Just add Bleach

The fact is cool, graphic T-shirts are overpriced. I have wanted a Clint Eastwood T-shirt for several years now but have never really wanted to pay the twenty plus dollars; especially when I figure I could design something better myself. So, when I saw there was an opportunity to finally create my own I felt compelled to give it a go. Using bleach to remove dye is an easy way to transform a plain cotton t-shirt into a personalized fashion statement. The method, simply put, is to create iron-on stencils from freezer paper, adhere them to a colored cotton t-shirt, and mist the exposed portions of the cloth with a water/bleach mixture. I really enjoy taking the time to be creative, and I always look forward to learning a new artistic skill. And yet, bleach in a spray bottle is hardly something which translates from drawing, painting or Photoshop. I went into the project expecting to have little control and yet still feeling overly ambitious.

Tutorials for bleaching your own t-shirt designs were not difficult to find. On the other hand, quality, in-depth tutorials took some digging. I had to make a few aesthetic decisions upfront. Many of the sources simply splattered on bleach or created bleach tie-dye shirts.  I found that the end products from these were not as visually pleasing. I also discovered that you could actually paint with bleach which might have been more familiar. However, I decided to stick to stencils and attempt to prefect the process. I began looking for sources which targeted this type of design.

The first set of tutorials I discovered was from the Instructables forum. They were well organized in easy steps with fairly thorough explanations. I found a web page source that had a similar set of useful instructions but its lack of pictures was disappointing. I located several YouTube videos that allowed me to more directly views pecific techniques. For instance, they had videos of how to optimally iron-on the stencils. At the same time, the videos were slow and drawn out.

A screenshot of the Instructables layout

It took 3-5 minutes to deliver the information, and then additional time to go back and search for a specific detail.Of the three types of sources that I worked with the Instructables forums were the most helpful for me personally. The slideshow presentation, with thorough picture documentation, was easy to follow.  Further, the forum was arranged so that similar tutorials showed up in the sidebar. Because of this it was not difficult to find an assortment of authors and methods.

These tutorials seemed to be created primarily by artistic, crafty people interested in sharing their experiences. These were not professional artists, just individuals with hobbies. The best of the tutorials were made by people who had fun with the process. This was evident through the level of specific detail they added to their instructions. The source was more credible if it had a selection of successful t-shirts as design samples.

Spraying the bleach onto exposed fabric.

Despite the helpful hints from these forums, I still ran into a few obstacles. One of my first issues was that the information provided in tutorials was inconsistent. While the instructions from one source to another generally corresponded there were deviations in the details.Simple things like water to bleach ratios varied greatly. I discovered the hard way that freezer paper and wax paper are not synonymous. And, while cutting out and adhering the stencils was challenging, the real trial was applying the bleach. On my first attempt I was overzealous. The rule seemed to be a little bit at a time: less is more. Further, it quickly became clear that the more complicated the pattern, the less crisp the edges were.

The most successful t-shirt was from a simple Texas stencil

Over the course of the project I discovered that the best designs had simple lines. This was something I had to explore for myself. My patterns became less involved and more successful. On my second attempt I tried to combine two layers of stencils so that I would have three tones to work with. Although it was fun to develop my own sub-process it was clear that it needed some work. My ambitious attempt at Clint Eastwood was a mistake and in the end, the simple, clean Texas stencil won out.  A ‘do it yourself’ project, is certainly easier with tutorials, but it became clear to me that there was no way around understanding the medium without some degree of trial and error. Further, I learned that I prefer a mixture of  visuals and organized information in tutorials. Although I may not have initially succeeded, I think with some practice I could prefect the art, and maybe, one day, I will have a homemade ‘man with no name’ shirt.


Mikeasaurus. “T-shirt Designs with Stencils and Bleach.” Instructables, 2011. Web. 9 Sep. 2011. <http://www.citationmachine.net/index2.php?reqstyleid=1&mode=form&rsid=17&reqsrcid=MLAWeblog&more=no&nameCnt=1&gt;.

Donlon, Rose. “Do !t Yourself: Design your own T-shirt using bleach.” Si.live.com. February 24, 2009. Web. 9 Sep. 2011. <http://www.silive.com/teens/index.ssf/2009/02/do_t_yourself_design_your_own&gt;.

Fraser, Kyle, Dir. Bleaching Your Shirt Designs . 2006. Film. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nStJHZggDTA&gt;.

Gascanlincoln. Dir. How to make an awesome shirt with bleach and stencils. 2011. Film. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zn43W40q330&gt;.

ZenThruCraft,. “Bleach Design Tees with Freezer Paper.” Instructables, 2011. Web. 9 Sep. 2011. <http://www.instructables.com/id/Bleach-Design-Tees-with-Freezer-Paper/&gt;.

Richford, Nannette. “How to Make T-shirt Designs With Bleach.” eHow, 1999-201. Web. 9 Sep. 2011. <http://www.ehow.com/how_4510897_make-tshirt-designs-bleach.html&gt;.

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