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How to Stencil a Bleached Ribcage Shirt – DiY Halloween Tutorial

Greetings, ghosts and ghouls! Today’s project is this spooktacular bleached ribcage shirt which is perfect for the Halloween season… but also for everyday wear.

(In my humble opinion, one can never have too many articles of skeleton-inspired clothing in their wardrobe.)

This creepy skeleton shirt was a staple item in my shop for years, and now it’s your turn to make one of your own.

Check out the video or follow along with the text/photo instructions below.

Trouble with the video player? 
Click here to watch the video on Youtube.

To start out with, you’ll need to download the free Ribcage Template here. But before you print, please read the instructions for some important information regarding scaling the template to fit your shirt.

We’ll begin with some important things to consider when working with bleach.

  1. Bleaching should be done in an area with little potential for damage (a bathub or garage or even outside would be ideal). Don’t do it next to your couch or on your grandmother’s antique rug.
  2. You also need to be in a well-ventilated area, because bleach fumes are nasty.
  3. Wear gloves! Bleach is not kind to the skin and some people are very sensitive to it. Chemical burns are no good.
  4. Don’t wear your favorite shirt when you’re bleaching. It’s a Law of Crafts that you’ll spill some on yourself. In fact, just assume you’re going to spill some bleach on yourself and your work surface and plan accordingly.
  5. The fabric needs to have some natural fiber in it in order for the bleach to have any effect. That means cotton, rayon, or wool.

Most t-shirts and t-shirt type material will work, as will cotton broadcloth, denim, etc. If your fabric isn’t bleaching, it probably has no (or very little) natural fiber content.

I’m using a plain black cotton tank top.

Test a small patch of your fabric first to make sure it will bleach properly.

You can see here where I’ve done this on the inside of the shirt hem to make sure the bleach will work. Even though the tag says cotton, sometimes they lie!

Most blacks seem to turn orange when bleached, some will turn grey or even white.

You will be surprised at what different results you get from different fabrics/colors, so that’s another reason to test your fabric first.

1. So before you print out your ribcage template, find where you want to place the top of the ribcage and measure the width of your shirt. Mine is 12″.

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2. I’ve included a handy-dandy scaling chart on page 3 of the template so that you can print the ribcage out in just the right size for your shirt, and that way everyone can have a perfectly sized skeleton for themselves!

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All you have to do is find the spot on the printer dialog box that asks if you want to SCALE the print. Just plug the percentage in there and you should be good to go.

Example print dialog box with the “SCALE” options hidden under “More settings.”
Just plug in the percentage and click “Print”
This is another sample print dialog box showing where to find the “SCALE” options.

After printing, assemble according to the instructions on my site.

3. Here’s our assembled template! Tada!

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4. Now we’re going to make a stencil from the template. There are two easy methods for making a quick stencil. My preferred method is to use freezer paper. Let me say that again: FREEZER PAPER. Not wax paper. Not parchment paper.

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Note that the freezer paper says PLASTIC COATED. That’s what you want. Do not – I repeat – DO NOT put your iron to wax paper unless you want a big ol’ mess.

OK. If you don’t have freezer paper, the other option is to use cardstock. In fact, you can just print the template straight onto cardstock and skip the whole tracing mess we’re going to do in the next step. If you don’t have cardstock or freezer paper, you could rustle up an old cereal box. Sometimes we gotta get crafty, right?

5. (If your material is too thick to use the window-tracing method. Just lay the template on top of your stencil material, get a ballpoint pen, and trace over the ribcage, pressing hard enough with your pen to leave an impression in the stencil material. Then outline over that so it’s easier to see.)

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Now… where were we? Oh yes. Window tracing!

6. Here I’ve taped the template to a window. Thus, WINDOW tracing.

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7. Now I’ll tape a piece of freezer paper over that. Freezer paper has a shiny side and matte side. You want the shiny side down so that you can draw on the matte side.

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8. And then it’s just as simple as tracing over the lines. VIOLA!

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Note that I’ve also marked the center top and center bottom of the stencil so I’ll be able to align it correctly with my shirt.

9. Now it’s time to cut the stencil out. You can do this with scissors if you want, but it’s going to take foreeeeever. I mean, it’s going to take a while either way, but I find a craft knife is easier and faster.

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Just make sure you’ve got a safe surface underneath while you cut. Don’t go scratchig up your kitchen table!

10. While I start cutting, I want to direct your attention to these pieces here.

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In stencil lingo, these are called islands, because they’re just kind of floating out here by themselves. There are 8 islands in this stencil. Most of the pieces we cut out of this stencil we can throw away, but it’s important to keep these pieces!

11. So I’m going to mark and number them so I know not to throw them away and I also know which piece goes where.

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12. So now that we’ve got this guy all cut out, you can see where those islands go.

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13. Oh yeah. If you’re using cardstock, you can still use a craft knife! Check it out.

