How to Paint Fabric

Hands painting a flower design on fabric.

Ales-A / Getty Images

Overview
  • Working Time: 2 - 3 hrs
  • Total Time: 14 - 20 hrs
  • Skill Level: Beginner
  • Estimated Cost: $10

Painting fabric not only allows you to create your own beautiful art, but it also allows you to customize your clothes, upholstery fabric, and any other crafts involving fabric. Use paint to create an ornate design on a shabby upholstered chair or to add your favorite quote to a canvas tote bag. By painting fabric, you can bring old items back to life and add your own personal flair to new ones. Painting fabric allows you to quickly and inexpensively update the look of almost anything. Plus, it’s a very beginner-friendly DIY.

Before You Begin

Painting fabric does require some forethought. Not every paint type works, so do your research before heading to the craft store. Otherwise, staring down all of those bottles in the paint aisle will be overwhelming.

Acrylic fabric paint is a solid option. Acrylic paints are durable, so you can wash your painted fabric without worry that it will immediately warp or fade. If you’re painting a larger surface, use liquid acrylic fabric paint, which can cover a large area. For detailing, opt for fabric markers that give you more control over the paint. 

Warning

Paints—including acrylic and fabric paints—can be toxic if ingested or when put into contact with eyes or skin. Keep paint out of reach of children and pets, work in a well-ventilated space, wash your hands thoroughly after handling paint, and allow the surface to dry fully before moving it.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Vacuum
  • Lint roller
  • Iron
  • Washcloth
  • Paint brush
  • Fabric pins (optional)

Materials

  • Fabric paint (liquid or markers)
  • Cardboard or paper
  • Painter's tape

Instructions

  1. Prep Fabric

    Always prepare your fabric before painting to help the paint last longer and prevent peeling and fading down the road. The preparation will depend on the type of fabric paint you use. Each paint bottle will typically have instructions on how to prep your fabric before use. That’s the best resource, but there are a few general rules: Pre-wash your fabric with fabric softeners to eliminate surface chemicals and starches, dry it, then iron it to get rid of wrinkles. If needed, remove all dust and debris using a vacuum and/or lint roller.

    After you’ve cleaned your fabric, dry and iron it to get rid of any wrinkles and to create a smooth working surface.

  2. Tape off Sections

    Protect parts of the furniture with painter's tape. If you’re painting fabric, you likely only want to apply it to the fabric part of your furniture or design piece, so tape off sections of wood or metal as needed to avoid getting paint on them.

    Tip

    Have a wet washcloth at the ready so that you can quickly wipe away any paint that gets on wood or metal before it has time to dry. When it dries, it will be more difficult to remove later on.

  3. Pencil on Designs

    If you’re painting a design onto your fabric, use a pencil to draw it out first. This will help you avoid mistakes when you’re painting with permanent fabric paint later on. If you make a mistake drawing on the pencil, you can always erase it. That’s not true when you begin painting.

    If you’re painting your fabric a solid color with no designs, feel free to skip this step. You can also skip this if you’re going to be using a stencil to paint on your design.

  4. Place Cardboard Underneath Fabric

    Place a piece of cardboard or thick paper underneath the fabric to ensure the paint doesn’t bleed through onto your work surface. This step is especially important if you’re painting a two-layer object, like a t-shirt or a tote bag. If you skip this step, your paint can bleed through and make a mess. 

    Tip

    Secure the fabric to the cardboard with fabric pins to keep it from moving while you work.

  5. Paint

    Dip your paintbrush in your fabric paint or grab your fabric paint marker and begin painting. Start at the top and work your way down section by section to minimize the risk of accidentally smudging wet paint with your hand while you work.

    Start with a thin, even layer of paint—just enough to cover the area or complete the design. If you desire deeper colors, you can always add another coat later.

    Paint in long, even brush strokes in the same direction as the fabric texture. Continue painting in this same direction until all the fabric is coated evenly.

    If you’re painting furniture, dab paint into seams and buttons to ensure that all fabric is completely covered.

  6. Allow It to Dry

    Once your fabric is completely covered with paint, set it out to dry and do not touch it to prevent any wrinkles and smudges. To get it to dry more quickly, set it in a well-ventilated area, like your garage or even backyard. Just make sure it’s protected from the elements. Let it sit for at least 12 hours or the amount of drying time specified on your fabric paint product label.

  7. Paint Another Layer If Needed

    If you desire a deeper color or want to touch up a few spots, you can dip your brush in fabric paint or open your paint marker and get started on another layer. Again, make sure everything is coated evenly to ensure it dries properly and the color looks even. Only paint another layer after the first coat is completely dry.

  8. Heat Seal

    Remove the painters tape and seal it with heat to ensure the paint lasts long. Lay a cotton sheet over your dry, painted fabric and gently run a hot iron over top. This will prevent paint from chipping off in the wash. 

    Alternatively, you can seal your painted fabric by setting it out in the hot sun for a few hours or gently blowing over it a few times with a hair dryer.

Article Sources
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  1. "Art Safety." Office of Environmental Health and Safety, Princeton University.