100 Days – Week of Prints – Altering Print Fabrics With Bleach

Dyeing and overdyeing fabrics is fun, but the time and materials involved can be overwhelming. Fortunately, there’s a fun and simple way to alter your favorite print fabrics using a product that’s probably already in your laundry closet (or at least readily-available at your local grocery store).

Bleach discharge is very simple. Fabric is soaked in a water and bleach bath for a period of time, during which the bleach in the water may discharge (remove or alter) some of the dye in the fabric.

All fabrics don’t discharge in the same way. In fact, some won’t discharge at all, which is why I thought of this project as an experiment – I went in to it not really knowing what was going to happen to my fabric!

A couple of notes before we get started:

This is a very basic run-through of how I altered fabric using only bleach and water. Although I didn’t worry about this during my experiment, fabric that has been exposed to high concentrations of bleach for long periods may become damaged. Serious dyers and fabric artists have a variety of methods for arresting the action of bleach on fabric. If you’re interested in reading more on this subject, I recommend Malka Dubrawsky’s excellent book, Color Your Cloth.

Bleach is toxic and it can ruin your clothing, carpet, etc. If you attempt this project at home, wear old clothes, keep a large towel in your work area, and don’t use any containers or measuring tools that you normally use for food.

Here’s what I did:

I wanted to see a “before and after” swatch of each of my fabrics, so I started by cutting 2 squares about 9” x 9” from of each of my fabrics. I chose quilting fabrics in a rainbow of colors, including some neutrals.

I then filled an empty storage tub and prepared a bath of 3 gallons lukewarm water and 3 cups bleach. One by one, I added the fabric squares, using a plastic spoon to make sure that each piece was completely wet and submerged.

I let the fabric soak in the bleach bath for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. At that point, some of the fabric had already discharged quite a bit, but some of it looked exactly the same. I removed the fabric that was already obviously different and rinsed it out in the sink.

This process was repeated over the next 10 minutes or so. I continued to stir occasionally and to remove fabric that appeared to be ready. After 15 minutes, several of the neutral fabrics still didn’t look different to me, but I didn’t want to leave them in the bath any longer.

I washed all of the fabric in a gentle machine cycle with hot water and machine dried them on low.

Two of the fabrics didn’t seem to have discharged at all. The “before” and “after” looked pretty much the same.

Several of the fabrics discharged a little bit, but the change was so subtle that I really had to look to see it.

Happily, most of the fabrics that had been in the dye bath looked significantly different. (Click on image to see a larger version.)

Here are some before and after shots. (Fabric that has not been discharged is on the left. Fabric that spent time in the bleach bath is on the right.)

Combining the “before” and “after” fabrics into patchwork blocks can also be a lot of fun. Here are some simple hourglass blocks that I made with some of my fabric.

All in all, I think the experiment was a success. It was fun to see the prints transform and to consider different ways that the discharged fabric could be used.

Thanks so much for joining us for the Week of Prints! Stay tuned for more of 100 Days of Modern Quilting.

-Elizabeth Hartman

54 thoughts on “100 Days – Week of Prints – Altering Print Fabrics With Bleach

  1. I love how the ‘new’ and ‘old’ fabrics were used together in the pieces! Great idea. I have a bleach pen that I have been wanting to use on some fabric, but this idea is even better! Cool, thanks for sharing.

  2. I like your Hourglass blocks. What a cool way to show off the before and after, and to get the effect of a different colorway with the same piece of fabric. As for stopping bleach from continuing to eat away at your fabric, I’ve found the product Bleach Stop to be easy to use. I also tried Rit’s Color Remover recently instead of bleach (Rit claims their product is less toxic). I was amazed at some of the changes in the fabrics. It was like magic. Discharge paste that you paint on and then steam off is more controllable than bleach, but doesn’t work half as well on commercial fabrics as it does on hand dyes.

  3. Thanks for showing us your process for discharging fabrics. One thing I would add: after removing the fabrics from the bleach solution you should soak them for a few minutes in Anti-clor. This will stop the bleaching process. Without a soak in Anti-clor the bleaching process continues, aging your quilt before its time.

  4. You’re right about bleach potentially damaging your fabrics, which is why they should be soaked in a bath of anti-chlor after they’re rinsed and washed from the bleach.

  5. I like how the fabrics look in the hourglass blocks. One product you can use to stop the bleaching process is called Anti-clor. It’s made for removing the chlorine from water for aquariums. I bought some to use in my discharge experiments. I believe I got it at WalMart. There is also a pool supply product that you can use (I’ve forgotten the name of it).

  6. I’m going to have to try this. I also cross-stitch and dye my own fabrics to stitch on. Since I live in Minnesota, dyeing fabric is a summer project…but I could do this one in the winter I bet. Fun!

  7. I am not a quilter, but have thought of the idea of using bleach to make interesting patterns on shirts: especially ones with unplanned spots on them.

    Also, do you run an extra rinse in your machine to prevent the bleach from staining a regular lead of wash?


  8. This is such a fun thing to do for a new mom like me.

    Anyway thanks for sharing this.

    Ive always been scares of using bleach in our clothes at home but I better try this one!

  9. You certainly got some interesting results. Different colour-ways of the same pattern at the cost of a little bleach, ironing and time. Very effective when worked together. Thanks very much for sharing 😉

  10. Nice. Thanks for sharing. I’ve used bleach-soaked toothbrushes, paint brushes, spray bottles, and q-tips to bleach fabric (dark denim works great); but I’ve never tried bleaching whole fabrics before. I’ll have to try it sometime.

  11. My ex’s favorite polo shirt got a small stain in a very visible spot so I bleached the stain out and then splattered bleach on the rest of the shirt to make a really cool tie-dye effect….perfect for the Miami summer. That shirt then became MY favorite polo shirt 😀

  12. Beautiful. This is a really great idea for those that love a vintage look. The ‘after’ colors really remind me of a tube TV and oldschool icebox… Would look great to decorate with! Congrats on being freshly pressed. (Nice pictures too… not enough people realize how much work that is!)

  13. Thats pretty cool!!! When I was a kid, we couldnt afford fashionable jeans. Just standard blues, so i used to put the jeans on, soak a cloth in varying dilutions of bleach, and then rub it into the jeans to give “worn” patterns. If you fold over and rub accross the folds for eg, it gives a great effect.

  14. Very cool technique for changing colors…and so simple too! This is something I could see myself doing for dresses, and likely pants…oh, the possibilities! 😉 Definitely something to play with.

  15. Thanks for sharing! I am making my sister a very scrappy quilt….I am definitely going to try this. Thanks for warning me to wear OLD clothes!

  16. I like to do this with pieces of fabric that i bought and later look at it say “What was I thinking when I bought you?” (giggle)

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