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Tips for Painting Fabric

Age or antique painted fabric to create a unique craft or handmade memento that looks and feels like a piece of the past.

From pirate’s maps to family tree scrolls, painting and distressing fabric for an antique feel gives newly-crafted pieces a sense of history. The proper sense of “antique” isn’t limited solely to the look of the fabric, but also the touch: frayed edges, soft surfaces, worn spots through which fingers are poked.

Depending upon the desired effect, different applications can be made to antique fabric. Water damage, grimy stains, and faded inscriptions: these are just a few of the possibilities when altering fabric with ageing techniques. Along with tips on what to do come the guidelines for what not to do – from using ink to create text to dyeing freshly-painted objects.

Fabric Tips and Painting Suggestions

Item fabric is the first consideration in antiquing the item. While synthetic fabrics hold dyes well, the tendency to absorb stain quickly requires caution, since a little ageing goes a long ways. Moreover, the paint absorption by synthetics is often strong, resulting in bold images which do not fade quickly.

To choose fabric ideal for antiquing, use cotton muslin, preferably Osnaburg. Considered one of the best fabrics for craft use by folk and primitive artists, the soft, grainy off-white fabric is easy to paint and dye and frays readily along the edges with a little encouragement.

Osnaburg is especially good for projects like maps, scrolls, and other historical recreations. Ordinary muslin can be substituted, especially since white muslin tends to fade naturally into yellow shades over time.

Emphasize bold colors over pastels when painting the fabric. Detail the painted design with gold enamel craft paint (including outdoor varieties) to add gilt edges or gilding to antique-style maps or family trees. Even with antiquing solutions and fabric sanding, the remaining gilding will add a touch of authenticity to antiqued items.

Antiquing with Sepia Solutions

To dye craft-painted fabrics for quick results, use a traditional hot tea dye. A strong solution of dark tea (black or orange pekoe are excellent choices) is poured into a dyeing pan, bowl, or sink; the fabric is then soaked in the hot solution for several minutes. Remove the fabric after a long soak and wring out extra liquid before drying.

The tea will highlight flaws in the pattern or design, such as spots where the brush missed contact or the fabric didn’t absorb the color. This tendency will help enhance the antique feel of the project, as if the paint is wearing away, which is something to keep in mind while creating the initial design.

For an equally powerful (and somewhat darker) solution, mix two teaspoons of raw sienna paint, or a similar brown shade, with one-third cup of water and brush over the fabric surface. Like hot tea, the solution quickly dyes the fabric a dark shade and highlights flaws in the painted design.

Soft and Hard Fabrics and Real “Holes”

Soaking an item in tea typically softens the fabric; but the painted surface remains hard. To add a sense of wear to the painted surface, use fine-grain sandpaper to wear down the painted design. This can be done before or after the antiquing solution is applied, but sanding beforehand allows the tea to wash away any white marks or debris left behind.

To mimic the feel hard or water-stained fabrics, like sacking or tough leather, emphasize paint over water-based solutions like tea dye. Increasing the paint in the paint and water dyeing solution will stiffen the feel of fabric; a thick coat brushed over the fabric should dry with a stiff, rough surface. Add a grungy feel to the fabric by sprinkling with powdered cinnamon while still damp, brushing away the excess when dry.

Sand vigorously over a small section of fabric to create “holes” that look like natural wear in the material. The grains quickly pull apart the fabric with a worn look that exceeds any hole created deliberately with scissors or a thread puller.

Preserving Designs and other Troubleshooting Tips

Avoid writing in ink on the fabric before antiquing the project. Quality inks, especially calligraphy varieties, will run and blur beyond recognition in a tea bath or paint solution. While this certainly adds a faded dimension to the fabric, it can quickly ruin a project with dark lines running into painted surfaces.

Add calligraphy or written messages only after the antiquing solutions have been applied and the piece is completely dry. While the ink may have a slightly newer appearance than the rest of the fabric, the writing will be legible and the painted design unharmed.

Colored pencils, on the other hand, usually withstand the dyeing process with only minimal effects. Moreover, pencils can be used on the wet fabric surface as well, creating a rich, blended technique not unlike paint.

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