Sharpie Pen Color Science

Mess-free tie dye with Sharpie markers makes a great handmade craft or a color-mixing lesson that's easy and fun

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We did some research and found out there’s a fun, easy, and quick way to create tie dye patterns in an instant using markers. It’s a brand new tie dye technique without the mess… and the results are amazing! The colors explode before your eyes.


Experiment Videos

Here's What You'll Need

  • Large-mouth plastic cup
  • Rubber band
  • 91% isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol)
  • Sharpie pens, various colors
  • Piece of white cotton fabric
  • Dropper squeeze bottle
  • Adult supervision
  • **Get all the materials you need with the Sharpie Pen Science kit!**

Let's Try It

  1. Place the plastic cup inside the middle of the fabric. Position the opening of the cup directly under the section of fabric that you want to decorate. Stretch the rubber band over the fabric and the cup to secure the fabric in place.

  2. Place dots or circles of ink from one marker in a circle pattern about the size of a quarter in the center of the stretched out fabric. If you like, use another color marker to fill in spaces in between the first dots. There should be a quarter size circle of dots in the middle of the plastic cup opening when you are finished.

  3. Slowly squeeze approximately 20 drops of rubbing alcohol into the center of the circle of dots. DO NOT flood the design area with rubbing alcohol. The key is to drip the rubbing alcohol slowly in the center of the design and allow the molecules of ink to spread outward from the center.

  4. Apply as much or as little rubbing alcohol as desired, but do not let the pattern spread beyond the edges of the cup. Allow the developed design to dry for three to five minutes before moving on to a new area of the fabric.

  5. It is important to heat set the colors by placing the fabric in the laundry dryer for approximately 15 minutes.

How Does It Work

This is really a lesson in the concepts of solubility, color mixing, and the movement of molecules. The Sharpie markers contain permanent ink, which will not wash away with water. Permanent ink is hydrophobic, meaning it is not soluble in water. However, the molecules of ink are soluble in another solvent called rubbing alcohol. This solvent carries the different colors of ink with it as it spreads in a circular pattern from the center of the shirt.

Take It Further

Enjoy experimenting with various patterns, dot sizes, and color combinations. Instead of using dots, try drawing a small square with each side being a different color, or use primary colors to draw a geometric shape and accent it with dots of secondary colors. Half circles, wavy lines, and polygons all make unique patterns when rubbing alcohol travels across the ink. Your designs are only limited by your imagination. Try as many different patterns as you like. The secret is to keep your patterns small and in the center of the design area on the shirt.

Safety Information

Rubbing alcohol is very flammable and must be kept away from any open flames or heat. This experiment must be conducted in a well-ventilated area, preferably outdoors or in a room with open windows.

Special Thanks

This activity is the creation of Bob Becker, a chemistry teacher in Kirkwood, Missouri.

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