Reverse-dyeing tutorial

How to reverse tie-dye with bleach?

You might be in a situation where you want to remove color from a dark piece of clothing, you probably have heard of reverse tie-dye. If that is the case you probably have heard that people are using bleach to removing the color from areas of the cloth. This is definitely a way you could go. We have researched every method available and we have come up with a guide that will teach you what reverse tie-dye exactly is and how to perform it beautifully.

You can definitely “dye” a dark piece of clothing with bleach. In fact people call it reverse tie-dye and it’s a cool technique to try. Just like dyes can add color on white fabric, bleaching products can remove existing color from black fabric. The process is very similar and is easy even for beginners. The first thing you want to do is to gather your supplies and read this in-depth guide that will teach you how to reverse dye.

Bleach safety

A word of caution if you are using bleach. It is not recommended to use this product indoors, it may become dangerous if the area is not well ventilated. You also will need glove to not damage your skin. Do not purposefully breath in, touch or otherwise expose yourself or others to bleach, while it’s a common household product, you should respect it.

Another important thing to note is that bleach works best on cotton and similar plant fibers. For the safety of your garment, you should never use bleach on artificial fibers like polyester and nylon and protein fibers like silk and wool. Bleach will quickly damage or badly discolor these fabrics. Be sure to check the instructions on the bottle to see the best manipulation practices.

Common household bleach that you buy in stores typically comes at a 3% to 8% concentration of sodium hypochlorite, which is the bleaching agent. What you need to know about the strength of bleach is that it works even in small concentration. Using a 3% concentration solution is what we aim for and if all you have is stronger bleach you should dilute it to prevent damaging the fabric.

What if I spill bleach on my skin?

While brief contact is not usually dangerous, you should definitely avoid extended exposure to this chemical. The most common advice is to simply rinse the exposed area with water to dilute and wash away the active components.

How to tie-dye with bleach

In order to bleach-dye a shirt you need to first wash and fold it, simply follow a similar technique to the normal tie-dye process. You can fold the shirt with the same folding techniques and you can apply the bleach in the same manner as you apply the dye. Because of this great similarity, you are able to make all the tie-dye pattern even when using bleach. The biggest difference is the color you will get as a result.

Instead of starting with a white shirt, like you would do with normal tie-dye, you will want to start with colored fabric. We usually bleach black shirts, but keep in mind that other colors can work too. Every color will have a different reaction to the bleach and the results may differ. The discoloration is not equal for all colors, dyes are easy to remove and will leave you with a mostly white area, while others can resist being bleached. This is not a problem if you have a reliable blank supplier.

The color is chemically bonded to the fibers of the fabric and can only be removed chemically as well. The problem with this is that chemical processes can be hard on the fibers and can harm them. This is the case with regular household bleach, which continues degrading natural fibers like cotton until the bleach is neutralized.

How to apply bleach on a shirt

You need to make a mix. It’s recommended that you dilute your bleach in a larger volume of water. This is so the solution is weaker and takes more time to react with the fabric. We want the reaction to be steady and predictable and above all we want to protect our fibers. A normal recipe will call for you to dilute the bleach 1:2 with water, meaning that for a measure of bleach, you will need two times more water. Simply mix the bleach in a large container of water.

We said the process was similar to regular tie-dye and we weren’t lying. What you will need to do first is to simply soak the shirt in warm water for five minutes. This is to soften and open up the fibers. Next, you will wring out the shirt or spin it in the washing machine. You want to shirt to be slightly damp to help with the folding process.

Now comes the folding, at this stage you can use any technique that you might like to try. Common tie-dye folding techniques work very well, with the spiral being a favorite of many beginners. Let’s say you have you shirt neatly folded and bound into a spiral, now all you need to do is introduce the color changing solution. The most common method to do this is to squirt the product directly on the shirt using a squeeze bottle, exactly like we do with dye bottles.

With any method you choose you definitely should be wearing protective gloves. Also plan out your process before doing it. Do it in a well ventilated area or even outside if possible.

Pouring it directly on the shirt using a squirt bottle

Just like when performing tie-dye, you can squirt and drip the product directly on the shirt. Using your bottle, deposit your color-removing solution on the shirt. It’s as easy as filling up a bottle with bleach and squirting the solution on the shirt, but be careful to use a bleach-safe bottle and do not use equipment that is used for cooking or eating.

