Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Painting Fabric with Dyes ~ with Ann Johnston


Four and a half yards of plain white fabric
turned into these
colorful (and color-fast), hand-dye-painted beauties:

fabric hand dyed and painted by Robin Atkins
Detail pictures follow... and all are click-to-enlarge.

Some of you know how much I love to paint decorative papers with layers of acrylic paint (see my website here and past posts here)! And some of you may remember my post about a brief opportunity to paint fabrics with dyes in Chicago a year ago (see here). To you it will be no surprise that, instead of going to our annual quilt retreat this past weekend, I took a 3-day workshop from Ann Johnston!!!!

Ann Johnston teaching fabric dying and paintingAnn describes herself as a quilt maker, who took up fabric dying to get the fabrics she wanted and needed for her quilts. I'd describe her as a quilt master, an artist with double mediums of dye and fabric. Below is a sample of her dyed fabrics showing some of the techniques we learned.

sample fabric painted with dyes by Ann Johnston
Three days was just barely enough to scratch the surface, to learn a little about the variables involved in immersion dying and painting with dyes. The confusing parts for me concerned mixing the four solutions:
  • Procion MX dyes ~ we mixed all of our dyes using only 6 colors (2 reds, 2 blues and 2 yellows) plus black
  • soda ash ~ fabrics need to be saturated with soda in order to fix the dyes
  • print paste ~ sodium alginate and other ingredients mixed with water ~ used to thicken the dyes for painting
  • urea water ~ used to thin print paste

Also confusing was the whole curing process involving time (4-24 hours for the dyes to set), temperature (72 degrees or more) and moisture. I need to take some time to re-write my notes so I don't forget so much.

We started with a selection of plain white, quality, cotton fabrics with no sizing or wrinkle-free treatments. My favorite of the fabrics were a Hoffman Indonesian lawn (the same as used for Bali batiks) and a medium-weight ultra sateen, by Robert Kaufman.

Our first lesson was to make a very light and a dark value of the same color by immersion dying. Then, also using the immersion process, we did a two-color blended fabric. Below are my light red, dark red and orange-olive blend curing (fixing) in their respective dye baths.

immersion dying, cotton fabric
For the remainder of the first day and the next two days, we painted dyes on fabrics using brushes, rollers, stamps, stencils and sponges. My favorites were done in layers. Each layer had to cure and dry (but not too quickly) before applying the next layer in order to preserve distinct edges. I didn't try to paint fabric sets, but have arranged pieces that look fairly good together for the detail images which follow.

hand dye-painted fabrics by Robin Atkins
hand dye-painted fabrics by Robin Atkins
hand dye-painted fabrics by Robin Atkins
hand dye-painted fabrics by Robin Atkins
hand dye-painted fabrics by Robin Atkins

My roommate and tablemate was Marie, of Z Quilts.

Marie J, my tablemate in Ane Johnston's workshop
We both had a great time... and it was fun and a privilege to get to know Marie better. You can read her blog about the class (here) and see pictures of the fabrics she painted (here).

Although 19 of us were crowded in a 3-car plus garage for this class (now I know how sardines feel), we all managed to have a great time and produce some wonderful fabrics. Some of the local women have already formed a study group and figured out how to buy bulk supplies.

Pleased as I am with most of my fabrics, the jury is out about me doing more of this. The number of variables, the expense of it and the space requirements are the downsides. The fun of painting and the often serendipitous results are the upsides. Time will tell...

Meanwhile, I'm already back to beading. You'll see more of that soon!


If you're a quilter, you may want to check out Ann Johnston's latest book, The Quilter's Book of Design. I've skimmed through all of it and find it one of the best ways to look at the design process that I've ever encountered. It easily applies to related art forms, such as bead embroidery, as well.


A thought about taking workshops ~ I've been teaching workshops and classes for 20 some years. Only a few times during these two decades have I found time to take a workshop taught by someone else. And what a pleasure it is to be on the other side of the room once in a while... not having to know anything, not having to be responsible for anything except my own learning process, not having to prepare all the kits (Ann's were awesome!), not having to pack and put it all away when I get back home!!!

