Learn to Bleach-Stencil Denim

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Photo by Allison Sarkesian

Bleaching designs onto blue jeans is a fast, rewarding craft project. If you use a purchased stencil, you can have a finished product in about an hour (including laundering time). Crafters who prefer one-of-a-kind designs may want to set aside another hour or two for cutting a custom stencil. (See below for instructions on how to make your own stencil.)

The best jeans to use for a bleaching project are 100 percent cotton. Unfortunately for this project (but fortunately for their wearers), most women’s jeans include a healthy percentage of bleach-resistant spandex or other synthetic fiber. Look for clothing (jean shirts and jackets are great candidates for this project) with at least 95 percent cotton fiber content. You can test fabric by applying a drop or two of bleach on an inside seam to see what happens. If you don’t see results within a few minutes, the garment won’t work for bleaching. Men’s jeans are often 100 percent cotton, and a better option for a bleaching project.

Invest in a good spray bottle that delivers a fine spray. Cheap spray bottles tend to produce droplets that’ll disfigure your pattern, causing circular spots that are whiter and more obvious than the rest of the bleached design. Even with a quality bottle, it’s a good idea to hold a paper towel under the nozzle to catch drops. I also recommend doing some test sprays on old jeans you don’t care about, so you get a feel for using the spray bottle. Lastly, wear old clothes while spraying bleach so you don’t ruin a favorite garment.

Materials & Supplies

  • Blue jeans, at least 95 percent cotton
  • Cardboard or thick catalogs
  • Stencil
  • Painter’s tape or masking tape
  • Bleach
  • Spray bottle
  • Paper towels

Step 1: Lay the jeans out on a work surface. Slide a piece of cardboard into the pant leg, under the area you’ll be spraying; this prevents the bleach from soaking through to the other side of the leg. Smooth the leg flat.

Photo by Rebecca Martin

Step 2: Position the stencil and secure it with painter’s tape. If the stencil tries to curl up, place loops of tape beneath the curling areas to keep them down. Shield the surrounding areas from bleach spray by laying down cardboard or old catalogs, covering any areas you don’t want bleached.

Step 3: Carefully pour bleach into the spray bottle, and then wipe the bottle dry using a paper towel. Prime the bottle by pumping it several times into a sink, adjusting the nozzle setting as needed. You want as fine a spray as possible, with no blobs or drips.

Step 4: Hold the bottle about 8 inches above the stencil and, holding a paper towel beneath the nozzle to catch drips, begin spraying the stencil. Spray lightly; don’t drench the jeans, but make sure you’ve dampened every bit of exposed fabric. Set the bottle aside, and wait. You should see the effects of the bleach within a minute or two. If the contrast between the blue and white fabric isn’t enough for your taste, spray a second time and wait a few more minutes.

Photo by Rebecca Martin

Step 5: When the contrast is to your liking, work quickly with a folded paper towel to blot any bleach from the surface of the stencil plastic. Carefully remove the painter’s tape, lift the stencil, and set it aside. Immediately launder the jeans to stop the bleaching process. I make sure to have my washing machine ready and filled with soapy, hot water before I start spraying bleach. I use homemade laundry soap of equal parts baking soda, washing soda, and grated bar soap. Many crafters use a bath of vinegar and water to stop the bleaching process.

Make Your Own Stencil

Making your own stencil isn’t difficult, but it does require patience and a steady hand.

You can buy stencil blanks (translucent sheets of plastic, usually 8-1/2-by-11 inches) at craft stores, or you can cut a stencil from stiff plastic or cardboard. If you want to trace an existing design element from a book or fabric (pictured), you’ll need to use a clear blank.

Think about the design before you begin cutting. You’ll want to retain pieces that connect the elements of the design. Connecting pieces prevent elements from separating from the template when you’re finished cutting. If that happens despite your best plans, you can secure the loose pieces in place on your project with a loop of tape.

Photo by Rebecca Martin

  1. With a marking pencil, draw or trace the design of your choice onto the stencil blank. Before you begin cutting, think about ways to keep all the design elements connected to each other, and draw in the connectors too.
  2. Place the marked-up stencil blank on a cutting mat. Using a craft knife with a new blade, carefully cut along the marked lines, applying even pressure and cutting all the way through the blank, discarding unwanted loose pieces as you go.
  3. After you’ve cut along all the marked lines, your custom stencil is ready to use. To keep the stencil in tiptop shape, store it flat inside a cardboard folder.

As a Capper’s Farmer editor, Rebecca Martin gets plenty of opportunities to share her experiences of cooking, crafting, gardening, and memories of growing up on a farm.