Using Chlorine Bleach to Create Clothing Designs

reverse tie dye tee shirt with bleach

The Spruce / Michele Lee

Almost everyone who has ever used chlorine bleach has a story to tell about a blouse or shirt that was 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 color of fabric? 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 not only removes the color from dyed fabrics but can also actually 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 will stop the bleaching action when you reach the color you desire.

The neutralizing solution is made by mixing one part hydrogen peroxide to 10 parts water. Mix this up first before you begin your bleaching project, so it is ready to use. The solution can be mixed in a plastic tub, in the kitchen sink, or in your washer.


Cleaning chemicals—particularly bleach and hydrogen peroxide—should never be mixed together. This project uses diluted solutions containing bleach and hydrogen peroxide, respectively, but as you're working take care not to mix these undiluted chemicals together and work in a well-ventilated space.

How to Lighten Colors

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, try this technique to remove or soften the color. 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. Just be sure to do all the fabric 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 fabric 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'd like the fabric to be lighter. Do not leave the fabric in the bleach solution longer than recommended, because some fabrics can become weakened if exposed to chlorine bleach for too long.

adding bleach to a basin with clothing

The Spruce / Michele Lee

How to Create Specific Designs

Bleach pens can be used 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 again and again.

To get started, have that neutralizing solution ready. Gather some old white towels to place under the fabric area you plan to decorate with bleach. This will prevent the solution from bleeding through to the rest of the garment or your work surface. Squeeze the bleaching gel onto the fabric.

How long you leave the bleaching gel on the fabric depends on the dye in the fabric and the color you desire. 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 and submerge the entire garment for 10 minutes and agitate gently. Drain the neutralizing solution and wash as usual.

using a bleach pen to create designs

The Spruce / Michele Lee

How to Tie-Dye in Reverse

Traditional tie-dye done with a kit like the Tulip Tie-Dye Party available from JoAnn is created by adding colors to a fabric. You can also create 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 color you desire. 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.

reverse tie-dye tee shirt

The Spruce / Michele Lee

Article Sources
The Spruce uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Dangers of Mixing Bleach with Cleaners. Washington State Department of Health.