Reverse Tie-Dye

So, a huge part of the reason I started a podcast/blog was because a lot of the things I find interesting to teach, learn, and explore with others are not things I can currently incorporate in my classroom. So I explore them on my blog and in a podcast instead!

This year I have started to teach in our after-school program. The way it is structured allows teachers autonomy in designing our curricula, and students have choices when they sign up. It is so popular that we need select students by lottery, and every quarter new students get to participate.

For my first quarter, I taught “Science Experiments.” I don’t currently teach science in my classroom and I was thrilled to have the chance.

One of the goals was to have some sort of product students would get to keep as a result of their learning. The teacher who taught cursive writing had students do an art project with their names written in cursive. The teacher who taught technology projects had students make iMovies and showed them in our end-of-quarter party. My group made t-shirts to wear to our end-of-quarter party. Well, we didn’t make them from scratch. We used reverse tie-dying.

See, tie-dying refers to adding dye to fabric. Reverse tie-dying means removing dye from fabric.

One of the things I learned throughout the quarter is that science experiments don’t always go how you think they will. I pulled out some old classics that I’ve done dozens of times, and IĀ stillĀ can’t be sure how they will go with every new group of kids. Sometimes you don’t even fail dramatically. Sometimes what you get is just disappointing.

See, the reason I thought about reverse tie-dying to begin with was because we tried skeletonizing tree leaves with it and it didn’t work – too delicate for such little hands. I wanted to find something else we could do with it, also making use of the gloves and goggles our program director procured for us. (I already owned lab coats, because nerd.)

So first I tested out reverse tie-dying at home, to make sure it would work.

Step one is to tie up your shirt as though you were going to tie-dye it. There are several techniques you can try – rolling and twisting and bunching. I tried something I saw online where you tie objects in. I don’t have the decorative glass stone thingies from the tutorial, so I used some of my least favorite Dungeons and Dragons dice.

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This did not seem goofballs enough, so I roped it up even further.

2015-10-25 09.46.182015-10-25 09.46.542015-10-25 09.47.34No one is looking forward to seeing how I treat a Thanksgiving turkey this year.


I then put this bundle into a bath of water and bleach in a tub in my kitchen sink. I also opened windows and turned on the fan above my oven, to be safe.

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In it went! I poked it a bit with my tongs and then let it sit for about twenty minutes, checking on it in five-minute increments.
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This photo, after about ten minutes, shows the dye really coming off the shirt.

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This is when I decided to take the shirt out.

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And there it is, hanging up in my shower to dry after the rinse bath.

Ultimately, the test I did at home was a good idea. The smell was really strong despite my precautions. Also, the result was much more dramatic than I was really going for. I decided I needed to reduce both the amount of bleach and the duration of the bleach bath when I repeated this with the kiddos. I also instructed the kids to wear old clothes. (I have previously ruined a pair of leggings when working with bleach. Not this time. I learn from my mistakes!)

I am also glad I did the test at home first because, while doing this with students, I did not have the ability or the opportunity to take as many photos. I will say this: they used far fewer rubber bands than I did. Most of them decided to tie their shirts the same way. One student said her father does a lot of tie-dying so several others flocked to her for guidance. That was super fine by me because her idea worked out really, really well!

Also when working with bleach, make sure the kids understand that it is a harsh chemical that can harm their eyes, skin, and the inside of their throat and lungs if they do not take care. We wore gloves, we wore lab coats, we wore goggles, and we practiced waving and wafting before I even poured the bleach out. Also we had buckets/sinks of water and eyewash in case we needed to rinse skin, clothes, or eyes in a pinch!

2015-10-26 15.36.45This is one of the shirts ready to go in the bath. I did take photos to help me remember whose was whose. We used different colored rubber bands in different patterns and arrangements to help us tell them apart.

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This was the way they all looked in the art room sink together. (I am not the art teacher, but we used the art room because my classroom doesn’t have a sink. Thanks art teacher for being cool with it!)

It turned out we didn’t have time to do the rinse ourselves. We took the shirts out and put them in plastic bags with zipper locks and got ready for dismissal. I went back and did the rinse bath after the kids left. At home, I did the rinse bath by hand since I only had the one shirt. Plus, I live in an apartment building and have to pay to do laundry, so that was a non-starter. At school, though, there is a washing machine (and dryer!) that the custodians use to clean their supplies. The custodians also let me use it to wash my reptile carpet. They kindly allowed me to use the washing machine for the shirts. I put them in for a rinse, then hung them up to dry (since it was going to be two days since our program met again, and I didn’t want to hang out at school waiting for a dryer load to be done).

Then, our kiddos wore them for our end-of-quarter pizza party! We viewed the iMovies and the sign language performance by other students in other classes. They were great!


Here are three of the kids showing off their shirts. I chose to blank out their faces because, while I have their parents’ permissions to publish their images on school-related publications and social media, it feels different to do it for a personally-kept blog (even if my blog is related to my profession).

The student in the photo on the right used the technique his classmate taught him. He also wore his shirt to school the next day!

We made these Halloween week so I was pleased that they came out in orange and black. Some of them sort of have a camo look to them as well! I gave the shirt I made at home to a student who had been absent when we did this activity, otherwise I would take a picture of myself modeling it.

Anyway, I would absolutely do this again, but perhaps as an activity at a private birthday or Halloween party. Or, another small group – maybe not an entire class at a time. Maybe could rotate in small groups, especially if we could work outside and had another adult helping out. Either way, I liked how it turned out, and so did the kids.