Journal Entry: June 11, 2020.

Morgan Harvey
Guest Writer |
Fabric Maker | Quilter

Experiences of a young quilter printing on fabric at the 4th Annual Quilting With Kids at Gramma’s Quilt Retreat

Coloring your own fabric is always an adventure, and the end result is always remarkable. However, dyeing isn’t the only way to bepaint your textile art. In a recent session with my grandmother Tricia, and my sister Lily, we explored two different ways to make our fabric vibrant: Sun Printing and Marbling. 

Sun Printing

Sun printing was originally a process known as cyanotype when Sir John Herschel discovered it in 1842. Sun printing employs everyday objects to create shapes on painted fabric when exposed to light.

The following materials are needed for this process: 

  • 100% cotton fabric (prepared for dyeing (PFD)) 
  • Foam core board (a size slightly larger than your fabric size)
  • Fabric paint (We used Setacolor Fabric Paints, purchased from dharmatrading.com.)
  • 1-inch paint brush or larger
  • Water in a spray bottle
  • Shapes for printing (e.g. course sea salt, leaves, flower petals, pieces of lace, paper or heavier-weight paper templates)
  • Plastic wrap 
  • Sewing pins
  • Paper or old cloth towels 

Tricia, Lily and I set out on our enterprise by gathering the above materials and finding a space to make magic. We laid a plastic painter’s drop cloth over our workspace, the dining table. The process can get a bit messy, especially if little hands are involved. We could have set up our sun print outside, but we feared the wind might complicate things. 

Finding the right size space for any crafty project like printing on fabric is essential. I bet more dining room tables are used for projects than any other place.

First, Tricia cut off a piece of PFD fabric for each of us, the cloth being about 16 x 24 inches. It doesn’t matter what size is chosen, just enough to apply paint and room to lay the fabric flat on a foam core board. Next we pinned our cotton rectangles on pieces on the board, ensuring that the fabric was completely flat and without wrinkles. The foam core board helped keep the fabric in the same position throughout the process, and it also made it easier to hold down our fabric while it was outside in the sun. 

We wet our fabric with the spray of our water bottles. In Gramma’s terms, the output of water should be “a spray, not a squirt.” She meant that you should set the nozzle to cover a lot of area rather than a direct squirt with each pump of the bottle to wet the fabric evenly. 

Once our fabric was moistened, we began the painting process. With brush in hand, we covered the whole piece with color, as doing a design is for later. I found I needed to be a little heavy handed with my paint; it will dry lighter. I did one section of spraying and painting at a time, so the fabric didn’t dry out before I painted it. 

When I finished painting, I applied my shapes. Objects used for sun printing can be anything: rocks, plants, lace, doilies, salt; the opportunities are endless. On my green painted fabric, I used little paper hands, large grains of salt, bits of paper towel, and fine netting. (I made my hands by finding a hand image on the Internet, copying multiple hands to a Microsoft PowerPoint document. Then I printed a page and cut out the individual hand shapes.) Lily used paper teapots and salt. Gramma used doilies, salt and netting. We pinned our shapes to the fabric so they wouldn’t get any ideas about moving during the sun printing process. 

I cut out hand shapes from paper for my Sun Printed fabric.

After our shapes were placed on the fabric, we covered our creations and the foam core board with plastic wrap. We took the boards outside to catch the sun’s rays. It helps to pin the plastic wrap to the board to ensure that it stays in place. We set the pieces in direct sunlight around noontime, secured the board with rocks on the corners (just in case of wind), and waited. 

Ready for the sun to make its mark on my fabric.

Approximately three hours later, we pulled our boards back inside. We removed our objects and plastic wrap to see what they left behind. Our netting, the kind you find on bags of produce, left no mark. It might have if it were flatter against the fabric, but who knows. I think the lesson here is to avoid really fine shapes. Everything else, however, left its imprint. 

I also noticed some of my hand shapes didn’t print. I wondered if it would have been a better idea to lay the plastic wrap over the shapes and then put pins on the edges to secure them. That way, the wrap could lay flatter and have less chance of flying away. I suppose I could even put the plastic wrap on the fabric and then lay the objects down. 

Some things left their shape a little too enthusiastically, though. When I tried to peel off my paper hands, they held onto the fabric. If I did get any of those hands to lose their grip, they left behind a paper residue, much like a sticker does when pulled off of a plastic container. 

Printing on fabric can be frustrating. Patience is key. It took a bit of time to scrape off the paper residue, but it was worth it!

After some wetting and scrubbing with a cleaning brush, the hands finally yielded, but they still left little black specks. It actually looked pretty neat in the end. That’s the magic of DIY; even if it’s not what you expected, it’s almost never ugly. We finally hung our fabric up to dry and breathed a sigh of relief. After struggling for a while, we had finally dyed. 

