Silk Painting

silk painting supplies

Silk painting is a beautiful art form and a wonderful hobby. You can hand-paint silk scarves or other silk clothing to give as gifts to family members and friends. You can also paint plain silk fabric and make wall hangings, pillows or other decorative projects.

What is Silk?

Silk is a fine fabric developed from the cocoons of silkworms. It was first developed in China, perhaps as early as 6000 BCE and certainly as early as 3000 BCE. Silk was reserved for the emperors, but eventually spread across Asia. It was a large source of trade for the Chinese, who attempted to keep their methods of silk making a secret.

By the early years of the Common Era, silk production had expanded to India and Korea. By the 1300s, Italy had become a center of the silk trade.

Silk today is almost exclusively made by domesticated silkworms, which makes the silk more affordable and consistent. Because harvesting the cocoon kills the larvae, some animal rights activists protest the continued use of silk. However, most people find it a lovely fiber that is worthy of a work of art.

Chinese painting is traditionally done on silk, and there are several other silk painting techniques that are fun to learn.

Silk Painting Techniques

A common method of painting on silk is applying a "resist" to the fabric and then dyeing or painting the fabric. The areas that have been treated repel the paint, so they will remain white while the rest of the fabric is colored. This is an easy way to paint on silk and gives your painting sharp, crisp lines.

Silk painting can also be accomplished without resists. Unfortunately, paint and dye tend to soak into the silk, making your painting much less crisp than you might have imagined it. One way to eliminate paint bleeding is to treat the prewashed silk with a stop-flow primer that will help keep the paint where you want it.

Of course, you can also just allow the paint to flow where it wants to and make a softer, almost watercolor type of silk painting. You can even use a spray bottle or eye dropper to apply the paint for an even more dramatic effect. Fabric should not be prewashed for this technique, but you can spray the silk lightly with water so that it is slightly damp when you apply the ink or dye. This will make the color spread even more than normal.

Paints and Dyes

silk dye paints

There are two main ways to color silk: paints and dyes. Dyes actually bond with the fiber and allow it to keep its silky feel, while paint just sits on top of the fabric and tends to make the silk a little stiffer than raw silk would be.

If you are planning to make silk scarves or other clothing that will be worn close to the skin, use dyes instead of paints to keep the luxurious feel of the fabric. If you are making a home décor item or a wall hanging, you probably won't care as much about the feel of the finished project and thus can use silk paints.

Silk paints are usually very thin. They are water based and can be set with a hot iron. People who teach silk painting recommend that beginners start with the paints because they are easy to work with and don't require a chemical to set the color.

There are many different kinds of silk dyes on the market, which are set either with steam or a chemical fixative. The steam-set dyes produce more vivid colors. Dyes that use a chemical fixative must either be submerged in the chemical or have it painted on. Some dyes can also be set in cold water or in an electric dryer, so check the dye you are purchasing for specific instructions.


Silk is a wonderful medium for a painter, or even for people who do not consider themselves artists. If you like the watercolor, almost tie-dyed look of silk when the colors have been allowed to run, that's a very easy project for a beginner and a lot of fun to see how it turns out.

If you're more of an artist, using a water-soluble resist or a paint-stabilizing primer will allow you to paint more accurately. Nature motifs are popular for silk scarves, but of course you can paint anything you like. Stained glass patterns can give you some wonderful ideas for painting on silk.


To get started silk painting, you will need something to stretch your silk on (canvas stretching bars will work, or places that sell silk painting supplies will carry silk stretchers), silk, paint or dye and brushes. Silk salt is another fun addition that can be used to make starbursts and other fun effects on your silk.

Odd are you won't find a silk painting section in your local crafts superstore, but there are many sources for supplies online, such as:


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Silk Painting