A Short Cultural History of Tie Dye

Like many things in popular American culture, tie dye had a history before it came to America. Chances are, when someone mentions tie dye, you think of colorful summer camp wear and concert fashion. And though the brightly colored, fluid and patterned style of dying clothing was made popular in the US during the hippie movements in the 1960’s and 1970’s, it has been around since ancient times in China and Japan.

While many modern day tie dye techniques make it easy to dye like a pro, with tie dye kits that involve rubber bands and a few bottles of dye, or dye powder, the techniques that have been used throughout history are more involved and complicated. Many ancient dyeing techniques from around the world have been passed down from generation to generation, and are indigenous to specific countries or even tribes, such as among the Yoruba tribe in West Africa, But no matter the origin of the craft, all tie dye is made using a resist dyeing technique.


Different methods of tie dye have developed all over the world, both independently of one another, and also as a result of international trade.  Read on to learn about some of these dyeing techniques, how they evolved, and how they lead to the popularity of tie dye as an iconic symbol of American counterculture.

The Origins of Tie Dye

One technique of dying, called Bandhani, dates back as far as the 6th century in India. According to Craft Atlas, “The earliest example of the most pervasive type of Bandhani dots can be seen in the 6th century paintings depicting the life of Buddha found on the wall of Cave 1 at Ajanta.”  

Bandhani dyeing is still quite popular in India today, with many womens sarees being made with these beautifully intricate and artisanal patterns.
Image credit: Photo by: Jon Connell Bandhani, Tie_dye_dresses, drying in Jaipur
Image credit: Photo by: Jon Connell Bandhani, Tie dye dresses, drying in Jaipur

Another type of tie dye that many people are familiar with is called Shibori. Shibori dying, though it originated in China, became popular in Japan, during the Edo Period (17-19th centuries), as people in the lower classes wore it as an alternative to silk. But Shibori dates back much earlier than this.  According to ThisBlueBird, “The earliest documentation of Shibori can be found all the way back in the 8thcentury! The 45themperor of Japan, Emporer Shomu, gave a Shibori-dyed cloth to a Buddhist temple in Nara, Japan named Todai-Ji. From here, the monks were fascinated by the way this cloth was dyed and vowed to learn how to learn Shibori and incorporate it into their fabric.”

Shibori; image credit: ThisBlueBird
Shibori; image credit: ThisBlueBird

While many people think primarily of Japan when talking about Indigo, West Africa has a huge history of Indigo dyeing. It is believed that Indigo dyeing in West Africa has its roots in the ancient trading city of Kano, at the Kofar Mata dye pits, the oldest in Africa. Kofar Mata is said to have been discovered by Moroccan trader Ibn Battuta in the fourteenth century. Five centuries later, these dye pits are still open, and have become quite a popular tourist destination for people interested in textiles and their history.

For a beautifully in-depth look at the different Indigo dying techniques and sources of Indigo in West Africa, visit this article from Heddels.


The Rise in popularity in the US
There is one theory that tie dye became popular in the US as Peace Corps volunteers returned from West Africa in the 1960’s and brought the region’s intricately dyed clothing and techniques with them.  These beautifully patterned clothes were a stark and statement-making contrast to the dominant fashions of the time, and quickly became an iconic symbol of the hippie movement. During the 60’s and 70’s, according to Eliza Brooks in this article from Vox:

Like much of the movement’s visual and artistic output, tie-dye was “a challenge to the perceived drabness of ‘straight life,’” writes Chris Gair, a lecturer in American literature and culture at the University of Glasgow, in an email. It belongs to the same kaleidoscopic aesthetic as psychedelic light shows and graphic design, the technicolor bus driven by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, and the dazzling colors experienced during acid trips.”

Groovy Tie Dye: https://groovyhistory.com/the-art-of-tie-dye
Image source: https://groovyhistory.com/the-art-of-tie-dye

While no one can pinpoint for sure the source of our love affair with tie dye, one thing is sure: the American love for tie dye has waxed and waned throughout the years, but it has never faded away.  Like most things in the fashion world, its popularity is cyclical, and it has definitely made a comeback in recent years. There is also currently a strong DIY trend that further bolsters tie dye’s popularity. Making a spiral tie dye is not only fun, it’s fairly simple, so it’s a great family activity. This year of quarantine has left a lot of us looking for fun things to do at home, and DIY tie dye fits that bill!

Mini Tie Dyed Tassels from WomanShopsWorld
Mini Tie Dyed Tassels from WomanShopsWorld

We’re seeing tie dyed patterns popping up everywhere too, not just on clothes! Enamel beads printed with a Tie dyed pattern are some of our personal favorites. We’ve seen Crocs with tie dye prints, and of course phone cases and laptop skins.  And how about tassels that are ice dyed or dip dyed? Yes please! In fact, we’re huge fans of ice dying and dip dying just about anything, because we love the unexpected element in the techniques.
Tie Dyed Beads for DIY Jewelry, from WomanShopsWorld
Tie Dye Beads from WomanShopsWorld

If you’ve ever thought about trying your hand at tie dying, ice dying is a fun way to start! It only requires some powdered dye colors, soda ash, special detergent, a mesh rack, and a bucket.  HonestlyWTF has a great tutorial and supplies list that we used to dye some WomanShopsWorld tassels.

Tie Dyed Tassels from WomanShopsWorld
Ice Dyed Tassels from WomanShopsWorld

If you’ve been on the fence about tie dye, we say give it a go! There’s something very uplifting about the bright and bold colors, and fluid patterns. Spread some joy with tie dyed fashion!

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