Dye Vs. Paint

I want to talk about paint. I love paint. I first learned about painting cloth from Mickey Lawler’s SkyDyes book. I bought the paint and colors she said to buy. That was Setacolor acrylic paints for textiles. I love them. I have since tried all the Jacquard paints and Golden Fluid Acrylics as well as screenprinting inks. I love to paint on pimatex cotton, a broadcloth with a high thread count. I think the paint looks better on this cloth. I love the ease of using paints. If I want to quickly change the appearance of cloth, I get out my stamps and paints and in a matter of minutes, I have the look I want. Paint dries fairly quickly. But a person can sink a lot of money into paints. The paint is also a surface treatment which does change the hand of the cloth some.

Now let’s talk about dyes. If you are a dyer of cloth, you already have what you need to make your own paint. You can make the paint very inexpensively. You are no longer working with pigments, as with paint, but now you are working with dye powder. There is a process with dye powder. If you are going to paint with dye powder, you first have to mix a chemical water that has a few different things in it. This is to help keep the dye paint wet enough for the batching time that is needed. Then you need to have a thickening agent to make your dye powder solution thick like paint. Since it is dye powder instead of pigment, there is a different consistency to it. If you are going to do layers of design, you will need to let each layer dry a bit, but not completely (remember,to batch, the dye needs to stay a bit damp), before continuing to add the next layer. (You could let each layer batch and dry between layers; this will take forever!) Dyes also love 70+ degree weather to batch in. Dyes do not change the hand of the fabric (this part I love). Oh yeah, one more thing: dye needs soda ash in order to make the chemical reaction. You must either soak the cloth in a soda ash solution, then air dry the cloth (start the day before you want to paint), or add it to your dye paint as you get ready to use it. This can be one long process!

So which is your favorite and why? I am basically thinking out loud here. I welcome anyone’s input if I have overlooked anything and I would like your take on painting with either medium.

soy wax screen design with ink


  1. This piece reminds me of your “good” piece of black fabric that went gray with the bleach instead of orange. You need to get back to that book and finish it. I think it’s great fun to do and I think others would love workshops on it! I hope you’ll move forward and try to promote that!

  2. I like both. I agree — the paint gives instant gratification. I also love yardage that has been painted. You can get very controlled effects. But, given the chance to plan ahead and time in the studio, there is nothing like painting with dye and getting those layers and discoveriing the serendipitous results.

  3. I haven’t used any of the fabric paints that have come on the market in recent years. My only experience has been with the kind that stiffens the fabric. As for dyeing, I have done tie-dye for 10+ years, and fabric painting with thickened dyes for the past year. I am definitely in love with dye painting. I soda soak my fabric and air dry, press lightly to remove wrinkles, then stretch on my padded work board and I’m off and running. One thing I still need help on however is how to get the dye dark enough. In most cases, when I wash out after batching it fades more than I would like. Any tips on a good ratio of dye powder to print mix?

  4. Yes, Judy, I noticed that very thing too. I think I used 2 tsp. powder to 1/2 c. thickened chem water on these last pieces and I would like mine darker too! They looked good wet, but I knew they would lighten up some. I was thinking of using more dye powder. Like double, maybe? When I do low immersion dyeing, there are some recipes I used double the dye. Maybe that’s the answer. Thanks for chiming in!

  5. I started out painting with the Setacolors like you. Loved it- but once I started dyeing, I knew it would be my first love. The serendipity of it all- and, the fact it needs time actually works well for me most times. I like paint to add texture or other interest, but I love my dyes!

  6. I am more of a dyer than a painter. I do love the instant gratification of opening a jar of paint and applying it, but I do not like the change in hand of the fabric and the fact that it only appears on the surface and doesn’t transfer to the backside. I deal with a lot of wearables, so both of those points are negatives for me. When working with art quilts, an area where I am a rather frustrated and unsuccessful newbie, paints are great.

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