Introduction: How to Bleach Shirts With Custom Designs.
Ever wanted to make a custom shirt to publicly display how much of a fan you are of a T.V. series, Video Game, or Movie? In this Instructable I will show you how to use bleach, a t-shirt or other clothing, freezer paper, and some other common household items to make just that, fandom shirts or even random shirts. I've included examples of some of the shirts that I've done, but this one has detailed instructions for Vault Boy from Fallout. This is not something that I invented. I learned most of everything I know from surfing around http://www.reddit.com/r/bleachshirts/. You can also go to that subreddit and check out the work that others have done, and get help from the community.
Let's get started!
Step 1: Materials
- Freezer Paper
- An Iron
- X-Acto Hobby Knife or equivalent
- Cutting mat/pad
- Bleach and water mixture (about 50/50)
- Spray bottle
- Paper towels
- Printed Image to trace (Artistic? Draw your own!)
- Sink, Bucket, or Tub filled with water
- Cardboard (To act as a barrier in the shirt.)
Step 2: Finding and Printing Your Image
First you need to figure out what you want on a shirt. Unless you can draw your own designs (which would make this much easier), Google Image search is your best friend for this part. By adding "stencil" or "silhouette" to the end of your search, you can find images that are relatively easy to bleach onto a shirt. For example, with this shirt, I went to Google and searched "Fallout Stencil" and found the image I used, plus many other possible candidates.
You may also find this site helpful for converting a picture into a stencil:
Do you need to enlarge it?
Most of the shirts that I've done, were printed on a single piece of paper using Microsoft Photo Viewer. (Built into Windows 7 and higher) The "Fit Picture to Frame" option will cut off a little bit, but gives you the largest possible image on one piece of paper. However, some of the shirts, including this one, I wanted to be larger. To do this I found a free program called "PosteRazor." This program will convert your image into a PDF file that can be taped together to make a "poster". Use this site at your own risk to download PosteRazor. It's where I downloaded from and have not experienced any problems, I assume you will be fine also.(I'm not liable etc)
After you have found and printed your image, we can move onto the next step.
Step 3: Preparing Your Stencil
Freezer Paper and Tracing
Now that you have an image printed out to work with, we need to trace it onto the freezer paper. When tearing off your piece of freezer paper, be generous. The freezer paper will cover the places that you don't want bleached, so having a big enough piece to cover the shirt is important. It may not be possible to cover the whole shirt with one piece of freezer paper, but you can use old towels or more freezer paper to cover the exposed areas.
Lay your freezer paper down flat and tape the stencil, face down, to the glossy plastic side. (Image 2) Now flip the freezer paper over and begin tracing the image on the paper side. The lightbox comes in handy here, but is not necessary for most stencils if working in a well lit area.
The Extra Line, "Islands", and "Splash" Backgrounds
When you are done tracing you may want to freehand a line around the edge of the stencil. You will need to do this if you want the shirt colored border to be distinctly visible. Take a look at the final product (Picture 8) and think, "What would it have looked like if he hadn't added the line?" The brighter outline would not have been there, and I think it would have probably looked alright without it, but during creation of the shirt I opted to put it in. Had it not been put in, the different pieces of Vault Boy (fingers, jacket, hair, etc) would be separate "islands", and your brain would infer the borders. (The stencil in Step 6 (Dr. Steven Brule shirt) also used the "extra line", and a portion of his hairline would not have been possible if I had not added this line.)
You can also do a "splash" background which would not require this extra line. You would however discard the freezer paper that is surrounding the outline, and spray the shirt at your discretion. The discarding of the surrounding paper does not need to be done right away either. You can choose to peel the background layer of the stencil away, to expose the background for bleaching, AFTER you've already applied bleach to other, previously exposed, layers. Splash backgrounds can provide different "effects" depending on how its applied. Applying it one way might give a space-like effect, where as another way could look like the sun rising. Experiment with different applicators, or angles. (Example of splash Shirts from the intro: Bob's Burgers #5, V for Vendetta #6, Rittz #9)
Single Colored or Multiple Colored?
After the stencil is traced onto the freezer paper, you need to determine if you would like your shirt to have multiple color tones, or just one. Multiple color tones are produced by spraying parts of the shirt one or two times, removing a portion(s) of stencil, then spraying all exposed sections again one or two times. This can be repeated multiple times to achieve a greater number of colors. Due to the simplicity of single colored shirts, when I started making shirts I did not make multiple toned shirts. (I was happy enough having the Terran logo on a shirt.)
