Those long pandemic lockdowns inspired people to learn how to bake their own delicious banana and sourdough breads—and how to tie dye their favorite blank t-shirts, sweatshirts, joggers and even masks. So if you’re a crafter or hobbyist who’s been trying out some new at-home tie-dye techniques, you’re in good company. Pinterest reported that searches for “bleach tie-dye” were up 13 times what they’d been pre-pandemic.
Besides the prominent ‘70s-inspired psychedelic swirls, lots of other tie-dye iterations have captured our fancy, including the “reverse” patterns you can achieve with bleach. (And, yes, you can easily do it at home.) We’ve got six steps for a fun and easy tie-dye technique you can use on your favorite t-shirt in your kitchen or outside.
Fun fact: When you tie dye with bleach, you don’t use any dye at all on your garment! Sometimes called reverse dyeing, the tie dye-with-bleach technique is just a twist on the classic process when you want a different look. You can easily transform a black or navy t-shirt by tying it with rubber bands (or string) and lightening the exposed fabric with bleach.
Six Steps to Tie Dyeing with Bleach
Since you probably have bleach in your laundry room cabinet, you don’t need to purchase a tie-dye kit to get started. So let’s go!
1. Gather Your Bleach DIY Supplies
Before you dive into tie dyeing with bleach, take some time to gather what you’ll need for this project. Here’s a short list of what we recommend you use:
Blank darker-colored t-shirts
A spray bottle (or bucket)
Rubber bands or string
A protective plastic sheet for your work area
Work clothes (basically anything that you don’t mind getting sprayed with bleach) and an apron
Making sure you've chosen the right t-shirt for your project is an important part of gathering your supplies! For tie-dye projects, we recommend 100% cotton, or a blend with a high cotton percentage! For bleach tie dye, you'll want a darker shirt, like black or navy!
Here are some tees that we recommend, since they’re great for printing, tie dyeing and wearing everyday:
Pro tip: Plan to tie dye with bleach outside, if possible. However, if you need to do it inside, choose an area that’s got lots of ventilation.
Cover your work area with your protective plastic sheet. Wear your work clothes, apron and rubber gloves when you’re ready to start.
2. Prepare Your T-Shirt (or T-Shirts) for the Bleach Dye Process
Place your dry t-shirt flat on your work surface. It’s important to smooth it out as much as you can so that it’s wrinkle free.
Now it’s time to get the shirt ready for those tie-dye swirls. If you like the traditional spiral tie-dye look, pinch the t-shirt fabric in the middle of the body and turn your hand to twist the fabric into a tight spiral shape.
Secure the spiral using your rubber bands (you’ll probably need three) or your string. Then, criss-cross the rubber bands across the middle so you create three wedge shapes. (You can flip the shirt over and create another spiral if you plan to bleach both sides.)
Here’s what will happen: The parts of your shirt that you tied will remain the darker t-shirt color, while the exposed fabric will turn a lighter color as the bleach works on it. To bleach more of the t-shirt, twist and tie it loosely.
You can start with the classic spiral technique we described above, and then move into experimenting with other tie-dye patterns like the accordion, mandala, stripes, ombre or bull’s-eye looks. You can even come up with your own designs!
3. Break Out the Bleach
Mix one part bleach and three parts water to your spray bottle. Then, gently shake it to mix the solution. If your bottle has an adjustable nozzle, set it to “spray.”
Next, spray the front of your t-shirt with the bleach-and-water solution. Cover the entire surface so you get the best results. If you want to tie dye both sides of the shirt, flip the shirt over and spray the back as well.
Alternatively, if you want to submerge your shirt, you can mix two cups of bleach with two cups of water in a plastic bucket. Then, put your t-shirt into this solution, and leave it in for about 10 minutes.
Pro Tip: If you’re wondering what color your finished t-shirt will be before you bleach dye it, you can test a small inside part of the sleeve cuff with bleach. However, usually a black or navy t-shirt turns red, tan or a faded orange. A purple T-shirt turns pink, and lighter blue shirts turn white.
4. Watch the Bleach Tie-Dye Magic Happen in Real Time
You’ll want to let your shirt sit for between 10 to 30 minutes as the bleach does its work. However, set your timer so you can check the t-shirt fabric every few minutes for progress.
Obviously, bleach will have different effects on different fabrics, and you want to be sure that the bleach doesn’t sit too long and ruin the t-shirt! Remember, after you launder and dry your shirt, the colors will appear lighter.
5. It's Time to Rinse Your T-Shirt
When you like how your t-shirt looks, it’s time to rinse your shirt in cold water. Remember to remove your rubber bands first!
After you thoroughly rinse the shirt, wash it alone in your washing machine. Don’t wait to launder your t-shirt though, because you want to get all of the bleach out and keep it from disintegrating the fabric.
6. Want a Brighter Look? Take This Next Step
If you want to jazz up your tie-dye design, you can opt to add dye to the bleached parts of your t-shirt to create color pops.
Pro Tip: This step works great for darker colored (like black or navy) t-shirts that you’ve used bleach to reverse tie dye.
If you’d like to add more color to the bleached sections of your t-shirt, don’t dry your shirt after you take the shirt out of the washing machine. Rather, lay your damp t-shirt back on your plastic-covered work surface and apply dye to the bleached areas. Then, follow the directions on the dye packet for how to let the shirt sit before you launder it again.
It’s not really a surprise that tie dye—which recalls those happier, carefree days at summer camps, rock concerts and music festivals—emerged as a DIY trend during the last 18 months. Plus, our love for all things tie dye prompted fashion designers and retailers from Chico’s to Everlane to launch lots of tie-dye loungewear and athleisure products, including bulk t-shirts,blank hoodies, sweatpants, sweat shorts and head-to-toe tracksuits. Now that you’ve tried tie dyeing with bleach, get ready to experiment with other techniques.