Bleach, Please: How to Tie Dye with Bleach

Have you heard of reverse tie dye before? Stick around…sharing the DIY today!

Woman holding reverse tie dye print napkin in front of her.
A few years ago, I shared a technique for bleaching linen that transforms old textiles in a really pretty way. So, I thought it was time to try this project again.

This time though, I tested out making patterns, using a simple reverse tie dye technique that uses bleach instead of dye to create realy cool patterns on home textiles and clothing.

Yep! That tie dye tea towel you see above was made with bleach not dye! Surprisingly, bleach works like a charm and because it’s even less complicated that your average dying project (and less expensive materials-wise), I thought you might want a tutorial.

To mimic this look at home, you’ll just need a solid color fabric (cotton, linen, etc) and some bleach. I’ll show you three different techniques you can use for reverse tie dye too, so you can choose the look you like best. So easy! Click through for the tutorial.

What is Reverse Tie Dye?

You’ve probably heard of reverse tie dye before, but maybe you didn’t know what it is? Reverse tie dye or tie dyeing with bleach is exactly what I’m going to show you how to do today. It’s very easy to do and process really unique results.

You will need to take some precautions when using bleach, like working outdoors, wearing gloves, etc. But the process is really interesting and definitely worth trying, as long as you feel comfortable working with bleach.

Essentially, the bleach will act as the dye. Only it won’t be dyeing you textile a color, it will instead be removing the color from the fabric. The result may not be what you picture though. It might not turn white. It will probably instead, look like what you see in all the photos.

Pretty unique, right? I love this technique.

What is the difference between shibori and tie dye?

To keep it as simple as possible, shibori is a Japanese dyeing technique that uses a resist to create unique patterns on fabric.

Both tie dye and shibori create patterns on clothing and housewares, but generally speaking, shibori is a far more intricate process than tie dye.

Shibori tie dye napkins in earth tones, lined up, hanging on a white wall.

Materials Needed

  • household bleach*
  • any textiles (clothing, napkins, bandanas, pillow covers, etc)
  • small pieces of cardboard, rubber bands, metal clips, etc
  • medium size container (I used a plastic desk trash can)
  • tongs and gloves (for handling the bleached fabric afterward)
  • old towel (to put down on the ground outside while working)
  • spray bottle

*Disclosure: When using household bleach, you should ALWAYS wear gloves and work in a well ventilated area – like the outdoors. If desired, you can also wear a mask / respirator. But if you’re outdoors (and you should be), a mask is not at all required. If you feel uncomfortable working with household bleach, do not recreate this project.

What materials are best for reverse tie dye?

You can use so many different kinds of textiles for reverse tie dye. From bandanas and napkins to t-shirts and sweatshirts. The plain napkins I used for this project are from World Market and Etsy.

In terms of the type of fabric that is best for reverse tie dye projects though, I typically use materials that are 100% natural, like linen or cotton.

Neutral fabrics being clipped and prepped for reverse tie dye bleach process.

How to Tie Dye with Bleach

There are several different techniques you can use for reverse tie dye and I’ll take you through three of them today: a spray bleach technique, a pouring technique, and a submerging technique.

Each will give you different results and varying patterns. But all three are very easy to do. Let’s get started.

Technique #1: Submerging textile in bleach.

1. First, working in a well ventilated area, submerge the fabric in water. I used my kitchen sink. Wring out the excess water and fold into different designs – you can fold the fabric into squares, triangles, rectangles, etc.

*You can also try skipping this step of getting the fabric wet first. It will produce slightly different results, but part of the fun of reverse tie dye is making different patterns and experimenting with different techniques.

2. Next, put on gloves and pour bleach directly into a container (that is only used for crafting). Make sure there is enough bleach in the container to fully submerged the fabric.

You shouldn’t need more than a gallon (probably much less depending on how much fabric you’re submerging). Ex: For reverse tie dyeing a napkin, bandana, or other small item, you’d only need 10-15 ounces. Just enough to fully submerge your item.

4. Then add the folded fabric pieces from step 1 into the bleach and make sure they are fully submerged.

Set a timer for anywhere from 2 minutes to 20 minutes. The amount of time the bleach needs to soak into the fabric will vary based on the fabric you’re using. But you should be able to see visual change in the fabric color before you remove it from the bleach.

The linen napkins and bandanas I bleached started changing color almost immediately and I removed them after about 2 minutes. While the cotton blend napkins I dyed stayed submerge for much longer (15-20 minutes).

