DIY shirt bleaching tutorial: make things infinitely better by ruining them!

Guest post by Ang Jandak

You might know me from my bleach stamping invites, which really got me hooked on bleach.  That came out wrong, basically I was intrigued by what it did to paper, and decided to throw bleach on all kinds of stuff to see what happened.  (Ironically, the items that say “KEEP AWAY FROM BLEACH” normally have the coolest effects.) 

Far from ruining them, bleach really gives fabrics an amazing depth and texture that fabric paint and screen printing just don't.  So here, for your viewing pleasure is a video tutorial of the easiest quickest way to add an unique touch to anything wedding related.

For those who don't do the video thing, we have a friendly text breakdown for you.

Supplies for DIY shirt bleaching

  • Xacto knifeYou could use a box cutter/utility knife, but if there are a lot of twist and turns I would suggest the Xacto knife)
  • Temporary Spray Adhesive – Most craft stores have this, people use it for scrap booking (Although strangely, hubby found ours in the woodworking area).  Just make sure it's temporary.  And that the sprayer tip is there, apparently there's a huge problem with them not making it onto the cans.
  • Photo Paper – I'll be honest here, first time I did this, I used these kick ass waterproof full sheet vinyl labels, and I had tons left over, but they fell off the face of the earth.  The photo paper/spray adhesive was a total last minute shot in the dark but it worked great.  Just make sure you let the ink dry before you start cutting or it'll rub off on your hand.
  • Stuff to Bleach – Anything that has dye in it can be bleached. The effects depend on the technique you bleach it with and the type of dye used.  I like using natural fibers (Cotton, Bamboo), but any generic T Shirt will work.  I got these obscenely cheap shirts and Martha Stewart napkins at a local warehouse close out sale.  Keep an eye out for “essential” sales, I've gotten tank tops at Old Navy for $2 a pop during those.  I also bought a sheet, I'm going to use it to make a headboard for our bed.  So how much you want to spend on this part depends on you.
  • Spray Bottle – Best ones are either in the Lawn and Garden section or Cleaning Supplies, but you can get smaller pretty ones in the Health and Beauty Aids Department.  Just make sure that it has a spray option (Not just stream)
  • Bleach – Just generic bleach, nothing fancy.
  • Bleed protection – If you're making a shirt, make sure you put something inside the shirt to keep it from bleeding through to the other side.  I used a piece of cardboard with paper towel on top.

Directions for DIY shirt bleaching

Print your design on photo paper. 

Try to get an outline.  (If you don't you'll waste a lot of ink, and when you spray it there's a chance the colors will bleed.  Which I think looks cool, but you might not).  If you don't have Photoshop or Illustrator, there are several free programs that you can try, like the Aviary Suite, Inkscape, or Gimp.  While the ink is drying, you can prep your work area.

Craftily Cutting

Cut your design

If you have a cutting mat, set it out, if not use some cardboard, make sure it's thick enough that you aren't going to cut through it.  Then you start to cut.  Some tips that I learned through trial and error are as follows:

  1. Go SLOOWWWW, when you get into a groove and start whipping, it's easier to go totally off base.  It's not a big deal if you mess up, you can always clean it up if it's horrendous, but especially if you have finicky little pieces it's better to take your time.  Plus you don't want to slice a finger off, and that's easier to avoid if you aren't rushing.
  2. Cut details out first.  I know it's counter intuitive, but when you're working on really delicate stuff, if you wait til later to do it, you're going to be stressing and pulling on already fragile areas.
  3. Rotate the paper around curves.  (The video shows this pretty well, so if you're stuck, you can watch it)

Once everything is all cut, bring out the spray stuff

Obviously, if you went with the label sheets you don't need to do this part.  Flip the pieces you just cut out UPSIDE DOWN (So the printed side is facing the table), and spray the backs. 

