Fabric painting is a fantastic way to transform different items, from clothing and shoes to throw pillows and upholstery. But if you haven’t done it before, you’ll want to get a full grasp of how to paint on fabric prior to diving in—especially because, unlike a standard canvas, it’s not always as simple as just tossing the item to the side and starting over if you make a mistake.

In this quick guide to fabric painting for beginners, we’re covering all of the basics that you need to know about how to paint fabric, including answers to common questions like “what paint can I use on fabric?” and “how do you paint on clothes?” Plus, we’ll share some need-to-know tips on how to seal acrylic paint on fabric for the long haul. Let’s get to it. 

Skillshare instructor Renjitha Anoop demonstrates fabric painting techniques. 
Skillshare instructor Renjitha Anoop demonstrates fabric painting techniques. 

Choosing Your Fabric Paint

One of the most essential things to know about how to paint on fabric is that not all paints are suitable to the task. It’s important that you choose the right type of paint, keeping in mind both the variety of fabric that you’re working with and the overall finish that you want to achieve.

You’ve got quite a few options when it comes to how to paint on fabric permanently. Here are your best picks.

Acrylic

Can you use acrylic paint on fabric? You bet! Many artists choose to use acrylic-based paints, both for their versatility and their permanence. Acrylic is easy to work with and durably adheres to most fabrics—it’s also your cheapest option.

Fabric Dye

Another popular pick is fabric dyes, which are specifically made to adhere to various types of fibers. Because different fibers require different types of chemical bonds for adherence, make sure you choose a dye that’s intended for the type of fabric you’re working with.

Alcohol-Based Pigments

These are technically inks and not paints, but alcohol-based pigments can work well on fabric, soaking into fibers instead of simply binding to the top. Keep in mind that you won’t get as rich of a saturation as you do with acrylic-based paints or dyes, and you’ll need to use a protective sealant to prevent fading in the wash.

As for how to paint on fabric permanently, all of these paints will work with proper care and technique. Whether you opt for acrylic paint on fabric or another paint variety ultimately comes down to preference and fabric type.

Note that within each variety you’ll also have some choice about the form of paint you use. There are three forms available:

  • Markers/pens: Good for line work, writing, and fine detailing
  • Liquids: Good for block painting and silk screening
  • Sprays: Good for stenciling, upholstery, and large area coverage

Depending on your project, you may end up using multiple forms of fabric paint, and maybe even multiple types.

12 Tips for Painting on Fabric

How to paint fabric is as much about technique as it is about the paint itself. Here are some expert tips to help you get exceptional results.

1. Do a Pre-Wash

Source: Instagram   @sayainu    Any washing machine will work for a pre-wash prior to painting. 
Source: Instagram @sayainu Any washing machine will work for a pre-wash prior to painting. 

Does fabric paint wash off? Technically no, but if you purchase new fabric for your artwork it may be coated in chemicals that will prevent the paint from adhering. Pre-washing will remove these chemicals, and will also allow the item to come to its final size before you do your design—instead of after.

2. Add a Barrier in Between Layers

Source: Instagram  @poonam.rayat.16   A simple layer of cardboard can prevent paint from bleeding through onto other fabric layers. 
Source: Instagram @poonam.rayat.16 A simple layer of cardboard can prevent paint from bleeding through onto other fabric layers. 

All types of fabric paint have the potential to bleed in between layers. Use a barrier (such as a piece of cardboard) for multi-layered items, particularly items with a front and back like t-shirts and pillow cases.

3. Test Your Paint

Skillshare instructor Rekha Krishnamurthi testing fabric paints before using them in her work. 
Skillshare instructor Rekha Krishnamurthi testing fabric paints before using them in her work. 

One of the most important things to know in terms of how to use acrylic paint on fabric—or any type of fabric paint for that matter—is that how it looks on the bottle is not always how it will look on your fabric. Try it out on a separate surface first to test color and consistency.

4. How to Set Acrylic Paint on Fabric: Use Heat

Source: Instagram  @sew.justlikeso   Heat set your finished design prior to putting it in the wash. 
Source: Instagram @sew.justlikeso Heat set your finished design prior to putting it in the wash. 

Knowing how to set acrylic paint on fabric is key, since if you don’t set it, you won’t get lasting results. The best way to do it? Heat setting, which is essentially just ironing the fabric on the opposite side you painted. Give the paint 24 hours to dry, heat set with a dry iron on medium-low, and then wait four to five days before washing.

