a formcalled Shibori. There are many different styles of shibori, including kanoko, miura, kumo, nui, arashi and itajime.  However, kanoko is the style commonly thought of in the Western world as tie dye, as it is very similar to our styles. Indigo was a popular plant used in Japanese tie dye, as it bonded well with their primarily hemp and silk fabrics. Shibori is still widely used today in Asian culture as well as by a few artists in the United States and other countries.

An example of Shibori tie dye art

An example of Shibori tie dye art

China, who has employed the art of tie dye since the 6th century, calls their method Zha Ran. In ancient Chinese culture, the colors used dictated social rank, and usually only priests, wealthy elites, and royalty were allowed to wear “tie dye” garments. The Chinese were skilled in folding, tying and dipping their fabrics, and the result was typically the mesmerizing “rich to fade” color scheme that many of us appreciate in modern tie dye.

An example of Zha Ran Chinese tie dye art

An example of Zha Ran Chinese tie dye art


Tie dye made it’s connection with our modern world during the The Great Depression, when housewives would dye burlap bags and create colorful home decorations and clothing, and the bright vibrant colors helped distract from a dismal situation. It proved to be an economical way to spruce up dingy, faded items instead of buying something new when times were tough.

During the ’60s and ’70s the art of tie dye gained mass popularity. An entire generation cherished this method for its uniquity of expression. There were no two identical products, and this held great appeal and symbolic weight for the “hippie movement.”   They believed that everyone should be free to express their own individuality, and tie dyed t-shirts and tapestries were an iconic material expression of that ideology.

The hippie movement and associated fashion of the ’60s and ’70s had an impact on the economy as well. The Rit dye company had been struggling financially, until they came up with what seemed like a solid marketing strategy:  Why not try and appeal to the younger generation? Rit had primarily been used for household items, but why couldn’t it also be used in the process of tie dye? So market to the hippie generation they did.  Starting with going door to door in Greenwich Village, a popular “hippie town,” and advertising their product for tie dye. In their travels, they met a couple, Will and Eileen Richardson, who were retired tie dye artists.  Samples of their work were shown to fashion and clothing designers. The designer Roy Halston was impressed and began using tie dye in his work. Not long after, celebrities such as Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix started wearing tie dye on tour, and many young people jumped on board. Other celebrities such as Cher and Ali McGrawwore tie dye from Halston.  A tipping point of tie dye’s popularity came when Ali McGraw was featured on the cover of a popular magazine wearing one of Halston’s tie dye designs. Rit also convinced the Girl Scouts to create a tie dye merit badge, and sponsored a booth at the 1969 Woodstock concert. Affordable, quality dyes combined with the endless possiblities of tie dye art rendered Rit’s financial woes a thing of the past.
In the ’80s, tie dye culture began to fade. The hippie age was a thing of the past, and most of society had moved on to new concepts and styles. That is, except for the Deadheads. The Deadheads were loyal fans of the Grateful Dead, and well into the ’80s and ’90s they continued to embrace tie dye as their symbol. Grateful Dead concerts grew to be essential to tie dye, with different artists and vendors selling their colorful wares to a tie dye hungry crowd. Once the Dead disbanded in 1995, the concerts of other groups such as Phish became venues for the sale and exchange of tie dye goods. Tie dye continued to gain back its popularity during the ’90s and 2000s.

Today’s tie dye has retained all of the art of its ancient roots, and has also added a few modern twists, such as the addition of vinyl decals over a tie dye background. Modern tie dye tapestries and clothing are in full demand, and most products that you see in large malls tend to be mass produced. However, if the idea of an artist’s unique expression on a one-of-a-kind work of art peaks your interest, there are many artists that sell their handmade products at farmer’s markets, craft shows, and several other events, as well as associated businesses.  Smokin Js has a great selection of tie dyed clothing.

Or you could go one step further and try your hand at creating your own designs: regardless of it’s rich history, tie dye is relatively easy. The easiest way to start is to get a tie dye kit. After that, all you need is a plain white tee and you’re all set to create your own colorful masterpieces!

Written by Sunshine Burnett

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