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The Magic of Painting Silk

The Magic of Painting Silk

My adventures in painting and using hand-painted silk.

I don't remember what inspired me to paint silk the first time. Maybe it was because I bought a gorgeous cone of mulberry silk. Maybe I bought it with the intention of dyeing it. Maybe I read somewhere on a site where they sell dye that one can paint yarn, not just dye it. It probably happened exactly like that and I probably bought some new dye since my stash was low from my dyeing days (I used to dye all the wool I used for tapestry weaving) since I hadn't dyed in quite a while. I use acid dye which comes in powder form. I imagine I bought the standards: turquoise, magenta, bright blue and bright yellow from which, in my humble opinion, you can get all the colors you need. I've added dye powders of different shades and found that in reality, they are just watered-down versions of the primary colors. You might be shaking your head asking why not red? Well, if you add magenta to yellow you get any version of red you need but it's much harder to get magenta and certain purples when starting with red. Used to be not so long ago (20 years ago) that turquoise dye was always unstable and so to be avoided. These days it's just as stable as any dye and can be used to create a huge variety of greens and blues and, of course, turquoise. How I love that color. So armed with those four colors I marched on and tried to figure out how the heck you actually paint this stuff versus dye it.

I had a bunch of stackable jars which I used to mix up the dyes in a variety of colors.  The jars were not very big and were basically being repurposed. Rule number one: don't repurpose items that are inadequate. It took me years literally to figure out that 8-ounce squeeze bottles are my best friend and inexpensive as well. After your dye session, the mixed-up dye can remain stored in those lovely bottles. They also allow you to just squeeze on the dye. And so little mess and dyes can get messy! But I get ahead of myself.

Originally I used some ceramic dishes which precluded some sloppy and fun methods I later discovered. Again, repurposing for silk painting is a bad idea. I eventually found myself using those disposable aluminum baking pans used to roast large turkeys. I've been using the same three pans for years. Again, cheap and the correct tool because you can be all kinds of sloppy, pouring large amounts of water in to saturated the yarn in a dye wash, so to speak. It really provided a second set of wings.

The other piece of equipment I repurposed was an old microwave oven my daughter had used at college. Now that was a good move. You do NOT want to use a microwave oven that you've used for cooking for setting dyes.   This microwave oven is now covered in dye inside and out. It looks like its own piece of artwork.

I gathered together some paintbrushes because for the first few years I literally painted the silk. I also gathered together some spoons, glass containers to hold boiled water and to wash the brushes in. 

I remember every second of my first attempt at painting a skein of silk. It must have taken twenty minutes. I painstakingly loaded up a brush with liquid dye and painted parts of the skein. I was amazed at the results but they were slow coming. At some point during that dye session, I got tired and just poured a little dye on here and there and realized that method had to be part of my skill set. But I had to be careful because I hadn't yet discovered the turkey roasting pans! Once I discovered them I realized I could put some water and a light amount of dye in the pan and soak and skein and then pour out the water and paint it. That way I could make sure the white was all dyed. It also allowed me to get pastel colors whereas painting dye directly does only allows for richer colors.

The rest was easy: put the yarn in a plastic bag and stick it in the microwave oven. I choose beverage setting. I don't know why. I've been using that setting ever after. Dump the yarn in the sink and run cold water over it. See if it looks good and make sure there are no white spots. For my type of dyeing white spots are not okay. They may be a design element for others. But when you are painting yarns you will then paint with (ie., use for tapestry) white spots are not a good thing. If there were white spots or if I wasn't happy with the result, I would repaint it. This is not so different from the layers you use in a computer program for painting. Once you've set the dyes they are set. You can paint over those colors but you can't take them away. And the reality with dyeing is at some point all the dye sites in the yarn will be saturated. After that, you are kind of stuck with what you have. To my astonishment I have only had one epic failure in the seven years I have been painting silk. What did I do with it? I dyed it black, of course.

Let me diverge a bit here. Painting yarn is different from dyeing yarn in that it's easier to have success. When you dye yarn, if you get it wrong and have combined too many colors you will get either this kind of greyish blue or this brownish color. Not necessarily ugly but a true sign you've failed. When you paint yarn, and especially when you paint in layers, this just does not happen.

Over the years I've speeded up my painting significantly. Because of the squeeze bottles set up is easy. And you can just squeeze the dye from the bottles onto the yarn and not bother with paintbrushes. I just remove the tray from the cupboard filled with the already mixed dye in bottles (I have a dye cupboard in my kitchen, of course), whip out the microwave, my trays and other tools and I am ready to paint. The dyed keins are hung on a drying rack on my porch. It takes two full days for them to dry. Once dried I wind them onto bobbins. Initially, I used a niddy-noddy to make little skeins, which took forever. My brother Spencer kindly made me a machine to put the silk on bobbins, which changed my life. That still takes forever.  A dye session of one day will land me filling bobbins for four days. So the entire process takes a week. And you thought I was just making money off my eye for color! The whole process is physically and mentally exhausting. It feels like staging a big event . . . in my kitchen!

And what can you do with dyed silk yarn and ribbon (because I later discovered silk ribbon which takes dye very differently from silk yarn)? Anything. Use it for tapestry, embroidery, needlepoint, jewelry, coil baskets or anything that requires strong brilliantly colored yarn. Silk loves dye. If you paint a skein of wool yarn the exact same colors as a skein of silk yarn, the colors will be drastically different. The wool will be much duller. The silk will scream its colors out. Oh how I love silk!

A tapestry close-up using hand-painted silk yarn and ribbon.

And embroidery made of hand-painted silk yarn.

Hand-painted silk yarn used in needlepoint.

I have many skens of painted silk yarn drying on racks on my porch. In a couple of days, I will start winding them onto bobbins. And then a whole new batch of painted silk will be available in the Mirrix store.

You can find our hand-painted silk yarn and ribbon in our online store here