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Silk Painting - Dyes vs. Paints

The difference between dyes and paints is that dyes, when set, actually chemically bond with the fiber. As a result, the 'hand' of the fiber is unchanged. Silk maintains it's natural silkiness. On the other hand, paints are pigments suspended in a medium; when applied, they sit on top of the fibers, and as a result, they do change the feel of the fiber. The silk will lose some of its silkiness with paints. Transparent dyes and transparent "flowable" silk paints work best on white silks. To paint on black silks requires an opaque paint such as Setacolor Opaque or Lumiere/Neopaque which will leave the silk stiff. These kinds of paints do best as highlights and accents rather than used on large areas.

We have a variety of silk dyes, and paints; they all work well and have devoted fans. We recommend experimenting in the beginning to find the products that work for you. The following list of products are all considered to be transparent and work best on white silks.

Type 1: Steam-fix liquid dyes. Our dyes that must be fixed by steaming are: Dupont, Pebeo Soie, Jacquard Red Label and Jacquard Vinyl Sulphon. Both Sennelier Tinfix Design and Jacquard Silk Color can be steamed but can also be set with a chemical fixative (see Type 2 dyes below). Steaming yields the brightest, most vivid and most washfast results. The dyes just mentioned leave no 'feel' on the silk, (you don't feel anything different where the dye is). The Tinfix, Pebeo and Dupont silk dyes are French and contain some alcohol.

Type 2: Chemical-fix liquid dyes. Dyes that can be fixed using a liquid fixative are: Sennelier Tinfix Design and Jacquard Silk Color. They are used either by submerging the painted silk into the fixative or painting the fixative onto the painted silk. When using the fixatives, colors are not as bright as when set by steam. They also leave no 'feel' on the silk. We offer Jacquard Dyeset Concentrate.

Type 3: Powdered Acid Dyes. These dyes are the recommended choice for solid dyeing silk, wool and nylon, but they can also be used for silk painting. They are dissolved in hot water to a 4-8% dye-water solution. Most colors will remain stable in solution for long periods of time. The painted silk requires steam-setting, producing very brilliant colors. See our instructions for Acid Dyes.

Type 4: Dharma Fiber Reactive Powder MX Dyes. This is our cold-water dye powder, everyone's choice for dyeing cotton. It can also be used on silk and there are artists out there that get beautiful results with them. The advantages of the MX dyes are: they are very economical, have an extensive color selection, can be set without steaming (see our cold batch method) for good results or with steaming for great results, and leave no feel on the fabric. The disadvantages are: some colors produce unexpected results on silk, it's impossible to get a true black, they don't flow as easily as the silk liquid dyes, the dye-water solution only lasts about a week, and salt effects are not as dramatic.

Type 5: Flowable Silk Paints. Very thin, almost like a dye consistency, waterbased, and easy to work with. They are fixed by ironing with a hot iron. Colors may not be as bright as the dyes listed above. They will leave some 'feel' on the silk. We recommend that beginners start with the paints first as they are easy to use and set and require no chemical fixatives. SetaSilk and Dye-na-Flow are the flowable silk paints that we offer.

Type 6: Dharma Pigment 'Dye' System. A paint that leaves very little feel, and so in that respect, it's dye-like. Dilute with water, paint on, air dry for 24 hours and heat-set 15-20 minutes in a home drier or two minutes with an iron set to the silk setting. This paint leaves an almost undetectable feel on the silk, and colors are much brighter and more concentrated than Type 5 paints.


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