Apparel Design MacGyver-Style: Decorating a Shirt with Bleach

I’m sure I’m not the only one who idolized MacGyver. I mean, Richard Dean Anderson is just kind of cool by default, especially after he started traveling through Stargates and dressing in fatigues, but he was pretty hot in the ’80s too, what with the mullet-y hair and the tight jeans and the daring escapes from East Berlin and all that. Maybe he doesn’t get the kind of appreciation he deserves, but I truly believe we could all live better lives if we’d just stop and ask ourselves, “What would MacGyver do?” I like to think that if you asked that question in a fashion context, the answer would be that MacGyver would spice up his wardrobe using his wits. So I hope you guys are ready for some intense crafting action, because we’re about to decorate some shirts up in here, MacGyver style, with a judicious application of common household items:


You will need:

Paper towels or a clean rag. I totally forgot to put those in the picture. The paper towels were absent on picture day. I am a failure.

Freezer paper. You need the kind of freezer paper that’s plastic-coated on one side. I bought this giant roll of Reynold’s Freezer Paper for like two bucks at Wal-Mart. If you can’t find it or it isn’t available in your country, you can use contact paper, the self-adhesive paper that’s used to line shelves and drawers. If you use contact paper, for the love of God, skip the step with the iron. You would deeply regret the use of the iron. (If you have a vinyl-cutting machine like a Cricut or something similar, I am profoundly envious and I hate you, but also self-adhesive vinyl would work great for this, and you could skip the laborious hand-cutting part, you lucky bastard.)

X-acto knife or other fine cutting implement. Some people swear by the swivel-cutter kind, I like a plain old craft blade, and I happen to have this nice set of X-acto blades so that’s what I use. I did buy the swivel kind and felt completely out of control the one time I used it. I almost cried, for real.

Cutting surface. For a cutting surface you can use a fancy self-healing craft mat like I have, or even just a thick piece of cardboard. The point is to have something to keep you from cutting through your stencil AND your table.

Spray bottle. You can use different bottles for different purposes. The big bottle in my photo creates an uneven splattery effect that’s kind of messy and grungy with random drips. The small bottle creates a fine, even mist that gives you a more solid, consistent color.

Bleach. Your bleach needs to be fresh. Fresh-ish. If the bottle you have has been sitting in your cupboard for the last three years, it’s probably not going to work very well.

Shirt or other fabric-y thing you want to decorate. This works best on things that are mostly cotton. A 50/50 cotton/poly blend is okay, but 100% cotton is better, in my experience. If you try to do this with some synthetic fabrics, like tech fabrics or spandex, the bleach won’t discolor the fibers so much as it’ll eat them and ruin your garment. You’ll probably also want to wash your shirt first, just to make sure there are no lingering chemicals or anything from manufacture that might interact with your bleach. Obviously since you’re going to be stenciling your design on with bleach, this is going to work best on dark colored fabrics. I prefer black; it usually bleaches to a pretty cool burnt orange or yellow color. What color your design will bleach to depends on the brand of shirt and what specific dyes the manufacturer uses, though. In my experience, many dark blue shirts tend to bleach pink, green often bleaches yellowish-gold, red tends to bleach whitish-pink. Don’t expect your garment to just bleach to a lighter shade of its color because it rarely happens that way.

Iron. I trust this is self-explanatory. You’re going to iron things with it.

Bucket or sink or bathtub or just generally something that can hold some water and you can get some bleach in. It needs to be able to hold enough water to submerge your shirts completely. I like to use a painter’s bucket so I can take it outside with me when I’m setting up to do my bleaching.

Tape is really just handy for a lot of things in this process. I just use regular cheap old masking tape. You don’t want anything incredibly sticky, like duct tape, because this is mostly just to hold things down temporarily while you work on them.

