The fact that you’re suddenly seeing tie-dye everywhere isn’t just in your head and it isn’t by chance. Tie-dye is the comfort baking of the fashion world, which is probably why Milk Bar founder and chef Christina Tosi is such a fan. Tosi recently Instagrammed a tie-dye session at her home in New York, where she created a whole new lockdown look for herself. “I was raised in a crafty family,” she says, “and the word ‘bored’ was not allowed in our vocabulary. So my self-soothing involves bringing my imagination to life.” She says that playing with colour, even subtle ones, is a mood brightener: “Once I get my gloves on and my rubber bands out, there are no rules!”
Today’s tie-dye is tasteful, a far cry from yesteryear’s Grateful Dead-specific rainbow colours backing dancing bears, and can be found everywhere from running paths to the runways. Toronto fashion insider Nicholas Mellamphy, founder of by-appointment fashion retailer Cabine, says tie-dye is “a cool girl’s” alternative to floral. “Proenza Schouler has made tie-dye a constant classic for the label,” he says, “and in the past I’ve bought amazing gowns from Balmain, tie-dyed and fringed.”
“You’d think that high fashion and the most basic of DIY-crafting wouldn’t work," Mellamphy says. “But the juxtaposition of reality on a dream is so strong,” referring to the connection of tie-dye with the counterculture of the 1960s, or the fantasy of running with a group of sun-bleached surfers.
Micah Cameron, owner of Frankies Surf Club in Muskoka, an L.A.-style beach shop that specializes in tie-dyed sweatshirts and tees, says, “I’m a huge believer that when things are terrible in the world, colour prevails.” To wit, she just wrapped up tie-dying a bunch of socks with proceeds going to the Daily Bread Food Bank. Cameron says that the past few years of Trump, and now COVID-19, have led to some dark times, which is why tie-dye has rallied: People tend to gravitate towards colour in the dark. The tie-dye trend has also been helped along by the current Californian renaissance. “I lived in New York for 15 years and my core friend group has moved out to California,” Cameron says. “There’s been a total shift west.” Cameron is also the women’s design director for Roots, which is offering cloudy greys and soft pink tie-dye pieces in its summer collection.
“We love tie-dye for its bohemian, artisanal roots and it feels like a nice departure from traditional summer florals,” says Christie Smythe, co-creator, along with Andrea Lenczner, of Smythe in Toronto. The duo has included a couple of tie-dye pieces in their spring collection. Lenczner says both she and Smythe were feeling nostalgic for the tie-dye of their youth but were seeking a more grown-up version for themselves. “We specifically chose more elevated, drapey fabrics and less expected silhouettes,” she says. Though their tie-dye fabrics are printed, they’re based on handmade artworks whose irregularities and uniqueness are captured in the prints.
The pieces are gorgeously sophisticated and are, in fact, the polar opposite of the tie-dyed tees of our youth.
Christina Tosi wears white for work in her bakeries, which means lots of chocolate, cookie dough and coffee stains. So in her world, tie-dye serves the dual purpose of stain camouflage and the unicorn-ing of her work wear. Tosi uses both synthetic and natural dyes on everything from sweatshirts to bandanas/face masks. “One of my girlfriends and I took a tie-dye class using dyes only found in nature,” she says. “They ended up being really beautiful, almost grown up.”
Tosi says they used things such as avocado pits – which, combined with spinach, made for a pale army green – hibiscus, turmeric, tea, red onion and daffodils. She says you can also use things from the pantry, such as Jell-O and balsamic vinegar. (Most craft stores sell synthetic dyes.) Each natural ingredient behaves differently, so you’ll have to research and experiment, but for instance, to colour with turmeric you combine 2 cups water with 2 tablespoons ground turmeric, bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer for 15 minutes. When cool enough to handle, it’s ready to use.
Aside from that, all you need is cotton clothing, rubber bands and garbage bags. To tie-dye, first lay garbage bags on the ground, then soak garments in water. If using natural dyes, soak garments in a mix of four parts cold water with one part white vinegar – the vinegar is a fixing agent. Wring dry, and use rubber bands to twist and tie-off your tie-dye design. In terms of colours, “Less is more,” Tosi says. “Three max, and I’m also a big fan of single colour tie-dye.” Both Tosi and Micah Cameron use plastic squeeze bottles to squirt the clothes with saturated colour in a targeted way, “and always wear gloves,” says Cameron, who often doesn’t use rubber bands, instead simply scrunching up garments before squirting both sides with colour.
When coloured, gather up garments in the garbage bags, tie up and let set for 12 hours. (The bags keep moisture in while colour sets.) Remove bags and rubber bands and hand-wash moist garments in cold water until water runs clear. Then machine wash in cold water, fluff dry and enjoy your chic tie-dyed creations.