How to Fade a ShirtBy Shirtspace | Sep 26, 2019 | Updated Nov 30, 2020
Have you ever noticed that, in a short amount of time, your deepest blue t-shirts or darkest black blouses lose their vibrancy? Soon, the brightness and depth of these colors start to fade and become a paltry shade of what your shirt used to be.
When the dye on your shirt starts to die, there are a few reasons why this may happen. The type of fabric, the color dye process, the tone of the original color, and the finishing process are just a few factors that can play a role in how quickly the colors fade.
However, there are plenty of reasons why you might want to fade your shirts deliberately.
Part of the appeal is the idea of keeping and wearing something for long enough that it becomes old and worn, as though it’s your favorite garment. In an age of disposable clothing and fast fashion, this can feel like a luxury.
Using handy DIY fading methods, you can produce results that retain a t-shirt’s style and shape but give that distinctly worn and relaxed look. Here’s what you need to know.
Why Would I Want to Fade a Shirt Deliberately?
Most people are more concerned about how to preserve colors on a shirt rather than looking for ways to deliberately fade a shirt.
But there are plenty of reasons why the faded “look” is in:
1) To Give Your Clothes a Vintage Look
This is the age of vintage. For an item of clothing to truly fall under the “vintage” category, it needs to be at least 20 years old. Some aficionados of the antique aesthetic won’t accept anything under 50 years but, generally speaking, shabby items that are well-preserved within this range of time fits the retro bill.
Vintage has become a catch-all term for anything that looks old, even if the item itself is new. It’s up to consumers to clarify with buyers if the shirt’s real age matters to them.
Because so few clothing items are high-quality enough to withstand the 20- to 50-year test of time, many individuals will turn to fading, distressing, and aging their shirts and pants on their own.
2) To Make Your T-Shirts Feel Worn
Even high-quality cotton t-shirts or polyester blends can feel stiff and a tad scratchy when you first wear them. Many people love buying band t-shirts after a concert, for example, with a graphic of the band front and center.
However, the dye and finishing process on these graphic t-shirts are intended to preserve the colors and quality of the print on the front. So the result may be an uncomfortable experience the first few times.
The DIY methods used to fade a shirt are stylistic, and they can also help you achieve this softer, “worn” feeling even though the shirt is brand new. It takes time, multiple washes, and actually wearing the t-shirt several times in a row to get that same worn fit and feel. Those who can’t wait that long can use creative fade methods to get comfortable faster.
3) To Keep Up With Modern Fashion Trends
Modern fashion trends tend to favor anything that has a “hip” or distressed look to it. Blame Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen for popularizing the “hobo-chic” aesthetic, which includes faded and distressed clothing items.
Faded clothing is one trend that stayed on long enough to become a movement.
There’s a distinct preoccupation with honesty, authenticity, and a salt-of-the-earth type of values which urban trends like faded shirts exemplify. The only catch is that urban shouldn’t mean shoddy or low-quality. The preference for maintaining and edgy and irreverent personal style also comes with a demand: That clothes remain casual but high-quality.
4) To Refresh Your Wardrobe
Depending on your skin tone and personal style, some colors may just “pop” when you wear them. Obviously, you’re going to want to stock up on these.
But no one wants a monochromatic wardrobe. Translation: It’s boring. Fading your shirts and jeans offer you the chance to introduce some color variation in your wardrobe. So, for example, if you have a hankering for denim shirts, you can use DIY fade techniques to achieve a softer, lighter denim and change up your look with these color variations. The best part is that DIY fades costs a fraction of pre-faded retail shirts and look just as good.
Fading techniques can also help you to “tone down” the vibrancy on particularly loud or flashy patterns or prints. You may have found the pattern or print cheeky but almost unwearable because of the oversaturated colors. Enter, fading.
However, not all fading techniques are created equal. Which you’ll opt for depends on how much time you have, the fabric of the shirt you’re working with, and how much time you want to devote to your fading quest.
How to Fade Your Shirt (Without Damaging the Fabric)
Put a shirt through enough repeated washings, and it will fade — that’s a guarantee. However, constantly running your shirt through the rinse cycle also damages the fabric over time and shortens its lifespan.
Pro-Tip: Before putting your new shirt through any of these fading techniques, find an old shirt you may have of similar material. Test the method out on this old shirt you don’t need anymore to make sure the technique works without bleeding the colors or damaging the shirt in some other way.