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Speak of the devil, here’s a super handy way to make sure your stencil doesn’t shift while you work if you’re using something other than freezer paper.

14. Get yourself a can of spray adhesive. Give the back of your cardstock stencil a spray, press onto your garment, and you’re good to go!

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This stuff will peel right off when you’re done. If you don’t have spray adhesive, just make sure to tape the outside edges of the stencil to your shirt really well.

15. It’s also a good idea to press your garment before you place your stencil just to make sure it’s nice and flat and wrinkle-free.

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16. Now back to the freezer paper. This is where this stuff really shines. Mark the center bottom and center of the neckline of your shirt.

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17. And now we’ll line up our stencil with those lines. Again, make sure the shiny side is facing down. Find something heavy to hold down the top and bottom of the stencil. I’m using pattern weights.

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18. And now we’re going to use an iron on a low setting. (Mine is on the polyester setting) to press the freezer paper into place.

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Basically we’re melting the plastic coating and adhering it to the shirt. When we’re finished, this stuff will peel off super easily without leaving any residue.

Go slow while you iron, making sure to unfold any little bits of the stencil that want to curl in on themselves.

19. Once I’ve got the center ironed down, I’ll readjust and iron each side, and then I’ll use the printed template to help me place those “islands” we talked about before.

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There we go! All stenciled up and ready to go!

Now it’s time to talk bleach. You CAN use plain old liquid bleach here, but it’s much messier and it has a tendency to bleed quite a bit and the stencil won’t come out nearly as crisp. So I prefer to use bleach gel.

20. In today’s case, I’m using Clorox toilet bowl cleaner! Make sure you get the kind that says BLEACH GEL. Not all cleaners are created equal!

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21. The Softscrub gel that comes in the blue-green bottle works just as well. The Softscrub that comes in the WHITE bottle does not work (even though it says “with bleach”)!

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If you absolutely must use liquid bleach, make sure you dilute it. 1 part bleach to 1 part water. Otherwise the bleach might literally eat holes in the fabric. Ask me how I know!

22. Now let’s discuss tools. You’ll want a brush of some sort. If you use a paintbrush with bristles, make sure you get one with synthetic bristles. Bleach will eat through natural bristles. Again… ask me how I know…

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Another brush option are these little foam guys. It’s really personal preference. If I wasn’t using freezer paper, I’d probably go for the foam brush since you can kind of dab the bleach on and it’s less likely to snag on the edges of the stencil.

23. Here you can see I’ve moved outside for ventilation purposes. You can also see that I’ve laid a large sheet of cardboard on top of my work surface. It’s a metal table and probably wouldn’t be harmed by the bleach, but better safe than sorry! I’ve also inserted a sheet of cardboard inside my tank top so that the bleach won’t soak through onto the back of the shirt. That would be bad.

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So I’ve followed most of my rules, but I forgot my gloves. Dumb!

Oh well.

24. I’m going to squirt a little of this bleach gel into a small cup. I always save these condiment cups from restaurants because they’re perfect for stuff like this.

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25. It’s time to paint! Sop up some of that bleach gel and get to work. You don’t need a super thick layer, even though at first it won’t look like anything is happening. Just give it a few minutes and you’ll start to see the bleaching action at work.

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26. Here’s my little cardstock sample. I’m going to use the sponge brush here with a dabbing motion like I described before. Just lightly bounce the brush up and down to saturate the fabric with the gel.

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While I paint, I should mention that you don’t have to do this with bleach. You could use this exact stenciling method for fabric paint. Like maybe some glow in the dark fabric paint?

27. Once you’ve got the whole stencil painted in, let it sit until it’s good and dry. The bleach will continue to do its thing, going lighter and lighter. This fabric actually turned out much lighter than I’m used to, which is cool.

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28. When it’s good and dry, you can tear off the stencil and then it’s time for a good wash!

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29. Just toss it into the washing machine and let the magic happen.

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30. Here we are, all washed and not stinking of toilet cleaner.

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I’ve noticed some areas where the bleach kind of smeared off the stencilled area while it was in the wash, which is interesting because i’ve never had that happen before! I’m thinking this Clorox gel is a bit stronger than the Softscrub gel I’m used to. That might also explain the lighter bleaching result.

I don’t really mind the faint bleach marks… the thing about working wtih bleach is that it’s kind of a messy process and you’re liable to have a splotch or some bleeding here and there… it’s something I’ve learned to live with. I don’t know if I’d recommend bleach stenciling to a perfectionist, really. Anyway… I’m happy with this bad boy.

Leave a comment below and let me know how your project turned out.

3 thoughts on “How to Stencil a Bleached Ribcage Shirt – DiY Halloween Tutorial

  1. TBH I just wanted to see your technique for stenciling. I had no desire to do the ribcage shirt even though I thought it was cool. I thought it was gonna be overwhelming when I 1st looked at it but with your instructions I’m ready to go lol thank you so much!

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