My suggestion is to make sure that your work surface is covered with newspaper or something, because even after the adhesive dries, it leaves a grippy texture.  Unless you want a grippy texture on your kitchen table…  Follow the directions on the spray can, mine was a temp/permanent spray, so it advised letting the adhesive sit for 3-5 minutes for ultimate tackiness, without being stuck there forever.

Bring out the stencils

When you have “appropriate tackiness” (Works very hard not to expound upon wedding tackiness puns),  bring out your item to be bleached (don't forget your bleed-proof cardboard insert!), and place your band spanking new stencils wherever you want them.  The awesomeness of the temp adhesive is you can peel them up and move them around to get your placement exactly right.

Setting the Stencils

Once everything is set down and you like it, push down firmly to make sure none of the edges are peeling up.  (Bleach will seep in under any gaps.)

Start spraying

Then pick up your spray bottle, take a step or two back (With eye protection if so desired), and give 2-4 good squirts.  You're aiming for a light mist to drift down, you do NOT want to saturate the fabric.

Let it sit for a while. 

The Oxidation process will keep going, and the longer you leave the stencil, the crisper your design will be.  I usually let it sit for at least 10 minutes before the design gets peeled off.

Peeling stuff is fun

Here is the shirt right after the stencil was removed.

Still 4

Toss your stuff in the dryer, but DO NOT WASH IT! 

The little bleach crystals are still hiding on there, if they get hit with water they'll reactivate.  Tumbling them in the dryer on low will knock the crystals loose, so the process is stopped.  After you do this, you can wash and dry them normally.  Here's the same shirt after it's been dried.


As you can see, the bleach lightens it up considerably.  By varying how long you let the bleach set, how far away you stand, and the method you apply it with, you can get very different results.

Assembly of Amazingness

So there you go!  Have fun, if any of you decide to use this I'd love to see!

Our reader Mary Beth tried her own spin on these for her Bridesmaids and OMFG, they is the AWESOME!

maidofhonorshirt 050412 alternative wedding ideas from Offbeat Wed (formerly Offbeat Bride)

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Comments on DIY shirt bleaching tutorial: make things infinitely better by ruining them!

  1. omg, that’s the coolest thing ever! and totally something most people could do! if you don’t feel comfortable making the stencils yourself, you could buy craft stickers (like you would use on a kid’s school project) and use those. awesome!

  2. I may never actually do this project, however your personality is fantastic and I was thoroughly entertained simply watching the video and reading your instructions. Seriously, you made me laugh. lots.

    Please to have more from this lady!

    • Aww thank you so much! You gave me happy tears, I’m a sap like that. Rest assured there are many more tutorials coming up from me.

      The next one is going to be a bit more hardcore rock and roll!

  3. nice! we actually did sort of the opposite of this to make t-shirts for our Bachelor/ette party – everyone did their own t-shirt using bleach pens. They turned out really nicely!

  4. Love it! And thanks for the text in addition to the video. Video only makes me a super-cranky woman.

    • If you don’t have a dryer, just beat it up, LOL. The first time I ever did this was two hoodies, one for a friend I was going to visit and one for me. I bleached them that night, and left them on the table. In the morning, shook hers out, packed it, and wore mine on the plane. No problems at all, and they’ve both been washed multiple times. Well mine has, I can only assume she washes hers, but we do both wear them all the time…

      As long as you give the bleach time to crystalize and brush/shake them off you should be good.

    • I have heard that spraying a little vinegar on the shirt after you are done bleaching also works to neutralize it. I haven’t tried it yet, but this was actually my plan for my wedding party shirts. I am a little disappointed because I thought it would be unique, but I am also glad because it obviously means it is a good idea 😛

  5. Great Tut thanks, I’m itching to give it a try! I’ve done some playing about using a dip pen to draw on fabric (I’m a bit of a manic fibre artist) but never tried stenciling with it. My favourite thing to cut stencils from is freezer paper. For those that haven’t come across it, it’s paper with a fine, shiny plastic coating on one side. It sticks to fabric with a very light press from a hot iron and peels off easily afterward leaving no residue.
    I love this stuff and have to order it specially from a quilting shop (it’s not widely available in the UK) and I get through rolls and rolls of it.

