Homemade t-shirts are a craft that will never go out of style. From tie-dye to vinyl decals to sublimation, there are many ways to make your own t-shirt designs at home.
Sublimation is a t-shirt design process that has grown in popularity through the years. The designs are easy to apply and won’t crack or peel over time like some other methods such as vinyl decals. Just make sure to bleach the area where the design will be applied.
So, how to bleach a shirt for sublimation? To bleach a shirt for sublimation, you’ll need to prepare it by tracing the outline of the design and slipping a foam board inside the shirt. Apply the bleach and leave out in the sun to dry. Then, deactivate the bleach, wash and dry the shirt, then sublimate your design onto the shirt.
You can also try bleaching the shirt after you’ve already applied your sublimation design to the shirt.
In this article, I’ll review the entire process for bleaching a shirt for sublimation, whether you choose to bleach before or after the design is applied, and include a list of all the supplies you’ll need.
What Is Sublimation?
When it comes to shirt design printing, sublimation is a process that applies a specially printed design onto a shirt using heat.
This is different from heat transfer because only the ink is being transferred; there is no transfer layer that gets applied to the shirt as well. Sublimation designs are made on a computer and printed on a special sublimation printer using sublimation paper and ink.
The designs are then transferred onto a t-shirt using a heat press. The general rule is to apply the design at a temperature of 400°F for 60 seconds. Sublimation can also be used on other items, such as tumbler mugs or hats, but it’s most commonly used on shirts.
To make the colors of the design stand out and pop against whatever color shirt you’ve chosen, you’ll need to bleach the shirt. And that’s where the bleaching process for sublimation shirts comes in.
Supplies For Bleaching A Shirt For Sublimation
To bleach a shirt for sublimation, there are specific supplies you need. Check the list below, then read on for more details.
- Sublimation printer (with ink & paper)
- T-shirt (65/35 polyester/cotton blend for best results)
- Lint roller
- Foam board
- Spray bottles
- Heat press
- Heat tape
- Hydrogen peroxide
- Parchment/butcher paper (heat safe)
One of the primary things to make sure you get for your bleached sublimation shirt is a t-shirt that is 65% polyester and 35% cotton.
This blend is important so that the shirt leaves behind a bright white after the bleach while also taking the ink of your sublimation design well. You can try 100% polyester shirts as well, but we prefer the 65/35 ratio.
Generally, Gildan brand shirts in the Softstyle line that are heather colors are going to have that 65/35 poly/cotton blend. The heather color is important because the solid color shirts are 100% cotton, so make sure you’re choosing a heather color.There are other brands you can use too, but we like Gildan because it’s cheap and soft.
You can apply your bleach in two different ways: paint it on or spray it on. If you’re going to paint it on, use synthetic brush bristles. If you’re going to spray it on, make sure you get glass spray bottles like the ones we linked above.
You can also use a piece of cardboard or even a trash bag instead of the foam board. This is just so you have a layer in between the front and back of your t-shirt. It will help prevent the bleach from bleeding through and give you a cleaner look.
A foam board or piece of cardboard will give you a more sturdy surface and keep your shirt straight and flat, so we recommend using one of those over a trash bag.
If you don’t want to invest in a sublimation printer, you can always purchase pre-made sublimation images. Etsy is a great website to check for sublimation designs. Make sure in your search that you specify “ready to press” and read the product descriptions before purchasing.
There are tons of designs that are emailed as a digital file for those who have their own sublimation printers, so be careful to not purchase those if you’re looking for pre-printed designs.
Bleaching Before Vs After Sublimation
Bleaching a shirt for sublimation can be done before or after the design is applied.
If you bleach it before adding the design, you’ll have to trace the design cut-out onto the t-shirt before bleaching. This will give you an idea of the area you need to cover with bleach.
If you bleach it after adding the design, you won’t have to trace because the design will already be there. However, if you’re doing a dark design on a dark shirt, it may be hard to see clearly.
Some people have tested both ways and noticed that if you bleach first, your sublimation design will come out brighter and crisper. With doing bleach after you’ve applied the sublimation design, you may notice that the design looks a little faded.
You can compare the results in the video below. Walt n Sarah did an experiment to test whether it looks the best if you bleach first, or if you bleach after the design has been applied, and how long to wait after applying the design before bleaching.
It’s important to note that your design may not apply very well whether you do it before or after bleaching if you’re using a shirt that has too much cotton.
Be sure to use a shirt with at least 65% polyester for best results. To learn more about each method on their own, check out the sections below.
How To Bleach A Shirt Before Sublimation
Before you start this process, check your weather forecast to ensure it’s going to be a dry, sunny day.
The sun helps the bleach whiten the shirt better and faster, so you’ll get better results if you have a little help from those UV rays.
- Prepare your shirt by sliding your foam board or cardboard inside of the shirt. Make sure to flatten and straighten out your shirt so that it’s perfectly centered on the board. This will help you center your design.
- Run your lint roller over the front of the t-shirt where the design will be. You’re going to do this again later, but it’s important to put that lint roller to work so that you don’t have any specks in your design.
