I have used alcohol inks to paint on silk and wonder how best to fix the dye

Name: Tina
Country or region: usa
Message: I have used alcohol inks to paint on silk and wonder how best to fix the dye. I used a water based resist and would like to wash it out in water but am afraid the water will wash out the ink before it is set. I could iron but wonder if you recommend a fixative.

I’m afraid I don’t have the answer you’re looking for. Alcohol inks are not suitable for painting silk that will ever be subjected to the rigors of washing. They are intended for coloring materials that will never be laundered; for example, they are good for painting fabric that you are then going to frame and use as decor, or for painting wood, glass, or metal ornaments. There is no fixative that will enable the alcohol inks to function as real dyes. There is a way that you might fix it permanently in place using a colorless fabric paint, but the results may or may not be what you’re looking for. The biggest problem is that anything you can use to fix your alcohol inks will also fix the resist in place!

It is important to use the right material for a project. For painting on silk, I recommend using good silk paints or silk painting dyes. There are many excellent choices available. Take a look at the silk painting section at a good dye supplier. For example, see Dharma Trading Company’s page of “Paints and Dyes for Painting Silk, Wool, and Nylon Fabrics“. Every one of the dyes and paints on that page is far more suitable for silk painting than are the alcohol inks. It would be good to start by reading some books about silk painting, such as Susan Moyer’s Silk Painting for Fashion and Fine Art, or Mandy Southan’s Beginner’s Guide to Silk Painting. There are some differences between silk painting and watercolor painting on paper.

The most intensely beautiful results in silk painting are obtained by using dyes that are then fixed by steaming. (Unfortunately, steaming will not fix alcohol inks on silk.) Among the silk dyes Dharma carries, and which are also carried by other good suppliers, I recommend Sennelier Tinfix Design Silk Dye or Dupont Silk Dyes, if you want your dyes to be ready-to-use in a wide range of different colors; alternatively, I recommend Jacquard’s Vinyl Sulphon Liquid Reactive Dye Concentrate, if you are willing to mix your dye paint for yourself, especially if either lightfastness or economy are particular issues. (See my page, How to Dye Silk.)

Very nearly as beautiful are the results produced with silk paints, which are fixed by ironing. The effects are very similar to those of silk dyes. They contain pigments, rather than dyes; a pigment must be attached to the fabric by a fine glue-like binder, which is included in the paint. Usually the binder is one that is activated by high heart, such as by ironing to heat-set. Alcohol inks are missing this binder component. You can get lovely results by painting with a specially-made silk paint such as Pebeo Setasilk or Jacquard Products’ Dye-Na-Flow fabric paint. PRO Chemical & Dye sells a similar silk paint called PRO Silk & Fabric Paint. Fabric paints always leave at least a slightly perceptible change in the feel of the silk, unlike silk painting dyes, but the convenience of not having to use extensive steaming (in a silk steamer) to set the dye causes a great many artists to prefer it. Silk paints leave a much less noticeable change in the hand of the fabric than do other textile paints. Some water-based resists that you can use with silk paints will be fixed in place by heat-setting, while other will wash out easily even after ironing. Silk paints themselves can be used as a water-based resist for steam-set silk dyes, but they can’t be expected to wash out 100%.

Now you know what you should use next time, but how are you to salvage this current project? The first and most effective option is to preserve it by never washing it, and retain the resist that you used exactly as it is now. There is no guarantee that anything else that you try will work out satisfactorily. If never washing your painted silk is not an option, you can TRY to set the pigments in place using a clear, colorless fabric paint or fabric medium; this will inevitably fix anything else on the fabric in place permanently, as well, though, whether it is a resist or a random fleck of dirt. Dharma Trading Company (and other Jacquard Products suppliers) sells a fabric medium they call “Lumiere and Neopaque Extender” in containers ranging in size from two ounces to one gallon; the same product is listed elsewhere as listed elsewhere as Jacquard Products Neopaque Flowable Extender. This is the exact same material as the fabric paints that have colors, but without the pigments. You can dilute this material by no more than one-quarter with water (e.g., mix one ounce of the clear extender with one-quarter of an ounce of water); using more water interferes with its effectiveness at holding the pigment in place on the fabric.

It is always essential to test your materials and methods before spending much time and material on using them. Since you have already obtained a design that you do not want to spoil, you would need to test whether fixing it with fabric paint extender will work, or whether it will ruin what you have. Create a small quick test painting using the same inks and resist material, one that is similar in application method to your current design, on a piece of scrap silk, and do a test of the following method. Given the wide variety of things that different people will try, nobody can guarantee that a material will work the way you want it to with what you already have; you must always do a test first to see how you like the way the materials work together.

To use the fabric paint extender to try to make your alcohol ink design permanent on silk, you would paint your design, after it is completely dry, with Lumiere and Neopaque Extender on both the front and the back side of the fabric (letting the fabric dry before turning it over to do the second side). Be very careful, as the liquid in the extender might lift some of the pigment, distorting your design. After the extender you have applied has been dry to the touch for 24 hours, you can heat-set it to make it permanent. You can do this by pressing, according to the manufacturer’s instructions, with a hot iron for thirty seconds on each side, or by putting it in a commercial clothes dryer for an hour (home clothes dryers do not get hot enough). If heat-setting is impossible, some artists have reported that allowing the fabric paint to dry and cure at room temperature for a long period of time, more than one month, seems to produce an adequate degree permanence, as well, though this is not among the manufacturer’s recommendations and might not work as well.

There are other brands of fabric paint medium that might be used for this purpose, as well. In her 2008 book “Quilts of a Different Color“, published by the American Quilter’s Society in Kentucky, Irena Bluhm gives a recipe for a mixture of colorless fabric mediums that she uses to seal pigment she has drawn with ordinary colored pencils onto fabric, which she then uses for quilting. Her favorite formula is to mix 70% Jo Sonja’s Textile Medium, 20% Delta Ceramcoat Textile Medium, and 10% Versatex Fixer. The different textile mediums have different textures, and it is a matter of taste, which you prefer. Delta Ceramcoat is very thick, while Jo Sonja’s Textile Medium is thinner. These two textile mediums require heat setting, but the Versatex Fixer allows the use of this mixture with no heat setting at all. The combination of mediums with fixer must be used immediately after the Versatex Fixer has been mixed into it.

Remember that using a fabric paint extender or fabric medium in this way, in order to fix a non-permanent pigment that was never intended for permanent use on fabric to be washed, can only be regarded as experimental. How successful it will be will vary depending on the performance of the specific ink that you used, and also depending on other variables such as how thickly the ink was applied, how sturdy the silk is, or on how frequently you plan to clean it. As far as I know, there is no method that has been tested and shown to nearly always be acceptable for permanently fixing whatever brand of alcohol ink you used on silk. If this particular piece is precious to you, it would be best to save it as it is now, without washing out the resist, and to immediately invest in a proper silk paints or silk painting dyes for your next project on silk.

I’m sorry I don’t have a way that will allow you to wash out the resist without damaging the alcohol ink painting.

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[The paragraph on Irene Bluhm’s fabric medium mixture includes some sentences that previously appeared in my blog entry, “How can I set inkjet ink that I’ve already painted onto cotton?“, March 23, 2012.]

One thought on “I have used alcohol inks to paint on silk and wonder how best to fix the dye

  1. candi

    I have painted alcohol inks on wool felt and fixed by steaming and it has worked out very well and has not washed out


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