When a friend handed-me-down a slightly used black T-shirt, I recognized it at once as the blank canvas that I would use for my next artistic masterpiece! In the interest of spoilers, the endeavor did not turn out as I had hoped, but I learned some lessons along the way that I'd like to share with my fellow DIY-ers.
I started by removing the sleeves and creating a pretty cute (woe to me for then destroying it) black tank top (but I have enough black shirts already, so no big loss). If I learned one thing from converting this shirt into a tank top, it's: Go easy on the binding of the raw edges. Don't stretch it and use a loose, loose stitch. I ended up with kind of awkward, frilly looking arm openings because some parts were sewn too tightly while others were loose.
However, the big loss was when I tried to use a stencil to bleach the shape of a bird into the shirt. I've seen shirts decorated this way before, but wanting to be my own creative self, I didn't bother to follow any tutorials—just trusted my past experiences with bleach and hoped for the best.
Lesson 1: If there are tutorials on the internet, at least consult them before trying to go it alone.
My plan was to create a stencil and then spray bleach into it to create a lighter-colored image on the black shirt. I sketched my bird onto a piece of file folder, then cut it out with an X-acto knife. So far, so good. I placed several layers of cardboard in between the front and back of the shirt to keep the bleach from bleeding through. Also good. Then, because I was worried about the bleach bleeding past the edges of the stencil, I sprayed the back of it with spray adhesive so it would stick firmly to the shirt.
I also clipped the stencil to the cardboard-backed shirt in a few places for added stability. Worried about overspray, I then covered the edges of the stencil with a few layers of newspaper, taped down.
Then I brought the whole project into the living room where we have a hardwood floor (spraying bleach in a room with a carpet is probably a bad idea) and loaded my spray bottle with 100% chlorine bleach. I use the bottle in the bathroom to retard mildew growth in the shower, and I normally keep it full of about 50% bleach, 50% water, so I first emptied the contents into a glass jar which will come into play later in this story.
Then I began spraying. This is where I learned most of my lessons.
Lesson 2: Bleach has no respect for spray adhesive. It will peel whatever you've stuck down right back up.
Lesson 3: Go easy on the bleach! If you are impatient and soak the fabric hoping for faster results, all you will get is a disaster. This includes drips that will pool on your stencil and then find their way to unprotected areas of the shirt when you move it.
Lesson 4: Don't use thin cardboard or paper as your stencil. Even my first spray of bleach quickly soaked through the edges. If I do this again, I will first prime my cardboard with some kind of waterproof varnish.
Lesson 5: This isn't so much a lesson as just an idea that might prove beneficial next time, but... remove the stencil immediately after spraying. I left it on because I thought I might have to spray multiple coats and wouldn't want to have to replace it each time, but I think leaving it on just allowed the bleach to soak through it and get on the shirt in unwanted places.
Lesson 6: If you were worried about overspray, you weren't worried enough. Even with all the extra protection around the edges of my stencil, I still managed to get a small haze of bleach on the shoulder of the shirt.
After I removed the stencil to discover the blurry, shapeless bird you see here, I tried not to get too disheartened and instead focused on another experiment: Dip-bleaching!
In this experiment, I dumped all of the remaining bleach from the sprayer into the jar of bleach water, then dipped the shirt into it up to the point where the failed bird would be completely covered. I left it in there for several minutes, then took it out and rinsed it.
It was hideously blotchy. My boyfriend said it looked kind of tie-dyed, but I've never been a fan of tie-dye, so it wasn't going to work for me.
In one last experiment, I dipped just the bottom hem into the bleach and left it overnight and all through the next day. Yes, I'm told you should not expose your fabric to bleach for this long, but it was pretty much as ruined as it was going to get, so why not see what happens?
It still looked tie-dyed, but it was an even more dramatic gradient than before, so, despite my reservations about wearing something so imperfect, I decided to give it a few runs around the block and see if anyone likes it.
After my miserable failure, I finally read some tutorials on the process of bleach-stenciling. Even the crafters who didn't take many precautions got better results than mine, so I'm pretty sure that the majority of my problems stemmed from not enough patience and too much bleach. But while reading through one article, I did discover a helpful tip that I hope to employ in the future.
Lesson 7: After the desired color is reached, you're supposed to dip the shirt in peroxide, which apparently halts any further chemical reactions caused by the bleach. This is only hearsay, but the person who recommended it said it prevented holes from appearing in the fabric after washing, which is apparently something that can happen to artfully bleached clothing.
Although I painted a lot more varnish on my stencil, I still, in my folly of thinking that was enough, neglected to remove the stencil immediately after spraying, resulting in yet another blurred outline.
This time I tried to make the flaws seem more deliberate, by lightly spraying the area around the bird with bleach.
Lesson 8: If using a spray bottle to color your shirt, either expect crazily blotchy results. Next time I'll use a more predictable spraying tool like an airbrush.
I also painted over the bird with glue because I planned on using black ink to dial back the excessively bleached spots.
Spraying/painting over some areas with waterproof black calligraphy ink seemed to help some, but not enough... and then the ink all washed out when I rinsed it, even after applying heat.
Lesson 8: Calligraphy ink – even the waterproof kind – is no substitute for fabric paint / dye.
In the end, I think the biggest lesson I've learned is that bleach dyeing is not the technique for me... but given some more free T-shirts, I'll probably stubbornly try it again!
What about you? Have you had luck using bleach to create graphics on fabric? What worked for you?