Bleach Pen Fabric Art / by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber

This weekend- after a bottle of bleach fell on a pile of laundry at my house – I got curious about why the bleach didn’t seem to have an effect on some fabrics in the pile, and yet seemed to burn holes through others. Thus began another one of my “Happy Accident” investigations at the intersection between art and science.

 I did a little science research and the whole episode inspired me to create some WEARABLE SCIENCE/ART. Now THIS is the epitome of “cheap and cheerful art”: All you need is a $4.00 bleach pen and an inexpensive pair of leggings or any other dark `fabric.  My sister and I went crazy with this for an evening and came out with some great one-of-a-kind wardrobe pieces.

I’m going to tell you exactly how to do this yourself…. But first the science:

The kind of bleach used in laundry (and in the making of my art project) is a hydrochloric acid. This means it is a liquid solution made up of Hydrogen chloride and water. Hydrochloric acid is a very strong acid on its own, which is why it is in a solution of water to make bleach transportable, otherwise the acid would “burn” everything it touches, even at low concentrations.

I use the word “burn” to loosely describe what bleach does to organic fabrics, the more accurate term is oxidation. “Oxidation” is simply the process of subtracting or losing an electron. In a chemical reaction, if a compound or element loses electrons it is said to be “oxidized”: It donates an electron. Put simply: oxidation is a process in which oxygen reacts with the substances that is contacts and form substances which have different properties. Rusting metal is the most commonly seen type of oxidation , but it can take place in case of living organisms too.

“ Burning”, or combustion on the other hand, is when an organic compound, becomes CO2 and water.

Bleach “bleaches” organic molecules by adding chlorine to the compound which removes the carbon bonds and breaks up the molecule. The molecules that make clothes dirty are quite big (organic stains, sweat and soil) . Bleach breaks up these big molecules into smaller ones that are washed away in the rinse cycle of the washing machine. This same process -  of breaking organic dye molecules into small ones that rinse away -  can be used purposefully to selectively remove the color, leaving beautiful patterns and muted colors.

Hydrochloric acid is called mineral acids because it tends to be very soluble in water and insoluble in organic solvents. Mineral acids range from VERY strong acids like sulfuric acid, to very weak acids like boric acid. ( …which was often used in a common product called “Borax” in cleaning clothes many years ago.)  Our good’ol friend hydrochloric acid is the least likely to undergo an oxidation-reduction reaction and is therefore the least hazardous strong acids to handle and store for long-term use, so it lends itself to domestic uses quite well.  

Now back to the question of why some of the clothes that our bleach spilled on were not ruined: Commercial dyes are rated by how easily they will break down and manufacturers want maximum color stability. Typically, they are much more stable than typical organic dyes, so although the bleach attacks everything, they often survive because their large molecules do not break apart easily.

The main reason some of the laundry was ruined and some seemed untouched from our bleach spill is because some fabrics are over-dyed to create very heavily saturated colors. In such cloth, the excess dye is fixed to the fabric using a bonding agent.  Almost all completely synthetic fabrics are double protected this way. When we did our bleach pen art project, we could see the results of this combination in the way some fabrics didn’t turn colorless, as much as they changed to interesting muted colors. The excess dye and the fixative were attacked by bleach, often with quite odd results: colors of yellow, orange or lilac left in place.

Bottom line:  For the art project, you will want to remember that bleach will preferentially attack strongly colored organic dyes because they often have double carbon bonds, with easily moved electrons. This allows for a selective interaction with visible light, hence they absorb some frequencies and not others, inducing color variations that are really cool and look great in this wearable art format. The mechanism responsible for our perception of color – the absorption or reflection of certain wavelengths of light - is a WHOLE other science, which I think I will cover another time. ..  

So as to the art project:

First, do a little shopping for some inexpensive, solid and dark colored fabric pieces of clothing. We found black leggings and black T-shirts.  You can look at the tag on the clothing and find the percent cotton in the fabric. You need to see some part of the fabric is cotton. The more the better and quicker change you will see as you write with the bleach pen on the garment. 50-100% cotton fabric works the best if you can find them. (If you buy fabric that is totally synthetic, you will get no change, no matter how long you wait for the bleach to work.)

We used 4 bleach pens to do about 6 pieces of clothing. Plan on a half, to one bleach pen per garment, depending on how elaborate your design is.

Before we started, we stuffed the garments with very flat, layered newspaper (about 5-6 layers) inside the garment to keep your front pattern from bleeding through to the back of the garment.

We worked on a granite kitchen countertop, so didn’t have to worry about ruining our work surface. But keep that in mind. I wouldn’t do this project on any surface that the bleach might affect and ruin. The concrete basement or garage floor might be safer.

In our family, we are all artists, so we didn’t have a template or a plan before we started putting the bleach on the fabric. But if you are not a good “freehand” artist, it’s probably best to use a stencil, or do a mock-up on a piece of paper,… or,..  Just wing-it and call random mistakes “happy accidents”!  Frankly, I think this kind of wearable art lends itself to non-artists just winging it!...  Almost anything you do will look cool, and as if you meant it to be avant-garde

Then, let the bleach sit for about 30 minutes to an hour. (The higher the percent cotton in you fabric, the less you will have to let it sit. )

After that you are free to rinse and rinse and rinse the garment under cold water. We rinsed for a solid 3 to 4 minutes to completely stop the reaction.  Hang to dry, or put it directly in the dryer.

Hopefully, this example of the intersection of Art and Science will inspire your own creativity and research.

All this from a “happy accident”: the day the bleach bottle in our laundry room fell and ruined some clothes and not others!