Cardboard or whatevs. You just need something stiff to use as a backing board inside your shirt. It’ll give you something solid to work with, and it’ll keep the bleach from soaking through and bleaching the other side of your shirt. I like to use some cheap foamboard that I’ve cut in half; it doesn’t absorb the bleach, and the exposure to moisture doesn’t degrade it so I can use the same pieces of board over and over.

Okay, got all your stuff together?

Here’s what you do:

1. Trace your design onto a piece of freezer paper. You want to be drawing on the paper side, with the shiny coated side down. I use a pretty big piece, because that paper’s cheap as hell and also you’re going to need it anyway to help shield the rest of your shirt from the bleach spray. The freezer paper is very easy to trace through, but you can also trace against a window or light table to make things clearer. I often use my opaque art projector so I can blow the art up or shrink it down, as the mood strikes me. If you’re tracing, it might also be helpful to tape the design down, and then tape the freezer paper down over it, to keep either one from shifting as you work.


hale-tatI’m decorating my shirts with a symbol called a triskele, which is a Celtic thing that has to do with various forms of trinities, but mostly I’ve chosen to use it because I’m kind of obsessed with Teen Wolf. DON’T JUDGE ME. Tyler Hoechlin’s character on the show has this symbol tattooed on his back, so I’m going to go for roughly the same size and placement because of my Hale Pack feels. Also, my shirtless Tyler Hoechlin feels. If you’re judging me over that I feel like you can’t possibly have seen Tyler Hoechlin with his shirt off, so I’ve provided you with a handy picture. Just take a moment to enjoy it. I know I am.

I probably should’ve carried the theme forward by creating a MacGyver t-shirt, but I couldn’t be bothered. Maybe you should give it a try, slap the Phoenix Foundation logo on your shirt and call it a day.

2. Cut out your stencil. Go slowly and be careful. The success of your bleached shirt does not depend on blood sacrifice. If you keep both the inside and outside of the stencil neat and intact, you can use both to make two different shirts. It’s good to start with a simple design to help you get the feel of your cutting instrument. My major tip is to use light pressure. You’re only cutting a single piece of paper… it doesn’t take much effort. For some reason I always want to use my blade like I’m trying to chisel concrete. Try to keep your grip loose and relaxed and you’ll find things like curves a lot easier. Straight lines are easiest with a standard X-acto blade so you might want to start with a design that has more straight lines, as opposed to the nightmare of curves that I’m using.


3. Set up your shirt and heat your iron. Start your iron warming up on a low heat setting. (I use the lowest possible setting on mine.) You don’t want to use any water or steam with this, and if there’s leftover water in your iron that could leak onto your stencil, you should clear it out before you start. While the iron’s heating up, stick your piece of cardboard or whatever you’re using as a backing board into the inside of the shirt. I like to make sure my shirt is nicely lined up and wrinkle-free on the side that I’m going to be applying the stencil to, and then use a few pieces of tape on the other side to hold it nicely in place. (Don’t stretch the shirt when you do this, or your design will end up warped once the cloth isn’t stretched anymore.) You might want to iron the spot you’re going to be applying your stencil so you can be sure there are no wrinkles. If you live in a pet household like mine where there’s dog hair freaking everywhere, it’s time to break out the lint brush to make sure the area’s clean. Then lay your stencils down and carefully place them where you want them. I’m doing two shirts, one with each part of my stencil, so you can see the different results.


4. Get your iron on. When you have your designs placed and your iron is warmed up on the lowest heat setting, it’s time to apply your stencil to your shirt! I think the best way to go about this is to press your iron straight down onto the design a few times. If you try to come in from the side like you would if you were just ironing the shirt, you’ll probably accidentally fold up your stencil. Press down a few times and then you can just lightly drift the iron over the whole design. The plasticy side of the freezer paper will adhere to the shirt because of the iron’s heat. It doesn’t take much. You can see in the picture below how the paper looks different right around the design; that’s because it’s stuck to the shirt.