- Lay your design on your t-shirt. Make sure that the design is cut out to the trim you want and is centered in the exact place you want it to be on the t-shirt. It should also be laid upside down since that’s the way it will be transferred.
- Holding the design in place, use a small paintbrush and dip it in a little flour, then run it along the edge of your design. This will mark the area of your design on your shirt so you know exactly where to bleach.
- Remove the design and set aside for later.
- Pour a small amount of bleach into your small bucket. You only need a little bit of bleach, and you will not be diluting it with water. You need pure bleach for this to work.
- Dip your large paintbrush into the bleach and begin to apply it to the area where your design will go. You can also use a spray bottle and spray the bleach onto the t-shirt. Using a paintbrush will give you cleaner lines in your bleach, while the spray bottle will give you a softer look.
- After you’ve applied the bleach to the design area, start flicking your paintbrush with bleach along the other areas of the t-shirt to create splatter dots. If using a spray bottle, spray a little around the other areas of the shirt.
- Let your shirt dry out in the sun. When the bleach is completely dry and it has turned the shirt completely white, turn the shirt over and do the same splatter flicks or sprays on the back.
- Once both sides have dried, use your hydrogen peroxide to neutralize the bleach. You should have a spray bottle prepared with 1 part hydrogen peroxide to 10 parts water. Spray this mixture all over the bleached areas of your shirt.
- Wash and dry your shirt as usual.
- Once it’s dry, cut out two pieces of butcher or parchment paper that will fit the size of your t-shirt. The paper you use should be heat-safe.
- Slip one piece of paper inside the shirt and lay the shirt flat on your heat press. Lint roll it again, then heat press it for a few seconds.
- Lay down your design over the bleached area and tape it down with heat tape. Lay your second piece of parchment paper on top of the taped down design. Press it with your heat press at 400°F for 60 seconds.
- Remove the parchment paper and design paper. Your shirt should now have your sublimation design brightly displayed in the bleached area!
If after the sublimation you notice that the bleach is a little discolored and has lost some of its brightness, simply spray it again with your hydrogen peroxide solution.
Let the top heat plate hover over the shirt for a few seconds, but don’t press it down. When you move it out of the way again, you should see the bright white color return.
That’s it! You’ve now successfully bleached and sublimated a t-shirt to create your own unique clothing.
To see this technique in action, check out the video below. Simply Sallie shows you how to bleach a shirt before sublimation with multiple colors and designs so you get a sense for how it will work no matter what style you’re going for.
How To Bleach A Shirt After Sublimation
Remember that if you bleach a shirt after sublimation, the design may come out looking a little faded. Sometimes faded is good! This is an easy way to achieve a vintage look with a brand-new t-shirt. Like the method above, you’ll need to plan to bleach your shirt on a day that it’s sunny outside.
As you saw in the video we linked earlier, you can bleach your shirt as soon as 30 minutes after sublimating your design. So you don’t have to try to plan it out to have a waiting period and still get to a sunny day.
- Cut your two sheets of parchment or butcher paper and slip one inside of the t-shirt. Lay it on the heat press centered and lint roll the front.
- Center your design, tape it on with heat tape, then lay your second sheet of parchment paper on top.
- Press the shirt and design with your heat press at 400°F for 60 seconds.
- Lift the heat press and remove the parchment paper and design paper.
- Allow your shirt to cool for about 30 minutes.
- After 30 minutes, slip your cardboard or foam board inside of the shirt. Take it outside and lay it flat on the ground or your desired work surface.
- Pour your bleach into your bucket and apply with a paintbrush, or spray it on with your glass spray bottle. Pay close attention to the border of your design and apply it around the entire area of your design. Once it’s applied to the design, flick the paintbrush or give it a few extra sprays around the rest of the shirt.
- Let dry completely in the sun until bright white and dry to the touch. Flip the shirt over and flick or spray more bleach along the back of the shirt.
- Wait until both sides of the shirt have dried completely, then spray with 1 part hydrogen peroxide and 10 parts water mixture.
- Take it to your laundry machines and wash and dry as usual.
With this method, once the shirt has been washed and dried after bleaching, it’s done and ready to wear! You already added your sublimation design as your first step, so after you’ve bleached it, you’re done.
If the design is more faded than you would like, try reprinting that design and applying it to a shirt that’s been bleached first to compare.
It could be that the particular design you’re using is just muted, or it could be that the t-shirt you’re using isn’t taking the ink well. Cotton shirts are known for not taking sublimation ink well, which is why you need at least 65% polyester.
If you’re working with a shirt that has more than 35% cotton, your design may look faded regardless of whether you bleached it before or after applying the design.
To see this technique in action, check out the video below. Design Bundles does a great job of taking you through the process to apply your sublimation design first, then bleach after.
You’ll also get to see the finished product, so you can compare the design brightness of this shirt to the shirts you’ll see at the end of the video from Simply Sallie in the section above.
How To Bleach Shirts Without Sunlight
Bleach Color Chart For Clothes