Tie-dye is possibly the best thing that could ever happen to plain apparel. The stunning fabric dyeing technique has global admiration, which runs across generations.
If you concur with this love for tie-dye and plan to do it yourself, or have done it but still have your colors running, you must be wondering how to set the dye successfully.
Regular washes can easily wreck the beauty of tie and dye creations if the color does not set well. And you all hate it when your time, money and efforts go to waste, don’t you?
So, what do you need to set tie-dye? To set tie-dye, you need to use a dye fixer, such as soda ash, or a commercial dye fixative. Contrary to popular belief, you do not need vinegar to tie-dye cotton unless specifically instructed by the dye manufacturer.
This article seeks to enlighten tie-dye enthusiasts on how to achieve long-lasting colors. We’ll show you how to set tie-dye without vinegar and still get the desired results.
Why You Do Not Need Vinegar To Set Tie-Dye
We know you can barely skim through the net for anything to do with tie-dye without the term vinegar popping up everywhere. It is peddled as a hero for color setting in most DIY tie-dye tutorials. But is it really the only way to fix color?
Do you need vinegar to set tie-dye? Not quite. Unless specifically indicated in a kit you may be using, you can set tie-dye without vinegar. Vinegar is only necessary when using an acid dye to tie-dye silk, wool, or nylon.
In fact, an acid dye is not designed to react with plant cellulose fibers. So you should not use acid dyes like vinegar for tie-dyeing cotton or linen. Some all-purpose dyes will also require the use of vinegar, though it is not the best for tie-dyeing.
Fiber reactive dyes are best for tie-dyeing cotton and similar natural plant cellulose fibers. And they do not need vinegar to set.
Now that we’ve debunked the vinegar myth, how do you set tie-dye without vinegar?
All you need is some kind of dye fixative. There are two surefire ways to do it: you can use soda ash or purchase a commercial dye fixative.
How To Set Tie-Die Using Soda Ash
Before embarking on this method, it is essential to know that soda ash will only work with fiber reactive dyes used on cotton, linen, or rayon.
These dyes guarantee colorfastness if you follow instructions to the letter. They react with the fibers to form a permanent chemical bond. Therefore, color is literally embedded in the fibers permanently.
Soda ash enhances this chemical process by increasing the pH of the solution. This makes the solution more alkaline, and alkaline conditions are optimum for this type of reaction. A pH of 10.5 or higher ensures that there are enough negative ions available for bonding.
Some tie-dyes already come premixed with soda ash or provide the ash in a separate sachet, so be sure to check out what’s included in any dyes you don’t make yourself.
If you need to, you can also purchase pure soda ash (also known as sodium carbonate or washing soda) from your local hardware store or any store with a section for swimming pool cleaning supplies.
Here is how to tie-dye plant-based fibers (including cotton, linen, rayon) using soda ash as your color-fixing agent:
- Wearing a mask and gloves, mix an 8 oz cup of soda ash in one gallon of warm water to make a solution. This will be enough to dye a couple of clothing items, depending on size.
- Pre-soak your fabric or garments in the solution for at least 15 minutes. You can go up to an hour.
- Remove the clothes and wring out the excess water such that it is only damp but not dripping wet.
- Prepare to tie or knot the fabric into the desired design pattern and dye.
- Once done, put the garments in a plastic bag without untying the bands. Ensure you keep them warm and leave for a few hours or overnight for the maximum setting.
- The next day, undo the band and rinse several times with cold water to remove the soda ash.
- Follow this up with very hot water to eliminate any traces of unfixed dye. When the water runoff is clear, you’re done! (And you’ll be much less likely to have colors bleed when you wash your clothes.)
- Hang or lay flat to dry.
Soaking the garment in soda ash beforehand is the best way to set tie-dye without vinegar. However, some people prefer mixing the soda ash with the color (if not already premixed).
If it slips your mind to use soda ash before or during the tie-dye process, don’t sweat it. There are other ways to set the dye, though not as effective as a soda ash pre-soak. The alkaline environment is necessary during dye fabric bonding and not after.
If you forget, you can pour a soda ash solution (8 oz cup soda ash to 1 gallon of water) all over the tie-dyed fabric. Then seal it in a plastic bag and leave it overnight.
How To Set Tie-Die Using Commercial Dye Fixatives
Commercial dye fixatives are used to set tie-dye created with all-purpose dyes. Just as the name implies, these fixatives help the color take to the fabric. They won’t react with the fibers and will create a long-lasting color bond.
