Tie-Dye: Not A Dying Art

Youth in China are experiencing a renewed interest in a 1,500-year old art form. Shafiq Guee, during a five-week overseas immersion programme at the Wuhan Institute of Technology, talks to the growing breed of new advocators.

Zhang Li Chun, seated next to a dye vat at Qing Lan Diao’s workshop, tending to her tie-dye. She is just one example of youths playing an active role in promoting the art of tie-dyeing. Photo courtesy of Reagan Tan Jing Hng.


Published on
July 7, 2020

The Chinese youth are a tech-savvy lot, spending most of their free time browsing viral content on WeiBo, recording videos of themselves on Douyin, or shopping online on Taobao. So why then is there a growing number of Chinese youths becoming more passionate about tie-dyeing (to the point where its search rates have surged by 900 per cent)?

Tie-dyeing (or zha ran) is creating art by manipulating cloth and dye. There are three main steps: folding/tying the cloth, dipping it into the dye, and rinsing/drying the cloth. 

Speaking in Mandarin, Yang Qing Hua, 44, said: “Many teens are attracted to tie-dyeing because it’s related to nature. They like that all the materials needed can be responsibly sourced from nature.” 

A Wuhan lecturer specialising in tie-dye, Ms Yang also runs her own workshop to promote tie-dyeing to children and youths.

As early as the Eastern Han dynasty 2,000 years ago, woad roots, indigo, mugwort, tree bark, leaves, and onion skin were used to make natural dyes. Then, the Nan Zhao dancing group performed in Chang’an (present-day Xi’an in the Shaanxi province) clad in tie-dyed costumes. Pictures of animals and plants on the costumes were created using tie-dye methods, inspiring the Chang’an locals to learn tie-dyeing themselves.

But what has inspired modern-day Chinese youths to pick up the art? 

While it is not considered “mainstream arts and crafts” like woodcuts, paper-cuts or clay modelling, Ms Yang attributes the growing popularity to the Chinese government placing increasing importance on the preservation of culture.

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A row of vials containing different natural ingredients that produce dyes of various colours. While many opt for chemical dyes which are much simpler to work with, Yang Qing Hua grows her own ingredients to produce the dyes she works with. Photo courtesy of Reagan Tan Jing Hng.

Ms Yang said: “More Chinese institutes are offering arts courses, with some even broadening the scope to include lesser-known art forms like tie-dyeing.”

One of her students, Zhang Yue Ting, 20, finds that the gradual learning curve of tie-dyeing entices many like her to pick up the art.

She said: “It’s so simple. I’ve taught it to the elderly and when they saw what they had created using just dyes, folded cloth and an hour of their time, they too wanted to learn for themselves.”

For the undergraduate, tie-dyeing allows her to expand her creative boundaries. She added: “Before I learnt about tie-dyeing I focused on designing accessories such as bracelets and necklaces, restricting myself to designs that were feasible. Now, after spending a year learning tie-dyeing, I realised that it can be applied to almost any accessory regardless of shape or form.”

Her friends who had no interest in traditional art before were all eager to learn more and create their own tie-dye designs when they were shown a finished example.


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Examples of the different types of tie-dye designs can be created, none of which are completely identical or symmetrical. Photo courtesy of Reagan Tan Jing Hng.

“I believe it’s because tie-dye patterns evoke emotions through the random, yet thoughtful, lines and creases separating the cloth from varying intensities of dye,” Yue Ting said.

She also elaborated on how each piece of tie-dye is unique and that the idea of creating something one-of-a-kind strikes a chord with youths today. 

Zhang Li Chun, 21, another of Ms Yang’s students, associated this upward trend with the growing desire to support locally created apparel. She said: “It used to be that teenagers turned to foreign and Western brands when it came to fashion.”

She also pointed out how, five years ago, clothes that had references of Western culture, be it from Western movies or lifestyle, would sell like hotcakes in China. This was especially so amongst the youths who wanted to stand out from the crowd.

Now, however, as the trend moves towards locally made Chinese designs and brands, Chinese tie-dyed apparel fit the bill perfectly. Li Chun added: “China did not have that strong of a brand influence back then, but now they are ditching the whole idea of ‘Made in China’ for ‘Created in China’.” 

Both Yue Ting and Li Chun believed there would be a steady increase of youths getting involved in tie-dyeing, but that more could be done.

Yue Ting said: “Most art courses use chemical dyes as they tend to be more vibrant and take much lesser time to prepare as compared to natural dyes. However, they require an industrial burner to make and sometimes the artificial powders in the chemical dyes can trigger students’ allergies, something that is unlikely to happen with natural dyes.”

Li Chun associated the future of tie-dyeing with the principles of tie-dyeing itself. She said: “You won’t know for sure what the outcome of the tie-dye will be until you fish it out from the dye vat.”

You won’t know for sure what the outcome of the tie-dye will be until you fish it out from the dye vat.

- Zhang Li Chun, 21

Student of Ms Yang Qing Hua