Let’s All Tie Dye

The Curmudgeon tried his hand at it, using colors from his alma mater.

I’ve always been indifferent, even dismissive, about tie dye.

I’d cringe when my kids came home with a wet tie dye project in a plastic bag from camp, worrying that the colors would bleed all over my good clothes. And I always questioned the fashion sense of adults who pranced around in garish tie dye shirts, wondering what was going through their minds when they got dressed that morning.

“Must’ve been the only clean shirt in their drawer,” I’d think.

I haven’t worn a homemade tie dye garment since the ’70s, and I haven’t felt that I’m missing anything. I’m not a particularly crafty person nor do I crave a collection of tie dye in my wardrobe. So how do I explain my recent fascination with tie dye, which includes scouring Ocean State Job Lot and TJ Maxx for cheap white cotton shirts when I should have been home getting ready for Hurricane Henri?

While the rest of New England was battening down the hatches, I was hunting for 100 percent cotton T-shirts along with other panic buyers, including a woman balancing a one-month-old baby on her knee like a rag doll. It’s amazing what the prospect of a natural disaster like a hurricane does to the human mind. Some people go into survival mode, while other people go straight to denial and retail therapy. I’d like to think that explains why an older woman had to go shopping for throw pillows with a hurricane looming in the Atlantic.

I can’t explain the Tie Dye fixation, at least not rationally. So I’ll blame my 20-year-old daughter Maura, who worked as a day camp counselor over the summer. One day, she asked me to pick up tie dye materials as an activity for her 6-year-old campers. After scouring Wal-mart and coming up empty, I headed over to Michael’s, or should I say Tie Dye Central?

In the old days, tie dye meant boxes of Ritz dye, white vinegar and buckets, a mess just waiting to happen. But today’s tie dye kits are designed to streamline the process and make it seamless as possible. For $20, I bought a Tulip tie dye party in a plastic tackle box featuring everything from adorable plastic bottles containing dye to rubber bands, rubber gloves and even a plastic table cloth to protect my work space.

Maura never got around to using the kit with the kids, but it was increasingly tempting, like a quart of hand-packed vanilla ice cream in the freezer. I knew I would eventually break down and tear open the box, unleashing my inner child. The only question was how long would it take, and which white shirt in my wardrobe would be the first victim.

I created this shirt after watching a YouTube video. You wrap the wet shirt around a cylinder, wrap with twine and then saturate with dye. I’m partial to indigo blue.

One hot muggy day, it happened. I got the overwhelming urge to tie dye, but not with reckless abandon of a summer camper. Instead, I decided to bone up on tie dye techniques on YouTube. In 15 minutes, I learned how to create striations, swirls and blocks of color to make something I might actually wear out of the house. I like things you can master in 15 minutes or less, and tie dye fits nicely into that category.

Watching a tie dye guru fold, twist and pucker fabrics to achieve certain patterns only heightened my desire to try my hand at this ancient process. The only problem would be having the patience to let my project sit for 24 hours to allow the dye to really soak in. Apparently, this is a problem shared by tie dyers worldwide, as nearly every tutorial stresses the importance of letting your project sit for at least one day.

Like most baby boomers, I associate tie dye with hippies of the ’60s, who often wore their homemade creations as a sign of the anti establishment and anti war movement. You can’t look at clips of Woodstock or anti war protests from those days without seeing a sea of homemade tie dye, which was as popular as halter tops, hot pants and low hip hugger bell bottom jeans.

My parents were pretty strict when it came to our clothes in elementary and junior high school. We couldn’t wear jeans to school and tie dye was not encouraged, perhaps because it was associated with hippies and stoners. No one was particularly sad to see the fad disappear in the late 70s, and for years, the only tie dye I saw was in the window of Sunshine Daydream, a tiny head shop along our town’s commercial strip.
But tie dye has more lives than a cat, re-emerging in the 80s and now holding a firm place in the fashion industry. Fashion historians say it tends to gain steam in tough times, when people are looking for cheap ways to reinvent their wardrobes. Maybe surviving a pandemic is part of the current tie dye craze. It would certainly explain my desire to do something that never interested me in the least until now.

Dating back to ancient China and Japan, tie dye arrived on the American fashion scene in the Roaring 20s and during the Great Depression. For the cost of a box of dye, people could create new fashion pieces and on top of that, have a one-of-a-kind piece. Think of tie dye like snowflakes: no two pieces are exactly the same.

That freedom of self expression through clothing boomed in the mid-60s with the anti war movement and in the early 70s with the women’s movement. I never really wore tie dye back then except for a shirt I made at the town’s day camp at the community center. Tie dying was one of our crafts, along with pot holders, a tile trivet and a paper mache cast of a dolphin that I hung on my bedroom wall.

My niece Julia enjoyed making a tote bag.

To share my joy of tie dye, I hosted my own tie dye party with a group of relatives. When one brother-in-law looked like he might not participate, I said tie dying was required if he planned to eat dinner. He quickly scooped up a white shirt and tried his hand at it. I think he might have even enjoyed it.

Explaining my obsession to others often prompts skeptical looks. When I shared it with one sister, she wrote, “I hope you make the best tie dye on the East Coast” in my birthday card. Along with the card was a gorgeous tie dye scarf and beach bag. I couldn’t decide I’d she was indulging or poking a little fun at me. Maybe a little of both, I suspect.