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What is Fabric Painting?

By Tara Barnett
Updated May 16, 2024
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Fabric painting is the application of specialized paints to fabric. It is possible to paint any fabric, but tightly woven natural fabrics like cotton and silk are easiest to decorate if a crafter is attempting to create images. Some people use paint on fabrics for other effects, such as splattering or sponging, and these are less dependent on the type of fabric or paint for clean effects. Many different looks can be achieved with paint on fabrics, although some are more common than others.

One of the most common styles of fabric painting is using a paintbrush to apply paint to a fabric just as one might do on paper. The dried painting can then be worn. Some people find that stenciling or transferring the design onto the fabric in advance can be helpful when attempting to draw complex designs. Fabric paint that is opaque can completely cover any marks placed on the shirt, but slightly transparent paint will allow markings to show through.

Some people use tools other than brushes to apply paint to fabric, and sponges, rollers, and stamps can all be used. When people speak of fabric painting, they usually mean something more ordered than merely spattering paint on fabric. Generally, it involves creating an image or at least a coherent pattern, although anything is acceptable.

The actual paints used vary widely. There are runny paints that can be used to create transparent effects, opaque paints that cover the fabric entirely, and even puff paints that stand up from the fabric creating edges. These paints themselves come in a variety of colors, and it is even possible to find metallic paints. By combining these materials, it is possible to create even more variations.

One consideration when using fabric paint is that the stiffness of the paint can change the way the fabric stretches or drapes. Additionally, if the painter does use a fabric that can stretch, the paint can be stressed in such a way that it will crack. People who are particularly attached to a painted image may not want to wear the piece of fabric it is on.

While it is possible to use fabric painting to decorate material before sewing, it is very common to use paint on items that are already assembled. Pants, jackets, and shirts can all be painted, as can household items such as napkins and drapes. Items that need to be washed must be treated with additional care when they have been painted, as the paint can come off. Painting is an excellent and versatile technique for decorating fabric items and can be used to give old clothes new style.

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Discussion Comments
By bythewell — On Aug 20, 2012

@umbra21 - Unfortunately, most of those are made of nylon which don't accept fabric paints as well as materials like cotton or silk. You might want to get your kids some handkerchiefs or something to paint instead, if you don't want them to go nuts on their own clothes.

Adults can use fabric paints as well. I've found it really soothing and effective to use a lot of colors on a silk or cotton scarf. Even if you aren't an artist, the picture will most likely be difficult to see when you're wearing the item, but it looks very effective.

I always have people ask me where I got them and it's nice to be able to admit that you made it yourself.

By umbra21 — On Aug 19, 2012

@irontoenail - You can also use fabric paints over the top of tie dying if you choose, although you'd have to be careful with your colors or your designs might get lost among all the patterns.

I remember using the puff paints when I was a kid in the 80's. They were all the rage then and you could buy ready made shirts with that kind of fabric paint on it as well. Although, now I think that people realize that it doesn't last very long.

It was a lot of fun to use as a kid though and I think almost any kid would appreciate being able to customize their own shirts or bags. Using it on a pencil case might be the ideal option, actually, as you're not likely to need to wash one of those, so your fabric painting designs will last for a while.

By irontoenail — On Aug 18, 2012

Remember if you want to do some tie dying then you need to get a specialized dye rather than a paint. The paints might not wash out in the places where you want them to, since fabric paint is supposed to be water safe once it dries and it might dry very quickly.

There are special kits for tie dying if that's the effect you want on your fabric. Or many craft stores will carry dyes that are specially made for fabrics.

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