There is no standard procedure for using this type of dye fixer. You must follow the guidelines indicated in your pack for use. For some brands, it is added into the dye powder, while for others, the freshly dyed fabric is immersed into a solution of the dye fixative before the first rinse.
Whatever the case, don’t worry. The instructions will likely be easy to follow, as commercial fixatives are meant to make the process simpler, not harder.
More Ways To Improve Color Fastness For Tie-Dye
With a good quality dye, you do not need to do anything to set the color of your tie-dye. But if you’d like to do more to help the color set even better, you can use salt in the first rinse.
Some people swear by salt to set tie-dye. While it is ok to use it in the final rinse, it should not be mixed with the dye unless instructed. While there are ways to set dyes in salt baths, you want to be absolutely sure that is what you should be doing with your specific dyes.
How To Set Tie-Dye Using Salt
If you want to use salt to help set your dye, just follow these steps:
- Fill your top loader washing machine with water.
- Pour in ½-1 cup salt and dissolve.
- Throw in your new tie-dyed garment and wash in the cold water wash cycle, rinse and hang dry.
- If using a bucket, allow your articles to soak in the cool salt solution for about 30 minutes before rinsing.
Note: Iodized and pickling salts work the best for this.
How To Set Tie-Dye Using Heat
To further seal in the colors, you can also use heat. This is done as the final step, after rinsing, washing and drying your fabrics. You can either iron the tie-dyed fabrics or use a dryer in a hot setting (assuming your fabric type holds up well in the dryer).
Using an Iron
Using an iron to heat-set your tie-dyed fabrics is simple:
- Line your ironing board with paper, preferable plain paper, or brown paper. Avoid newspaper or printed paper to prevent ink transfer.
- Place the tie-dye fabric on the lined board and place another iron-safe paper on top.
- Iron the material at the highest setting.
Using a Dryer
If ironing fabrics to set color is simple, using a dryer is even easier:
- Find an old pillowcase and encapsulate the tie-dyed fabric in it.
- Put it inside the dryer in a very hot setting for 10 minutes.
Again, you want to be sure your material can handle being put in a hot dryer before using this method. After all, tie-dyeing can’t make a material any more resistant to a dryer.
Always take care not to burn the clothes. Some people opt to use the microwave for speed and convenience, but we don’t advise this, especially if the microwave is also used for warming food.
Can I Use Baking Soda Instead of Soda Ash To Set Tie-Dye?
If you have sensitive skin or are tie-dying young kids’ clothes, soda ash may be too harsh.
Some people are successful tie-dyeing with baking soda instead. We strongly recommend you follow up baking soda tie-dyed fabric with both heat setting and salt setting to ensure as much colorfastness as possible.
How Long Should Tie-Dye Sit?
It would be best if you let your tie-dye fabric sit for 2-24 hours undisturbed, but longer is typically better for richer, stronger colors. Leave it in a warm environment covered in plastic to retain moisture.
Can You Let Tie-Dye Sit For Too Long?
There’s really no such thing as letting tie-dye sit for too long. Not only can you forget about it overnight, but the colors will set better the longer the dye is left to sit on your fabric. Unless you are hoping for a muted color look, you really can’t overdo it.
Can You Use Salt Instead of Soda Ash?
In the absence of soda ash, or if tie-dyeing with kids, salt may be used as a substitute for soda ash, but you cannot expect the same results – unless you have purchased dyes that are specifically supposed to be used with salt baths.
Salt only helps the fibers take in the dye. For it to set, an alkaline pH is necessary to allow for more bonding between color and fabric, as we talked about briefly earlier).
Should You Pre-Soak Items In Soda Ash If The Dye Is Already Premixed With It?
It won’t hurt to pre-soak items in extra soda ash, but this may not always be necessary. However, some dye kits use very weak soda ash in their premix. So treating your items prior to tie-dyeing could increase the chances of color setting well.
A good quality dye overrides any dye fixative and is all it takes to ensure your colors set well in tie-dye projects. You do not necessarily have to add anything special. Just follow instructions to the letter and the results will be excellent.
Similarly, no matter what you do to set tie-dye, it will not work if the choice of dye is wrong to begin with. Fiber reactive dyes are the best for cotton, and cotton (and similar natural fibers) is the best fabric for tie-dye projects.
To sum things up, you can absolutely set tie-dye without vinegar. Soda ash or a commercial dye fixative are all you need to set your color. If you like, you can follow it up with salt or heat setting to increase your chances of success.