How to Paint Fabric

hand drawing an elegant colorful design on fabric
  • 3-5 hours
  • Beginner
  • 50-100

Gather up your fabric painting supplies. You’ll want paint, some brushes, something to lay out to protect the table, and some type of fabric to paint. Use a cleared surface so you can spread your fabric out nice and flat as you paint.

Fabric Painting Basics

When it comes to painting fabric, you have a few paint options. You can use acrylic or all surface paint and mix it with a tintable fabric medium in order to make it washable. If you don’t care about the item surviving the wash, you can just use plain acrylic. You can purchase pre-mixed fabric paint or use fabric paint pens or paint markers. You’ll probably need to head to a craft store to find any of these items.

Because there are so many options, it’s best to really read the back of the bottle and see if the type of paint you’re buying is recommended for the project you’re tackling. If you’re going to stamp tea towels, it’s probably best to avoid puffed fabric paints. If you want to paint jeans, using a tintable fabric medium might be the way to go.

woman painting pink flamingo on fabric for shirt

If you really want to start from scratch, you can work with DIY paint. One method is to dilute regular paint with three parts water for each part of paint. Dampening the fabric with a spray bottle and working in small areas can help you get the best results. It's also a good idea to use a sanding sponge to evenly spread the layers of your paint.

The Process

First, prewash whatever you want to paint. This is an important step because you’re likely painting something that will shrink after the first wash. If it shrinks post paint job, whatever you paint will likely warp.

After you’ve washed and dried (and possibly ironed) your fabric, sketch out your design. Unless you’re going full freehand, you can use things like disappearing fabric markers to mark up your fabric, or a good old fashioned pencil. You can use something like an embroidery hoop to stretch and tighten the fabric to paint on, or you can use something like painter's tape to section off a portion of the fabric and create clean, sharp lines.

If you want to paint a pattern, consider using or making your own stencils or stamps. You can also get creative and use tape and stickers to help you form a pattern, or you can just freehand a pattern and channel your inner Mattisse.

Once you’ve got your design in place, enjoy painting away. You'll need a variety of different brushes depending on what you're painting. A sponge brush would be helpful for stenciling, while traditional paintbrushes would be best for freehanding a design.

painted fox pattern on off white fabric

After you’ve painted your fabric, let it dry for at least twenty four hours. After that time, check to make sure there are no wet or damp areas of paint. If the item is completely dry, you'll need to set it with heat.

We recommend taking a thin flour sack towel and laying it across the top of your project and then using an iron to heat set the project. The towel protects your paint while the iron sets the paint deeper into the fabric fibers. Use the iron on medium or low and run it over the project in small circular motions for about three or four minutes.

A Word on Furniture

If the fabric you're painting happens to be furniture, the rules change a little. To paint furniture, you'll need to use chalk paint. While Annie Sloan chalk paint is considered top of the line, you can also grab perfectly great chalk paint at any craft store or home improvement store. For painting furniture, you will NOT want to make your own chalk paint.

No matter which method you use to paint, make sure to go slow and really work the paint into the fibers. It’s best to have a lot of small, light layers that are worked well into the fibers.