If your stencil is only going to be one color, you can just cut your stencil out. Keep in mind that your stencil can use the positive space, or negative space. So essentially, every time you cut out a single color stencil, you will be able to make two shirts.(Or one shirt and matching underwear perhaps?) One with a splash background, creating a silhouette, and the other would be just the logo with a black/shirt-colored background. This works out great to make a shirt with a buddy, family member, or significant other. It may seem obvious, but just remember wherever the freezer paper is on the shirt will be the shirt color (ie Black), and not be bleached.
If your shirt is going to have multiple colors or contain a lot of "island" pieces, I've found that it makes things easier to mark portions (with a Sharpie) of the stencil that will not be cut, until it's ironed onto the shirt. From here on I will call these "Do not cut" portions. These sections will create "bridges" between the different parts of your stencil. Leaving portions uncut will allow you to move your stencil to the shirt in one piece, and ensure everything lines up correctly.
Since this will be multi-colored, I took a fine tip Sharpie and marked my "do not cut" portions. (Picture 6. Some additional lines can be seen in Picture 7 that I added while cutting.) Cut your stencil making sure not to cut the "do not cut" portions you've marked. The brightest portions can be completely removed as they will be bleached first. In this case the brightest portion was the teeth.
You might find that you prefer to just cut out the entire stencil and line up the "island" pieces by hand, then iron them onto the shirt. This is much quicker on simpler stencils, lettering with floating portions (A, O, R, B), or when alignment isn't critical. The Bob's Burgers, V for Vendetta, and Rittz shirts were done this way.
(Note: As with many things, the more planning and preparation you put into your stencil, the nicer your final product will be.)
Step 4: Pre-bleaching Preparation
Shirt and Stencil
Plug your iron in so it starts to warm up. Take a piece of cardboard (removing any tape or stickers) and tuck it inside the shirt. This will prevent the bleach from bleeding from the front of the shirt to the back, or vice versa. Iron the shirt so it is nice and flat.
Now take the pre-cut stencil and move it to the shirt aligning where you want it to be. Try to get the stencil to lay as flat as possible. You will not be able to get the stencil to lay completely flat until you iron it on, but just make sure nothing is overlapping. Start ironing the stencil on, starting in one corner and slowly working towards the rest of the stencil. Your stencil will start to lay flat, and if it's multiple colored it should start to look like it did before you cut it. (Picture 2 to 3)
Now that the stencil is sticking to the shirt, go ahead and cut any "do not cut" lines you may have. (Single Colored stencils will not have these "Do not cut" lines) Be careful to avoid cutting the shirt. This is easier than it sounds, and also helps if you have a fresh blade on your hobby knife. After it is fully cut, iron the shirt one more time to ensure it is securely stuck.
Cover any portions of the shirt that are exposed, but should not receive bleach. On this shirt I took a couple small green towels and covered the exposed areas at the top and bottom. (Picture 4)
You will need a sink/tub/bucket filled with some cold water to dunk your shirt in after you've applied the bleach to stop the reaction once the desired brightness is achieved. This only needs to be full enough to get the shirt wet.
You will also need to fill your spray bottle with a bleach/water mixture. I usually use about 60% bleach to 40% water, other tutorials give a 50/50 ratio.
Also, get some paper towels folded up into multi-ply squares. This will be used between each application of bleach to keep the freezer paper as dry as possible.
Step 5: Bleaching and Finishing Your Shirt
Now, we are ready to bleach the shirt, but first...
When you apply multiple coats of bleach, your freezer paper is going to inevitably get damp, and possibly lose some of its adhesion. You may think to yourself, "I'll just iron over it again and make it stick." This will work, but can also create gases that can cause serious harm to you or others. So if you are going to do that, be sure to take the proper precautions, researched on your own.
For a single color shirt, everything that you want to have bleach on it, will have the shirt exposed. Everything else that should not receive bleach should be covered by freezer paper. Spray the bleach evenly over the entire design, then pat dry. Repeat this step until you reach the desired brightness and continue on to "finishing your shirt" below.
As seen in picture one, the teeth are the only part that exposes the shirt. This is because the teeth will be the brightest portion. I sprayed the teeth area once, patted dry, and waited a minute or two. I then applied a second layer of bleach and patted dry once more.