  6. *furiously scribbles down idea onto project list*

    I’ve been doing a ton of stencils using fabric markers, so this is definitely going to be next on my list!

  7. This is great! I could see this being really handy to personalise little kid’s onesies and tees too. And bags. And couches. And curtains….!
    You can also get cool effects from tying up the fabric as though you were going to tie dye, and then spraying or dipping in the bleach. I usually do a weaker bleach solution for dipping though. Because different dyes have different ‘layers’ of colour in them you often get an unusual graduation through the piece as the bleach strips them back.

  8. That title is made of so much win!

    I love this idea as well. I don’t know if I’ll be able to use it for something wedding related but I decorate my own t-shirts all the time and it’s great to have a new method. I can’t wait to try it out!

  9. This is RAD! I am an art teacher and one of the 5th grade teachers always wants to make T-shirts with the kids for their state project. This will be awesome (and not as hokey and lame as some iron on or puff paint design). THANK YOU!

  10. sweet!
    i have a question abut the photo paper:
    Does it react specially to the bleach or something?
    Can any kind of thick paper be used as a stencil?
    Awesome tut!

    • Photo paper is meant to take copious amounts of ink and not bleed through. Most papers are too porous, and the bleach will soak through it. That being said I did spray my bleach invites, which were made of card stock, and it didn’t soak through to the back, so that’s an option. If you use something else make sure it’s really sturdy, hold it up, and if it flops over, no go. For example, construction paper is a bad choice.

      • I make tons of my own stencils for t-shirt making, and I just use standard printer paper, then before I cut them out, I cover them (on both sides) with clear packing tape. It’s way cheaper than using photo paper, and the stencils can be wiped off and used over and over!

  11. I bleach my shirts like this all the time, it’s such a cool way to make an ordinary shirt really stand on it’s own. A cheaper way I do it though that works really well is using plastic coated freezer paper. You can draw or print your design on the paper side, carve it out, then just iron it onto your shirt plastic side down. It peels right off and the plastic coating helps keep the bleach from bleeding through the paper if you over-spray. A bit cheaper and easier in my opinion, and works like a charm! =^]

  12. Great project!! might try that with some old boring t shirt to see if that will give it a new “life”. think it will be a great recycle item instead of sitting in the dark collecting dust….. Thanks for the idea!!!

  13. I also love using bleach to tie-dye things that aren’t white to begin with. You can use it as a “color” in the mix or spray the whole thing while it is tied up for some pretty rad effects.

  14. I’d like to third (fourth?) the freezer paper suggestion.

    It’s fast, easy, and most importantly, CHEAP. 🙂

  15. Awesome project and tutorial! Even if I don’t use it for wedding related stuff, I’ll definitely try it in everyday projects.

  16. What about just using freezer paper instead of the spray adhesive? I stencil shirts pretty frquently, and if you iron the cut-out freezer paper (wax side down) onto your shirt, it sticks like gang-busters. Basically, when you’re cutting out your stencil, cut out the freezer paper at the same time.

  17. That is so cool! I love the title as well. I might have to make these for our next girl group outing. I’ll be linking as well. Thanks so much for the project!

  18. OMG I’m in love!!!! Deffinatly taking a trip to the craft store asap to try this one out!!!!

  19. How AWESOME!! I can’t wait to try this!! I have a Silhouette machine and my brain is going crazy thinking of crazy fun things to make for this technique…

  20. I have a stupid question: Do the bleach crystals you’ve gotten off of your fabric in the dryer stay in there? Will a few loads of my laundry be spotty afterwards?

  21. These were a HUGE hit for my wedding party. Thanks for sharing your tutorial!

  22. This is great. You could totally do this for a family reunion. It would be so great for every family to design their own. thanks for the idea.

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