Many of the materials required for these fading techniques are probably hiding around your home. Gather them together and try a few at a time or pick the one that works best for you. In general, you’ll need:
Sandpaper or pumice stone
A bucket or large plastic container
Depending on how new your chosen item of clothing is, you may have to run these techniques through two or three times to achieve your desired level of fade.
1) Using Bleach
Fading your shirts using bleach calls for balance. Too much bleach and the naturally corrosive effects will damage your fabric permanently. Too little and it won’t make a difference at all. You can achieve this balance as long as you pay attention to the exact measurements for dilution.
Follow this “recipe” to fade your shirt to aged perfection:
Step 1: Boil 6 cups of water on your stove and add a ½ cup of salt until dissolved.
Step 2: Bring this solution to room temperature and pour into a large bucket or plastic container.
Step 3: Now pour in two cups of color-safe bleach into the salt water mixture.
Step 4: Let the shirt sit for about two days but keep checking in to make sure it doesn’t fade too much. When you’re ready, take the t-shirt out of the solution using rubber gloves and wash or run under warm water. Throw it in a wash cycle with other clothes, and it’s ready to wear!
You can see how this bleaching technique manages to maintain the color but significantly “age” or decrease the vibrancy of the color and the graphic logo on the front.
2) Using Your Washing Machine
To use this technique, you’ll need a top-loading machine, not a front-loading machine. You’ll also be using bleach.
Fill your washing machine with hot water and then add one cup of bleach. Run a quick cycle or use a large stick to “agitate” and mix the water for a minute or two.
Next, add in your shirt and run it through a gentle spin cycle for only five minutes. Do not let the water drain. Instead, your shirt should sit in this solution for at least the next hour. Once the hour passes, it’s okay to continue the normal washing cycle. This rinses out any excess bleach.
Finally, place your shirt on a line dryer in the sun for a day to continue the fading process.
3) DIY Lemon and Vinegar Soak
If you think about fading as a form of “lightening” colors, this method is perfect. You’ll need a bit of pre-planning for this technique, however. First, wash and dry your chosen shirts a minimum of three times.
Next, create a solution of one part lemon juice to three parts water. Pour this in a bucket or a large container for anywhere from three to 12 hours. Again, it’s best to monitor the state of fade through this time.
Line dry the shirt and start again. Before you move to your vinegar solution, use the rough edge of a sandpaper square to rough up any graphics or fray the edges of the collars. For your second solution, you’ll be using vinegar.
Mix vinegar and water in a one-to-three ratio. The vinegar helps to “set” the lightening agent (in this case, the lemon solution soak). Soak for four to 12 hours and wash your shirt to get rid of the briny vinegar smell. Line dry once more, and you can also run the sandpaper through one last time if you’d like some more fade.
4) Salt Soak
A salt soak requires a significant time commitment, but the results are worth it. For this technique, mix in one-fourth of a cup of sodium bicarbonate washing soda with two cups of iodized salt in a base of a quart of water.
Let your t-shirt soak in this solution for anywhere from 48 to 72 hours, ideally. Stir this mixture a stir periodically, so the solution doesn’t “settle.” While the salt will fade your shirt, the sodium bicarbonate works to rid the fabric of any manufacturing chemicals in the dye. So this works best on new shirts or t-shirts.
5) Hot Wash
The hot wash fade technique goes against everything you’ve ever heard about preserving color and fit on a shirt. But that’s okay because, this time, you actually want to fade your shirt. Almost nothing is as effective for faded shirts as steaming hot water.
After soaking your t-shirt for a few hours in any of the above solutions (salt, vinegar, or lemon soak), throw it in your washing machine with some strong powdered detergent (not liquid). Set your machine to its highest temperature and tumble cycles.
Run this cycle a few times, a maximum of three, to quickly fade the fabric. Now dry it on a high heat setting as well. Not only will the heat relax and soften the fibers, but you’ll also see a significant toning down of colors.
The five DIY techniques we explore above are time- and user-friendly ways to fade a t-shirt without damaging the natural fiber. If you’d rather opt for a more “natural” way to fade your shirt, use the sun’s natural rays instead.
UV light quickly fades and wears down colors so, whenever you’re not wearing your shirt, leave it draped on an armchair or lay it flat in the sun to get a natural fade over time.
It’s best to use these techniques on a few shirts of the same color or fabric together. Not only will you save time, but you’ll also guard against an accident. If one or two shirts get ruined in the process, you’ll still be able to have a well-faded t-shirt to wear.