How To Bleach Dye a T-shirt To Make a Custom Graphic T

A few years ago my son’s academic team wanted a set of inexpensive shirts to wear for summer tournament season. Ordering custom printed t-shirts gets cost-prohibitive and the kids wanted to look coordinated, but not like clones. That’s when I learned to bleach dye t-shirts!

I purchased a 100% cotton t-shirt for each team member in his or her favorite color. Then I used the same stencil to bleach dye the design on the front of the shirts. Each shirt was a little different because it was hand made, and each kid had the color of his/her choice, but the team looked coordinated because the technique and stencil were the same. It was a fun, affordable, custom look that pleased the teenagers and their parents.

A DIY custom bleach dyed t-shirt by A Chat Over Coffee

A DIY custom bleach dyed t-shirt by A Chat Over Coffee

Fast-forward a few years and I ran across a bleach-dyed shirt on Pinterest. The technique didn’t catch my eye so much as the cute owl stencil used on the project. Of course I pinned it and then picked up a t-shirt to bleach dye for my daughter.

My technique is different than the one I found on Pinterest, but I am very happy with the results. Here’s how I did it.

How To Bleach Dye a Custom T-shirt by A Chat Over Coffee

How To Bleach Dye a Custom T-shirt
by A Chat Over Coffee.com

What You’ll Need:

  • a 100% cotton t-shirt (I’ve had better luck with darker colors)
  • the image to create your stencil
  • thin cardboard from a cereal box or something similar
  • tape
  • a small utility knife and/or scissors
  • a cutting mat
  • plastic to protect your work surface
  • old towels to protect your work surface
  • a sheet of cardboard or a paper grocery bag to line your t-shirt
  • a plastic trash bag to cover the t-shirt liner material
  • 100% bleach
  • white vinegar
  • 2 spray bottles (I got mine at the dollar store.)
  • paper towels

What To Do:

  1. The first thing you’ll need to do is create your cardboard stencil. Print the image you want to use and lay it face up on the uncoated side of the thin cardboard. You want the uncoated side up because the coating on the bottom will protect your shirt from the bleach but the uncoated side will absorb some of the moisture rather than allowing it to run off. Use small loops of tape to attach the paper to the cardboard so the paper won’t slide around while you’re cutting. Use the utility knife and scissors to cut out your stencil shape. A self-healing cutting mat will protect your work surface while you use the knife.

    Use a utility knife and a self healing cutting mat to prepare your stencil to make a bleach dyed t-shirt. | A Chat Over Coffee

    Use a utility knife and a self healing cutting mat to prepare your stencil to make a bleach dyed t-shirt. | A Chat Over Coffee

  2. To prepare the t-shirt you’ll need to smoothly cover a piece of cardboard or a paper grocery sack with a large trash bag. I just slid a paper grocery bag into the trash bag. As smoothly as possible, slide the plastic-covered cardboard/sack into the t-shirt and spread everything out flat. Be sure the entire inside of your shirt is lined with plastic so the bleach won’t bleed through to the back of the shirt. Arrange the lining so the cardboard/sack is in the middle of the shirt right under where you’ll place your stencil. Then smooth all of the wrinkles out of the shirt.Prepare the work surface and lay the shirt out smoothly at A Chat Over Coffee.png
  3. Lay your stencil, uncoated side up, on the t-shirt in the place where you want the image to be when you’re finished. I lined my owl up between the lower edges of the sleeves. Make sure everything is smoothed down as much as possible.
  4. Pour about a quarter cup of bleach into one of the spray bottles and adjust the opening to spray a light mist. Then do the same with the second bottle and the vinegar. Be careful with the full strength bleach so you don’t remove the color from anything you don’t want bleached!Gradually spray the bleach in a fine mist and use vinegar to stop the bleaching action at A Chat Over Coffee.png
  5. Spray a light mist of bleach over the stencil and then wait to see how it removes the color from your shirt. Mist on more bleach, a little bit at a time, until you get the effect you want. Go slowly since the bleach will seem to be doing very little at first and then the color will suddenly disappear. Once you have the look you want, mist vinegar over the surface to neutralize the pH and stop the bleaching action. If you look at my “in progress” shirt above, you’ll see a darker spot at the lower left side. A drop of bleach (not a fine mist) slid off of my spray bottle, so I quickly sprayed the area with vinegar to try to keep it from leaving a huge white blot on my shirt.
  6. Use paper towels to blot any extra liquid off of your shirt and any exposed plastic so you don’t accidentally add new bleach spots. Then, and this is the hard part, let your shirt dry before you remove the lining materials. Allowing the shirt to dry will keep the bleach from seeping through and leaving splotches on the back of your shirt.
  7. Wash the shirt in a cold water cycle to remove the bleach and vinegar before wearing. Bleach will weaken cotton fabric, so use as little as possible to dye the shirt. Bleach dyed shirts should be washed in cold water to minimize wear and tear on the bleached fabric.
How To Bleach Dye a Custom T-shirt by A Chat Over Coffee

How To Bleach Dye a Custom T-shirt by A Chat Over Coffee

Bleach dyed shirts are fun for summer and make a great coordinated look for recreation teams, youth groups, or parties. Perhaps your teenager will want to invite some friends over to make bleach dye shirts?

What kind of design would you like to put on a bleach dyed t-shirt?

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