I’m not really that into fashion or clothes, but every once in a while something sneaks into my pinterest feed of home decor that catches my attention. That happened recently with a few images of clothes made with shibori designs or cool patterns made by discharge dyeing, and I went down a bit of a rabbit hole.
Cool right? Discharge dyeing is basically removing (i.e. discharging) dye from already dyed fabric to get your look/pattern, rather than the other way around.
It sounded like a fun project (and a welcome distraction from the eternal painting of closet shelves) so I decided to try it out, figuring that it could add a fun bit of edginess/grunge to my style (if you can even say that I have a style, which I don’t). I picked up several shirts from the luxe line of Old Navy, which are affordable enough to play around with but also nice enough that I’d enjoy wearing the finished product if it turned out.
I got five to try: a green tank, a black tank, a black t-shirt, and two black long sleeved shirts in different cuts:
… but before we get too far let’s go ahead and acknowledge what you read in the title: this project didn’t turn out how I hoped. It maybe isn’t the most epic of disasters but definitely had a lot of missteps and lessons to learn for next time. Here’s what happened:
Discharge Dyeing: My Imperfect Process
I decided to try out two dip or splatter ones like in the inspiration images above (on the green tank and black t-shirt) and then three with shibori folding.
For the shibori ones, I cut pieces of wood down to size to bind them…
… and then folded them and secured them with clamps or rubber bands.
I won’t go into folding tutorials here because in the folding I made my first mistake (we’ll get to that later).
I then took them down to the basement to dip in a bleach solution. Needed supplies were bleach, gloves, clean buckets, plastic sheeting, a well ventilated space, and most importantly, a floor that you don’t mind getting messed up.
I started with a 50/50 bleach solution and then increased that to near full-on bleach (my second mistake) when I wasn’t seeing the colors change.
In all, I let the stuff soak for about an hour (my third mistake), getting frustrated that the color wasn’t getting anywhere close to white or beige. (I did pull and rinse the black t-shirt much sooner since I saw it form a cool flame-like pattern.)
Finally, I decided that it had changed as much as it was going to and pulled the pieces out.
That’s when something strange started to happen. While they were sitting there waiting for me to rinse the other shirt, they started rapidly changing color until they were almost completely beige:
Did you know that happened? I guess exposure to the air helped it bleach? I had never heard of that before and I don’t know if it is a thing or a feature of the way it interacts with this particular fabric. It was a total surprise to me and maybe that’s why Brad is in charge of the laundry in our house.
Once they had fully faded, I removed the bindings and was impressed by how well the clamping had worked. I guess you can see it on the internet a bunch of times, but it’s hard to believe it can really protect that well from bleach/dye without doing it yourself!
I then rinsed them really well (and gently) and popped them right into the washing machine (fourth mistake).
So how’d they turn out?
The Discharge Dyeing Disasters
In all, not the effect I was going for. The two worst were the shibori folded long-sleeve shirts. I had made the mistake (first mistake) of folding them way too big for the pieces of wood I was using to clamp them, meaning that I had more of a large pattern of stamped shapes than the shibori look I was going for:
It’s not objectively the most horrible pattern for, say, a pillow, but that scale of pattern on a big shirt is extremely unattractive, and it just isn’t what I was going for.
The other big issue was how damaged the fabric was, which was particularly bad on these two shirts. In washing and drying, the shirts came apart with big holes and tatters… more extreme than a bit of grungy-worn-ness.
This is the result of using way too strong of a bleach solution (second mistake) and leaving them in way too long (third mistake). I also could have partially helped this by using a bleach neutralizer at the end before washing (fourth mistake) but I didn’t even think of that.
In all, these shirts are basically unusable for me, other than as shirts to paint or do DIY projects in.
The Discharge Dyeing Partial Successes
Despite all the mistakes, the experiment did yield three shirts that, while not exactly what I was going for, I do like enough to wear and use.
The first is the black t-shirt, which I mentioned I pulled early in the bleaching process. The reason was that I saw how the part of the bleach exposed to the air was whitening much faster than the rest, and I liked the effect (even if I didn’t realize what it meant for the other shirts). It created an interesting flame-like pattern on the lower part of the shirt:
Because I pulled this sooner, it was also saved from being in the bleach as long, leaving only a few small holes that… maybe look purposeful?
The black tank was also decent, which is the one that I had folded, shibori-like, between two long pieces of wood. It ended up with a tie-dye/skeletal pattern that is kind of cool, and for some reason wasn’t as damaged as the long shirts by the bleach over-exposure.
Again, not quite the effect I was going for but I like the result.
Finally, the green tank, which I had tried to dip and splatter, came out OK. It actually avoided any bleach holes and the splatter worked out fine (if a little less sharp than I wanted) but I don’t love the pink. I was going for green and beige, not green, pink and beige.
And then, embarrassingly, here are a couple awkward photos of me actually wearing some of these shirts:
Mistakes and Lessons Learned
I definitely plan to do this project again (coming soon!) and apply the things I learned in hopes of getting it right this time. Here is what I’ll do differently:
- I’ll fold the pieces much smaller/use bigger pieces of wood so that only the edges get changed by the bleach, not big streaks. I hope this will get me more of the delicate, folded shibori pattern than the strange stamping effect I had here.
- I’ll use a much weaker bleach solution to be kinder on my fabric.
- I’ll pull the pieces from the bleach much sooner and let the air finish the job.
- I’ll use a bleach neutralizer at the end to stop damaging the fabric as soon as possible.
Wish me luck! Have any of you tried discharge dyeing or a similar project before and have any tips?