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You are here: Home > All About Hand Dyeing > About Dyes > Fabric Paints

Fabric Paints: a different way to color fibers

Painting with dyes? Dyeing with paints?

Pigment "Dyes" Pigment-dyeing is actually not dyeing at all; it is the immersion painting of a garment with a very thin, soft fabric paint. Since fabric paint wears off of surfaces more quickly than dye, garments "dyed" with pigment dyes appear much more worn than their actual age and degree of wear would warrant - yielding an effect of instant age.

Dye Painting To complicate matters, it is not necessary to use fabric paint to paint a design onto fabric. Direct application of dye can result in highly superior results.

Dye may be painted on, dissolved in just water or alcohol, and allowed to spread like watercolor, or dye may be thickened with a product such as alginate in order to give a much more "paint-like" result.

Fiber reactive dyes that are fixed with soda ash may be applied to fabric that has been soaked in soda ash and then line-dried, or the soda ash may be mixed in with the dye, or the painting may be fixed afterwards by painting on sodium silicate (Dharma's "After Fix") or soda ash in a saturated salt solution. An excellent book on this subject is Ann Johnston's Dye Painting!.



Books on using Fabric Paints for Beautiful Effects

Sky Dyes

Handpainting Fabric:
Easy, Elegant Techniques

The Painted Quilt:
Paint and Print Techniques for Color on Quilts

Sun Painting

Fabric Art Workshop:
Exploring Techniques & Materials for Fabric Artists and Quilters

Paintstiks on Fabric

Step-by-Step Fabric Painting

Transforming Fabric:
Thirty Creative Ways to Paint, Dye and Pattern Cloth

Fabric Painting and Dyeing for the Theatre

Dyes & Paints:
A Hands-On Guide to Coloring Fabric

for Fabric Paints

Jacquard Dye-Na-Flow Fabric Colors

Jacquard Dye-Na-Flow Fabric Colors

Dye-Na-Flow is a free-flowing textile paint made to simulate dye. These highly concentrated, translucent colors are incredibly versatile, perfect for silk painting, airbrushing, tie-dying or simplified batik techniques, or apply with brush or sponge.

Procion MX is the best dye for cotton or rayon.
Jacquard Procion MX Fiber Reactive Dye
from Mister Arts.

Jacquard Textile Colors are an excellent choice for painting fabric.
Jacquard Textile Colors
from Mister Arts

Stains to cover?
Dark background?
Only opaque fabric paints can cover!

Click here to buy Jacquard Neopaque Colors

Silver, gold, and metallic colors make special effects!

Click here to buy Jacquard Lumiere Metallic Colors
from Mister Art

Use Paintstiks on top of dye or fabric paint for special effects

Jacquard Silk Color, a true dye, can be painted and set on silk without steaming by using Jacquard Dyeset Concentrate

Jacquard Silk Dyes

Jacquard Silk Dyes

Jacquard Silk Dyes are true dyes, not thinned pigment. They will not stiffen silk or mask its natural luster.

Jacquard Dye-Set Concentrate

Jacquard Dye-Set Concentrate

Instead of steaming, you can set your Jacquard Green Label Silk Dye colors with this concentrated solution. Just allow your painted fabric to dry, then immerse in a mixture of the Permanent Dyeset Concentrate and cold water.

Use Textile Medium to turn any acrylic paint into fabric paint

Pebeo Setasilk Kit

Pebeo Setasilk Kit

Includes everything you need to paint in strong, bright, and intense color on silk, other fabrics, paper and wood.

Slick paints are shiny and feel like plastic on the fabric

Puffy paints puff up on the fabric

Fabric Spray Paint leaves a perceptible slight stiffness on the fabric, unlike true dye, but does not feel like plastic

Screen printing ink is another kind of fabric paint. It leaves a perceptible feel on the fabric, unlike true dye

Fabric markers contain fabric paint, not dye, but the paint is so thin and light that it is impossible to feel.

Jacquard Tee Juice Fabric Markers

Jacquard Tee Juice Fabric Markers

Loaded with color that flows as you need it. Just squeeze to increase the color flow. Brilliant, lightfast colors stay strong after repeated washings. Blend colors one on top of another.

Do not confuse fabric paints with fabric dyes! The way the two work is quite different, with major effects on how you can use them, and how they will perform.

