Painting on Fabric with Acrylic Inks – An Overview

When I first learned to quilt, I never imagined that quilting would involve putting on my apron and picking up a paint brush. But that’s all changed since I’ve joined the ever-growing group of quilters who are painting on fabric. It’s a whole new way to play with the colors we quilters love so much (and a whole new kind of mess in the sewing room!)

One thing I’ve discovered is that acrylic fabric paints aren’t the only way to make a splash on fabric. You can create wonderful, flowing watercolor effects with acrylic fabric inks—and unlike fabric paints, inks don’t stiffen the fabric when they dry. Read on to learn more about acrylic fabric inks and how to use them for painting on fabric. Click here to learn more about fabric paints.

Fabric ink painting of a stormy sunset, based on techniques from Mickey Lawler's book Sky Dyes.

Fabric ink painting of a stormy sunset, based on techniques from Mickey Lawler's book Sky Dyes.

What is fabric ink, and how is it different from fabric paint?


Acrylic fabric inks are super-fine pigments suspended in an acrylic emulsion that has a very watery consistency. Inks are thinner and less opaque than fabric paints, yet they can produce intense, bold colors. When painted on fabric, inks make a permanent chemical bond with the fabric fibers. This is different from fabric paints, which create a new layer that sticks to the top of the fabric fibers. Acrylic fabric inks dry quickly. Once they dry, they are permanent, lightfast, and water resistant. Best of all, they leave fabric softer after painting than fabric paints do. This is important if you’re painting a quilt or garment that will be worn or snuggled up to after it’s finished.

Inks can be painted on fabric with paintbrushes, air brushes, dip pens, stamps, sponges, or any other absorbent applicator. You can also dip fabric in ink as you would with a dye. Ink makes a fun tie-dye substitute.

When should I paint with fabric ink, and when should I use fabric paint?

I got the scoop on this question from an expert:  Jane Dávila, art quilter and co-author of Art Quilt Workbook, Art Quilts at Play, and the DVD Jane Dávila and Elin Waterston Teach You Art Quilting Basics. Here’s what Jane says:

“If you’re very concerned about the fabric’s hand after painting, then use ink. It doesn’t stiffen the fabric like paint can. If you want more control over what you’re painting, you’re better off with fabric paint, because paint holds a line better. Inks have intense colors while still being very fluid. If you wanted to make fabric paint be as thin as ink, you would have to dilute it so much that the colors would be very pale. Inks also come in some very cool metallic colors that I love.

“Acrylic inks are ideal for airbrushing because they are thin and won’t clog an air brush nozzle. Many acrylic paints, because they are thicker, can clog the nozzle. Acrylic paint is much better than acrylic ink for many applications, like screen printing, because they are thicker.”

What kind of fabrics can I paint with fabric inks?

You can use acrylic fabric inks on any fabric that works with fabric paints: cotton and cotton/poly blend quilting fabric, flannel, quilt batting, rayon, linen, canvas, silk, organza, Timtex®, and Lutradur®, cotton knits, suede, terry cloth, velvet, velveteen, leather, and most synthetic fabrics.

What other supplies do I need to paint on fabric with ink?

All you need to get started is fabric to paint and a way to apply the ink. This could be a paintbrush, a dip pen, a Q-tip, or a sponge. You can also stamp, dye, stain, and airbrush fabrics with inks. Rubber gloves will come in handy to keep ink from staining your hands.

How do I prepare fabric for painting with ink?


Your fabric should be prewashed to remove any sizing, which can prevent the ink from penetrating the fabric fibers. It’s also a good idea to cover your work surface with cardboard or another protective layer to keep the ink from getting spread around your work area.

How durable are ink-painted fabrics? Can I wash them?


Acrylic ink bonds permanently with the fabric fibers, so your painting should last as long as the fabric does. Inks need to dry thoroughly (for at least several days) before they can be washed. After that, inks painted on washable fabrics can be washed inside out in warm water using the gentle cycle, and pressed with an iron on a low synthetic setting.

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This article is part of our Basics of Painting on Fabric series.

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10 Comments

  1. Posted May 8, 2012 at 8:51 am | Permalink

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  2. Posted March 4, 2010 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    To answer the question: Acrylic inks will loose some of their boldness when diluted with a lot of water, just as any other paint or ink will. They shouldn’t loose too much boldness, if they are thinned just a bit.

    Think of it this way: Inks (and paints) are made up of pigment mixed with binder (something to hold the pigment together). There is a certain amount of pigment in, say a drop of ink. If you add a lot of water to that drop of ink, that amount of pigment will be spread out much thinner than it would be if the pigment stayed just in the drop. Fortunately, Liquitex Acrylic Inks! are highly pigmented, so there is a lot of pigment in each drop, but there is a limit to how far it can be stretched. How much water is too much? The best answer it try it out on some small samples.

  3. Jenny
    Posted March 4, 2010 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Just wondering…Will acrylic ink color lose a lot of boldness if I dilute it with water? I have read a couple of places that it won’t, but you seem to be the expert! :)

  4. Gwen
    Posted February 12, 2010 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

    I ordered some Liquitex inks from Dharma Trading because the description in the catalog said they could be used on fabrics. The inks just arrived today so I went to look up whether any special treatments were necessary. Your blog post was the first result, and darned if it didn’t answer absolutely every one of my questions! Thanks. :-)

  5. Posted October 26, 2009 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    Hello readers!
    We recommend Liquitex® Acrylic Paints and Inks, which work well on all fabric types, and become permanent without heat-setting. You can find them at your local art supply store (in the US) or online. Soon you will be able to buy them in your local quilt shop, too! We’re so happy you are painting!!

  6. Posted October 25, 2009 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    great informative piece now I am wondering if my inks are acrylic inks ..can you give some names brands etc to look out for thanks

  7. Posted October 25, 2009 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    Where do I find liquid acrylic fabric inks? I’ve seen screen-printing ink, etc, but they’re all heavy-bodied.

  8. Lisa
    Posted October 24, 2009 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    great post!!

  9. Posted October 24, 2009 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    I wonder how the acrylic inks would work on silk ribbon?….

  10. Posted October 24, 2009 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    Interesting. Thanks for sharing.

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