For this part you can follow any tie-dye pattern to have a sense of where to place the discoloring agent. Think of it like when you are placing dye on the shirt, bleach will have a similar effect, only in reverse. The solution will spread, soak, slide on the fabric, just like with dye solutions.

Submerging the shirt in the solution

Just like you can do immersion dyeing in regular tie-dye, you can also use a similar process for reverse-dyeing. Simply submerge a black folded shirt into a bath of bleaching solution. You can choose to submerge all or only a part of the garment. Common methods include bunching up the shirt with a crumple fold and then tightly winding cord around the bundle. You will then gently place the ball in the bleach solution bath.

You can choose to completely submerge a shirt in the solution or to only soak parts of it. What you will find is that you need to let the shirt in contact with the bleaching solution for 15 minutes, the time it takes for the bleach to react and discolor the areas of the shirt.

Spraying with spray bottle

Spraying the bleaching solution on the shirt is easily accomplished by first filling up a suitable spray bottle with your bleach mix. Let’s remember that we want a concentration of about 3% sodium hypochlorite, which is a weak solution, in order to not damage the garment. Once you have you spray bottle filled up, simply aim at the shirt and spray ahead, there are no wrong ways to go about it. Experimentation is the master of invention when reverse-dyeing.

Another popular method is to apply the bleach is by using a spray bottle, very useful for making space-themed patterns. You can give a look as if you’re looking out into space and you see the stars and galaxies in a sea of black. After spraying the design onto the shirt, wait 15 minutes for the bleach to react fully.

This method is also ideal if you wish to do a reverse imprint technique, which is accomplished by laying objects on top of the shirt when spraying the bleach. This will act as a barrier to the spray and will leave you with an imprint of the protected area. This is a good trick to use for a variety of objects. Nice results can be accomplished with almost anything, even natural objects can be used like tress branches and leaves.

Letting the bleach react

Just like when using dyes, you need to let the product react with the
fibers. With dyes you may be used to waiting a few hours, but this is not the case with bleach. The reaction takes place quickly and you can expect it to take less than 15 minutes. Once you start seeing the color change, its a sign that you should rinse the shirt.

For this step you can simply let the shirt stay in place where you put it. Normally the shirt will either be bundled up on a working surface or in a bleaching bath. Set your alarm for 15 minutes and wait until the timer runs out. You should not let it sit for too long, or it can have damaging effects on the cloth. More than 30 minutes and there can be irreversible damage so be very careful not to let is without supervision for too long.

Rinsing the shirt

At this point of the process you definitely need to be wearing gloves because you don’t want to touch bleach with your bare hands, it’s a nasty product.

Depending on how you reverse-dyed your shirt, you will need to remove it from a bleach bath or you will simply need to move it to the sink. In all scenarios, we recommend that you use your gloved hands to pick up and transport the shirt to where you will rinse it.

Your goal here is to use the sink to remove as much bleach as possible from the shirt. This is the rinsing stage where you will open up your shirt to expose all its areas to fresh water.

After most of the bleach has been washed off you can prepare yourself to neutralize the shirt. This is a very important step because if you don’t neutralize the bleach it will stay in the fibers even after washing and it will continue to degrade the fabric, causing holes for months to come.

Neutralizing the bleach

We absolutely recommend neutralizing the bleach after removing the color from the shirt and washing it. There can still be molecules of the active ingredient hiding in the fibers. Even if you can’t see it, over time this will degrade the fabric and can cause hole. You can skip this step if you don’t mind the holes, some people say it adds to the look and I’m not one to judge.

While it is not absolutely necessary, it is recommended to pour a neutralizing solution on the shirt after the process is completed. The easiest method is to use hydrogen peroxide. This is a common product that you may already have at home, it usually can be found locally in drug stores and comes in a dark bottle. Hydrogen peroxide normally comes at a 3% concentration level, is commonly bought locally in drug stores and is perfect for this application.

Pour a small amount of hydrogen peroxide over the areas that have been in contact with the bleach.

You should never try to neutralize a bleach solution with vinegar or any other acid, it can react and make poisonous gas.

Washing the shirt

Once the shirt is rinsed and neutralized and you are satisfied with the result you can go to the final step in the process. You must now wash the shirt and get it ready to where you would wear it. This means either throwing it in the washing machine with a small amount of detergent or washing it by hand in the sink. Once the shirt is clean you can hang it, put it in the dryer, or dry it any way you want. You can absolutely wash it just like a regular shirt.

Additional information

We have found a lot of useful information while doing our research and had to compile it for you to discover all the intricacies of the reverse tie-dye process. Definitely do try to put into practice the tips we show you, as you will massively improve the more you do it. 

