Tutorial: Bleach Shirt Designs

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The meta of this project is that we get to show you the things we make in an effort to build a website about making things. It’s doubly useful content! And what is a brand without swag: logo shirts.

We’ll get into screen printing “official” and “nice looking” ones a bit later, but we had an spot of time to spare so we went with a classic of DIY home shirt designs: the bleach spray method.

The gist is simple, you make a mask of some kind to block the half-bleach, half-water spray from simply covering the entire shirt and what you’re left with when it dries is the design you cut out. Now, it should be noted immediately that bleach is a dangerous chemical and shouldn’t be ingested or sprayed about without careful consideration: it will permanently stain most fabrics (including carpets etc.) and spraying something means particles of it are going to be floating around the area, so make sure you have some space and ventilation to keep yourself from breathing it in. Further, we’re working with knives here, so blade safety is a must, of course.

The mask was simple, the logo was carefully drawn on to some thin corrugated cardboard and cut out with a pocket knife. Any ol’ blade will do, ideally sharper edges will cut into the corners a bit better – you can see there’s some less than clean edges in the photo below. They can be fixed easily, but the main cause of that is that my particular knife was a bit fat to get into the curves effectively. A hobby scalpel would have been perfect in hindsight.

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Once it’s all cut out, you can place it on your shirt directly. This is a good time to look at the size and placement of your design and try to imagine it as the finished product, a positive shape rather than the negative cutouts. I’ve put down plastic to protect what’s an already abused shop floor but essentially you just want to keep your bleach overspray in mind. My cardboard piece was large enough to cover most of my shirt but you’ll notice there are exposed areas – if these get sprayed you will see them, so you can cover it with newspaper or plastic to protect them, or be really careful with your spraying. In the end, I actually did make a mistake and there’s a slight lightness to my right shoulder. This was a $5 blank shirt I had laying around anyway so it’s none too concerning, but just know that it can happen.

Also, there’s another piece of cardboard inside the shirt to protect from the liquid going from the front and transferring to the back. That layer can also be newspapers or plastic, it just needs to make some sort of boundary between the two shirt fabrics.

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Here’s the spray when wet – don’t worry if the contrast isn’t exactly what you’re looking for, design wise – it takes about a half hour to really soak in. An interesting thing to note about this process is that while bleach tends to make things lighter (as is its original purpose), if you spray black shirts you’ll quite often get a random colour. This is because, I’m told, black shirts are quite often made from coloured shirts that didn’t sell for whatever reason, and so they take that warehouse stock and recycle it. So, when you bleach it, you’re not only lightening that black, but you’re finding that original colour underneath and revealing it.

When the desired lightness is achieved / it seems dry (and don’t leave it on too long, it can eat through thin fabrics altogether) carefully handle it to the sink and wash it out with cold water. This’ll stop the process and make sure that you’re not going to bleach your chest the first time you put it on. Hang dry.

From here on there’s no special washing instructions – it’s a regular shirt like any other. There does seem to be a slight degradation of strength in those areas, so in theory you might be shortening the shirt life span a little, but I’ve never worn a shirt so thin that holes appear so I doubt it’s much an issue.

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