You have to be ready for the unexpected. Sometimes it makes for awesome!

The nice thing about sun printing is that you can leave it outside and check on it later. You have tons of space to do stuff in between; you could have lunch, do chores, or even do another kind of fabric coloring. We opted for the lattermost, as what else could we do around Gramma, who’s always in the mood to Go Go Go

Fabric Marbling

The next technique we tried was Fabric Marbling. In fabric marbling, you utilize something to suspend paint, and on this surface you lay your fabric. We used shaving cream as our suspension method. If you would like to do the same, you’ll need these items: 

  • 100% PFD cotton fabric, cut to the size of your rigid surface (see below)
  • Rigid surface (e.g., cutting board, cookie sheet, or another portable surface)
  • Acrylic fabric paint or another paint specifically made for marbling
  • Shaving cream 
  • Scraper or other tolerable straightedge (e.g., plastic paint scraper)
  • Toothpicks, comb or other item to make a design with the paint
  • A place to put excess shaving cream, such as a cookie sheet or paper plate
  • Lots of paper or old cloth towels

First off, we set up our workspace. We used the same table we had used for the sun printing, with the drop cloth on top. One thing I’ve learned in my neophytic experience with dyeing is to always predict a mess. If there could be any possible splishes, splashes or splatters, protect the area in which those might happen. I’m not saying to hide the furniture in a locked closet or send your housemates outside, but you don’t want company to question the colorful splotches all over your home. 

Back to the dining room table to avoid splishes, splashes and splatters.

I squirted shaving cream on the rigid surface, (we used plastic cutting boards). We spread the shaving cream flat across the surface, a bit more than ¼” thick. We tried rulers to spread the shaving cream at first, but they proved to be poor straightedges, as there wasn’t much to hold on to as we spread the cream. Very messy. We finally turned to plastic scrapers, like those painters use. There will always be some shaving cream left on your straightedge. We used a metal baking sheet to deposit the excess and paper towels to do fine cleaning. 

Once we had a relatively flat plane of the cream, we took our paint bottles (ones we could squirt paint from directly onto the shaving cream) to make a design on the shaving cream. I discovered later that my fabric would not have the exact design I put on the shaving cream. I’d advise drawing something ambiguous, like dots or zigzags or spirals. Lily tried to draw a small flower once, but she had to explain to us what it was once her drawing made it to the finished fabric. If you want to draw something specific, make sure it’s a big boy. 

The wonderment of marbling on cloth. Lily’s flower. Can you see it in the design?

After laying out our paint, we used a toothpick or a comb to manipulate the paint on the shaving cream. This is where the marbling part comes in. If I wanted to achieve an effect similar to marble, I had to draw some dots or lines and spread the paint in vein-like patterns.

When I was satisfied with the shapes on the foamy canvas, I laid a dry piece of fabric over my design. I had to be careful to just drop the fabric down and not move it from its original position. I very gently pressed the fabric into the design, like pressing a paper towel into a spill. 

I peeled the fabric off the shaving cream, still cautious not to smear it around the creamy surface. Some shaving cream came off with my cloth, so I had to make sure to lay it somewhere else, shaving cream side up. I found it paid to wait a minute or two after removing the fabric, so the design can really soak into the fabric. 

Then I took my handy dandy scraper, preferably clean, and scraped the shaving cream off of my piece of fabric. I found that sometimes the paint liked to leave smear marks when the foam comes off. I could counteract this by starting with the scraper at a 45 degree angle with the fabric. As I scraped across, I slowly made the angle greater. By the end of the fabric, my scraper was almost perpendicular to the surface. This helped the already scraped shaving cream travel up the scraper and out of the way. 

I discarded the shaving cream that I just took off of the fabric. However, I decided not to rid myself of the shaving cream canvas. I was able to get a few goes of more fabric pieces on a single design, even if it descended farther and farther into chaos with each piece of fabric. Entropy, am I right? 

When I finished with a bout of shaving cream, I scraped it off my board. Since shaving cream is safe to go into the sink, I washed it off the board and down the drain. I left my pieces of fabric to dry. That’s fabric marbling for you. 

Lily and I made lots of marble fabric samples. It’s all about how much you want to swirl the paint.

There are so many ways to dye. You gotta watch your back, or a new one will sneak up on you. Even if the two methods above aren’t necessarily dyeing, they sure make you want to. So have fun! These are great little projects for kids and serious dyers alike. Let creativity take you away, and hope you wash up on time’s distant shore. 

More information for printing on fabric with kids

Read more about my experiences designing fabric and quilting with Gramma:

Here are just a few of the sources available on the Internet with information about the Sun Printing and Marbling processes and supplies. 

Marbling Basics: Step-by-Step Guide to Marbling Fabric, Dharma Trading Company

How to Make a Cyanotype Print, Cyanotype Store