Alternative color removing agents

There are products that are better than bleach in removing color from clothing. The most obvious choice is sodium hydrosulfite. It uses a completely different process to remove color from fibers. This product is less damaging to the fibers, it affects the bond that makes the dye stick to the fabric. By many accounts this is a better way to remove color from dark clothing, only it’s not as common and accessible as bleach.

Should you wet the shirt before applying the bleaching product?

There is no right or wrong way to do this, just like in normal tie-dye, the different levels of wetness in the shirt will affect how the solution spreads. You can purposefully influence the way the final result will look by soaking the fabric. The normal and recommended method for this technique is to use a clean dry shirt.

You can also take it to the next level by damping up the shirt for the folding process to make it easier to fold. You can then let the shirt sit out for a few hours to dry it out. Normal instructions when reverse-dyeing with bleach are to use the bleaching solution on a dry shirt and we find that it works really well.

Soaking the fabric with a lot of water will create a barrier that resist the coloring product or in this case the color removing product. You can expect the level of humidity in the shirt to control the spread similarly in both dyeing and reverse-dyeing operations. The important distinction to note is that the added water in the shirt can make a difference in the relative concentration of active product.

The active product that gets in contact with soaked fibers will disperse in the water and dilute the solution. In theory, the more the shirt is soaked, the more diluted the solution will be and it will have weaker color changing abilities. In practice we can expect the effect to be minor for most applications, but it’s something to keep in mind if you’re trying different things or are experimenting with the process’ parameters.

As a general rule, the more the shirt is soaked with water , the more it will resist penetration by the dye and as a consequence the dye water will not spread into the fabric and will have a tendency to float and spread at the surface level instead.

Do I need a black shirt specifically?

No, in fact this technique is very versatile because you can remove the color or bleach pretty much any color. It works great on pretty much any solid color shirts and fabrics. We find that it works best with dark clothing, but you can definitely do it with a lightly colored shirt.

One thing to note is that not every dye reacts the same. Some colors are more easily bleached than others. Some are very hard to remove. It can be difficult to know beforehand so we recommend testing a small section to make sure it’ll work fine. This is not a problem once you have a reliable shirt supplier as you can expect the quality to be consistent.

Can you bleach an area and then dye it?

Maybe you are wondering if you can remove color from a shirt and then dye it again. This technique is called a “redye” and we have tried it and have some good news for you. It works fantastically and it makes a beautiful result. This is definitely a trick you should try. Just like you can make many different reverse-dye patterns, you can also make many different redyes on them.

This technique works great, first you will reverse-dye a shirt. When the process is finished and the bleach is neutralized you can go ahead and start a new pattern on the shirt. You can definitely execute the regular tie-dye process on any shirt, fold the shirt like you normally would and then dye it according to the pattern you’re going for.

Redyes are an amazing technique if you are willing to do them. They take a little bit more patience and planning, but are worth it if you can pull it off. Try different combinations of bleaching and tie-dyeing patterns.

Can bleach solutions be thickened?

If you’re an experienced dyer, you’re probably familiar the use of thickeners. To thicken a dye solution is to mix in a product that changes the viscosity of the solution. A thickened dye will react very differently on the fabric and allows for greater control and precision. In the case of dyes you will use algae powder to thicken the solution. If you’re thinking that there’s a similar procedure for bleach, then you would be right.

Bleach solutions can in fact be thickened, but not in the same way as dyes. While you use sodium alginate (algae powder) to increase the viscosity of dye solution, you cannot use is for bleach. Bleach is a strong chemical that will quickly destroy most products, and for this we need a product specifically tailored for our needs. What you need to thicken your bleach is a product called monagum. Monagum is a modified starch gum that also has the effect of a thickener, but can be used safely with bleach.

A little bit goes a long way with thickeners and we recommend a trial and error approach. Start with a little bit and try to squirt your solution to see how it reacts to the thickener. Try and add more, until you reach the desired consistency that works best for you.

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About us

We are Samuel and Francis. About two years ago we bought our first tools and supplies for tie-dyeing. Ever since then we’ve been learning the skills of folding and dyeing in intricate ways. We’ve learned from our experiences on the field about what techniques works and what doesn’t. This is the site were we share everything we’ve learned.

Samuel and Francis

We are the sole owners of this site, we live in Canada where we work everyday on making tie-dye more accessible to everyone. We are always looking forward to teaching you something new.