5. Another Option for How to Heat Set Acrylic Paint on Fabric: Indirect Ironing

Source: Instagram   @ujy5tm    You can use indirect heat if you don’t want to iron your design directly. 
Source: Instagram @ujy5tm You can use indirect heat if you don’t want to iron your design directly. 

If you’d rather not apply direct heat to your painted fabric, then another option is to try the hovering method. Hold your warm, dry iron over the painted section without allowing it to touch the fabric. You should still transfer enough heat to set your acrylic paint without needing to directly apply the iron. 

6. Light it Up

Skillshare instructor Rekha Krishnamurthi working on top of a lighted surface.
Skillshare instructor Rekha Krishnamurthi working on top of a lighted surface.

Light is definitely your friend with fabric painting, and that goes double when you’re doing any sort of fine detailing. Make sure to use a lit surface or proper overhead lighting so that you can see what you’re doing.

7. Use a Gentle Touch

Source: Instagram   @aden_artb    Go slow and be gentle instead of rushing your work. 
Source: Instagram @aden_artb Go slow and be gentle instead of rushing your work. 

Remember, fabric paint is made to bind to fibers, which means you don’t have to press hard to get it to do its job. Do press down hard enough to deposit color, but don’t press down so hard that you end up with color in places you don’t intend.

8. Know Your Fabric

Source: Instagram   @morgane.leveque_     You’ll use different best practices for painting a fabric like denim then you would for linen or canvas.
Source: Instagram @morgane.leveque_ You’ll use different best practices for painting a fabric like denim then you would for linen or canvas.

Fabric can be finicky. Depending on what you’re working with—cotton vs. linen, denim vs. canvas, etc.—you may need to do some extra due diligence to keep the integrity of your design both while you paint and after. If you’re using a fabric that is prone to wrinkles, iron first in addition to doing a pre-wash to keep your design looking nice.

9. Dampen Fabric Prior to Painting

Source: Instagram  @premierdigitaltextiles   Dampening your fabric ahead of time will help the paint adhere. 
Source: Instagram @premierdigitaltextiles Dampening your fabric ahead of time will help the paint adhere. 

If you’ve done any tie dying, then you’re probably already familiar with this tip. Dampening your fabric prior to applying your paint can improve adhesion by allowing paint to flow into the fibers. Just don’t wet the fabric too much, since that can dilute your colors or cause them to bleed—or both.

10. Made a Mistake? Use Bleach

Source: Instagram  @krustystuff   Use bleach to clean up mistakes--or even as its own medium.
Source: Instagram @krustystuff Use bleach to clean up mistakes–or even as its own medium.

Bleach can be a magical eraser when you need to clean up mistakes, though it’s not a guarantee. If you mess up, use a small, cheap paintbrush dipped in bleach on a tiny test portion of your fabric to see if it works and how well. If it works, use it (carefully) as needed and then give your fabric a wash to stop the bleach action before applying new paint. You can also use bleach as its own medium if you’re working on dark fabric. 

11. Try Stencils

Source: Instagram  @miksmik33   Stencils are a great option when you want a precise design. 
Source: Instagram @miksmik33 Stencils are a great option when you want a precise design. 

If you’re not quite ready to try your skills at hand painting, try stencils instead. You can make your own or buy them pre-made from an art supply store, with both options giving you a much easier way to perfect your design on the first go.

12. Mix Up Your Mediums

Source: Instagram  @d_bar_e_beadworks   Using different mediums can really bring your design to life. 
Source: Instagram @d_bar_e_beadworks Using different mediums can really bring your design to life. 

There are so many ways to add texture and dimension to your fabric painting through the use of additional mediums. Add embellishments like jewels, embroidery, or ribbon to your work to amp up the creativity and achieve a piece that’s even more one-of-a-kind. 

Fabric painting is a useful skill for when you’re interested in creating truly original pieces for your home or your closet. Do your research ahead of time to get the look you’re after, and always read the directions carefully on the type and brand of fabric paint that you opt for so that you can be sure to follow all best practices in terms of use and setting. 

Create Your Own Fabric Paint

Easy DIY Fabric Art: Watercolor + Ink.

Written by:

Laura Mueller