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Dyeing with Bleach

No fancy equipment, no dangerous chemicals. Removing color with bleach may be the easiest surface-design technique yet.
No fancy equipment, no dangerous chemicals. Removing color with bleach may be the easiest surface-design technique yet.

No fancy equipment, no dangerous chemicals. Removing color with bleach may be the easiest surface-design technique yet.

Photo: David Page Coffin

Natural fibers only
Bleach is an effective color remover as long as you confine yourself to natural fibers like cotton, linen, and rayon. If the fabric contains polyester, the color may not discharge, since polyester is usually colorfast. This is hardly a limitation, considering how many types just of cotton there are-knits, broadcloth, denim, piqué, gauze, velveteen, corduroy, and jacquard (my favorite because there's a subtle pattern already woven in).

Black bleaches best
Obviously, the darker the fabric is to start with, the more dramatic the results will be. I tend to concentrate on black fabrics not only because they provide maximum contrast after bleaching, but because it's often surprising what colors you'll discover underneath the black as you begin to remove dye. Perhaps you've noticed how hard it is to match blacks? The reason is that fabric is dyed black in many different ways, most involving multiple dye applications starting with a wide variety of undercolors. As you remove the top layers of dye from black fabrics, expect to see white, cream, gold, pink, peach, raspberry, green, blue, brown, or gray revealed underneath, as in the many examples shown here.

I usually choose fabric in plain colors so that whatever discharge pattern I create is clearly defined, but bleaching can work on prints, too. Of course, you should experiment with any dark or medium-toned, solid, textured, or patterned fabrics you like, always being prepared for surprising (and occasionally disappointing) results as you remove color.

With a little preplanning, you can avoid having to buy the fabric to test it. When I shop for fabric to bleach, I set out with a bleach-soaked paper towel in a zip-lock bag. In the fabric store I ask for swatches of the pieces I'm considering, take the samples to the car, and wet them with the paper towel to make sure I like the colors underneath. To test fabrics you already own or have swatches of, just splash a little bleach on them in the sink, trying not to soak the whole swatch. Let them sit for a few minutes to see the discharge effect, which you can stop at any point as I'll explain below.

Experiment, experiment
  Lois Ericson creates pale wavy patterns on this linen fabric by tearing a few pieces of cardboard into interesting curves and spraying over them onto the fabric with a mixture of bleach and water.

Yardage or garments?
I usually work with yardage as opposed to completed garments, with the exception of cotton T-shirts (children especially enjoy doing those). I like to cut out the pattern pieces to take maximum advantage of the design I discover after bleaching. But there's no reason (other than cost, perhaps) not to experiment with bleaching washable natural-fiber garments.

Assuming that your work area is big enough, I suggest you bleach lengths no more than 2 yd. long when you're working flat, so the first part you treat won't be ready to neutralize before you're done with the rest. Depending on the thickness of your fabric and your technique for keeping the bleach from the protected portions of the fabric, dipping applications may allow you to use longer pieces. When experimenting with a new technique, I like to use small pieces of fabric until I get an effect I want, but I usually work with at least 1/2-yd. pieces so they're large enough to serve as part of a garment in case they're spectacular.

The fabric can be prewashed or not; if the sizing is still in it, the bleaching solution may bead up on the surface, which could yield terrific results. The solution may be applied on dry fabric or wet. This is definitely a technique that requires play. It's difficult to have a failure, short of removing all the color; every piece is unique and has potential, since you can always bleach again, or add color back to the fabric after bleaching, using permanent markers, paints, or dyes.

Basic supplies, and extras
Here's the list of equipment I use for all bleaching experiments:

• Three 5-gal. or larger buckets (four if bleaching by dipping)

• Plastic sheeting or trash bags to cover the work surface

• Rubber gloves

• 1 qt. to 1/2 gal. fresh household bleach (different brands can give different results, so try several)

• Bleach-neutralizing chemical, such as Bleach Stop ( or AntiChlor (

• Plastic spray bottle with an adjustable nozzle

• Paper towels

• Old clothes

Optional equipment, whether you spray the bleach on or dip the fabric in it, includes anything that will help you apply the bleach or protect the fabric from the bleach in interesting ways. I've used brushes, sponges, syringes or plastic squeeze bottles with narrow openings, string, pieces of wood, metal clamps, cardboard, leaves or other natural materials, lace, cheesecloth, paper cutouts, clothespins, paper clips, pieces of chain. And as you play you'll think of and discover other things that will create beautiful designs.