Unlike dyes, which must be matched to the fiber content of the material you are dyeing, fabric paints may be used on almost any type of fiber. Fabric paint is a mixture of a pigment and a glue-like binder. The pigment, unlike dye, will not adhere to fabric on its own, so the glue is required to attach the pigment to the fiber. Natural fibers tend to work better with fabric paints than synthetic fibers, perhaps because they are rougher and provide a better surface for the glue to stick to.

Advantages of Fabric Paint (compared to dye)


Fabric paint does not require steaming or boiling to fix to the fiber, which adds convenience. Ironing, which is required by many fabric paints in order to make a permanent bond to the fabric, is much easier and quicker than steaming.

Of course, cool water fiber reactive dyes do not need to be steamed, either, but they must be activated by adding soda ash, either directly to the dye, or by pre-soaking the fabric. This is simple, but some find it to be inconvenient.


Some fabric paints are labeled as being non-toxic, and are thus more suitable for use by children, as well as those who are careless about safe handling of chemicals. Unfortunately, occasionally the label on an art material may say 'non-toxic' when in fact no tests have been done, so in some cases this may be more of a perceived benefit than a real one. However, the mere fact of buying dyes or paints in liquid form eliminates a major part of possible exposure to dyes or pigments, the mixing of dye powders with water, which simplifies safety precautions considerably.


While most fabric paints, like dyes, are transparent, some opaque fabric paints are available, either plain opaques, or pearlescent paints, or metallics. This is essential for adding a design on top of fabric that is already dark. The only way to use dye to add a design to a dark piece of fabric is to first discharge, or bleach out, sections of the dark background color first.


There is no such things as a metallic dye. Metallic fabric paint consists of finely ground particles of mica mixed in a fabric paint binder. If you're embellishing your dyed fabric with metallic or pearl effects, you must use paint!

Some fabric paints are designed for special textures, such as the "slick" fabric paint which makes a shiny plastic surface (and sticks to itself badly in the clothes dryer), or the "puffy" paint that puffs up under a hot iron (see my little boy's "Take Chances! Make mistakes! Get messy!" t-shirt). The special effects can be fun, but the lifespan of garments made with them is typically much shorter than that of a garment that has been dyed with good fiber reactive dye.

Drawbacks to Fabric Paint (compared to dye)

The 'hand' of the fabric

Since paint does not become a part of the fiber, but instead is glued onto the surface of the fiber, it can, in some cases, leave an extremely disagreeable feeling on the fabric, unlike dye, which leaves no "hand" at all. Fabric is invariably stiffer and less soft when painted than when dyed, but the amount by which the feeling of the fabric is changed varies markedly according to the type of paint you choose. It is very important to choose your fabric paint carefully, if you wish to avoid this effect. A few high quality paints give quite satisfactory results, especially when diluted.

Wear and tear

Since paint sits on the surface of the fabric, it is much more subject to wear than most dyes. As has been said elsewhere, the difference is like that between a radish and a beet. Like a radish, fabric-painted fabric has color only on the outside; like a beet, properly dyed fiber has color all the way through. It helps to wash gently, and always turn your fabric-painted or pigment-dyed clothing inside-out in the laundry.

Special Techniques for Fabric Painting

Serti technique

Serti is the technique of outlining a design on tightly- stretched silk with an impenetrable substance and then coloring in the spaces between with thin paint or dye. The traditional line-drawing material is gutta, a rubber-based liquid that can be removed only by dry-cleaning. Some opaque fabric paints make a fairly good substitute for gutta and are easier to use.

Sun Painting

Any transparent fabric paint can be used in sun-painting. (Opaque fabric paint will not work.) The paint is diluted with water, and applied to dampened fabric. Various items such as leaves, flowers, shells, feathers, bits of metal (beware of rust), and aluminum foil cut-outs are then placed on the damp painted fabric, and the fabric is then allowed to dry, either in bright sunlight or under another source of heat such as a heat lamp or a heat gun (which is a hair dryer without a fan to blow the items about). As the exposed areas dry sooner, they suck wet paint out from under the objects on the fabric, leaving the covered areas as much paler designs. SetaColour Transparent and Jacquard Textile Paint work well for this. Setacolor Soleil is more diluted than SetaColour Transparent, but appears to be otherwise the same, and is actually marketed in kits for this purpose.

