How To Tie Dye A Shirt With Food Coloring

Tie-dye is a pattern that never seems to truly go out of fashion, despite the fact it’s been around for decades. If there is one thing that can be promised in this life, it’s that you will see people wearing tie-dyed clothing when summer rolls around.

Perhaps the reason this design has remained so popular throughout the years is due to the fact it is such an easy pattern to create, and the results are always pretty impressive.

It also allows you to express your creativity without having to worry about being too precise with the placement of colors.

The process of tie-dyeing involves combining colored dye and water to create patterns on fabric. The idea behind this technique is that the chemicals used to make the dyes will react with the water, causing them to bond together.

How To Tie Dye A Shirt With Food Coloring

By scrunching the fabric in a certain way, and holding it in this position with elastic bands, unique patterns can be created on the fabric.

Not only is it so simple to tie-dye, but it is also really fun! You can really get in touch with your creative side by splashing a load of colors onto a plain white piece of fabric, bringing your garments to life.

Tie dyeing is a great activity to do with kids as well. They love getting their hands messy, and they’ll have tons of fun trying to figure out how to create different designs.

In this article, we will be looking at a specific method that can be used to tie-dye a shirt: using food coloring instead of fabric dye. Does it work? How well does it work? Most importantly, how do you do it?

Let’s find out!

Can You Tie Dye A Shirt With Food Coloring?

So, before we get even further into this article, let’s answer the million-dollar question: can you really use food coloring to tie-dye a shirt? 

Fabric dye is specifically manufactured to dye fabric, as the name would suggest. This is the product that is recommended to use while tie dyeing, as it creates a more permanent effect on your clothes.

Fabric dyes contain chemicals which allow them to penetrate the fibers of the fabric, creating a color change once the item dries. In addition, fabric dye clings onto the fabric fibers, meaning that the color they leave behind does not fade, even when the fabric has been thoroughly washed.

Food coloring, on the other hand, is designed to color food… again, as the name suggests.

This is an edible substance that contains natural pigments, allowing them to be added to other ingredients to create a vibrant color. While the exact chemical composition of these substances varies from brand to brand, most contain some form of red or blue pigment.

So, what happens when you add food coloring to plain, white fabric?

Food coloring is actually fairly pigmented, and will stain certain materials if tipped on them. Synthetic materials, such as polyester, cannot be dyed with food coloring as they do not absorb water, but other materials, such as silk or wool.

Additionally, due to food coloring being an acid-based dye, it does not work when used on cotton fabric, either.

Overall, food coloring can be used to tie-dye, but only on certain types of materials! If you are interested in tie dyeing with food coloring, just make sure to check the materials that you will be dyeing beforehand. 

Tie Dye Preparation

Now, let’s get to the fun part!

Before you tie-dye your very own t-shirt with food coloring, you will want to make sure that you have done all the preparation beforehand.

First and foremost, make sure that you have a clean, clear space to tie-dye. It should be free of any clutter, as you don’t want anything to get stained during the process.

If you plan to tie-dye outside, make sure that you bring along plenty of towels, as you may need to wipe down your clothing after each step.

It is probably best to wear old clothing while using dye: otherwise, you run the risk of permanently dyeing the clothes that you are wearing.

Once you have finished preparing your surroundings, you will need to get all your equipment together.

Equipment Needed

  • A white or light colored shirt (or any white/light colored clothing)
  • Rubber bands
  • White vinegar
  • Salt
  • Water
  • Food coloring of your choice (3-5 colors recommended)
  • Plastic squeeze bottles (one for each color)
  • A plastic tray or a bucket
  • A plastic bag
  • A pair of rubber gloves


8 Steps To Tie Dyeing A Shirt Using Food Coloring

Here are 8 simple step instructions that you will need to follow to tie-dye your shirt using food coloring.

8 Steps To Tie Dyeing A Shirt Using Food Coloring

In each section, we will be going into as much detail as possible to ensure that you have all the information you need to create your own tie-dyed creations at home. This includes the best material to use for dyeing, different kinds of patterns to use, and how to properly apply the dye.

So, let’s get started.

Step 1: Preparing Your Shirt For Tie Dyeing

Choosing Your Shirt

As we mentioned previously, you will only want to use specific types of materials when using food coloring as a dye. Some materials should be avoided, such as cotton, polyester, or plant-based fabrics. Avoid these at all costs!

The best materials to use while tie dyeing with food coloring are:

  • wool
  • silk
  • nylon

These kinds of plain white shirts – or light colored shirts – can be purchased fairly cheap, and can be found both online and at local stores.

While you can tie-dye a light colored shirt, the best results will be shown on white material. When used on a white canvas, the dyes will remain bright and vibrant, whereas they may appear duller on an already colored shirt.

Washing Your Shirt

If you want to tie-dye a shirt yourself, then make sure that you wash it first. You will want to be sure that there are no stains already on the shirt, and that it has been washed thoroughly. Otherwise, you could end up ruining the entire tie-dye experience.

