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Tie-Dyeing Keepsake T-Shirts the Clean and Easy Way

By Alycia Zimmerman on May 15, 2013
  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

Are you looking for an end-of-school-year project that your students can save (and wear) to remember their classroom family and a successful year together? Last year my 3rd graders loved making and wearing their faux tie-dyed shirts with iron-on “class patches.” This easy project combines a bit of science and art for plenty of productive fun. Best of all, the simple drugstore supply list means that your students can do this even after your classroom is mostly packed up. So save this project for one of the very last “what do I do with the kids now?” sort of days.



Students proudly show off their T-shirt designs. 


What Is “Faux Tie-Dyeing”?

You’ve heard of regular tie-dyeing. Maybe you’ve even been brave enough to attempt that messy project with sure-to-spill vats of dye and rubber bands that nearly take out eyes as they burst their strangleholds on unsuspecting T-shirts. Yep, that about describes my nightmare. For some reason, kids seem to enjoy the process, but I know better.

Looking for an alternative, I discovered “permanent marker tie-dyeing,” a project that requires a single rubber band, markers instead of dye, and the magic ingredient, rubbing alcohol. No, it’s not the same, but it still creates appropriately colorful results without any of the mess. Phew!


What You’ll Need

The list is thankfully simple, which means you can save this project for after the art supplies are packed away at the end of the school year.

  • One light-colored or white cotton shirt per child (I asked the parents to send this in)
  • Plenty of permanent markers in different colors (Sharpie® pens work really well, although other brands will do, too)
  • A plastic cup for each child
  • A rubber band for each child
  • Small cups of rubbing alcohol and droppers or straws
  • Optional: Iron-on paper printed with a class logo, the students’ names, etc.

Simple supplies make this a great indoor or outdoor end-of-year project. 


What to Do

Step 1: 

Place the plastic cup inside the T-shirt and use the rubber band to tightly stretch the fabric across the cup. 


Step 2:

Use permanent markers to draw a small design in the middle of the fabric that is stretched across the cup. Lay down a "thick" layer of ink; the more saturated the fabric, the more the color will spread. A dot pattern like this one will create a fireworks-like effect. Students will enjoy seeing the effects of the colors bleeding and blending together. 

Step 3: 

Use a dropper or a straw to gradually drip 10–15 small drops of rubbing alcohol onto the center of the design. You want the design to be well saturated, but not dripping.

Step 4:

Here is a thoroughly saturated design. The more alcohol you apply, the more the ink will spread — up to a point. After awhile, you'll notice that the ink doesn't bleed any further, even if you add more alcohol. 

Step 5:

Let the alcohol soak in and spread the marker ink for a minute or two. Alcohol evaporates quickly, so once the design begins to dry and is damp but not soaking, you can remove the rubber band and cup. 

Step 6:

Position the cup on another part of the shirt. Repeat the process above, drawing a different design on the shirt or using different colors. I encouraged my students to stick with either warm or cool colors.

You can overlap areas to create interesting color combinations and a denser design.

Step 7:

Continue adding drops of alcohol to your designs until the colors are totally blended and you are happy with the final results. You can add a few drops of alcohol onto an already-dried design to "revive" it and help older colors blend with newer parts of your design.

Step 8 (optional):

Iron on a "logo" patch that will turn the project into a keepsake for your student. I created a word cloud using the students' names and printed the image onto iron-on printer paper


Other Tips

  • Suggest that parents pop the tie-dyed shirt into the dryer for 15 minutes before the student wears it for the first time. The heat will help set the dye permanently. A hot iron will also do the trick.
  • Make sure to do this project in a fairly well ventilated space — either do it in your classroom with the windows open or take it outside.
  • Alcohol evaporates quite quickly, so you won’t have to worry about long drying times.
  • Use iron-on printer paper to create a unique patch to iron onto the finished products. I used all of the students’ names to create a Tagxedo word-art image for the shirts.
  • You can have your students faux tie-dye any other cotton material — canvas backpacks, aprons, etc. 
  • Turn this into a science experiment by giving your students squares of cotton fabric and a range of solvents (alcohol, water, nail polish remover, soda, etc.). Let your students figure out which liquids best dissolve the permanent marker. 

You can also check out this quickie video tutorial that shows the tie-dyeing process in six quick steps.


The Secret Science of Why It Works…

So permanent markers are permanent — as in the ink stays firmly in place much to the detriment of desktops, fingertips, and new silk blouses — right? That’s what I always thought, until I began researching the “why” of this project. (I just knew my students were going to ask.)

It turns out that permanent markers are considered permanent because they aren’t water-soluble. That means that soap and water aren’t going to remove a mark made by a permanent marker no matter how much you scrub. But the markers are soluble in a different solvent — plain old isopropyl rubbing alcohol!  As LeVar Burton of Reading Rainbow says, “You don’t have to take my word for it.” Try it out: Write with permanent marker on a plastic bag, then try to wipe it away with water. No luck, of course. Now try it with alcohol … oh my gosh, it works!          

The science behind this is a bit more complicated, and if your kiddos are really into chemistry (like my students are), you may want to discuss polar and nonpolar solvents. Permanent marker ink is made of non-polar compounds, therefore, they won’t dissolve in polar water. (This is like how oil and water won’t mix; oil is nonpolar and water is polar.) Isopropyl alcohol can dissolve both polar and nonpolar compounds. It’s a chemical switch-hitter because one end of the alcohol molecule is slightly polar, and the other end is nonpolar. This is one of the reasons rubbing alcohol is an effective cleaning agent — and totally useful for permanent marker art projects!

For more information to help teach about polar and nonpolar molecules, check out the American Chemistry Society’s Middle School Chemistry chapter on “The Water Molecule and Dissolving.” Of course, you can totally just enjoy this activity as an art project and let the science stay in the background as the “magic,” if a lesson on solvents isn’t what you had in mind.


Let me know if you have any questions or comments. Interested in reading about more of my classroom experiments, art projects, and lessons? Follow me on Facebook or Twitter for updates!

Comments (6)

Great idea! Thanks for sharing, my students are going to love this!!!

Great idea for students to make on a rainy day.

Thanks for this post! I have a hard time with science so this truly help.

Great post! I learned a lot. I had no idea you could do tie dye with markers. Thanks for the idea!

This is a great parting gift idea - thanks!

What do you think about doing this over an already tie dyed shirts? I did shirts for my students, but would like for them to be able to personalize them for each other. Would the best way to set them in the classroom be with an iron? Thanks for your feedback!

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