5. With your gloves still on, or using tongs, remove the fabric from the bleach once you’re happy with the color change. And rinse it in the sink (or with a hose outside) for several minutes to remove all of the bleach, along with the clips and cardboard pieces. The color will continue to change until the fabric is washed – so keep that in mind. 

6. Wash in the washing machine (no soap needed), then run the fabric through the dryer to heat set before using.

Technique #2: Spraying bleach onto fabric with a spray bottle.

1. Working in a well ventilated area, outside, submerge the fabric in water. I used my kitchen sink. Wring out the excess water and fold into different designs – you can fold the fabric into squares, triangles, rectangles, etc.

*You can also try skipping this step. It will produce slightly different results, but part of the fun of reverse tie dye is making different patterns and experimenting with different techniques.

2. Then, lay your item down on a towel outside and prepare you item for the bleach. There are lots of different ways you can do that. Here are three ideas:

  • Scrunch fabric up and create lots of wrinkles and crinkles. This technique works great for t-shirts. I did this for the yellow t-shirt I dyed that you can see in the photos.
  • Choose different areas of the fabric to pull up and tie off with rubber bands. OR scrunch up the fabric long ways and add rubber bands, etc. Lots of design options if you use rubber bands, so just get creative with this one.
  • Pinch the center of the fabric and twist into a spiral for a tie dye swirl pattern.

3. Next, put on gloves and pour bleach into a spray bottle (that is only used for crafting). And spray bleach all over the textile or item you are reverse tie dyeing. This can be done multiple times, 5-10 minutes apart.

Note: This is the longest color change process of the three because the material is not getting as saturated with bleach. Color change may not be visible for 30-60 minutes. And multiple rounds of spraying may be required, depending on your fabric.

4. Once you are seeing color change and like the design you’ve created, you can rinse the item with a hose or under the sink. And let it dry before washing in the washing machine.

Technique #3: Pouring directly onto fabric.

1. Like the other two methods, you can either get your fabric item wet first or skip this step and keep the item completely dry before pouring.

2. Next, you’re going to want to prepare the item that you want to reverse tie dye. You can scrunch the material up, fold it several times accordion style, fold it some other way, etc. You can also add cardboard pieces to use as a resist for the helping to create a pattern if desired.

See reverse tie dye video tutorial above for more ideas.

3. Put on some gloves (or keep your tongs handy) and set the fabric item down on an old towel outside. Then pour a small amount of bleach directly onto the item, on both sides.

Wait 5-10 minutes to see if the color is starting to be removed before pouring additional rounds of bleach onto the fabric.

This method does take longer than submerging your item in bleach (technique #1). I let the blue linen bandana I dyed sit outside after bleach was poured on it for almost 30 minutes. Poured the bleach on a second time about 10 minutes after the first pour.

But it often provides a more intricate pattern, if you’re using a cardboard resist and folding pattern, for example.

5. With your gloves still on, or using tongs, remove any cardboard or clips you may have added, once you can see a color change in the fabric that you like. Rinse the fabric under water (sink or hose) for a couple of minutes and let it dry outside.

Then it can be washed in the washing machine and dried as normal in the dryer or outside.

Remember: The color will continue to change until the fabric is washed.

Dipping brown fabric napkins into bleach with two metal clips attached to create a bleached tie dye effect.

The finished patterns are organic and unique. Definitely a great way to add some personality to a $10 set of napkins, a t-shirt, and so much more.

What else can I tie dye with bleach?

Pretty much any textile you can think of can be the dyed with bleach. That’s the beauty of this tutorial. There is so much more you can do than just reverse tie dye napkins.

You can bleach tie dye an an old cotton shirt, a sweatshirt, pants, a throw blanket, bandanas, pillow covers, etc.

Earth tone tie dye and shibori print textiles in various stages of being completed.

Reverse tie dye napkin print in blue and mustard.

Earthy tone shibori and tie dye pattern napkins hanging on a white wall.

Yellow and white reverse tie dye t-shirt folded on a white table.

Tie dye DIY textile project, hanging from a wood shelf in a modern craft room.

Reverse tie dye shirt, bandanas, and napkins in muted colors, all stacked up.
Woman's hand grabbing a tie dye napkin tea towel hanging on the wall.