Once you are certain that your shirt is completely spotless, you will need to soak it in a vinegar solution for a couple of hours.

This solution can be created by combining equal amounts of water and white vinegar in a plastic bucket. Stir together, and then place the shirt into the solution, making sure that it is completely saturated.

If you find that the shirt keeps floating up to the surface, push it down and swish it around until you have removed all the air bubbles from the material.

The reason for soaking your shirt in this vinegar solution is to soften the fibers of the material, making it less likely for the dye to bleed or fade once it has been applied. Some people prefer to add a bit of salt to this solution, in addition to the vinegar and water.

You should leave the shirt to soak for anywhere between 1 hour to overnight. The longer you leave it to soak, the more successful your dyeing experience will be.

Once you have removed the shirt, wring the excess water out by twisting the fabric in your hands. You don’t want the shirt to completely dry: when tie dyeing, the fabric needs to be damp in order to absorb the color evenly.

Step 2: Tying Your Shirt (Deciding Which Pattern You’d Like)

Next up, you will want to decide which pattern you would like to use while tie dyeing.

There are many designs to choose from, and in order to achieve them, you will need to tie your fabric up in a specific way before dyeing.

When you tie-dye a material, you need to twist the fabric in a certain position, and use elastic bands to hold it in that position. Then, when you apply the dye, it will only color the parts of the shirt inside the areas between each elastic band.

It is important to remember that the parts of the fabric that have been crumpled or folded will remain white, unless you purposely saturate that specific area with dye. The more folds in the material, the more white spaces will be left untouched.

Additionally, the parts of the fabric under the elastic bands will also remain white.

There are so many patterns that you can use for your tie-dyed shirt, and we are going to list ten of them below. You can then decide which one you would like to use for your own shirt.

The options below will show you how to tie the fabric into sections, so that they are ready to be dyed.

1. The Spiral Design

Choose where you would like the center of the spiral to be, and pinch that area with your fingers. Next, while continuing to hold the center, twist the shirt around until the material spirals into a complete circle – twist it as tightly as you can!

Once you have created the spiral, use rubber bands to secure the shape. The bands should overlap at the center of the spiral. There should now be several triangular areas, all separated by the rubber bands.

We recommend you only use three rubber bands while using this technique. This will create a clear, vibrant spiral once it has been dyed.

2. The Bullseye Design

Use your fingers to pinch the center of the shirt (or wherever you want the ‘bullseye’ to be), and use your pointer finger and thumb to create a ring around this pinched piece of fabric. Lightly pull the fabric through your finger and thumb until you have around 5 inches (12.7 cm) pulled up.

Use a rubber band to secure this piece of fabric before repeating the process, using rubber bands to section the shirt until it is long, and all tied up.

3. The Crumpled Design

All you need to do for this design is lay your shirt out flat on the surface, and then use your hands to crumple it all up. You can get creative, crumpling the shirt as much or as little as you please. 

Note: the more you crumple it, the more white areas will be left on the final piece.

Once the shirt has been crumpled to your desire, pull an elastic band around the sides, holding the crumpled fabric together. You may need a large elastic band that will be able to stretch around the whole shirt without snapping. 

4. The Striped Design

Lay the shirt out flat, and accordion fold it either horizontally or vertically.

Once it has been completely folded up, use rubber bands to create sections all the way down the shirt. You can space the bands out evenly to create stripes of all the same width, or you can section them unevenly for a funkier design.

5. The Starburst Design

Use your fingers to pinch small sections of the shirt, and tightly tie rubber bands around each one. You can create as many little tufts in the fabric as you desire. 

The result will be several bursts of star shapes, all over the shirt.

6. The Rainbow Design

Use a washable marker to draw the top and bottom arches of the rainbow onto your shirt, making sure each line is clearly visible to you.

Next, pleat along both lines, using elastic bands to secure both of them in place. Then, add more elastic bands to create sections in the space between the two bands, creating the sections that will be used for each color of the rainbow. 

7. The Heart Shaped Design

Fold your shirt in half, vertically. Then, use a washable marker to draw half a heart shape onto the one side, making sure that it lines up with the crease in the middle of the shirt.

Gently pleat the fabric, following the outline of the heart. Use an elastic band to tightly secure the fabric in this area: this part of the shirt will be the heart.

Continue using elastic bands to create as many sections as you like.

8. The Ombre Design

For this design, you don’t need to scrunch, twist, or even use elastic bands.

All you do is pour the dye onto the shirt in sections, and use a paintbrush and some water to spread the color out on the fabric, covering all the white areas.

9. The Spider Design

This pattern follows the same steps as the spiral design: twist the shirt into a spiral, and use rubber bands to section the fabric into six triangle shapes, or ‘slices’. 

The only difference here is, during the dyeing stage, you use some black dye to cover each section after they have already been dyed their first colors. The black dye will appear like spider legs stretching outwards on the finished result. 

10. The Kaleidoscope Design

The last design we will be looking at requires the use of ice cubes. 

