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I have actually played around with bleaching shirts several times so I wanted to do a comparison of different methods for you. I am using sublimation, HTV, and even some masking techniques so that literally ANYONE can have a bleached shirt in their life! Grab your bleach bottle and get started creating unique shirts that are perfect for you and to give as gifts.
Want to get started with bleaching shirts? The easiest way to do that is to watch the video below. Just click play and everything you ever wanted to know about the bleaching process is included.
Can’t watch the video or missed some of the steps? You can also follow along below as I walk you through everything you need to know.
Designs I used:
Ways to Bleach a Shirt
There are several way to bleach a shirt. I am going to cover a few of the methods and then which are my favorites as well.
First, let’s talk about some safety tips since you are working with bleach and chemicals. Always work outdoors and wear gloves to protect your hands. I also have recommendations for stopping the bleaching process below. Please be sure to follow these instructions and wash your shirts after the process a few times to remove any excess chemicals.
You will also want to wear clothes and shoes during the process to protect your skin. I like to wear old clothes so I am not worried about getting any bleach on them.
Preparing Your Shirt
You will want to prep your shirt with some cardboard or even a plastic garbage bag on the inside. You don’t want your bleached area to appear on the back of your shirt as well. I like to use scrap cardboard boxes but anything you have on hand that is disposable will work for this. Otherwise, the only other preparation would be if you are going to add a mask or sublimation before bleaching. You can read more about that below.
Bleaching with a Spray Bottle
First, let’s spray a shirt with just a regular spray bottle filled with non-diluted bleach. Spray an area on the front for your design that you will add later or over the top of an existing design. Use the design as a guide for how big you would like the bleached area to be. I also like to spritz the bottle a bit all over the shirt as well during this time.
Take paper towels once your shirt has been sprayed and lightly dab the large front area just to get any excess bleach off. Once the front has sat for a few minutes, be sure to flip the shirt over and spritz the back a little too so it will match.
Bleaching with a Paintbrush
Instead of using a spray bottle, you may find you have more control with a paintbrush. Put your bleach in a container and just paint it on with the brush. I find that I like to spritz the edges with the spray bottle as well just so they are not so perfect. Take paper towels once your shirt has been sprayed and lightly dab the large front area just to get any excess bleach off.
Also, after sitting for a while, you may find you need to go over the area again if you didn’t get a good coat on it. Plus, you will want to spritz the entire shirt with the spray bottle as well to get a few spots all over the shirt on the front and back.
Using a Cardboard Mask
You can also use the spray bottle method with a cardboard mask. Here I cut my circle out of an old cardboard box and just laid it on top of the shirt. The spray the circle well. Remove your mask and spritz around the outer edge of the circle as well as all over the shirt so you get a more imperfect look. Remember to take paper towels once your shirt has been sprayed and lightly dab the large front area just to get any excess bleach off.
Applying to a Sublimation Design
You can use any of the methods above to apply bleach to a shirt that already has a sublimation design applied. I generally like to use my design as a guide when applying my bleach. The same notes above on methods apply as you can use any of them on your sublimation shirts.
Bleaching Over a Mask
You can also add a variety of masks to your shirt and apply bleach right on the top of those. Here I used adhesive vinyl cut on my Cricut machine as a mask and applied bleach with a spray bottle over the top.
How to Stop the Bleaching Process
Once you have applied your bleach, allow your items to sit in the sun and work their magic. You should see your shirts starting to change color. You can actually stop the bleaching process at any point. So, you can let the spots get white or stop when they are any other color that you love. To stop the bleaching process, mix up 1/2 hydrogen peroxide and 1/2 water in a container. Dip your shirt in and rinse really well. Then wash your shirt twice in the washing machine by itself to remove any residue.
When bleaching shirts, you may have a variety of questions about the process or issues that you have encountered. Here are a few of those questions answered but you can also ask any other questions you have in the comment section below.
What shirts are best for bleaching?
You do need a shirt with at least some polyester as cotton shirts can develop holes. For sublimation, I’m using a Gildan soft style. It is 65% polyester, 35% cotton. The ones where I use HTV are a Bella+Canvas shirt but it is 52% cotton, 48% polyester. For longevity’s sake, I would use at least a partial polyester shirt. Please note that some colors/brands/types just will not bleach. I am linking to the ones that I use above and I know those will work. However, if you are planning on buying a lot of shirts, I would test each one before ordering in bulk.
Can you bleach a cotton shirt?
It is NOT recommended as they can get holes really quickly and usually do not hold up. Please see the question above for my recommendations.
Should you bleach before or after sublimation?
You can do both! I do feel like the bleaching after sublimation results in a more “worn” look. In other words, if you bleach before you sublimation, the colors will be more vibrant. You can see a bit of that in the image below. The shirts on the top were bleached then sublimated while the ones on the bottom where sublimated then bleached.
Can you use adhesive vinyl as a mask?
Definitely! It gives a really rustic and worn look but, if you love that, then I say go for it!
Can you apply HTV to a bleached shirt?
Yes! Just apply the HTV after the shirt is bleached. I use the size of the design to approximate my bleached area.
How long will the bleaching process take?
That totally depends on the shirt and the color that you are trying to get it to. I would say anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour on average, however.
Why didn’t my shirt turn white?
Some shirts just WILL NOT turn white. Others will need several applications of bleach before you get to something that even is close to white. It all depends on the shirt and the color that it starts out as. You may be trying for a pure white or you can stop the bleaching process at any time if you just really love the color that your shirt turns out to be.
Why did my shirt scorch when pressing?
Sometimes when adding sublimation or even HTV after bleaching, your shirt can scorch. This is where you can see a faint brown mark where you pressed. Don’t worry! You can get rid of this! Spray your shirt with some hydrogen peroxide and put it under the heat press just to get warm (do not press again) and the marks should disappear.
My Favorite Method for Bleaching Shirts
So, now that we have looked at a bunch of ways to bleach shirts, which do I love? Which will I use over and over again? I must say that I really love the method where I sublimate before bleaching then used a paintbrush over my sublimation design. I did have to go over the middle twice in this case but the results are stunning!
For me personally, I actually like that the sublimation ink fades a bit as it adds to the rustic nature of the process. Also, it took me a while to get the hang of spritzing the shirt all over with the spray bottle but I really think I mastered that in this case as well. This is a great way to sublimation on a dark colored shirt.
My other shirt where I sublimated before bleaching also looked good but I probably went a bit overboard with the bleach at least for my taste. But this does go to show you that you can get whatever look you love after you master the technique.
Sublimation after bleaching is a great option but I do find it harder to control where the design is and how large your bleached areas gets.
Plus, there is the scorching issue that we discussed above. You can use peroxide to eliminate that but you run the risk of that being on your shirt when sublimating after the bleaching process.
My second favorite method for bleaching shirts is to add HTV to the top. I love how this one turned out and I definitely think the use of the cardboard mask in this case helped me to locate and size my bleached area.
And then if you are looking for something more rustic, I would try adding adhesive vinyl as a mask. This shirt looks well worn and loved and it is brand new!
I would love to hear from you though. Which of these shirts did you like best? Which method will you be trying for yourself?
I will be rocking my new bleached t-shirts and thinking up ways to make even more designs. What should I make next? I am literally full of ideas for this method.
Bleaching shirts is fun and actually quite easy once you get the hang of it so be sure to try it for yourself. I really think you will love the results!