How to Reverse Tie Dye with Bleach

A few years ago, I shared a technique for transforming old linens with bleach and I thought it was time to try this project again.
This time though, I tested out making patterns, using a simple shibori technique that is typically reserved for dyeing. And surprisingly, the bleach worked like a charm! So I'm sharing the tutorial today.
To mimic this look at home, you'll just need a solid color fabric (cotton), some bleach, and a couple of other things you probably already have at home. So easy!
Total Time30 mins
Keyword: bleach, diy, dyeing, fabric crafts, hair bandana, napkins, shibori
Cost: $0-10

Equipment

  • medium size container (I used a plastic desk trash can)
  • tongs and gloves (for handling the bleached fabric afterward) 

Ingredients

  • household bleach* Disclosure: When using household bleach you should ALWAYS wear gloves and work in a well ventilated area - like the outdoors. If desired, you can also wear a mask / respirator. If you feel uncomfortable working with household bleach, do not recreate this project.
  • cotton solid color napkins / textiles mine are from World Market
  • small pieces of cardboard, rubber bands, metal clips, etc

Instructions

  • First, working in a well ventilated area, submerge the fabric in water. I used my kitchen sink. Wring out the excess water and fold into different designs - you can fold the fabric into squares, triangles, rectangles, etc.
  • Then use cardboard pieces on the front AND back of the folded fabric pieces and use large clips to keep everything in place.
  • Next, put on gloves and pour bleach directly into a container and make sure there's enough bleach in the container to fully submerged the fabric. You shouldn't need more than a gallon (probably much less depending on how much fabric you're submerging).
  • Then add the folded fabric pieces from steps 1 and 2 into the bleach and make sure they are fully submerged. Set a timer for anywhere from 5 minutes to 20 minutes. The amount of time the bleach needs to soak into the fabric will vary based on the fabric you're using. But you should be able to see visual change in the fabric color before you remove it from the bleach.
  • With your gloves still on, remove the fabric from the bleach once you're happy with it and rinse it in the sink for several minutes to remove all of the bleach, along with the clips and cardboard pieces. The color will continue to change until the fabric is washed, etc - so keep that in mind.
  • Wash in the washing machine (no soap needed), then run the fabric through the dryer to heat set before using. And that's it!
  • The finished patterns are organic and unique.
  • Definitely a great way to add some personality to a $10 set of napkins or anything else you can get your hands on...an old cotton shirt, a throw blanket, etc.

Notes

For all three reverse tie dye techniques, please reference blog post. DIY card is for submerging technique only.
Tried this recipe?Mention @paperandstitch or tag #paperandstitch!

Photography Brittni Mehlhoff

Have you ever tried shibori dyeing before? Think you’ll give this bleached version a try?

15 comments | Click here to reply

We just got a shibori shower curtain yesterday, and it might be my favorite thing in our house right now!

Paige
http://thehappyflammily.com

Paige Cassandra Flamm

How fun Paige! A shibori shower curtain sounds amazing.

Brittni

Those napkins look absolutely beautiful, I love those shades and the patterns are so pretty. I’ve never actually tried this technique, but I definitely want to!
https://www.makeandmess.com/

Michelle

Definitely give it a try Michelle. It’s SO easy and fun to see the transformation.

Brittni

Such a great idea! I love the color pallet you chose as well! I’ll definitely give this a try!

Krisin Prough

Thanks so much Kristin. Glad to hear that!

Brittni

C’est dommage que l’eau de javel soit si nocive 😣

Nat

Oh my gosh, I need to try this! I love to shibori dye but the chemicals are a problem…. no mixing powders with this….I must do this! Thanks for the inspiration!

Kim Gibson

If you’re looking for an easy way to achieve the look of shibori, definitely give this a try Kim. Just be sure to work in a well ventilated area. 🙂
-Brittni

Brittni

http://www.pburch.net/dyeing/FAQ/neutralizingdischarge.shtml
A little something you should know about bleach fabrics. It dose not just wash out with water or soap and water, you need to neutralize it or it will continue to deteriorate the fibers.

Missty

Thanks for the tip Missty. I didn’t know that the fabric would need to be neutralized. The deterioration of the fabric must be very slight because I completed this project nearly a month before posting it and the textiles still look the same to me as the day I washed and dried them. And I actually still use the napkins today that I bleached from the previous project that I linked in the post and they were bleached years ago and they seem fine? Either way though, I appreciate it!

Brittni

This title of this blog post is EVERYTHING LOL!!

Andrea

Haha. Thanks Andrea. 🙂 I always try to do something a little fun with titles if I can…if for nothing else, for my own amusement.

Brittni

Do NOT use bleach indoors or without a respirator mask. Chlorine fumes are toxic and, over time, cause lung damage.

Please refer to http://www.pburch.net for more information.

http://www.pburch.net/dyeing/dischargedyeing.shtml

teri

Thank you for your comment Teri. I have updated the post with a disclosure that reflects a reminder of working in a well ventilated area, etc.

Brittni
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