Pinch a section of the shirt, and partially twist into a spiral before securing with an elastic band. Then, pinch another section and repeat, except twisting the spiral in the opposite direction as the last one. Finally, crumple the rest of the shirt, and use a larger band to secure the whole thing around the sides.

Place some ice cubes on top of the crumpled shirt before adding the dye: this will create an interesting, funky pattern as the ice melts, moving the dye around.

Step 3: Choosing Your Colors

Once you have decided on a pattern for your shirt, you will want to choose your colors.

Depending on which pattern you have selected, you may use a different number of colors. We recommend that you use no more than 5 or 6 colors on a shirt, as too many colors may make the shirt look messy.

We can’t tell you which colors to use, as this is your decision to make! Do you want to create a shirt with cool shades of blues, purples, and greens? Or, do you want to make a shirt with warm tones of yellows, reds, and pinks?

This part is all down to you.

Step 4: Creating A Food Coloring Tie dyeing Solution

Once you have chosen the colors that you want to use, you will need to create a dye solution.

For each color, you will need to combine around 120 ml of cold water with 8-16 drops of your chosen food coloring. Place this solution into a plastic squeeze bottle, and shake until it has all mixed together.

If you are dyeing a larger shirt, or you want to use a lot of one certain color, you may want to create more dye: in this case, double the amount that we have mentioned above. 

You will need to use separate bottles for each color dye, as you won’t want the colors to mix together. If you only have one bottle, you could create each dye solution in separate bowls, and then once you have used the one colored dye, rinse the bottle out and refill with the next color.

Tip: If you don’t have any squeeze bottles, try using an old, rinsed out condiment squeeze bottle, such as a bottle of ketchup or mustard. It is the nozzle that is the important part of the bottle, as it needs to squeeze the dye out in small, precise squirts.

Step 5: Color Your Shirt With The Food Coloring Tie Dye Solution

The next step is to place your sectioned, tied up shirt into an empty bucket, or an empty tray. This is important, as the dye will drip from the shirt, so you will need something to catch the excess dye.

Put your plastic gloves on before starting the dyeing process. Food coloring can stain your skin, so unless you want multicolored fingers for the next couple of days, you will want to wear your gloves.

Pick your first color, and use the bottle to squeeze the dye onto one section at a time. Since the shirt will still be damp from the vinegar solution, the dye should spread through the material quite quickly, filling the white areas. 

If you would like more color than white, use lots of dye to fully saturate the section. If you want to have more white areas, use less dye.

You can color each section with random colors, creating a random pattern, or you can place the colors in an ordered pattern, e.g., red-yellow-green-red-yellow-green. The decision is yours!

Make sure you remember to flip the shirt over once you have completed the first side, and color in the back sections too (unless you want the back of the shirt to remain white).

Step 6: Leaving Your Shirt To Set

Once you have colored each section to your satisfaction, place the shirt inside the plastic bag.

Pat the bag down to remove all the air from the inside, and then seal it, making sure that no air can get inside. You will want to leave the shirt inside the bag for as long as possible, ensuring that the colors have fully stained the fabric.

We recommend that you leave your shirt to sit overnight, or for, at least, 8 hours.

The colors will set better in a warm room, so try placing it in an area where heat will reach the bag. If it is sunny outside, place the bag on a windowsill so that the sun shines directly onto the plastic. 

Step 7: Rinsing Your Shirt

When the setting time has passed, you will need to put plastic gloves back on to remove the shirt from the bag. Pull off all the rubber bands, or cut them off if it’s easier.

Unravel the shirt, and take a peek at your custom design for the first time!

Before you dry the shirt, you will want to soak it one last time. Do not wash it in a laundry machine with other clothes, as some dye may bleed and stain your other pieces of clothing. Instead, you will want to create a salt-water solution to wash the shirt separately.

Combine around 1/2 a cup of salt with 1/2 a cup of warm water, and stir together until completely mixed. Then, place your shirt in the solution to soak for a couple of seconds, swishing it around. You may notice that some dye will come out of the shirt, but don’t worry! This is just some excess dye.

Finally, rinse the shirt in a sink under cold water. Again, some dye will come out, but that will stop after a couple of seconds of rinsing. Hold it under the water until it runs clear. 

Then, you can dry your shirt.

Step 8: Wear Your New Tie Dyed Shirt!

Once the shirt has completely dried, it will be ready to wear.


You have successfully created your very own tie-dye shirt using food coloring. Hopefully you like the design, but if not, you can always make another one now that you know how easy the process is.

Final Thoughts

So, there we have it! That is how you can tie-dye your very own shirt, using food coloring.

In conclusion, tie dyeing a shirt is super easy and fun. It doesn’t require much skill or special equipment, especially if you already have food coloring sat around in your cupboard at home.

All you need to find is an old, plain shirt, some plastic bottles, and a bucket or tray: the rest of the ingredients needed are things that you, most likely, already have in your kitchen.

Once you learn how to tie-dye a shirt, you’ll never want to stop tie-dyeing shirts again. It is a fun activity that can be enjoyed by adults and children alike.

Good luck!

Amanda Brown

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