5. Prepare your bleach bottle and set up your bleaching area. I usually see people recommend a 50/50 mix of bleach and water. I usually do better with 70/30 or thereabouts. I used 50/50 on these shirts and the designs didn’t come out as strong as I would’ve liked. Whatever mixture you want to use, pour it into your spray bottle; you might need a funnel, and DEFINITELY do it over the sink. You probably won’t need much of the mixture; it takes very little to do a shirt. I like to use my little travel-size spray bottle that only holds two ounces, and even when I’m doing a dozen shirts at a time, I’ve never run out of bleach water. If you’re sensitive to bleach or you want to wear gloves, I totally recommend some rubber or latex gloves for all of the parts that involve handling bleach. I don’t use gloves because they make me more fumble-fingered than normal and the bleach exposure involved isn’t really enough to bother me. You might also want to change into some clothes you don’t mind ruining a little. A sudden wind, dropped spray bottle, or an absent-minded swipe of wet fingers against your pants can leave you with bleached clothes you didn’t actually mean to bleach.

Set up the rest of your stuff wherever you’ll be doing your spraying. I like to take everything out onto my tiny little patio; if I make any kind of mess, I’d rather do it outdoors. Basically what you’ll need are your prepped shirts, your spray bottle, your bucket of water (or easy access to the sink or whatever you’re using), and your paper towels. You’ll also want to make sure you mask off any portions of your shirt that you don’t want to get bleachy. Nothing ruins a great stenciled design quicker than being able to see the edges of where the stencil were during the spraying. I used a little more freezer paper and masking tape to completely cover this shirt:


6. Friends, let us spray some things. Okay, here’s the key to bleach shirts: gently mist over your stencil, and then immediately dab the area with your paper towels or rag and soak up as much of the moisture as you can. You want to get it off both the cloth and the stencil, and you don’t want to spray so much that things are really wet. If your stencil gets too wet, the moisture will seep underneath and you’ll end up with wobbly edges and spots and other crappy things. I’ll show you that later. What you want to do is spray once or twice, get the coverage you want, keep things as dry as you can make them, and then wait. Depending on the shirt you’ve chosen, its color, the strength of your bleach, and other assorted factors, it can take anywhere from 1-10 minutes for the color to really start showing. Just relax, keep an eye on it, sip a beer, whatever. DO NOT GIVE IN TO THE IMPULSE TO SPRAY AGAIN. I always do when the shirt resists bleaching. Every. Time. And it’s always a mistake. Like, I pretty much ruined one of these two shirts. (Spoiler alert: It was the nice hoodie I was making for myself. Typical.) One day I’ll learn. One day. Anyway, as your bleach goes to work, you’ll start to see the color of the fabric change. My other shirt was really not wanting to change color (thus how I ended up over-spraying it), but you can see the red tones coming out pretty well on this one:


You can also see the stencil starting to warp a bit with the moisture. I gave this shirt a second spray because I hadn’t gotten good coverage at the bottom left, but I was also using the fine mist spray bottle (it’s a little tiny bottle like you might keep in your travel bag), which doesn’t spray a lot of moisture and gives the bleaching a nice even color.

7. Remove your shirt from the backing board, and dunk it into your bucket of water. That’ll stop the bleach from working now that you’ve got your shirt looking how you want it. (You may be tempted to use a substance like vinegar at this stage, because it would stop the bleaching completely. It will also produce poisonous gas. DON’T DO THAT, FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY. Just use cold water. It works fine.) You can dunk your shirt with the stencil and tape and whatever else still on there and fish the trash out later; I personally prefer to peel the stencil and everything off first. That’s partly because I feel like it’s easier and mostly because I just find peeling off the stencil to be really satisfying.


8. Wash and dry your newly-decorated shirts. You can leave them in the water bucket for awhile without them really bleaching further… I typically do a batch of bleach shirts so I might spend a few hours setting up, spraying and dunking before I take all my shirts out of the soak and move them to the washing machine. They’ll still have some residual bleach on them so it’s best to wash them by themselves, with a little detergent, and then just run them through the dryer. Voila! You’re done!