See How to Dye and Paint Fabric with Light for more detail on the subject of sun painting, including links to pages with detailed recipes.

Salt and Alcohol Effects

Stretch fabric tightly, if possible (I've used the same wooden bars used for canvas for oil paintings), and sprinkle salt on the damp painted fabric. Different sizes of salt yield different results; I like the large grains of the pickling salt my local grocery carries. What happens is the salt "sucks" water out of nearby areas, leaving lovely sweeping pale spots. Salt effects work with dye only if the dye is to be fixed afterwards; dye that is already reacting, such as fiber reactive dye on pre-soda-soaked fabric, will not show salt effects.

Dropping alcohol on the paint gives lighter spots with darker edges.

Shiva Paintstiks Oil Colors

Unlike other oil paints and oil paint sticks, Shiva or Markal Paintstiks are recommended for use on garments, as the oils they contain are both less acidic and faster-drying than alternative oil paints and sticks. (Most fabric paints are forms of acrylic paint.) The metallic and pearlescent colors add wonderful textures to fabric that is placed over any textured object before coloring; typically the fabric is dyed first, washed, and dried. The paints can be made permanent on fabric by allowing to dry for three to seven days, depending on the thickness of application, and then completing the polymerization by heat setting with an iron. The results can be washed but should not be dry-cleaned.

Painting on a dark background

The vast majority of fabric paints, like all fabric dyes, are transparent. They do not cover up the color of the fabric. If you wish to paint onto dark fabric, be sure to purchase only opaque fabric paint. Recommended brands include Lumiere, Neopaque, PRObrite Pearlescent Textile Paint, and PROfab Opaque Textile Paint.

Silk Paints

Commercially available silk paints include both paints and dyes.

Paints used for silk painting

The first silk paint I used was Deka Silk; it was very easy to use, and gave beautiful results. Deka products are not currently available in the US, though they are still sold in the UK, but there are plenty of equally good alternatives. Highly similar silk paints include Dye-na-Flow, Silkcolor, and Setasilk. These paints are all very thin and leave only a slight reduction in the softness of the material, not enough to be a problem, in most cases, even on thin silks. To fix them to the fabric, you allow them to dry thoroughly and then press with a hot iron. Although the fixation of silk dyes requires moist heat, dry heat is what is called for in fixing the binder used in silk paints.

Dyes used in silk painting

True dyes sold for use in silk painting include the Basic Type dye sold by Aljo as their "Alcohol/Water" dye for silk, Procion H reactive dye, and Remazol or vinyl sulfone dye. (Procion H and Remazol dyes require steaming to fix the dye to the fiber, unlike Procion MX dye). Tinfix, Pebeo Soie, Dupont and Kniazeff are the 'French Dyes' which yield very bright colors, but which require steaming; they contain various sorts of acid dyes.

Which should you use - silk dye or silk paint?

However brilliant and lovely your results with silk paints, expert silk painters say that your colors will be even richer and more lovely if you use silk dyes, instead. While silk dyes may, in some cases, be fixed by using a strongly alkaline chemical, instead of steaming, it is steaming that gives the best and most beautiful results. Steaming is far more trouble than ironing, however, so beginners are usually advised to start out with silk paints.

Heat Setting Fabric Paints and Silk Dyes

Heat setting is required in order to make most fabric paints and silk dyes permanent on fabric. Carefully check the instructions that came with your fabric paint.


Ironing is used to set paints only, not dyes. Most fabric paints can be heat-set by ironing, which fixes the binder in the paint to the fabric. Typical instructions are to iron from the back side of the fabric for three to four minutes with the iron set on the 'cotton' setting. Check the manufacturers' instructions that come with your fabric paint. Use scrap fabric to protect your ironing board against color transfer.

Some fabric paints can also be set simply by time. If you wait at least a month before washing the painted fabric, the paint may be as permanent as if you had ironed it.

Some fabric paints may be set by tumbling the fabric in a hot dryer for half an hour, instead of ironing.

An alternative to ironing, for iron-set fabric paints, is the addition of a small quantity of acrylic catalyst immediately before use. Jacquard Airfix can be used instead of ironing for Jacquard Textile colors, Neopaque, Dye-Na-Flow, and most other acrylic fabric paints. You can order it from Jerry's Art Supplies.This product is ideal when heat-setting is impossible. It cannot be used with dyes.