Ann handled all the difficulties (crowded space, great variation in previous dying training by her students, trying to convey years of her experience and knowledge in just three days, empowering students to experiment and play with the basic techniques on their own) admirably well! It was really a joy to sit back and be a beneficiary of her efforts. Sweet!


  1. Wow, what a lot of fun this class was. The worst thing about learning new cool things is trying to fit actually becoming involved with the new techniques into an already free-time constricted life.

    Love the fabrics you created!

  2. What fun! When I started dyeing my friend and I started with Ann Johnston's books and spent a week working out way though two of them. After that we only dyed fabric once a year for vacation week - simply because it is so much trouble to set it all up. I'm so grateful to have dedicated dye space now so I can dye any time!

  3. What wonderful fabrics you ended up with. Ann is a great teacher.

  4. Those fabrics are, as I thought at first, "da bomb", the best of the class. I can really see you using them in beaded pieces. Not to continue would be a terrible loss! We sure had fun! hugs from Marie

  5. Those are beautiful. Fabric dyeing is something I really want to try.

  6. Your fabrics all came out beautiful. Looks like you learned quite a lot. Here I thought you just plopped them in the washer with the fabric dye. Of course the designs are the fun part. Very interesting write-up.

  7. Wonderful colors, robin...you certainly made good use of the 3-days! And I can't wait to see some of the pieces with beading on them...

  8. Absolutely great fabrics, Robin. I admire them tremendously, all the more because I am not into dyeing and painting at all myself.


  9. To Carol ~ You're so right about the problem of fitting new things into an already tight life. Arrrgggh!

    To Vicki ~ I WISH I could see your fabrics and wouldn't it be GRAND if somehow we could dye together some day?

    To Sandy ~ Yes, Ann certainly IS a good teacher!

    To Marie ~ High praise coming from you! Thanks!!!

    To Jennifer ~ I think you could try it by getting Ann's book COLOR BY DESIGN: PAINT & PRINT WITH DYE. If you notice Vicki's comment above, she learned from the book. I bought it from Ann as a reference and see that it is very well organized and should be a "good teacher."

    To Jacquie ~ Yes, it gave me a new appreciation for printed fabrics as well.

    To Beadbabe ~ Ann told us that we should dye/paint lots and lots of fabric, becaue if we don't, it will seem too precious to use. I sense she's right about that.

    To Sabine ~ Thank you, dear heart! Would you like to have a piece of one of them for one of your dolls???

    Robin A.

  10. Thank you for your encouraging comments on my October project. I am anxious to see November too- because it is not in my vision just yet.
    Your dyed fabrics are delicious and aren't you glad you took a class.
    I also love your butterfly pictures, I have a card of all types of butterflies that I got in Branson several years ago.

  11. How nice for you to get to be a "student"...I took a class from Ann in 1992. What a pro!

  12. Wow Robin! Your fabrics are fabulous! What a fun experience. I have also taught workshops for many years. It really is great to have the luxury of taking one with someone else leading...I appreciate your sharing about the complexity and expense of doing some projects at home.


  13. Fascinating post and wonderful yummy designs !

  14. Well, Robin, this post got my heart racing, my breathing elevated, I was so excited I think it might count for my exercise for this week. Oh boy, am I green with envy -- your fabrics are spectacular!! If I could learn how to create one of them, I would be excited. I'm going to email Carolyn and maybe we could buy the dyes together...Better yet, ask Ann Johnston to come teach us! A wonderfully energizing post -- and I'm very glad you had such fun yourself.

  15. Robin, Your blog was recommended to me by my friend, Sherry, in Little Rock. She was right...it's great!!! Thanks for your comment on my beaded pincushion......love hearing your opinions. Now about that painting on fabric...I have done a bit of it...just painting a piece either with acrylics or Setacolor. Ann's is far over my head...I do love it, but, I must keep costs down and also....it takes TIME....something I am trying to use to my best advantage and I LOVE sewing more. I did enjoy reading of your class experience though and admire not only her teaching but YOUR class results. So glad we "found" each other! Take care. Pat


Thanks you for joining the discussion on this post today!