White out: Columnist shares bleach pen decorating ideas

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

I've ruined enough laundry in my life to outfit a graduating class. And, unfortunately, it's not only been my laundry. I've left fabric softener stains on my roommate's favorite dress. I've accidentally dyed a boyfriend's only dress shirt red (the day of a big interview). I've even tie-dyed my father's briefs in the most far-out of mistakes.

I did it again this week with the shirt I was required to wear to work the next morning. Luckily they struck the mishap up to my eccentric personality.

All those disasters have until this point been reason enough for me to ban bleach from my house.

That all changed when I discovered the bleach pen. Yes, it's been around a while. And, yes, it's almost as dangerous to clothes as a jug of bleach. But its handy size and gel application make it much more user-friendly.

Don't stop reading, yet. This isn't merely a column on learning how to bleach your whites (I still haven't mastered that). This wouldn't be Nifty Thrifty unless I told you how to do something unique with my new found consumer product.

And here it is: decorate.

The real benefits of the bleach pen in decorating lie in your ability to draw with it. If you're not good at freehand you can even trace. Following are three projects you can do to test your laundering skill.

Bleach botanicals

Framed art is beautiful on a wall. It's even more of a talking piece if it's handcrafted on fabric.

For my botanicals I bought an 8.5-by-11 inch frame and cut a piece of light-colored linen to 12.5-by-15 inches. Then I drew a single large leaf on the fabric with a pencil.

Be sure to protect your work surface by putting a piece of cardboard or a cutting board under your fabric. Using the fine point of your bleach pen, trace the lines using a thin bead of bleach.

Let the bleach set for 10 minutes or until you begin to see your desired final color (e.g. do you want to go from red to pink or red to white?). The wider your bleach lines and the longer you leave it on, the more it's going to soak into the surrounding fabric. So, if you want thin, defined lines, draw them on narrow and only leave them on for 10 to 15 minutes (depending on the fabric).

By the time you're ready to rinse off the bleach it should have dried to almost a paste. This makes it easy to rinse off without compromising the rest of your fabric. Run your fabric under cold water until you've got all the bleach rinsed off. Ring it out and then either hang to dry or drop it in the drier to get quicker gratification.

To mount the fabric give it a quick touch with the iron and then wrap it around the back of the frame. For particularly unruly fabric I use duct tape to hold it in place.


But enough with decorating your walls, let's move on to decorating something a little more visible. The process is the same for T-shirts though you can be a little less precise and still come out with a stunning top.

For one of my T-shirts I enlarged a picture of an old camera. Then I cut it out and traced it onto the shirt with the bleach pen. I added to it by sprinkling the bleach all over the shirt and letting it sit for 20 minutes. Because the shirt was brown I needed to let it sit longer so that it would bleach the shirt from brown to pink to white.

For the second shirt I drew freehand and had to leave the bleach on for 25 to 30 minutes to bleach the green shirt all the way to white. If you're going to draw your design with a pencil first, be forewarned that jersey material is much more difficult to draw on than linen. Take your time and it will turn out well.


When you've become proficient with t-shirts and prints you can move on to gift items. Some of the easiest to make using the bleach technique are pillows and napkins.

To begin my first gift project, I used a store-bought napkin to measure out the correct size square of fabric to make my own. Note: Be sure to make the square large enough to account for hemming your edges.

I used the trace method again, following the lines of an image I copied out of a 1950s-era ad. The outline of my lady didn't do it for me so I filled her in with a few details.

With the thinner fabric I also left the bleach on for a shorter period of time. I repeated the trace on each napkin in the set and rinsed the bleach off after only 5 minutes.

The bleach method works on just about any fabric to draw just about any design. The more detailed you want your final design, though, the more careful you have to be.

So, the next time you ruin a load of laundry, take out your frustration on a new piece of artwork for your home. All you need is a bleach pen and some creativity to turn that disaster around.

Vanessa Cook is a former Southeast Missourian copy editor who dabbles in decorating.

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