Steaming is used to set dyes only, not paints. A steam iron cannot be used for this purpose. The fabric is laid out on unprinted or aged newsprint paper or cotton muslin and rolled up; the paper is to prevent cross-staining between different parts of the design. The roll of paper is then curled up and placed in a vegetable steamer, and steamed for a period of time ranging from half an hour to three hours, depending on the dye manufacturer's instructions. PRO Chemical & Dye gives detailed instructions for this method of steaming.

Any creases in the silk during steaming may result in long-lasting wrinkles, so care must be taken in this procedure. A more professional steamer arrangement makes this much easier.

In some cases, chemical setting with a sodium silicate solution, also called water glass, is a possible alternative to steaming; this solution is variously sold as AfterFix, DrimaFix, or PRO Fix LHF. One kind of silk dye, Jacquard's Green Label Silk Colors, can be set with a resin-containing fixative called Permanent Dyeset Concentrate; Dharma Trading Company also recommends its use for Sennlier Tinfix silk dyes. However, dye experts warn that the results of chemically setting silk dyes are not quite as brilliant or lovely as those obtained by steaming.

Sources for fabric paint, including silk paints

Some crafts stores will carry good brands of fabric paint, but you may find a much better selection, and possibly better prices, when buying them via mail order. Slick paints and other dimensioanl paints are easier to find in crafts stores than good thin fabric paint that leaves the fabric soft nd nice to touch. However, many good art supply retailers sell Jacquard brand paints, including Lumiere (metallic and pearlescent colors), Neopaque (for light or bright colors on a dark background), Dye-na-flow (a paint that flows on the fabric almost like dye), and Jacquard Textile Colors. Jacquard's true dyes that are used for silk painting include Procion H, Red Label Silk Colors (mostly Remazol type dyes), and Green Label Silk Colors (the same dyes as the Red Label dyes, but acidified and diluted).

PRO Chemical & Dye sells Pebeo Setacolor transparent paint, Pebeo Setasilk transparent paint, and other fabric paints including their own line of PROfab Textile Paints, and PRO Liquid Decorator Colors for pigment dyeing and tie-painting (like tie-dyeing). PROfab Color Concentrates can be used for industrial-style pigment dyeing (remember, pigment "dyeing" is not truly dyeing);. Their true dyes for silk painting include Pebeo Soie silk dye, Procion H reactive dyes, vinyl sulfone or Remazol dyes (which they call Liquid Fiber Reactive Dye). Their PROsperse Disperse Dyes can be used to mix transfer paints for use on synthetic fibers such as polyester. Unlike many US suppliers, PROchem ships their products to many different countries.

Another excellent source in the US for many types of silk paint and other fabric paints is Dharma Trading Company. Among other fabric paints, they sell a fabric paint called Dharma Pigment Dye (which, like all pigment dyes, is not really a dye) which they promote for use as a silk paint and for a stone-wash effect in tie-dyeing. It's probably the best answer to the common question of how to tie-dye polyester clothing. They sell a wide range of fabric paints, including the Jacquard products mentioned above as well as Pebeo Setasilk and Setacolor, Versatex printing in and air brush ink, Setacolor expandable "puff" medium for making puffy paint, Dr. Ph. Martin's Spectralite and catalyst additive for airbrushing and marbling, and Jacquard Pearl-Ex pigments (which require a binder for fabric painting) and stamp pads.

G&S Dye, in Toronto, carries a newer kind of silk paint they call Liquid Colours, a high quality liquid paint which, they say, is superior to other silk paints, including Deka Silk and Setasilk. They also sell Pebeo Soie and Procion H dyes, and other fabric paints such as Setacolor.

Tobasign Dyes, in Spain, will ship their dye, which is vinyl sulfone ("Remazol" type) dye, to any country.

DEKA Silk and other DEKA products can be purchased from suppliers in Europe, though they are not available in the US. George Weil Fibrecrafts is among the British suppliers which carry DEKA products.

Aurora Silk sells concentrated natural dyes to be used for painting on fabric that has been premordanted with alum or tin. It's not at all inexpensive, and the tin mordant is toxic, but the idea of painting with natural dyes is aesthetically pleasing to many people.

Many other dye suppliers sell a selection of the dyes and fabric paints listed above, as well. See Sources for Supplies for contact information for these and other suppliers around the world.


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