The Vibrant Resurgence of Tie-Dye


For some, tie-dye never died.

 It flowed on through the decades after Woodstock as an everlasting symbol of counterculture, peace and love, and the backdrop for the Grateful Dead Bears. Vivid, undulating textiles and colorful garments with psychedelic swirls have long had their place at summer festivals and quirky roadside stands.

But in 2020, tie-dye has experienced an arguably unprecedented resurgence into the mainstream.

In July, Oprah Magazine called tie-dye “the unofficial uniform of the pandemic.” Target implored its email subscribers to “dive into a tie-dye swimsuit.” Nordstrom started selling tie-dyed sweatpants, rain boots, dresses and earbuds.

Just about every clothing company seems to be in on the trend. Converse has customizable tie-dyed high-tops. Anthropologie offers tie-dyed dog sweatshirts. Dior has a tie-dye-inspired jewelry collection featuring rainbows of fine gemstones and pearls. Their tie-dye print sneakers sell for $1,150 a pair.

Superstars like Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Aniston, along with innumerable runway models, have been strutting around the world and the internet in tie-dye getups, including tie-dyed face masks.

Tie-dye’s widespread, mid-pandemic popularity, however, has perhaps more to do with creativity and fun than fashion, or what’s trending on the internet.

“Seems like people stuck home are trying to find their creative juices,” said local artist Taylor Reed, who grew up in Vaughn.

“I did a lot of tie-dye in middle school. Went nicely with all the Jim Morrison and Hendrix and Marley portraits I did,” Reed said. “The inspiration came from my middle school art teacher at Key Peninsula Middle School, Ms. Feek. She was the best and is really who taught me to love art.”

According to Dr. Carolyn Mair, behavioral psychologist and author of “The Psychology of Fashion,” tie-dye can provide a level of thrill and spontaneity that has been lacking during shutdowns and quarantine, where, for some, every day is exactly the same.

“There’s an inherent excitement derived from the chaos — from not being able to fully predict the outcome,” Mair wrote. “In fact, dopamine rises during the phase between tying the bands, and seeing the final product.”

KPMS teacher Joanna Babbitt, “The Tie-Dye Lady” who has been making tie-dyed t-shirts with kids at local schools for over 10 years, agreed.

“The kindergartners, they loved it. They always loved the big reveal that we did,” Babbitt said. “You leave the shirts for 24 hours, all bundled up, and then you rinse them out with cold water, and take all the rubber bands out and wash them on hot, then dry them on super-hot to get the color set. So, they wouldn’t see them for a couple days.”

“It’s so fun,” Babbitt said. “Those Vaughn Elementary kids, when they made their purple shirts, they’d wear them all the time to school.”

After tie-dyeing with fellow KPMS staff as a team-building exercise, and with friends and family for the Fourth of July, Seattle Sounders games, and visits to the Puyallup Fair, Babbitt has tie-dyeing pretty much down to a science.

She has done shirts, aprons, sweatshirts, underwear, socks, tights, dresses, bandanas, shorts and onesies. White, 100% cotton items tie-dye best, prewashed in hot water.

“You can’t really mess it up,” Babbitt said. “You kind of have to expect to get a little bit messy but you can take precautions. You do really want to wear gloves. I’ve dyed my whole hands blue. And if you dunk your hand below the wrist of the glove, I’ve had the whole glove fill up.”

Babbitt tie-dyes in flip flops or bare feet while wearing old clothes, all black, or a tie-dye shirt she doesn’t mind getting dripped on or splattered.

For beginners, Babbitt recommends the Dharma Trading Company starter kit, which includes professional quality dye, squeeze bottles, rubber bands, gloves, masks, and a book of instructions and patterns. Michaels and Joann Fabrics also have a variety of tie-dye kits.

“I think it’s more fun if you do it together in a group,” Babbitt said. “It would make a great COVID outdoor tie-dye party. You do really need to have your gloves on. And when you’re mixing chemicals, you’re supposed to wear a mask anyway. When this first started I went to my tie-dye kit to grab my mask.”

In these strange and turbulent times filled with obstacles, adversity and boredom, as some turn to handmade sourdough for comfort, while others march and protest, or struggle to recreate Jennifer Lopez’s $360 neon rainbow tie-dyed sweatsuit at home, may the words of the great Stoic philosopher Seneca echo and swirl around us all as we trudge onward: “A good person dyes events with his own color…and turns whatever happens to his own benefit.”