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Fabric Painting on Silk

by Jacqueline Gikow

Fabric Painting on Silk

Fabric painting on silk. Instructions are provided for creating a striped silk scarf.

There is nothing as fundamentally magical as decorated fabric. People have been coloring and embellishing fabric since the stone ages. As we became more sophisticated in our garments, different paints and dyes were developed to make it easier and more fun to add color to fabric. All kinds of fabrics can be decorated in all sorts of ways. Basically there are two types of fabric paint; (1) water-based and (2) fiber-reactive (or acid dye).

Water-based paints are set with an iron, carefully pressed on the reverse side of the fabric for a few minutes. Water-based paints are easy to use and set, nontoxic and great for use by children.

Acid dyes are best for protein-based fabrics, such as silk, wool and nylon. They are more lustrous and flow more easily than water-based paints. Also, because they are dyes, they color right through the fabric. There are a variety of acid dyes available, some of which require more in the way of paraphernalia to set and others that are set with chemicals. The best thing is to check that the dye you are using is matched with the appropriate fix.

In this project you will use a thickener combined with your color. This will make the dye an ideal medium for brushing. You can use any kind of brush to color your fabric. Start with this scarf described below and discover the pleasure of transforming your fabric by improvising, experimenting and enjoying yourself.

Before you start painting or dying, first wash and iron the fabric. Most fabrics are treated with finishing agents that make it hard to apply color to them.

Striped Silk Scarf

Possible colors for this scarf include a deep, vibrant blue, the color of a tropical night sky, which will add a bright contrast to hand-painted bands of acid yellow, warm terra-cotta, and cerulean. Masking tape is a simple material for creating a sharply defined resist pattern to the edges. It will work best if you tape off both sides of the edges so that the dye doesn’t flow through the fabric.

You can use heavy sand washed silk for an opulent drape. This requires masking tape on both sides of the fabric and painting on both sides. For an easier floaty scarf, you can use a lighter silk. The pattern will not be as precise because you will be hand-painting the stripes, but the impact of the design will result from a bold contrast.

Sand washed silk
Masking tape
Acid dyes mixed with thickener (follow manufacturer’s instructions)
Mild detergent

Tape measure
Hair dryer (optional)
One-inch artist’s brush
Housepainter’s brush
Cotton Fabric
Steamer or vinegar (follow manufacturer’s instructions)

Painting the Silk

Using a roll of masking tape, a housepainter’s brush and your acid dyes mixed with thickener, you will come up with uneven stripes of painterly color, which give the scarf a clean, contemporary, elegant look. The directions for this scarf are intended for a heavy sand washed silk.


1. Cut a length of silk the size of a scarf. Smooth the silk over the work surface, which should be a piece of cloth (cotton or muslin) placed on a smooth surface. Secure all sides of the silk with masking tape. Place masking tape from side to side across the width of the silk, spacing the tape about 1-inch (2.5cm) apart for about 12-inches (30cm) at each end.

2. Paint the blue dye over the whole surface of the silk with the house painter’s brush. Let the fabric dry for a half hour or use the hair dryer for faster drying. Peel off the horizontal strips of masking tap.

3. Using an artist’s brush paint the four white stripes nearest the middle of the silk with a mixture of blue and black dyes. Then paint the rest of the white stripes with yellow dye.

4. Paint streaks and dabs of pink dye onto the orange-yellow stripes. Again let the silk dry for about a half hour.

5. Peal off the masking tape on the outer edges of the fabric. Since the dye has not yet reached this part of the silk, it will still be white.

6. Paint the outer border with yellow dye to match the stripes and again let the silk dry.

7. Turn the silk over. The dye will show through in patches on the underside. A finer silk will let the dye penetrate completely. Mask off the stripes and border as before and paint the underside of the silk to match the front. Let dry.

8. Lay the painted silk flat and place a piece of cotton fabric on top. Roll up the silk with the cotton inside so the painted silk will not run. Steam the silk for 45 minutes to set the dyes. Rinse with cold water until it runs clear. If you need to, wash with mild detergent, rinse again, and let dry.


Painting on Fabric

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