Monday, January 9, 2023

Bleach-Painted T-shirts: A Tutorial


Twice in the past few months, I've wanted to make some kind of custom fan apparel, but I didn't want to devote a ton of time, energy, or money to it. The first was for a Mother Mother concert, and the second was a present for all of the children dancing the (kind of shitty, because you have to wear a fat suit and giant mascot head that's apparently hot, smelly, and hard to see out of) role of Mouse in our local university's production of The Nutcracker

You can do this project a lot more nicely than I did it, with super clean lines and really even tones, but here's how you can ALSO do it quick and dirty-like, whether it's for a concert tomorrow or you've got to make six in a row and you're already bored.

To bleach paint T-shirts, you will need:

  • black 100% cotton T-shirt. The best shirt is obviously a thrifted shirt, and for my Mother Mother shirt I did find the perfect black T-shirt at Goodwill. Speaking of... y'all have the Goodwill prices gotten absolutely RIDICULOUS in your area, or is my town the only one in which the local Goodwills have decided that not only do they no longer need to offer any sales or discounts on the crap they're literally given for free, but they've also just absolutely jacked up their prices to Jesus? I'd long more-or-less abandoned the little indie thrift shops around me for more than just the occasional browse-through, because their selection is the pits compared to Goodwill, but 2023 is the year that I rededicate myself to their cause. Anyway, I picked up the six Medium Team Mouse shirts that I needed via a Black Friday Doorbuster from one of the big-box craft stores. I feel like those shirts have a reputation for being cheap in quality as well as price, but 100% cotton shirts are nothing to sneeze about these days, when pretty much every shirt and its dog is infused with polyester!
  • backing material. This will need to be thick enough to keep the bleach from bleeding through to the back of the T-shirt. I used a brown paper grocery bag.
  • bleach. Get the cheapest, and don't get it on you.
  • cotton swabs.
  • glass dish.
  • paper stencil.
  • glue stick (optional). 

Step 1: Prepare the stencil.

Both of the stencils I wanted to make were word art, so I just did them in Google Docs. Because I am basic.

But at least I printed them as outlines to save ink!

Cut out the stencils and save the widows, since you'll need to place them back on the shirt before you paint.

My Team Mouse stencil took up two pages, so I taped them together with the spacing that I wanted.

Step 2: Paint!

Place your backing material inside the shirt, making absolutely sure it will cover where you'll be bleach painting. 

You can either just set your stencil on the shirt, if it's fairly short and simple--

--or you can tape it down with more masking tape.

I even took the glue stick to the back of those fiddly M and U sticky-outy bits to make sure they stayed put, and I also glued down the widows. I was able to reuse this same stencil for all six Team Mouse shirts, gluing the bits and the widows each time and pulling them up afterwards.

Then, put on a podcast and start painting within the lines!

I found it easiest to first draw the outline of each letter, then color in the center. It made them look wonky as I went, since the bleach activates right away--

--but I think it evens out pretty well by the end:

I'm disappointed in how much the edges bled, but none of the recipients of these shirts seemed to notice, and you also can't really tell when you're standing a normal distance from the human wearing it.

Below is the first shirt I did, though, and for that one I just painted away and it also looks fine:

Step 3: Rinse and Wash.

After I finished painting, I gave the bleach a few more minutes to even out the last couple of letters, then I rinsed each shirt very, very well under cool water and then tossed it into the wash. I washed each individually so nothing else would accidentally get bleach stained, but fortunately my washing machine has an eco-friendly quick wash, so I'm not the cause of the nation's water shortage.

I haven't tried it, but this TikTok recommends a hydrogen peroxide rinse to deactivate the bleach:

Might be worth a try!

Step 4: Show off your beautiful work.

Here's what happens when you ask your husband to photograph you in your beautiful shirt in front of the theater where Mother Mother is about to play:

Seriously, it's a cell phone camera. You have to really try if you want to get your thumb in the way of a cell phone camera.

And here's one particular member of Team Mouse, coincidentally the one who walked by as I was finishing up and asked if she could use the rest of the dish of bleach to customize her own shirt. Since "her own" shirt is inevitably the shirt that I messed up on (can't give a flawed shirt to someone else's child, gasp!), I happily let her also make her shirt the most elaborately cutest:

It's very likely that I'll do this project a few more times this year, because it's SUCH a quick, easy, and cheap way to customize a T-shirt. I would like to get smoother edges, though, so next time I'm going to play around with thickening the bleach first so it can't run away from me.

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