Dyeing with Bleach
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.
|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 (www.dharmatrading.com) or AntiChlor (www.prochemical.com)
• 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.
|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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