Supplies for bleaching
Have labeled buckets of water and vinegar (a neutralizing agent) near your work area, and arranged in the order you'll need them so you can halt the bleaching quickly. The bleach bucket at far right is needed only for dipping techniques.

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Comments (11)

maelle maelle writes: Bleach IS a TOXIC chemical product.. (you can read it on the container) it is harmfull for nature. I think this article is not clear about that and makes us believe bleach is eco friendly because it is a household product!
Even though the result is nice, I feel it is paradoxal to use it in order to print nature in fabric..
isn't it?

And most important, could you rectify in your article that bleach IS toxic, please? For our planet's sake? And to be able to continue with eco friendly print techniques in the future?

Thank you,
Posted: 2:30 am on March 24th

FrankoBaldWin FrankoBaldWin writes: Looks really clever. I should try this for sure but with Batman Logos :)
Posted: 4:06 am on September 8th

EmilyBint EmilyBint writes: Patterned technique looks so much nicer than the dip in method. My opinion.
Posted: 2:55 am on August 24th

MollieJ MollieJ writes: Good point, designs. Safety first.

It is amazing to see these results, and it looks not so hard to recreate.
Posted: 1:58 am on July 20th

designs designs writes: It is erroneous to say bleach is a toxic chemical and can be problematic for people with asthma or other lung issues especially, but can be tough in anyone's lungs. It must be used with lots of ventilation and protection for the skin especially the skin. It would be good if a caution is added to this article so no one is hurt using bleach improperly.
Posted: 3:28 pm on August 24th

EromoLedun EromoLedun writes: иркутские девушки знакомства секс знакомства на ночь Заволжск знакомства атяшево елена щелковская знакомства 30 исламске знакомства
_мужские интим развлечения развлечения на петровско-разумовской достопримечательства и развлечения железноводского санатория
Posted: 7:49 pm on January 23rd

saranya saranya writes: It was an amazing work done by u .Thanks for the informative post.We are the manufacturers of 100% Bleached Cotton and Absorbent Cotton for Surgical and Medical Care centers in India.
Posted: 12:39 am on July 13th

GlitzyGirl GlitzyGirl writes: I was in Minneapolis at Quilt Market and discovered a new product called deColourant and DeColourant plus that you do not have to mix. You can remover color and add new colors. It is available in a jar as a creme and in spray bottle. Great with stencils and rubberstamps!
Posted: 11:36 am on July 21st

CateField CateField writes: What a fabulous article! I teach textiles and will get my students to use your techniques. Thank you so much.
Posted: 10:44 am on July 31st

bon8 bon8 writes: hi, my name is bonnie~ im currently a year 12 student in australia studying textiles

i was wondering is there ANY ANY ANY way to bleach POLYESTER velvet? because i read somewhere else that polyester would be good for Devouring on velvet however i can not reach any of the paste in australia. My garment is polyester velvet and i would really like to bleach out my pattern but it's not working...
could anyone please give me some help or handy tips. it would be very much appreciated~

Posted: 1:14 am on April 27th

Metqa Metqa writes: I like your methods of using natural shapes to make your stencils. Your patterns are lovely.

I've read that vinegar is not a safe alternative for neutralizing bleach. The chemical reaction does break down the hypochlorate, but in the process it releases an even stronger acid and chlorine gas. Peroxide is a safe alternative, though more expensive than some commercial products listed below.

This I found on sites about neutralizing bleach:
"Whatever you do, never use vinegar or any other acid in an attempt to neutralize your chlorine bleach. It will destroy the hypochlorite that is the active ingredient of chlorine bleach, but only by turning it into much more caustic and dangerous chemicals, including deadly chlorine gas. (The amount of chlorine gas produced by a mild acid such as vinegar is small, but it won't do your fabric any good, and stronger acids can produce lethal amounts.) "

Bisulfite, or metabisulfite, is the most economical choice. It is widely sold under the name Anti-Chlor by dye suppliers.

Sodium thiosulfate, also known as Bleach Stop.
Thiosulfate is commonly used in developing photographs, so you may be able to find a local supplier in the form of a photography supply store. The reaction between thiosulfate and hypochlorite is as follows:
4 NaClO + Na2S2O3 + 2 NaOH → 4 NaCl + 2 Na2SO4 + H2O

Hydrogen peroxide is a third choice, perhaps preferable for asthmatics who are sensitive to the effects of sulfur-containing chemicals.The chemical reaction between hypochlorite (the active ingredient in chlorine bleach) and hydrogen peroxide is as follows:
OCl- + H2O2 -> Cl- + H2O + O2

Posted: 5:09 pm on February 12th

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