Dyeing with bleach might be one of the most interesting ways to add some texture and design to plain fabric.
If you think about it, designers have been using bleach on jeans for forever. It’s for good reason. A little bleach with a little thought can totally change the look. A standard pair of jeans becomes something with a little more edge. It transforms into something you’d never notice to wearable art.
Not too bad for something that’s hanging out on your laundry shelf, eh?
Here are some ideas for using bleach to make your DIY fabric. We’ll talk about what kinds of fabrics work well for dyeing with bleach. Then I’ll show you how to create patterned fabric with reverse tie dye and random stuff you have in your house.
Bring on the Clorox!
What fabrics work well for dyeing with bleach?
Dyeing with bleach is an undo kind of process. You’re taking the dye that’s in the fabric and removing it by applying the bleach.
This is a time where you have to think backwards. Light colored fabrics are not going to make for dramatic color contrasts. But that isn’t to say that you have to stick to black.
Fabrics that are deeply saturated are usually good candidates. Think jewel tones here! And of course classic denim + bleach = happy face forever. Indigo-dyed fabrics respond extremely well to reverse dyeing, hence bleached jeans.
The one thing that’s an absolute must is for those fabrics to be made from natural fibers. Here’s your best bets:
When you think about it, that’s a lot to choose from. Just among the cottons, there’s denim, shirtings, t-shirts, twill and jacquards.
How to test a fabric for bleach dyeing
If you want to see if a fabric is a good candidate for dyeing with bleach, first snip off a little scrap. It does not need to be huge here.
Pour a couple drops of straight bleach onto one side of the swatch. Next, wait a few minutes and see what happens. If you see the dye dissolving and lighter color shining through, this is a good fabric for bleaching.
Okay, so what happens if the fabric doesn’t change? Chances are your fabric of choice is either totally synthetic or there’s enough percentage of it to hinder the bleach from doing its thing. 100% polyester will laugh at bleach!
If you want to try bleach dyeing on a cotton t-shirt, dab a tiny bit of bleach in a hidden spot. If you like the results, move on to the next step!
You might be surprised with the results. This 60% cotton/40% polyester t-shirt turned this unexpectedly lovely pink!
Set up your workstation
Do yourself a solid and work outside when you’re bleaching fabric. Bleach is not the most toxic thing you’ll ever use to dye fabric with, but it does stink.
Set out a plastic dropcloth on the ground or a table.
Next, set out your fabric on your surface.
After that, fill your spray bottle with half water, half bleach.
Have a bucket handy filled with water for a quick rinse.
Yardage or finished garment
The answer is YES!
You can dye either yardage or finished garments. Both have their advantages. If you want to bleach dye a pair of jeans with an ombre effect, you’ll have a better time dipping the finished jeans.
If on the other hand, you want to make an all-over effect, go for yardage. There’s something to be said about having leftovers of hand dyed fabric for future projects!
On to getting the fabric ready.
Add the resist materials to your fabric
Set out stuff on your fabric. You can rip pieces of cardboard, put lace on top of the fabric or grab leaves from your backyard.
Wherever the stuff is, the original color is going to stay. Spend a couple minutes creating a pattern on your fabric with your materials.
Here I spent some time making stripes with washi tape.
For the t-shirt, I first accordion folded it, then folded it into a big triangle. Rubberbands keeps it intact.
Next spray with the bleach mixture around your resist materials. Definitely wear gloves here!
If you’re using a porous material like lace, take the lace off the fabric as soon as you’ve sprayed around it.
Dyeing with a bleach pen
Another alternative is to use a bleach pen. Squeeze out the pen in stripes, dots or other designs. First draw out your lines with a ruler and a fabric marker. After that, trace over the lines with the bleach pen.
I bleached out yardage of this cotton/linen for a shirtdress. You can see how I saved space for the pockets to change up the design from stripes to dots.
Here’s simple bleach pen dots on canvas on a pair of DIY Dritz Espadrilles.
Let the bleach do it’s work
This is the fun part. Walk away from the fabric for a few minutes. You’ll have to watch it here. Sometimes the bleach will work very quickly, and sometimes it’ll take a little longer.
You can let the fabric bleach out all the way until white or stop somewhere before that point. It’s like playing dye chicken, and you’re in control here of when it’s time to stop the process.
When you like the color, first take off the resist materials if you haven’t already. Then rinse out the fabric in the water bucket.
Neutralize the bleach
To finish it off, squeeze out the extra water from your rinsed fabric. Next spray it liberally with hydrogen peroxide. Let it sit for a few minutes to allow the peroxide to neutralize the bleach.
You can also do this with a mix of vinegar and water. Don’t fret too much over this step. As long as you’re washing your fabric straight away, you’re probably good.
Wash your fabric
Finish off your newly bleach dyed fabric by putting your fabric through a regular machine wash. Dry as you usually would, and you’re set!
Enjoy the results!
linen/rayon cotton/poly tee 100% linen cotton twill
From there you can use your fabric any way you’d like. The chambray with the bleach pen became a Blank Slate Marigold Dress.
So that’s how easy dyeing with bleach can be. It’s a simple way to create something different with plain fabric and you’re guaranteed to make something unique!
More dye techniques to try:
How to overdye fabric
Because dye doesn’t always have to be added to white.
How to ice dye fabric
Ice + dye = super drama. It’s the easiest dyeing you’ll ever try.
Elizabeth Farr is the writer behind the Elizabeth Made This blog where she shares helpful sewing tips, step by step sewing tutorials and videos to help you explore your creativity through sewing. She has written sewing Eguides and patterns, been a featured teacher at Rebecca Page’s Sewing Summit and Jennifer Maker’s Holiday Maker Fest and her work has appeared in Seamwork and Altered Couture magazines. She also created a line of refashioned garments for SEWN Denver. When her sewing machine isn’t humming, she’s playing and teaching violin, and hanging around a good strategic board game with her husband and 4 kids.