this thing's incredible

This Washable Fabric Paint Helps Me Turn Old Clothes Into New Treasures

A pair of Dickies pants painted by the author using Jacquard Dye-Na Flow for Bauschaus art space in Vermont. Photo: Zach Pollakoff

The coolest piece of clothing I have ever seen is a pair of hand-painted white pants with black snakes running up the legs. They were made by Brooklyn artist Jordan Johnson of Everydays. After spotting a pair in the wild on a trip to the Whitney a few years back, I was inspired enough that I decided to try painting my own clothes. (When I’m not writing for the Strategist I work as an illustrator and I’ve always dreamed of designing bold fabric patterns à la Marimekko, Dusen Dusen, or Baggu.) Instead of over-dying the pile of worn out white T-shirts I had been saving at home, I could give them new life by painting them instead.

The first thing I had to do was find the right paint. I wanted something that wouldn’t fade and could be thrown in the washing machine. Most important, though, I wanted something water soluble that would deliver intense rich colors and that wouldn’t feel stiff or plastic-y on the fabric when it dried. After a little online research, I settled on Jacquard Dye Na Flow fabric paints.

For my first try, I painted a woman’s face in silhouette on a stretched out old tee (see below). I have lots of experience painting on paper with Sumi ink and I wanted to see if I could get the same effect on cotton. I used just the black paint and experimented with brushing it on straight out of the jar. It seeped into the cotton fibers quickly and produced smooth rich black lines without any bleeding. It’s technically acrylic paint, but it acts just like ink on paper, so after diluting it I had no problem getting a wide range of grays and blacks and was able to draw fine or thick lines or even create an allover wash of gray. When it came in contact with already wet areas of the shirt it bled into them, making these cool blossoming inky splotches. Once the painting was finished and the shirt was dry, the fabric felt actually as soft and pliable as it had before being painted. A quick pass with the iron on high heat without any steam made sure the drawing was set.

Photo: Liza Corsillo

Ever since that first shirt, I’ve been hooked. I started dreaming up all the things I could make for my home, friends and family: sheets, tote bags, lamp shades, a baby onesie! I’ve even taken on a few commissions.

The incredible thing about Jacquard Dye Na Flow paints, aside from how easy they are to use and how good they look, is how long each pot lasts. So far I’ve gone through one and a half pots of black and used up about a quarter of the original 8 colors. With that I’ve painted a set of pillowcases, a tote bag, four T-shirts, a set of 30 fabric face masks in collaboration with Whitebark Workwear (with profits going to Heart of Dinner), and most recently a pair of white canvas pants for a charity art show at Bauschaus art space in Vermont.

So far I have only used the paints on cotton and cotton-blend fabrics, but they are designed to work on any untreated fabric, and I am longing to try them on silk. I also have aspirations of painting blank yards of fabric to sew into dresses or shirts, but before I get to that I want to do a baby onesie or a little set of sheets for my one year old niece. If I had unlimited time I might set up a shop to sell my hand-painted clothing and home goods. For now though, I’m happy with it as a relaxing hobby that lets me recycle old clothing and make really special gifts.

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This Fabric Paint Turns Old Clothes Into Works of Art