Almost everyone who has used chlorine bleach has a story about a blouse or shirt ruined by a splash of bleach.
But did you know that with some care and a bit of creative style, you can use chlorine bleach to create intentional fashionable designs on fabric or change the fabric's color? You may even be able to hide the accidental bleach splash by incorporating it into the final design.
Before You Begin
Chlorine bleach, or sodium hypochlorite, is a harsh chemical that removes the color from dyed fabrics and can dissolve some fibers. Chlorine bleach is frequently used to remove stains and whiten yellowed fabrics.
It can also be used to create unique designs and change the look of colored fabrics. But what if you only want to lighten the color a bit? How do you get the bleach to stop working? Prepare a neutralizing solution that stops the bleaching action when you reach the desired color.
The neutralizing solution is made by mixing one part hydrogen peroxide with 10 parts water. Mix this up before you begin your bleaching project so it is ready to use. You can mix the solution in a plastic tub, kitchen sink, or washer.
Cleaning chemicals—particularly bleach and hydrogen peroxide—should never be mixed. This project uses diluted solutions containing bleach and hydrogen peroxide, respectively, but as you're working, take care not to mix these undiluted chemicals and work in a well-ventilated space.
How to Lighten Colors
Try this technique to remove or soften the color if you have a pair of cotton slacks, a cotton blouse, or some cotton fabric that you would like to have a shade or so lighter. Clothing that is a blend of yarns like polyester and cotton may have a heathered look after bleaching since each type of fiber will release the dye differently.
The chlorine bleach technique is a great way to add a vintage look to solid and printed fabrics used for crafting and quilting. Do all the material at once if you want a uniform look.
First, wear rubber gloves and mix a solution of 3/4 cup chlorine bleach per gallon of water. Submerge the fabric in the solution and agitate occasionally. Allow the material to soak for five to seven minutes, checking the color to see when it is to your liking. Pour off the bleach/water solution and immediately transfer the fabric to the neutralizing solution. Submerge the fabric in the neutralizing solution for ten minutes. Drain the neutralizing solution and wash the fabric as usual.
You can repeat the process if you want the fabric to be lighter. Do not leave the fabric in the bleach solution longer than recommended because some materials can become weakened if exposed to chlorine bleach for too long.
How to Create Specific Designs
You can make designs in different ways: bleach pens, stencils, a sublimation printer, spray bleach designs, or bleaching gel. No matter the method, gather some old white towels to place under the fabric area you plan to decorate with bleach. This protective barrier will prevent the solution from bleeding to the rest of the garment or your work surface. Also, have a tub of neutralizing solution ready.
You can use bleach pens to create designs. You can create your own bleach pen or use a Clorox Bleach Pen that is thick enough, so the bleach stays in place until you are ready to remove it. If you want to create a looser design, cotton swabs repeatedly dipped in liquid bleach can also be used.
If you feel you can't draw well, use a stencil. They are readily available in craft stores and can be used repeatedly.
You can also use a sublimation printer and make a printed transfer that uses ink and heat to add designs to fabric. Sublimation can work with or without added light. If you set it out in the sun, the bright sunlight can help the design set faster. Before laying out the design, you can choose to bleach out the backdrop for the design.
To spray bleach an area of non-white fabric, fill a spray bottle with bleach and water solution (50% water and 50% bleach). Spray the area. You may only need 5 minutes; do not leave it longer than 20 minutes. Have the neutralizing solution ready to stop the bleaching process. It will give you a vintage, old-timey fade effect. You can even place stencils before spraying to create a unique design.
If making a design with bleaching gel, squeeze the bleaching gel onto the fabric. The amount of time you leave the bleaching gel on the material depends on the dye in the textile and your desired color. Check periodically by scraping off a bit of the gel. If you want more fading, reapply. Do not leave on longer than 25 minutes for heavy denim (less time for thinner fabrics).
When the desired look is achieved, immediately pour some neutralizing solution directly on the bleached design area. Then, transfer the fabric to the neutralizing solution, submerge the entire garment for 10 minutes, and gently agitate. Drain the neutralizing solution and wash as usual.
How to Tie-Dye in Reverse
Traditional tie-dye with a kit like the Tulip Tie-Dye Party available from JoAnn is created by adding colors to a fabric. You can also make the same look by using bleach to remove color. You will have a more muted design with shades of color based on your original fabric.
To create a tie-dyed look, gather, fold, and tie the fabric where you would like the pattern to be. Have the neutralizing solution at the ready. To reverse tie-dye, mix a solution of 10 parts water and one part chlorine bleach. Submerge the gathered and tied fabric and allow it to soak until the background fabric is the desired color. Cut the ties holding the fabric gathers or folds. Transfer to the neutralizing solution and allow to soak for 10 minutes. Drain the solution and then wash as usual.
You should use a fresh solution of bleach and water for each new tie-dye project to prevent the transfer of suspended dye to a new fabric.
Dangers of Mixing Bleach with Cleaners. Washington State Department of Health.