I then peeled off the paper that is covering my second brightest layer. (The outline, and skin areas) Tweezers can be helpful to start peeling off the unneeded freezer paper. I then sprayed on my third layer of bleach, patted dry, and waited a couple minutes. Sprayed the fourth layer of bleach, and patted dry once more. Notice a trend?
When spraying subsequent layers, be sure to spray evenly over ALL exposed areas. For example, when I sprayed the second layer with coats one and two, the first layer was also receiving coats three and four.
I then uncovered the third brightest layer. (Hair and under shirt/jumpsuit) Applied fifth layer of bleach, patted dry, waited. Applied sixth layer of bleach, patted dry, and waited.
Finally, I uncovered the last layer to receive bleach. (The jacket. The darkest bleached tone) Applied the seventh layer of bleach, patted dry, then eighth layer, and patted dry.
Finishing your Shirt:
Once the desired brightness is achieved, lift the shirt and let the cardboard fall out. Dunk the shirt into the cold water bath, bleach first, while the freezer paper is still stuck on. Dunking the shirt in cold water will stop the bleach from continuing to bleach the shirt. Lift it out of it's bath and peel the remaining freezer paper off. You can now get a look at what you've produced, but it will look even better after drying. Finally, ring the shirt out, put it in the dryer, and wait anxiously. (Pro tip: Throw two or three dry towels in the dryer with your wet shirt to make it dry faster.)
Step 6: Another Example of a More Complex Stencil
Dr. Steve Brule
I've included this step to primarily give you another example of a multi-colored stencil with "do not cut" markings and the "extra line" around the border. In this one, I used a larger Sharpie and made actual bridges to secure the "island" parts where they should be. Looking closely at the third picture shows that the bridges are ironed on to the shirt so everything is in its intended place. Then picture four shows after I removed the "bridges." The facial features would have been hard to place without using these "bridges."
In regards to the "extra line" on this stencil. Sometimes it is only possible to show certain details by adding an extra line. (Picture Nine has a note marker by the portion of hairline that is made possible with the extra line.)
It is also OK to bleach the shirt in multiple "Bleach, Rinse, Dry" sessions. You can see I finished the portrait, dried the shirt, and made another stencil for the words. You may also notice that I labeled the stencil in the order I wanted to apply bleach, but changed my mind while bleaching the shirt.
Artwork can be found here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nikilove/6296695493
Step 7: Endless Possibilities!
Different Clothing and Materials?
As I mentioned in Step three, every stencil you cut out will essentially produce two usable stencils. Who's to say you can't use other clothes or fabrics as well. A hoodie, dress, hat, beach towel, a pair of Converse shoes maybe? I made myself a pair of underwear with the negative stencil left over from the Terran shirt. Cotton bleaches great, but i'm not sure about other textiles/fabrics.
As seen in the other picture, I also purchased some textile paints off Amazon. Although it would be possible to use the same process, by making a stencil, and then paint the shirt; I bought these paints with another idea in mind. I still want to bleach the shirts and then use the paint to highlight certain features. This idea came to me when thinking about making a shirt with a Portal Sentry Turret, I would use the red paint to highlight the "eye."
Not all spray bottles are created equal. Some have one spray setting, some are adjustable. Some will give a smooth, even distribution of bleach, while others will sometimes leave visible droplet marks which you may find appealing or appalling. Who's to say a spray bottle is the only feasible applicator? It's the only one I've used, but maybe other options will provide more options are far as textures go.
Not all shirts come out as intended. For instance the Aperture Laboratories shirt above was bleached, and a small portion bled through the Freezer Paper. It slowly ate at me and I didn't want to wear the shirt with this small, hardly visible blemish anymore. So I got the idea that I would give it a "splash" background, and make it look natural. Not only would I add the splash background, I would also try something I'd never done until this point (with good reason I soon came to find). I intentionally let my finger hang down over the spray bottle pump so it covered part of the spray head, similar to plugging a hose with your thumb. I knew this would create drops of bleach, thinking it would distract even more from this hardly visible blemish. I still don't like the shirt, but there's no sense crying over every mistake, you just keep on trying till you run out of cake.
I know there are other tutorials on this process on the net, but thank you for taking a look at mine. Also consider voting for it in the contests I've submitted it to. (Fandom, Summer Time Fun, and the "Before and After" contests)
Runner Up in the
Summer Fun Contest
Participated in the
Participated in the
Before and After Contest