Dyeing with Bleach

Dyeing with Bleach

Lots of contemporary quilters explore dyeing and surface design techniques to create their own one off fabrics. Contemporary embroiderers also dye and print the back grounds of their work. Dyeing with Bleach is a tutorial from Threads Magazine on using household bleach to produce patterns on natural fabrics.

There is a variety of ways to remove color (the technical term is discharge) from dyed fabric, but for controlled results on all kinds of fabric you generally need lots of experience and testing, plus some highly toxic chemicals. I find it much safer, and certainly a lot more fun, to simply experiment with the less-predictable but still compelling effects of applying ordinary household bleach to dark, natural-fiber fabrics, either by spraying or brushing the bleach on flat fabric (Resist-and-spray technique), or by dipping the fabric in it, after protecting part of the surface in some way from contact with the bleach (Wrap-and-dip and Pipe-wrapping techniques).


  1. One other thing—-there *is* mention of pre-washing, and it’s your choice to do or not, but be aware that some fabrics from overseas have been treated with sizings that may contain formaldehyde–mixed with bleach, this can become even more toxic than bleach alone!

  2. AZ Central. com has a nice how-to on using the double tipped Clorox Gel Bleach Pen to draw designs on jeans. There are two articles indexed. Bleach Accented Jeans is the free printable one. You can use the technique on household linen and other things, too. Even though it is a gel pen you still need to use the usual precautions

  3. Neki is correct – bleach is incredibly toxic. The industry has done a great job of making us feel safe with it – Clorox ads featuring naked baby bums in sparkling white bathtubs and all that. Don’t be fooled.

    It is a fun technique, though, if you are careful and well informed. Here’s what I know:

    If you decide to discharge color from fabric using bleach, remember that bleach denatures protein – that means it will cause silk and wool (and your skin) to deteriorate rather quickly. Never use bleach to discharge color from silk or wool. Cotton and rayon can usually handle it if you use a bleach stop chemical. (I get Sodium Thiosulfate from Dharma Trading Company http://www.dharmatrading.com
    look in the chemicals page for bleach stop.)

    Also never spray bleach with anything unless you are wearing a respirator and have good ventilation or are outdoors. Dispose of waste responsibly.

    There are great resources out there on this topic including Jane Dunewold’s Complex Cloth book and follow ups – available from her website http://www.artclothstudios.com/ . And there is a fun forum for discussing the art and techniques of complex cloth in the Yahoo lists. I believe that there is both a Complex Cloth group and a Surface Design group if anyone is interested in checking them out.

    Thanks for the fun topic! Now that Molly and I have been playing with embroidery, I can see all kinds of potential for starting with a solid color fabric, discharging and embellishing with thread.

    Ginny B.

    Virginia Burnett
  4. Interesting to note that the picture shows buckets of bleach and vinegar … that is how I USED to do it – until I read this – http://www.pburch.net/dyeing/FAQ/neutralizingdischarge.shtml – and learnt that one should not mix an acid with bleach … which is logical once I think about it … I also notice there is also now a growing discussion about that article, and the fact that it suggests using vinegar, on the forum that Neki mentioned … which is actually part of the same website the article that I just mentioned is on … in fact there is lots of handy info on Paula’s website … wish I had time to look at it all now, but I am supposed to be working, so I had better go and DO something πŸ˜‰

  5. Good point Niki. It is always good to remember that all these techniques involve chemicals and to take precautions accordingly. Even household cleaning goods have some pretty mean chemicals in them and should be treated with care.

  6. some words of warning though:
    bleach is as toxic as the color removing chemicals mentioned, but our perception is that it isn’t because it is a household product. when bleach decomposes(reacts) it releases hydrochloric acid which is highly toxic
    item 2
    bleach continues to react on the fiber even if well rinsed weakening it and finally disintegrating the fabric. fabric treated with bleach has to be neutralized using anti chlor- sodium metabisulfite to minimize the weakening.
    for more info visit http://www.pburch.net/drupal/ she’s a chemist and a dyer.

    neki desu

  7. What a useful piece of technique to read about. Thanks so much for posting this.
    There is so much information out there, its so useful that you point your readers towards items which might be of interst. Without your mentioning this, I really would not have known this particular article existed!

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