These are my shirts after washing and drying. As you can see, the one on the right came out pretty good… I should have confined the spray to a tighter area to get the sort of look I wanted (or I guess I just should’ve thought about the look I wanted BEFORE I made the shirt instead of after), but I think it came out well. The one on the left, not so much. There’s a seam running through the middle, which I knew when I chose that shirt and I didn’t care, but you can also see the spots, most notably the huge one on the bottom left section of the triskele, where the bleach soaked through the stencil and spread out on the fabric. There are a few other bleed spots and the edges aren’t very crisp: this is the result of over-spraying and getting the stencil too wet. It’s not such a mangled mess that I’d be too ashamed to wear the hoodie anymore, but it doesn’t look all that great either.

Anyway, I hope this extremely lengthy tutorial has been helpful to you in your quest to decorate shirts like MacGyver would have. I learned how to do this from reading the Reddit community r/bleachshirts and if you’re looking for more information and inspiration, you’ll find it there in abundance. (Check out the sidebar on the right-hand side of r/bleachshirts for tutorials, videos, and other info.) If this all sounds like too much effort, I sometimes have finished bleached shirts for sale in my Etsy shop, and I take custom orders. Don’t worry, I only sell the ones I don’t completely screw up.


6 thoughts on “Apparel Design MacGyver-Style: Decorating a Shirt with Bleach

  1. Nice! I’m totally going to try this with a tattoo from Supernatural :)

    • Awesome! I’d love to see how it turns out if you post it online anywhere. I was thinking about doing one with a “SuperWolf” logo, where you put the Teen Wolf triskele inside the Supernatural tattoo where the pentragram would be. If that makes any sense at all. :D It’s my favorite crossover ever, such totally compatible universes.

  2. This is a great tutorial! I was wondering, do you think using the peel and stick vinyl letters available at craft stores would work well as stencils? I want a phrase on my shirt, but the idea of trying to cut it all out makes me cringe

    • Hey nic! I haven’t done that myself, but I’ve heard it’s a great method and works really well. You’ll want to be careful not to over-saturate when you spray so that the bleach doesn’t bleed underneath the vinyl, but it should work just fine. It’s obviously a lot more costly than the butcher paper (if I owned a vinyl cutter I’d absolutely use it for this, though, because I’m happy to pay a little more to save my hands from a ridiculous amount of cutting things :D), but if you’re careful with it you might also be able to use it for more than one shirt, which is a plus. Another similar material that I’ve heard works pretty well is the sticky contact paper that’s used for lining kitchen drawers and that sort of thing, but again you’d be cutting that by hand.

      If you end up using the vinyl I’d love to hear how that works out for you!

      • Hiya!
        thanks! – the Vinyl letters worked pretty darn well, imho. Yes, for sure they were more expensive (esp. when you need 2 packs), but get them on sale and it’s not so bad.
        if you want to see the results, there’s an image here:
        I had some problems in other areas, clearly, but the edges of the letters were very clean, and I think they’re still sticky enough that I can use them again.

        (I used elmer’s vinyl letters, repositionable, from the poster section of michael’s — there were vinyl letters also available in the art/inks area, but they were significantly more money for fewer letters.)

        • Oh, that’s awesome! Love the Supernatural style. :D One other thing you could maybe look at if you want, like, a Supernatural-themed look but not a specific phrase, is buying a vinyl wall or car decal on Etsy or somewhere like that. If you search on Etsy for “supernatural vinyl decal” (or something more specific like “castiel vinyl decal” which has even better results) there are lots of cool options for fairly cheap decals that would be a massive pain in the ass to cut from butcher paper (especially stuff like the anti-possession symbol that’s very precise). And of course the same applies to whatever fandom. I’m glad it worked so well for you though! I hadn’t even thought about peel and stick letters.

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