A t-shirt covered in colourful flower shapes

Time to get creative! With some permanent markers and methylated spirits, you can use chemistry to make some cool looking t-shirt designs.

hazard iconSafety: Methylated spirits is flammable, poisonous and gives off fumes. Ask an adult to open the bottle for you. Do this activity in a well-ventilated area and if you feel light headed, stop what you are doing and breathe some fresh air.

First aid: If methylated spirits is accidentally swallowed, call the Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26 (in Australia) or seek medical assistance.


You will need

  • White t-shirt
  • Scrap cardboard
  • Permanent markers in lots of colours
  • Masking tape
  • Jar
  • Methylated spirits
  • Eyedropper


What to do

  1. Tear a piece of cardboard that will fit inside your t-shirt.
  2. A white t-shirt with a big piece of cardboard inside itLie the shirt on a table, and then put the cardboard inside the shirt. It’s there to stop the design on the front of the shirt bleeding through to the back.
  3. Use a marker to write “Do not drink!” on a piece of masking tape. Tape the message to the jar, so no one drinks from it accidentally.
  4. Ask an adult to help open the methylated spirits and pour some into the jar. You don’t need much – about one-quarter full should be plenty.
  5. Someone is drawing on a white t-shirt with permanent markerDraw a small circle of dots on your t-shirt. You can use one colour or several.
  6. Someone is dripping something on a t-shirt and the ink is running away from that spot.Fill the eyedropper with methylated spirits and drip some in the middle of the circle of dots.
  7. a t-shirt with lots of flowery shapes on itWatch what happens! Try different patterns and different colours – be as creative as you want.
  8. When cleaning up, return any remaining methylated spirits to its original bottle. Rinse the jar thoroughly with water.


What’s happening?

There’s a heap of chemistry going on as you make your t-shirt designs. First, let’s look at the permanent marker. When it’s in the pen, the marker ink is dissolved in a type of liquid called a solvent. After you draw a line, the solvent evaporates, leaving behind the marker ink fixed firmly in place.

Permanent marker ink doesn’t dissolve in water – it wouldn’t be very permanent if it did! Most markers use an alcohol-based solvent. Methylated spirits is an alcohol, so it’s great at dissolving permanent marker ink and turning it back into liquid like it was in the pen.

You probably noticed that the spirits spreads very quickly, and pulls the marker ink with it. That’s useful if you’re feeling artistic. By putting spirits in the right places you can make all kinds of shapes and patterns! But why does it do this?

Methylated spirits and cotton are attracted to each other. The cotton in your shirt can’t move very easily, but the spirits is quite free to move. The liquid quickly moves along cotton fibres and from one fibre to the next. Because the fibres in a t-shirt are so close together, the spread is very quick and can even work uphill!

This sort of spreading is called capillary action and it doesn’t just happen with methylated spirits. Capillary action is one of the ways that plants transport water from their roots to their leaves!

More information

If you’re into science handicrafts, try some crochet

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