For Danielle Somers, tie-dye has taken on ritual status during the pandemic.
Like all good rituals, it’s a mix of order and chaos; the process is deeply familiar while the outcomes remain mysterious. When tie-dying, she takes her time preparing and setting up the different colors, placing the rubber bands on the cloth, dipping the cloth in the ink and then, in time, observing the surprising results.
“Most days during quarantine feel a bit like ‘Groundhog Day,’” said Somers, a mom of two young children in Potomac, Maryland, referring to the 1993 Bill Murray movie in which the same day is lived over and over again.
“It’s fun to mix it up sometimes and do something that’s just for my enjoyment. Self-care is a bit weird these days.”
Somers is one of many sheltering in place who have taken up tie-dying during the pandemic. Tie-dying instructional videos regularly trend on TikTok and Instagram, and sales of fabric dye and tie-dye kits have risen significantly, according to those in the industry.
Turn to social media feeds to see entire families covered head-to-toe in newly tie-dyed T-shirts and sweats, with table linens to match.
This makes tie-dye an unofficial craft of this pandemic moment, rivaling perhaps only homemade bread in popularity and devotion. It’s a low-stakes way to inject brightness and levity into a high-stakes moment, distracting us from the literal and figurative schmutz we’ve accumulated from being stuck at home for months on end.
Why we tie-dye
Part of the appeal of tie-dye is practical.
It’s an ancient, time-tested craft that is as complex or simple as you want to make it. A carefully folded fabric dyed in the centuries-old Japanese Shibori method can be as satisfying to a seasoned tie-dyer as a white T-shirt with a few blobs of color is to a preschooler.
Really, the only requirement to be an effective tie-dyer is the impulse control to not dump over the bowls of dye.
“People are blown away by how easy it is,” said Jonathon Spagat, creative director and part-owner of Rit, a century-old fabric dye company. “There is no bad tie-dye. It’s all awesome!”
Tie-dying is both an art and a science, and appeals to people, large and small, with different interests. Some are in it for the fashion, while others like to see how different folds or rubber band patterns yield different designs.
There’s also an environmental and economic advantage to tie-dying. Few of us see much reason to invest in new clothes right now considering we never go anywhere. So it’s exciting to take our old grubby clothes and give them an exciting second life with $15 of fabric dye and a pack of rubber bands.
“It gives us a chance to upcycle our old clothes. It’s a reason not to throw old stuff away,” said Spagat, adding that dying old clothes, as opposed to buying new clothes, significantly reduces our carbon footprint.
Tie-dye as therapy
The appeal of tie-dye is also metaphysical. There’s a powerful, if slightly ineffable, emotional charge from engaging with fabric and color. It soothes us and restores us.
“Human beings have this need for touch, and during Covid times it has been a no-touch zone, with very little tactility,” said Preeti Gopinath, director of the master of fine arts program in textiles and an associate professor of textiles at Parsons School of Design in New York.
“The whole haptic (the perception of touch) sensibility of working with fabrics meets a very primal human need, and during this time of crisis you look for things that give you comfort. It’s like Linus and the blanket, we all need to hold something, and cloth — there is nothing like it.”
Tie-dye has many feel-good associations, like outdoor music festivals and summer camp. It’s something worn during these experiences, as well as relics we keep from those halcyon days.
Maya Joyandeh, a mom of three in Teaneck, New Jersey, grew up tie-dying at camp, and was hoping her kids would do the same this summer. But when the pandemic hit, they decided to keep everyone at home, as their two younger children are high risk. They tie-dyed anyway.
“When our 6-year-old tie-dyed, she was ecstatic. She helped our 2-year-old with his (shirt), and our 1-year-old son got a tie-dye sweatshirt as well!” she said. “When I saw them, I teared up. I really felt like we were giving them the best ‘camp’ experience we could, given the circumstances.”
Joyandeh and other parents said tie-dying gave their children a sense of power in a moment when so much else has been taken from them.
“They choose the colors, design and are left with a really beautiful surprise,” she said.
There’s also a strong link between tie-dye and counterculture movements, which many fans of the process appreciate.
Shabd Simon-Alexander, textile designer and author of the book “Tie-Dye,” said that tie-dye tends to come back in fashion during moments of political turmoil, and started popping up on runways a few years ago before slowly creeping into more mainstream fashion.
“We associate tie-dye with the 1960s, when it took off in a time when people were trying to find a sense of self outside of establishment, and really wanting to express themselves in what they are wearing,” she said. “They wanted to wear handmade things, as things in this country became more mass-produced and cookie cutter.”
Today, as many are frustrated with the state of affairs in terms of pandemic response and race relations, tie-dye might feel, consciously or not, like a small act of protest done from the safety of one’s home.
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Tie-dye has long been, and continues to be, for so many right now, a small act of optimism.
It gives us a chance to both be in this moment, while also calling attention to the fact that things could be different — hopefully, better.
Elissa Strauss is a regular contributor to CNN, where she writes about the politics and culture of parenthood.